Destination List > Fort Pillow State Historic Park
Fort Pillow State Historic Park
Photo by Guillaume Capron
Fort Pillow State Historic Park is a state park in western Tennessee that preserves the American Civil War site of the Battle of Fort Pillow. The 1,642 acre (6.6 km²) Fort Pillow, located in Lauderdale County on the Chickasaw Bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, is rich in both historic and archaeological significance. In 1861, the Confederate army built extensive fortifications and named the site for General Gideon Johnson Pillow of Maury County. It was attacked and held by the Union Army for most of the American Civil War period except immediately after the Battle of Fort Pillow, when it was retaken by the Confederate Army.
The Battle of Fort Pillow
The Union Army attacked and captured Fort Pillow to secure its strategic location on the Mississippi River. On June 4, 1862, Confederate troops evacuated Fort Pillow, enabling Union troops to take Memphis, Tennessee. They would hold the fort until 1864.
The Confederate States Army defeated the Union troops at the Battle of Fort Pillow (April 1864), resulting in the massacre of 229 of the 262 black Union soldiers engaged in the battle. The white Union soldiers numbered 285. Confederate and Union witness accounts attest that some 300 soldiers were gunned down by the Confederate forces. The Confederate refusal to treat these soldiers as traditional POWs infuriated the North, and led to the Union’s refusal to participate in prisoner exchanges.
An examination of regimental records showed that "less than 36 percent of the men from white units died in battle or of wounds, while the death toll for black units was 66 percent."
A Confederate wrote in a letter home that "Forrest ordered them [negroes] shot down like dogs, and the carnage continued." In addition to regimental records, contemporary accounts by troops on both sides, as well as journalists, describe it as appalling slaughter. Within about three weeks, as political controversy grew, Confederates began to dispute accounts of a massacre. Union survivors’ accounts, later supported by a federal investigation, concluded that African-American troops were massacred by Forrest’s men after surrendering. Forrest, himself, claimed that he and his troops had done nothing wrong and that the Union men were killed because Bradford had refused to surrender. Controversy over the battle continues today.
"Remember Fort Pillow!" became a battle cry among black Union soldiers for the remainder of the Civil War. While the Union casualty count for the battle does not indicate that the Confederate forces took many prisoners, Confederate records show about 200 prisoners were shipped south.
In 1866, the Union Army created a cemetery for both Confederate and Union soldiers south of the battle site. In 1867, they moved about 250 bodies of Confederate and Union soldiers from that cemetery to the Memphis National Cemetery.