What They Saw at Fort Pillow
While doing research on something else, I came across a couple of accounts of the aftermath of the Confederate assault on Fort Pillow, written by naval officers of U.S.S Silver Cloud (above), the Union “tinclad” gunboat that was the first on the scene. I don’t recall encountering these descriptions before, and they really do strike a nerve with their raw descriptions of what these men witnessed, at first hand.
These accounts are particularly important because historians are always looking for “proximity” in historical accounts of major events. The description of an event by someone who was physically present is to be more valued than one by someone who simply heard about it from another person. The narrative committed to paper immediately is, generally, more to be valued than one written months or years after the events described, when memories have started to fade or become shaded by others’ differing recollections. Hopefully, too, the historian can find those things in a description of the event by someone who doesn’t have any particular axe to grind, who’s writing for his own purposes without the intention that his account will be widely and publicly known. These are all factors — somewhat subjective, to be sure — that the historian considers when deciding what historical accounts to rely on when trying to reconstruct historical events, and to understand how one or another document fits within the context of all the rest.
Which brings us back to the eyewitness accounts of Acting Master William Ferguson, commanding officer of U.S.S. Silver Cloud, and Acting Master’s Mate Robert S. Critchell of that same vessel.
Ferguson’s report was written April 14, 1864, the day after he was at the site. It was addressed to Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut, commanding officer of the Union’s XVI Corps of the Army of the Tennessee, then headquartered at Memphis. It appears in the Army OR, vol. 57, and the Navy OR, vol. 26.
U.S. STEAMER SILVER CLOUD,
Off Memphis, Tenn., April 14, 1864. SIR: In compliance with your request that I would forward to you a written statement of what I witnessed and learned concerning the treatment of our troops by the rebels at the capture of Fort Pillow by their forces under General Forrest, I have the honor to submit the following report: Our garrison at Fort Pillow, consisting of some 350 colored troops and 200 of the Thirteenth Tennessee Cavalry, refusing to surrender, the place was carried by assault about 3 p.m. of 12th instant. I arrived off the fort at 6 a.m. on the morning of the 13th instant. Parties of rebel cavalry were picketing on the hills around the fort, and shelling those away I made a landing and took on-board some 20 of our troops (some of them badly wounded), who had concealed themselves along the bank and came out when they saw my vessel. While doing so I was fired upon by rebel sharpshooters posted on the hills, and 1 wounded man limping down to the vessel was shot. About 8 a.m. the enemy sent in a flag of truce with a proposal from General Forrest that he would put me in possession of the fort and the country around until 5 p.m. for the purpose of burying our dead and removing our wounded, whom he had no means of attending to. I agreed to the terms proposed, and hailing the steamer Platte Valley, which vessel I had convoyed up from Memphis, I brought her alongside and had the wounded brought down from the fort and battle-field and placed on board of her. Details of rebel soldiers assisted us in this duty, and some soldiers and citizens on board the Platte Valley volunteered for the same purpose. We found about 70 wounded men in the fort and around it, and buried, I should think, 150 bodies. All the buildings around the fort and the tents and huts in the fort had been burned by the rebels, and among the embers the charred remains of numbers of our soldiers who had suffered a terrible death in the flames could be seen. All the wounded who had strength enough to speak agreed that after the fort was taken an indiscriminate slaughter of our troops was carried on by the enemy with a furious and vindictive savageness which was never equaled by the most merciless of the Indian tribes. Around on every side horrible testimony to the truth of this statement could be seen. Bodies with gaping wounds, some bayoneted through the eyes, some with skulls beaten through, others with hideous wounds as if their bowels had been ripped open with bowie-knives, plainly told that but little quarter was shown to our troops. Strewn from the fort to the river bank, in the ravines and hollows, behind logs and under the brush where they had crept for protection from the assassins who pursued them, we found bodies bayoneted, beaten, and shot to death, showing how cold-blooded and persistent was the slaughter of our unfortunate troops. Of course, when a work is carried by assault there will always be more or less bloodshed, even when all resistance has ceased; but here there were unmistakable evidences of a massacre carried on long after any resistance could have been offered, with a cold-blooded barbarity and perseverance which nothing can palliate. As near as I can learn, there were about 500 men in the fort when it was stormed. I received about 100 men, including the wounded and those I took on board before the flag of truce was sent in. The rebels, I learned, had few prisoners; so that at least 300 of our troops must have been killed in this affair. I have the honor to forward a list(*) of the wounded officers and men received from the enemy under flag of truce. I am, general, your obedient servant, W. FERGUSON,
Acting Master, U.S. Navy, Comdg. U.S. Steamer Silver Cloud.
