The Battle of Ft Pillow Victory Stigma
By Edwin L. Kennedy, Jr. Lieutenant Colonel, US Army (Ret.)
General Nathan Forrest was declared by leaders on both sides to be one of the best commanders the war produced. Success tends to beget emotional and irrational jealousies, especially by those who suffer from inferiority complexes. Forrest's overwhelming victory at Fort Pillow provided a propaganda coup for the northern press as survivors' accounts were coached and embellished to denigrate a commander who could not be beaten on the battlefield. While there may have been some truth in a few of the accusations, they were wildly distorted, exaggerated and uncritically accepted ---- even when logical explanations are considered and the results of official northern inquiries could not "prove" malice by Forrest.
Forrest had a reputation of using deception throughout his military career. When he threatened the garrison at Pillow, it was no different than the other ruses he had previously employed and would continue to employ. This seems to be the crux of the criticisms of Forrest's actions leading to the use of the word "massacre" by those who conveniently over-look the fact Forrest (and his subordinates) commonly used threats to scare enemies into submission. The fact that it worked infuriated the northerners for being duped. When Pillow's garrison refused to succumb to the threats and then fell to assault, northerners illogically assumed that the threats were executed. No subsequent Federal investigations ever found evidence of such.
An enemy who appeared to be reinforcing the garrison by river during a truce meant that Forrest's forces' reaction was questioned as the truce violation when it was a natural response. Experienced soldiers know of the difficulty of controlling attacking units, even with modern technology such as radios. 150 years ago, attacking at Ft Pillow was fourfold more difficult due to distances, background battle noise, rough terrain, and the inability of sound commands to carry. Forces converging on an objective from multiple directions are extremely difficult to control as Forrest knew but he had no choices. Once the assault began, it traditionally ended with the enemy surrendering, or running away. When the Federals refused to surrender as a unit by striking the colors and then continued to resist, they garnered a natural response that wasn't a planned massacre but the result of passions in the heat of battle. The result was an embarrassment to the Federals not only for their loss of the battle, but the high casualties resulting from their soldiers feigning surrender but recovering arms to continue fighting. They suffered the results of their poor decisions and actions. Forrest unfairly suffers the stigma for victory.
The Character of Nathan Bedford Forrest
By Michael Bradley, Ph.D.
Prejudiced, White Supremacist, slave trader, rough, profane, known for violence---all these terms are often applied to Nathan Bedford Forrest. What about Christian, prayerful, respectful of religion, church member? Have you ever heard these terms applied to Forrest? I suspect that you have heard them used seldom, if at all. Yet, both sets of terms are true and both can be used to describe Nathan Bedford Forrest. Like all of us, he was a man of many parts, a man whose parts often contradicted each other.
Let us examine the first set of terms. By the definitions current in the 21st Century society there are very few white people of the 19th Century who cannot be described as “prejudiced” or who would not be called a “white supremacist.” In the 19th Century the idea that Anglo Saxon people were superior to all peoples of the world was a belief held universally in Western Europe and in North America. So, to say that Nathan Bedford Forrest was a “white supremacist” is to say that he was a typical white man who lived in the 19th Century. He was no worse, and no better, that 99 per-cent of the rest of the people who lived during his era.
Jack Hurst, in his biography of Forrest, says that the racial views of Forrest changed more than those of any other major character who fought in the War Between the States. During the Reconstruction period Forrest advocated that African Americans be given every opportunity to advance themselves economically and politically, Forrest appeared at public meetings and espoused these goals in political speeches. There is no documented evidence that Forrest led the KKK and it is a well-established fact that he was not one of the founders of that group. Despite the historical facts that Forrest advocated economic and political rights for African Americans the baseless lies about his racism continue to be cited.
Bedford Forrest was a man of many parts---quick tempered, coarse of language, prone to violence when provoked; but he was also a man who possessed a sense of the spiritual and who respected the Christian religion, a respect which ripened into belief and commitment. We cannot omit recognition of this latter fact if we wish to have an accurate view of this important, controversial historical figure.