Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Understanding Fort Pillow: “Full and Ample Retaliation”

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on April 15, 2014
Note: I started this post in January, got busy with other things, and forgot about it. Apologies for overlooking it until the sesqui of Fort Pillow is past, but it remains relevant to the background of that event — AH


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?


15 Responses

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  1. Foxessa said, on April 15, 2014 at 12:31 pm

    “…, 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 difficult to argue coherently against such first hand documents that this took place. For quite some time I’ve been haunted by those individuals kidnapped by Lee’s army and sold into slavery. Once we’re definitively finished with the fates of those who were born (or kidnapped into) slavery in the antebellum period, I hope to begin to look for first hand accounts of those born free who experienced this media res Civil War enslavement.

    • Andy Hall said, on April 15, 2014 at 12:44 pm

      Yet there are plenty who insist it never happened. They need to believe it never happened.

    • M.D. Blough said, on April 16, 2014 at 3:19 pm

      And those kidnapped included women and children who, in some cases, were captured by mounted cavalry troopers running them down as they tried to flee into fields to hide. There’s no indication that any effort was made to determine whether the people were runaways but, in many cases, free blacks would have no papers to support their status. Pennsylvania passed its first VERY gradual emancipation law in 1780. Even with all of the conditions and the statutory periods of what essentially was indentured servitude, there would be a considerable number of blacks, descended from Pennsylvania slaves, who were not only born free but weren’t the first generation of their family born free. They’d have no more proof of their status than a white person.

      There are plenty of contemporary accounts of local whites who witnessed Confederate efforts to capture blacks to take into slavery. It didn’t require the witness to be an abolitionist or racial egalitarian to be horrified and shocked at what they witnessed.

    • BorderRuffian said, on April 23, 2014 at 11:59 am

      If there were “hundreds…perhaps as many as a thousand” free blacks captured in PA by Lee’s army and then sent South and sold into slavery — names would be known. Many names. They would have been printed in abolitionist newspapers. They would appear in letters. How many names do we have?


      Even without this crucial evidence there are plenty who still insist it happened. They need to believe it happened.

      • Andy Hall said, on April 23, 2014 at 8:37 pm

        We have quite a few names, in fact. For people who are sincerely interested in this subject, a good place to start is a pair of modern works, Paradis’ African Americans and the Gettysburg Campaign, and Ted Alexander’s “A Regular Slave Hunt: The Army of Northern Virginia and Black Civilians in the Gettysburg Campaign” from North & South magazine. Both contain multiple accounts of identified African Americans either being taken away by Confederate troops or, in some cases, being saved by the intervention of white townspeople who knew them. Both works include extensive notes and citations that can be a guide to further research, if one desires.

        There’s also extensive evidence of this practice from Confederate sources, too.

        If you choose to believe that there is no substantive evidence of the kidnapping of African Americans by Confederates during the Gettysburg campaign, that’s entirely up to you. As with everything else, I encourage readers to dig into the sources on their own, and reach their own conclusions.

        • Jimmy Dick said, on April 24, 2014 at 9:15 am

          It does keep coming down to the same thing on these issues. There are facts and there is fiction. Those who prefer fiction have to overlook the facts to sustain their belief in fiction. It is no surprise that the Lost Cause interpretation is rapidly disappearing. The problem is those that are desperate to believe it will go to great lengths to deny the facts that prove them wrong.

          • Andy Hall said, on April 24, 2014 at 9:37 am

            Recall that BorderRuffian/Battalion spent a lot of effort a few months ago trying to discredit Solomon Northup’s autobiography because the ages he gave of the slaves he lived with didn’t line up precisely with census records.

            It’s OK. I’ve humored his trolling here for almost four years, which is plenty long enough. He’s done.

  2. Michael McCanles said, on April 15, 2014 at 1:29 pm

    The logic of the CSA declaration re: black persons is of course one with the logic by which the CSA from the beginning insisted on its right to be recognized as an independent nation at war with another nation state seeking to conquer it. Had military victory gone to the south, all this legislative posturing, not to mention the whole ponderous charade of the Richmond “government,” would have amounted to the origin of a “Confederate States of America” and would have constituted “Chapter One” of the history of such an entity. Southern blacks would have remained slaves, in short. History has (historically) sided with Lincoln’s contention that there never was a secession and there never was a CSA. Whether any of the above was going to be true–as distinct from being a collective fantasy–was of course decided on the battlefield. As the movie “Lincoln” demonstrates at length, making it impossible for anybody legally to enslave other American citizens was intended to transform the verdict of the battlefield into US constitutional law.

