Give No Quarter: Don’t Capture Colored Troops… Kill Them


Most people with an interest in the Civil War are familiar with what has been called the Fort Pillow Massacre. The following description of that event and others is taken from The Library of Congress Civil War Desk Reference (paperback, p435):

On April 12, 1864, while raiding important Federal communications facilities, Confederate cavalry commanded by Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked and captured Fort Pillow, TN. Many of the US Colored Troops defending the fort were murdered after they surrendered, as were some white defenders. Quickly termed a “massacre” by Northerners, Fort Pillow engendered an investigation by the US Congress… Many Northern soldiers, particularly black soldiers, adopted “Remember Fort Pillow” as a battle cry.

Six days later, April 18 at Poison Spring, Arkansas, 1200 Union troops on a foraging expedition-438 of them black troopers from the First Kansas Colored Volunteers-were attacked by nearly 3400 Confederates under General John Marmaduke and badly defeated. Over half the Union casualties were black, and witnesses reported that some of them were murdered. Though Confederates denied the charge, evidence supported it.

Almost immediately, black soldiers responded on the battlefield. At Jenkins Ferry, on the Sabine River River in Arkansas, April, 1864-an overall Union defeat-a charge by the Second Kansas Colored Volunteers shouting, “Remember Poison Springs!” overwhelmed a Confederate battery and resulted in numerous Southern casualties.

Other black troops reciprocated Confederate brutality with ferocity, or “under the black flag” (i.e., giving no quarter).

There has been considerable controversy over whether Fort Pillow actually was a “massacre,” and if it was, who was responsible for it. A congressional investigation basically exonerated Nathan Bedford Forrest from blame, but many historians do believe that a massacre took place.

Given all of that, I find the following correspondence between a set of Confederate officers very interesting. In the Trans-Mississippi region, an area that included Louisiana, it seems a military policy was developed which instructed that no quarter would be given to Colored Troops. If the meaning of “no quarter” isn’t clear yet, let me explain: “no quarter” means show no mercy, take no prisoners; whoever you fight, you kill.

This policy was to be implemented, according to these documents, to avoid a “disagreeable dilemma” whereby the execution of captured negroes could lead to retaliation from the Union. Thus, failure to show “no quarter,” and allow negro soldiers to be taken alive, was seen as “unfortunate.”

The following Original Records extracts concern the battle at Milliken’s Bend, which involved CSA Gen Edmund Kirby Smith, and his subordinate, Gen Richard Taylor.  The Official Records are a comprehensive set of military documents from both sides of the Civil War.  This correspondence was made in June 1863, way before Fort Pillow:

Letter from Richard Taylor:
DISTRICT OF WEST LOUISIANA, Richmond (Louisiana), June 8, 1863

GENERAL: I have the honor to report the events of the past few days… Arriving at dusk, I soon met Major [Isaac F.] Harrison from below. He reported the parish of Tensas and Lower Madison clear of the enemy. One of his companies, under Captain McCall, attacked on the morning of the 4th a negro camp on Lake Saint Joseph. He found them some 90 strong. Killed the captain (white), 12 negroes, and captured the remainder. Some 60 women and children in the camp were also secured. Captain McCall had 60 men. Major Harrison brought off some few arms, medicines, &c., from Perkins’, Surget’s, Casin, and Carthage, all of which points he found abandoned by the enemy. At several places much property had been burned…

McCulloch’s brigade lost some 20 killed and perhaps 80 wounded. A very large number of the negroes were killed and wounded, and, unfortunately, some 50, with 2 of their white officers, captured. I respectfully ask instructions as to the disposition of these prisoners. A number of horses and mules, some few small arms, and commissary stores were also taken. In this affair General McCulloch appears to have shown great personal bravery, but no capacity for handling masses.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant, R. TAYLOR, Major-General, Commanding. Brig. Gen. W. R. BOGGS, Chief of Staff

Source: OR Series 1, 24, Part 2, 457-61

The above letter got the following response.

Letter from Gen Edmund Kirby Smith to General S. Cooper in Richmond, VA, regarding the capture of Colored Troops:

HEADQUARTERS DEPARTMENT TRANS-MISSISSIPPI, Shreveport, La., June 16, 1863. General S. COOPER, Adjutant and Inspector General, Richmond, Va.:

GENERAL: I have the honor to inclose you two letters, addressed to Major-General Taylor, in regard to the disposition to be made of negroes and their officers captured in arms. Unfortunately such captures were made by some of Major-General Taylor’s subordinates.

