In the early morning hours of April 12, 1864, a force of 1,500 Confederate cavalrymen commanded by General Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked 600 Union soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tennessee. They weren’t just any Union soldiers. More than half were blacks, most of them ex-slaves – a fighting force that most rebel soldiers had never seen before. Although black soldiers fought in a handful of engagements in 1862 and 1863, their presence in combat was still relatively new.
The fight did not last long. Union Commander Callow, who was white, made several serious mistakes, including refusing to surrender. His strength was quickly overwhelmed. Soon the massacre began – the deliberate shooting by Confederates, enraged at the presence of blacks, unarmed soldiers trying to surrender or had already surrendered. The carnage did not stop on the battlefield. The wounded and the sick were massacred in hospital tents. By the time the last prisoner was executed, nearly half of the Fort Pillow garrison was dead, the vast majority of them black.
The significance of the murders quickly became clear.
In its early years, the Civil War had been seen as an attempt to reconstitute the Union. Lincoln had said it over and over and most northerners approved of the idea. Most were not abolitionists. Most were deeply uncomfortable with the idea of former slaves suddenly mingling with whites.
But Lincoln changed his mind. By emancipating the slaves in January 1863, he changed the meaning of war. With the stroke of a pen, he transformed it from a morally unsecured attempt to reunite a divided nation in a war for the freedom of the nation’s four million slaves.a black liberation war. Just as radically, he had asserted that an army of black men would be raised from their native soil and would become the instruments of their own deliverance.
While the goal of universal abolition hung in the fog of war, the first and most critical phase of Lincoln’s emancipation campaign was in fact enrollment: Black men gather and put on uniforms and learn to walk and shoot with their white counterparts. And with the enrollment came, most likely, the chance for a real social revolution.
“Never since the beginning of the world,” wrote abolitionist Frederick Douglass, “has been a better chance offered to a people long enslaved and oppressed. Once a black man grabs the US brass letters from him; let him get an eagle on his button and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth or underground that can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship to the States -United. A black soldier in the ranks was the best argument in the world against – as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens put it – “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery, subordination to the superior race is its natural and normal condition. “
By the time of the Battle of Fort Pillow, black soldiers – freemen and former slaves – had fought in only a handful of engagements. They had suffered abuse from white officers, insulted by ordinary soldiers and received excruciating medical treatment. They were regularly killed after being taken prisoner by the Confederate army. But they had persisted, many with great courage and bravery.
“ Black soldiers made up an incredible 10% of the Union army.“
Fort Pillow caused a stir in the North. It was both the most sinister atrocity of the war and one that everyone knew. Images that have been circulated in northern newspapers show white rebel soldiers hacking wounded, tearing black soldiers to pieces with swords. They showed furious southerners killing the thing they had subjugated, the thing that now stood against them. There was something both horrible and futile about these acts, and that was the meaning of Fort Pillow and the New Black Liberation War.
Black soldiers were changing the moral and physical logic of war. By its end, 180,000 black men would enlist in the Union Army, more than half of whom were former slaves. They made up an incredible 10 percent of that army. And they fought as hard and heroically as the whites. The 25th All-Black Corps, which had the distinction of being the first infantry to enter the fallen rebel capital of Richmond, alone boasted four Congressional Medal of Honor winners. In a war of attrition – the fighting has never been so bloody or the losses greater than in his last year – the presence of black soldiers did exactly what Abraham Lincoln told Ulysses S. Grant they would do: they changed the balance of war. They helped the Union win and thus made sure all those black lives matter.
SC Gwynne is the author of Hymns of the Republic and the New York Times bestsellers Rebel cry and Summer moon empire, who was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has spent most of his career as a journalist, including stints with Time as head of office, national correspondent and editor-in-chief, and with Texas monthly as editor-in-chief. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife. Hymns of the Republic is now available in paperback from Scribner.
#Southern #Deadly #Revenge #Emancipation #Proclamation