Will you join us, to remember Fort Pillow?

This is an open invitation to attend commemorative activites at Fort Pillow State Park to mark the 150th annivesary of the Battle at Fort Pillow. It is sent from the descendants of two soldiers who served at the Fort:


Depiction of the Battle of Fort Pillow AKA the Fort Pillow Massacre

This print causes one with a conscious and awareness of sanctity of life to pause. The artist was not there to witness this horror, but there were congressional hearings and reports and eyewitness accounts from which he/she used and poured into this portrayal of the events that occurred on April 12, 1864. We can pause and reflect when looking at this print, however, we must actively become involve in Remembering Fort Pillow in the mix of the celebratory mid-point observations of the American Civil War Sesquicentennial.

Will you join us at Fort Pillow on April 12, 2014, to honor and pay tribute to the men, women and children who were massacred 150 years go? It’s a time to commemorate what one historian called a battle that went terribly wrong. It’s time to reflect. It’s a time to make the journey to banks of the Mississippi River where its water turned red with the blood of these men, women and children. They made the ultimate sacrifice. Will you make a sacrifice to travel to Henning, Tennessee in a few months?

The descendants of two USCT soldiers garrisoned at Fort Pillow on April 12, 1864, will be there. Will you join us?

Our great grandfathers, Private Peter Williams (6th USCHA, Co. A) and Private Armstead Burgess (6th USCHA Co. B), were among the 262 African American artillerymen garrisoned at Fort Pillow during the massacre that occurred on April 12, 1864.* Unlike many of their comrades in arms, they survived the horrors of that day and lived well into the twentieth century. We are here today because they survived. We realize our families are blessed, but we can’t forget the families who suffered the loss of their loved ones. We are humble and thankful. We remain prayerful about our own legacy. We continue to remember and hope that others will also remember the men, women and children who perished that day.

The Tennessee State Parks will commemorate the 150th Anniversary of Fort Pillow on April 12-13, 2014. Jeff Wells (Director of Interpretive Programming and Education, Tennessee State Parks) stated, “The focus of this program will be to recognize and honor the sacrifices of the African Americans garrisoned at Fort Pillow during the tragic events of April 12th, 1864.”

The tentative program includes living history presentations, public displays, lectures, and guided tours. There is a program tentatively scheduled in the afternoon to pay tribute to the Union soldiers who were garrisoned at Fort Pillow on the terrible day.

Will you join the families or Private Williams and Private Burgess?

For more information, please contact:
Fort Pillow State Park
731-738-5581
3122 Park Road
Henning, Tennessee 38041

All USCT organizations and commemorative units received a personal invitation from Mr. Wells. Please follow up.

Finally, the University of Memphis is planning a lecture on Fort Pillow and USCTs on April 10, 2014. That information is pending and will be posted as soon as received.

Best Regards,

Joe Williams, Retired Army
Great Grandson of Private Peter Williams
Member, 12th USCHA (Commemorative Unit)

Yulanda Burgess
Great Granddaughter of Private Armstead Burgess
Member, 5th USCI, Co. C (Commemorative unit)

Remembering Fort Pillow: 150th Anniversary Activities at Fort Pillow State Park


Depiction of the Fort Pillow Massacre, Harper’s Weekly, 1864

The American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia bills itself as “the nation’s first museum to interpret the Civil War from Union, Confederate, and African American perspectives.” In doing so, it recognizes that there were indeed three very different vantage-points from which the Civil War was viewed and interpreted at the time. None of these perspectives is “better than” or “superior to” the others; they’re different, but all valid. Perhaps implied by the Museum, but not stated, is that throughout the post-war era, the African American Civil War experience has often been overlooked and even ignored. But it’s never too late to catch up with the past.

In that light, I am heartened to see the list of events and activities planned for the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the so-called Fort Pillow Massacre, to be held at Fort Pillow State Park on April 12 and 13. The list of events is at the bottom of this blog entry.

As many people who study the Civil War know, the Fort Pillow Massacre is one of the most infamous and controversial events of the American Civil War. Fort Pillow was a Union-held fort located 40 miles northeast of Memphis, Tennessee. The garrison at the Fort included a number of men from the US Colored Troops, perhaps half of the men there. The Fort was attacked on April 12, 1864, by Confederate forces under the command of Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest. The Confederates overran the fort, suffering moderate casualties. In the wake of the attack, around 300 Union soldiers were killed, most of them Colored Troops. The Union – the US military, members of the US government, the US press, and very important, many African Americans – considered Fort Pillow a race-based massacre, during which black soldiers were killed even after they surrendered. Confederates, most notably General Forrest himself, denied that a massacre occurred; they would call it the Battle of Fort Pillow.

The Massacre was a cause célèbre at the time, and remains controversial to this very day. Fort Pillow State Park, the preserved site of the Fort, is holding a series of activities and lectures to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Fort Pillow which, on the face of it at least, focus on the African American experience during this time of war and change, and, which highlight the issues of war, race, and slavery that have inflamed passions about the event to this very day. This focus will be seen especially in lectures scheduled on April 12, which will complement other activities such as living history programs and Union and Confederate encampments.

I say that I am heartened because, from a perusal of internet sources, there are many who feel that the more controversial issues surrounding Fort Pillow have been ignored in earlier commemorative events. Some might add that a single week-end of such focus is not enough; it’s catch-up ball, and more needs to be done in the long run. But clearly, events like this are a good way to start, and one hopes that there will be more to come.