Ferguson’s report is valuable because it is detailed, proximate in time to the event, and was written specifically for reference within the military chain of command. It seems likely that Ferguson’s description is the first written description of the aftermath of the engagement within the Federal’s command structure. Certainly it was written before news of Fort Pillow became widely known across the country, and the event became a rallying cry for retribution and revenge. Ferguson’s account was, I believe, ultimately included in the evidence published by the subsequent congressional investigation of the incident, but he had no way of anticipating that when he sat down to write out his report just 24 hours after witnessing such horrors.
The second account is that of Acting Master’s Mate Robert S. Critchell (right), a 20-year-old junior officer aboard the gunboat. Critchell’s letter, addressed to U.S. Rep. Henry T. Blow of Missouri, was written a week after Ferguson’s report, after the enormity of events at the fort had begun to take hold. If Ferguson’s report reflected the shock of what he’d seen, Critchell’s gives voice to a growing anger about it. Critchell’s revulsion comes through in this letter, along with his disdain for the explanations of the brutality offered by the Confederate officers he’d met, that they’d simply lost control of their men, which the Union naval officer calls “a flimsy excuse.” Crittchell admits to being “personally interested in the retaliation which our government may deal out to the rebels,” but also stands by the accuracy of his description, offering to swear out an affidavit attesting to it.
UNITED STATES STEAMER “SILVER CLOUD.” Mississippi River, April 22nd, 1864. SIR :-Since you did me the favor of recommending my appointment last year, I have been on duty aboard this boat. I now write you with reference to the Fort Pillow massacre, because some of our crew are colored and I feel personally interested in the retaliation which our government may deal out to the rebels, when the fact of the merciless butchery is fully established. Our boat arrived at the fort about 7½ A. M. on Wednesday, the 13th, the day after the rebels captured the fort. After shelling them, whenever we could see them, for two hours, a flag of truce from the rebel General Chalmers, was received by us, and Captain Ferguson of this boat, made an arrangement with General Chalmers for the paroling of our wounded and the burial of our dead; the arrangement to last until 5 P. M. We then landed at the fort, and I was sent out with a burial party to bury our dead. I found many of the dead lying close along by the water’s edge, where they had evidently sought safety; they could not offer any resistance from the places where they were, in holes and cavities along the banks; most of them had two wounds. I saw several colored soldiers of the Sixth United States Artillery, with their eyes punched out with bayonets; many of them were shot twice and bayonetted also. All those along the bank of the river were colored. The number of the colored near the river was about seventy. Going up into the fort, I saw there bodies partially consumed by fire. Whether burned before or after death I cannot say, anyway, there were several companies of rebels in the fort while these bodies were burning, and they could have pulled them out of the fire had they chosen to do so. One of the wounded negroes told me that “he hadn’t done a thing,” and when the rebels drove our men out of the fort, they (our men) threw away their guns and cried out that they surrendered, but they kept on shooting them down until they had shot all but a few. This is what they all say. I had some conversation with rebel officers and they claim that our men would not surrender and in some few cases they “could not control their men,” who seemed determined to shoot down every negro soldier, whether he surrendered or not. This is a flimsy excuse, for after our colored troops had been driven from the fort, and they were surrounded by the rebels on all sides, it is apparent that they would do what all say they did,throw down their arms and beg for mercy. I buried very few white men, the whole number buried by my party and the party from the gunboat “New Era” was about one hundred. I can make affidavit to the above if necessary. Hoping that the above may be of some service and that a desire to be of service will be considered sufficient excuse for writing to you, I remain very respectfully your obedient servant, ROBERT S. CRITCHELL, Acting Master’s Mate, U. S. N.
Critchell’s note about the explanation offered by Confederate officers, who argued that the black soldiers “would not surrender and in some few cases [the Confederate officers] ‘could not control their men,’ who seemed determined to shoot down every negro soldier, whether he surrendered or not,” is worth noting. That was the excuse offered at the time, and it remains so almost 150 years later, for those Fort Pillow apologists who acknowledge that unnecessary bloodshed took place at all. Critchell observed at the time that “this is a flimsy excuse,” and so it remains today.
Critchell’s letter also seems to endorse retaliation-in-kind, “because some of our crew are colored and I feel personally interested in the retaliation which our government may deal out to the rebels, when the fact of the merciless butchery is fully established.” This urge is, unfortunately, entirely understandable, and we’ve seen that within weeks the atrocity at Fort Pillow was being used as a rallying cry to spur Union soldiers on to commit their own acts of wanton violence. Vengrance begets retaliation begets vengeance begets retaliation. It never ends, and it’s always rationalized by pointing to the other side having done it before.
It never ends, but it often does have identifiable beginnings. Bill Ferguson and Bob Critchell saw one of those beginnings first-hand.
Critchell letter and images from Robert S. Critchell, Recollections of a Fire Insurance Man (Chicago: McClurg & Co., 1909).