I have heard unofficially that the last Congress did not adopt any retaliatory legislation on the subject of armed negroes and their officers, but left the President to dispose of this delicate and important question. In the absence of any legislation and of any orders except those referred to in the inclosed letters, I saw no other proper and legal course for me to pursue except the one which I adopted.

I have the honor to be, general, your obedient servant, E. KIRBY SMITH.

[Inclosure No. 1.]

HEADQUARTERS DEPARTMENT TRANS-MISSISSIPPI, Shreveport, La., June 13, 1863.
Maj. Gen. R. TAYLOR, Commanding District of Louisiana:

GENERAL: I have been unofficially informed that some of your troops have captured negroes in arms. I hope this may not be so, and that your subordinates who may have been in command of capturing parties may have recognized the propriety of giving no quarter to armed negroes and their officers. In this way we may be relieved from a disagreeable dilemma.

If they are taken, however, you will turn them over to the State authorities to be tried for crimes against the State, and you will afford such facilities in obtaining witnesses as the interests of the public service will permit. I am told that negroes found in a state of insurrection may be tried by a court of the parish in which the crime is committed, composed of two justices of the peace and a certain number of slave-holders. Governor Moore has called on me and stated that if the report is true that any armed negroes have been captured he will send the attorney-general to conduct the prosecution as soon as you notify him of the capture.

I have the honor to be, general, your obedient servant, E. KIRBY SMITH, Lieutenant- General, Commanding.

[Inclosure No. 2.]

HEADQUARTERS DEPARTMENT TRANS-MISSISSIPPI, Shreveport, La., June 13, 1363. Maj. Gen. TAYLOR Commanding District of Louisiana:

GENERAL: In answer to the communication of Brigadier-General Hebert, of the 6th instant, asking what disposition should be made of negro slaves taken in arms, I am directed by Lieutenant-General Smith to say no quarter should be shown them. If taken prisoners, however, they should be turned over to the executive authorities of the States in which they may be captured, in obedience to the proclamation of the President of the Confederate States, sections 3 and 4, published to the Army in General Orders, No. 111, Adjutant and Inspector Generals Office, series of 1862. Should negroes thus taken be executed by the military authorities capturing them it would certainly provoke retaliation. By turning them over to the civil authorities to be tried by the laws of the State no exception can be taken.

I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant, S. S. ANDERSON, Assistant Adjutant-General.

Source: OR Series 2, vol. 6, 21-22, 115

Everything above is said in a very staid, technical, military manner. But the essence is this: when asked what “disposition should be made of negro slaves taken in arms?,” the answer was “no quarter should be shown them.” No mercy, no prisoners… kill them all.

I do not have any information on how or if this guidance was widely distributed, or, whether or not the guidance actually informed the actions of Confederate troops in battle. But various readings indicate that Colored Troops operated on the belief that they would be shown no quarter, and often perhaps, they showed none themselves.

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3 thoughts on “Give No Quarter: Don’t Capture Colored Troops… Kill Them

  1. Need I add that this is the same Nathan Bedford Forrest whom the State of Mississippi propose to honor with a license plate, the controversy around which has failed to prompt GOP presidential hopeful Haley Barbour to protest? Please also note that the Sons of Confederate veterans and others are currently peddling numerous myths about tens of thousands of African-Americans fighting on behalf of this same Confederacy. The truth is often easy to find, yet such lies are hard to destroy.

  2. How about you do the research for yourself and see that there were thousands of blacks who did fight for the confederacy and that they were regarded highly among the southern states. So quickly to jump to conclussions about what really happened when all you look at is one side, look deeper and maybe you might see that the idea of no quarter during the civil war was brought about by the union because they knew that it would be the only way that they could win effectively in land battles. The confederacy followed up with the no quarter tactic to counter the union’s fighting style to make the war more even on both sides. If you really want to know how horrible the union was in no quarter look at the number of women and children that were either murdered or executed with no true trial due to Lincoln suspending the right of habeus corpus.

    • It is odd that you bring up the subject of blacks fighting for the Confederacy, since the blog entry itself does not mention the subject.

      RE: “look deeper and maybe you might see that the idea of no quarter during the civil war was brought about by the union because they knew that it would be the only way that they could win effectively in land battles. The confederacy followed up with the no quarter tactic to counter the union’s fighting style to make the war more even on both sides.”

      The reaction of Confederate soldiers to colored Union soldiers had everything to do with the anger these white Confederate soldiers felt when seeing members of the debased and degraded enslaved black race fighting for freedom and equality. More on this subject is here:

      The Confederate soldier’s view of the colored soldier, Part 1: “the war will not be conducted in a civilized way hereafter.”

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