    • Andy Hall said, on April 15, 2014 at 1:41 pm

      I generally agree with that, except for this:

      History has (historically) sided with Lincoln’s contention that there never was a secession and there never was a CSA.

      I don’t know any historians who would argue that there was never secession or that the CSA didn’t exist in real, concrete terms. You’ll get lots of opinions about whether it was constitutionally permissible (i.e., “legal”), but not whether it happened. But then, most historians I know don’t get themselves too consumed with that question, either — figuring out what happened and why is challenging enough.

  3. Rob Baker said, on April 15, 2014 at 1:36 pm

    That is a great ending question. Why indeed?

    I think there are a few more Fort Pillows, but the size of the armies, battle and the casualty count hides the sanctioned murder of colored troops. Petersburg is a great example of that.

    • Andy Hall said, on April 15, 2014 at 1:42 pm

      Oh, there were lots of other examples, mostly on a smaller scale. It was a rhetorical question.

      • jfepperson said, on April 16, 2014 at 4:09 pm

        There were many such incidents, but they are not as well-known. Olustee and Saltville, for example. There is an incident in which some of Lee’s cavalry picked up a bunch of IX Corps stragglers after the Wilderness, and just shot the blacks.

        • M.D. Blough said, on April 17, 2014 at 10:24 am

          Or as Porter Alexander said of the Crater (he wasn’t there but spoke to Confederates who had been there shortly after the event. Alexander was no Lost Causer but he had no motive to make Confederate actions look worse than they were, particularly in a private memoir intended only for his children) in “Fighting for the Confederacy”, p. 462

          >>In fact there were, comparatively, very few Negro prisoners taken that day. It was the very first occasion on which any of the Army of Northern Virginia came in contact with Negro troops, & the general feeling of the men toward their employment was very bitter. The sympathy of the North for John Brown’s memory was taken for proof of a desire that our slaves should rise up in a servile insurrection & massacre throughout the South, & the enlistment of Negro troops was regarded as advertisement of that desire & encouragement of the idea to the Negro.

          That made the fighting on this occasion exceedingly fierce & bitter on the part of our men, not only toward the Negroes themselves, but sometimes even to the whites among them. . . .

          Some of the Negro prisoners, who were originally allowed to surrender by some soldiers were afterward shot by others, & there was, without doubt, a great deal of unnecessary killing of them.<<

  4. Craig L said, on April 18, 2014 at 3:49 pm

    Five days after Fort Pillow is the anniversary of the Battle of Poison Springs in southern Arkansas during the Camden Expedition. The 1st Kansas Colored Infantry was ambushed while foraging for corn to supply food for the main portion of Steele’s army then camped in Camden. The brigade they were part of effected a rescue of the regiment and a retreat under fire to Camden but not before heavy losses were inflicted to an extent that essentially annihilated the 1st Kansas Colored as a fighting force. What remained of the regiment was merged with other units. Colonel Rice, the regiment’s commander, was killed in action. Like Fort Pillow, depending on whose account is read, there remains debate as to whether it was a battle or a massacre, but regardless of nomenclature the factor of race was integral to the equation.

  5. Laqueesha said, on July 15, 2015 at 1:24 am

    Good find there. On the subject, here’s an excerpt from a 1863 letter by U.S. Grant to C.S. general Richard Taylor regarding the CSA’s mistreatment of USCT soldiers:

    “I feel no inclination to retaliate for the offences of irresponsible persons; but if it is the policy of any General intrusted with the command of troops to show no quarter, or to punish with death prisoners taken in battle, I will accept the issue. It may be you propose a different line of policy towards black troops, and officers commanding them, to that practiced towards white troops. So, I can assure you that these colored troops are regularly mustered into the service of the United States. The Government, and all officers under the Government, are bound to give the same protection to these troops that they do to any other troops.”

    Source: “Words of our Hero: Ulysses S. Grant”, edited by Jeremiah Chaplin, Boston: D. Lothrop and Company, pp. 13-14.

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