So, for those in the vicinity of Fort Pillow State Park outside of Memphis, I recommend giving the place a visit to view the activities, which will take place during the coming week-end (April 12-13). Cost and distance will keep me from attending… sigh.

Note: I have an earlier blog entry related to Fort Pillow here.
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Fort Pillow – 150th Anniversary and Memorial Service
Fort Pillow State Park

Schedule of Activities:

Saturday Schedule (April 12, 1984)

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


Depiction of the Fort Pillow Massacre, Harper’s Weekly, 1864

“The colored population is the great available, yet unavailed of, force for restoring the Union. The bare sight of fifty thousand armed, and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi, would end the rebellion at once.”
President Abraham Lincoln in a letter to Tennessee Governor Andrew Johnson in March, 1863

The sight of black Union soldiers did indeed draw an intense reaction from Confederates. But it was nowhere near the kind of response that Lincoln predicted. Far from fear, the sight of black men in Union dress fostered a rage in the Confederate soldier that led to merciless – and often unapologetic – acts of violence against African Americans on the battlefield. White Confederates and black Union men became engaged in a war within a war that was constrained only by the smaller numbers of black soldiers and their combat role during the Civil War. (In the first half of the war, colored troops were less likely to do combat duty than white soldiers. This changed as the war lasted into 1865.)

As some readers may be aware, there is some debate among scholars and non-scholars about what the Confederate soldier “fought for.” The historical record provides very clear evidence that the politicians who drove the secession decision in the Deep South – the seven states that left the Union before the firing of guns at Fort Sumter – did so to protect the institution of slavery. Historian Gordon Rhea, in his essay Why Non-Slaveholding Southerners Fought, describes not so much why non-slaveholders fought, but rather, the reasons that were given by politicians, preachers, the prominent, and the press for a separate Confederate nation and the need to fight for it. All of those reasons, Rhea shows, were related to the defense of slavery, and appealed to white fears of a society overrun with free black should the Confederacy lose. We can say that the propaganda machine in the Deep South played the race/slavery card: “secession was necessary to preserve white supremacy, to avoid a race war, and to prevent racial amalgamation,” Rhea says of the arguments for the creation and defense of the Confederacy.

Did the “average” Confederate soldier accept these reasons, or have them as his own? Or was he motivated by Southern nationalism, or the basic and pressing need to protect his home from the invading Northern horde? The individual soldiers’ reasons were no doubt diverse and complex. But regardless of his own reasons, the soldier understood from his leaders that defeat would mean black freedom and equality.

But it’s one thing to talk about black freedom in the abstract; it’s another thing to see it on the battlefield. Before the war, or even in its early phases, the idea of emancipation as a consequence of defeat was just that – an idea, a concept, something that people talked about. But then the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. And now, the theoretical was the actual. In her book What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War, Chandra Manning writes “Confederates began to meet black Union soldiers in combat more frequently in 1864, which further aggravated white southern men’s sense of racial aversion. By bearing arms and mostly holding the same rank (private) as most of the Confederate Army, black troops literally presumed equal status with white southern enlisted men. ‘Damn you, you are fighting against your masters,’ howled one confederate as he faced black troops in Tennessee.”

When Confederate soldiers saw colored troops, they didn’t see black; they saw red. Historian Jason Phillips, in his book Diehard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility, writes

The emancipation and Federal enlistment of thousands of slaves further enraged Confederates and confirmed their perception of Yankees… Emancipation and black Union soldiers verified Confederate fears that Yankees were racial fanatics…

…Rebels ridiculed Federals’ involvement with blacks. One Confederate denigrated the enemy with remarks such as, “The Yankees marched a line of battle, composed of white negroes and black negroes.” In his eyes, white northerners had descended to blacks’ racial status because of their association in a biracial army. A South Carolina soldier laughed at a dream he had in which Henry Ward Beecher and other abolitionists were “married to the blackest, dirtiest, stinkiest… negro wench[es] that can be found.” A Virginia officer wished that “all the Yanks and all the negroes were in Africa.”

Rebels’ pity and ridicule ended, however, when African Americans entered the fray. Facing black opponents implied a parity between former slaves and Confederate soldiers that many Rebels could not stomach. When Confederate soldier Nugent learned that “Lincoln demands that we treat negro soldiers upon an equality with whites,” he predicted that “the war will not be conducted in a civilized way hereafter.”

Black federal troops meant race war. Armed blacks roaming the countryside, murdering and raping whites-the nightmare that had terrified white southerners for centuries-seemed to be coming true. A soldier manning Lee’s trenches confessed that the men in his unit abruptly ended cease-fire when they realized that black Union troops had replaced white ones.

Other Rebels showed no remorse over the murdering of black prisoners at Fort Pillow. A South Carolina soldier was “glad that Forrest had it in his power to execute such swift & summary vengeance upon the negroes, & I trust it will have a good influence in deterring others from similar acts.” By killing black prisoners, Rebels revealed not only racist rage but also a chilling psychological distance from their victims. A Confederate song that celebrated Fort Pillow expressed the dehumanizing effects of war:

The dabbled clots of brain and gore
Across the swirling sabers ran;
To me each brutal visage bore,
The front of one accursed man

The reference to the Fort Pillow massacre is telling. There has been some debate as to whether there was a massacre at Fort Pillow (most believe it was), and if so, who was responsible for it (it seems to have resulted from the actions of the soldiers, and not direct orders from Confederate Major General Bedford Forrest). But at the time, many Confederates believed it was a massacre – and they celebrated it.
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