Understanding Fort Pillow: “Full and Ample Retaliation”
On another forum folks have been discussing the Battle of Fort Pillow in April 1864, and some of the factors that led to the “slaughter” — Nathan Bedford Forrest’s own term, from his report immediately after the action (“The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for 200 yards.” AOR 57, 610) — of Pillow’s defenders. While there will always be room for historians to debate Forrests’ direct role in what happened there, one must also recall how black Federal troops and their white officers were viewed by Confederates, both as a matter of personal views and as a matter of official, governmental policy. Almost a year before Fort Pillow, the Confederate Congress had explicitly defined the Emancipation Proclamation and recruitment of African American troops as a form of inciting “servile insurrection” — think Nat Turner — and formally declared such practice as being “inconsistent” with the rules of warfare “among civilized nations.” Such cases, the Confederate Congress declared, should therefore be met with “full and ample retaliation,” without recourse to traditional military due process or the niceties usually afforded prisoners of war:
May 1, 1863 [No. 5.] – Joint Resolution on the Subject of Retaliation. Resolved by the Congress of the Confederate States of America, in response to a message of the President, transmitted to Congress at the commencement of the present session, that, in the opinion of Congress, the commissioned officers of the enemy ought not to be delivered to the authorities of the respective States as suggested in the said message, but all captives taken by Confederate forces ought to be dealt with and disposed of by the Confederate Government. Sec. 2. That, in the judgment of Congress, the proclamations of the President of the United States dated respectively September twenty-second, eighteen hundred and sixty-two, and January first, eighteen hundred and sixty-three, and other measures of the Government of the United States and of its authorities, commanders and forces, designed or intending to emancipate slaves in the Confederate States, or to abduct such slaves, or to incite them to insurrection, or to employ negroes [sic.] in war against the Confederate States, or to overthrow the institution of African slavery, and bring on a servile war in these States, would, if successful, produced atrocious consequences, and they are inconsistent with the spirit of those usage which in modern warfare prevail among civilized nations; they may, therefore, be properly and lawfully repressed by retaliation. Sec. 3. That in every case, wherein, during the present war, any violation of the laws or usages of war among civilized nations shall be, or has been, done and perpetrated by those acting under the authority of the Government of the United States, on the persons or property of citizens of the Confederate States, or of those under the protection or in the land or naval service of the Confederate States, or of any State of the Confederacy, the President of the Confederate States is hereby authorized to cause full and ample retaliation to be made for every such violation, in such manner and to such extent as he may think proper. Sec. 4. That every white person, being a commissioned officer, or acting as such, who, during the present war, shall command nergroes or mulattoes in arms against the Confederate States, or who shall arm, train, organize or prepare negroes or mulattoes for military service against the Confederate States, or who shall voluntarily aid negroes or mulattoes in any military enterprize, attack or conflict in such service, shall be deemed as inciting servile insurrection, and shall, if captured, by put to death, or be otherwise punished at the discretion of the court. Sec. 5. Every person, being a commissioned officer, or acting as such in the service of the enemy, who shall, during the present war, excite, attempt to excite, or cause to be excited, a servile insurrection, or who shall incite, or cause to be incited, a slave to rebel, shall, if captured, be put to death, or be otherwise punished at the discretion of the court. Sec. 6. Every person charged with an office punishable under the preceding resolutions shall, during the present war, br tried before the military court attached to the army or corps by the troops of which he shall have been captured, or by such other military court as the President may direct, and in such manner and under such regulations as the President shall prescribe, and, after conviction, the President may commutate the punishment in such manner and on such terms as he may deem proper. Sec. 7. All negroes and mulattoes who shall be engaged in war, or be taken in arms against the Confederate States, or shall give aid or comfort to the enemies of the Confederate States, shall, when captured in the Confederate States, be delivered to the authorities of the State or States in which they shall be captured, and dealt with according to the present or future laws of such State or States. Approved May 1, 1863.
“Full and ample” retaliation against black Union troops and their white officers was an official policy, written into Confederate law.
This policy found its force in numerous ways across the South, through the remainder of the war. Just weeks after its passage, Lee’s army crossed again into Maryland, in what would come to be known as the Gettysburg Campaign. During their brief sojourn in Maryland and Pennsylvania, Confederate troops seized and brought with them hundreds of African Americans, some of whom were born free and had never set foot in slave territory, under the guise of capturing runaway slaves. Hundreds of people, perhaps as many as a thousand, were kidnapped this way, with the knowledge (if not explicit endorsement) of officers at the highest levels of Lee’s command. It’s a policy that reflects, codifies, the widely-held view of African American Union troops and their white officers as being not opposing soldiers, but something much worse — insurrectionists — who were an existential threat to the Confederacy and to southerners’ own homes and families.
Just to be clear — I’m not arguing that what happened at Fort Pillow is a result of the resolution passed in Richmond almost a year before, but rather that they both reflect the same attitudes when it comes to African American soldiers — that they and their white officers are beneath contempt, and undeserving of recognition as soldiers. Confederates like Howell Cobb understood this intuitively. In retrospect, right question to ask isn’t “why Fort Pillow?”, but why there weren’t more Fort Pillows?