Military | Wars

Fort Pillow Massacre

Fort Pillow Massacre

Fort Pillow Massacre

On April 12, 1864 Confederate troops, commanded by General Bedford Forrest, attacked Fort Pillow, Tennessee. Union troops holding the fort were outnumbered and no match for the 1500-2500 Confederate soldiers attacking them.

Although there was not an official surrender it was pretty obvious that the Union soldiers were defeated and had given up. Many threw down their arms and rushed to the nearby river to get away. 300 Union troops, most of whom were black, were killed unnecessarily and many of the black soldiers were shot in the head at point-blank range.

A surviving white soldier described the battle this way:


From where I fell wounded, I could plainly see this firing and note the bullets striking the water around the black heads of the soldiers, until suddenly the muddy current became red and I saw another life sacrificed in the cause of the Union. Here I noticed one soldier in the river, but in some way clinging to the bank. Two confederate soldiers pulled him out. He seemed to be wounded and crawled on his hands and knees. Finely one of the confederate soldiers placed his revolver to the head of the colored soldier and killed him. (Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Another surviving white soldier said:

I saw one of the rebels and told him I would surrender. He said, “We do not shoot white men.”  … He ordered me away; he kept on shooting the negroes (Source: US Capitol)

In May 1864 the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of War conducted an investigation. The committee concluded that Confederate soldiers killed most of the Union soldiers after they had surrendered.

Soldiers serving under Forrest did not accept the conclusion and maintained their claim that Union soldiers kept their weapons and fired back at the Confederate army while fleeing.

The controversy surrounding the battle at Fort Pillow continues today. Historians agree a massacre did occur, but differ in their conclusions over whether the killings were premeditated or occurred in the heat of battle.

Note: Nathan Bedford Forrest was a planter and made a fortune dealing in cotton, land and slaves. After the war he was associated with the Ku Klux Klan and was allegedly its first Grand Wizard. Forrest denied that allegation during Congressional testimony in 1871.

Elizabeth Keckley

Elizabeth KeckleyElizabeth Keckley was born into slavery in 1818 in Dinwiddie, Virginia. She was sent out to work by her enslaver to make money for his family. She worked as a seamstress and soon had several prominent customers, several of whom loaned her money so she could purchase her freedom.

Keckley moved to Washington, DC in 1860 where she opened a successful dressmaking business. At one point she had 20 female employees in the business.

Keckley was highly sought after by the Washington elite and was soon the dressmaker for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. She and Mrs. Lincoln bonded and became friends and traveling companions.

In 1862, with the help of her church, Keckley established the Contraband Relief Organization to help newly freed slaves in the Washington DC area. She was the organization’s first president and her connection to Mrs. Lincoln helped her find needed financial support.

She published her diaries, “Behind the Scenes or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House” in 1868. The book, which was somewhat of a tell-all, was condemned by blacks and whites. It also brought an end to the Keckley-Lincoln friendship. Even though her business was affected she was able to maintain some customers as well support other African American women by training them to be dressmakers.

In 1892 Keckley moved to Ohio to take the position of Head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts at Wilberforce University. After her employment at Wilberforce, she returned to Washington DC where she died in 1907.

One of the dresses, believed to have been made by Elizabeth Keckley for Mary Todd Lincoln, is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Susie King Taylor

Susie King Taylor

Susie King Taylor was one of the first people to write about her experience with a “colored regiment” during the Civil War.

Taylor was born into slavery in Georgia in 1848. She learned to read and write with other African American children in a secret school in Savannah.

During this period blacks, free and enslaved, needed a pass to be out after 9:00 pm. If caught without a pass they would be arrested and held in custody until the following morning. After learning to write, Taylor would often write passes for her family and other African Americans in the area.

When the Civil War started she traveled with her husband’s regiment, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers. When the Bureau of United States Colored Troops was formed the unit became the 33rd USCT.

Susie King Taylor was assigned to be a laundress for the unit, but soon took on the role of nurse and caregiver. She also taught the soldiers to read and write in their spare time.

Her book,  “Reminiscences of MY LIFE IN CAMP” was published in 1902.

Alexander T Augusta

Black Civil War Physician

Alexander T Augusta was one of at least thirteen black civil war physicians.

Because of his skin color Alexander T Augusta was not allowed to enroll in medical school in the United States. Unwilling to give up his dream, he moved to Canada in 1850 and enrolled in Trinity Medical College in Toronto.

After receiving his medical degree from Trinity he wrote to President Abraham Lincoln and requested to serve as a Civil War physician for a “colored regiments.”

Dr. Augusta would became the first African American commissioned as a medical officer in the Union Army. For a while he served as surgeon-in-charge at the Contraband Hospital for free blacks and former slaves in Washington, DC.

He later became head-surgeon for the 7th Infantry of the United States Colored Troops in Maryland.

When Dr. Augusta joined his regiment, several white surgeons objected to having a black man as their superior officer. They wrote to President Lincoln asking to end Dr. Augusta’s appointment. Dr. Augusta was reassigned to a recruiting station for black troops. (Source: https://www.nlm.nih.gov)

 

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Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls

Do students know that Robert Smalls was hailed as a hero during the Civil War?

Robert Smalls, who was born into slavery in South Carolina, was drafted for service in the Confederate Army. He was assigned to pilot a Confederate ship that was used to transport guns and ammunition.

In May 1862 the black crew, led by Smalls, hijacked the ship and turned it over to the Union Navy.

Smalls and his actions were celebrated by the North. He supported the Union and used his knowledge of the South Carolina Sea Islands to advance the Union Army in several battles.

After the war he became involved in political issues and was elected to represent a South Carolina district in the United States House of Representatives where he served five terms.

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