MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Saturday marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Pillow — a battle that, for some, now rages on in a war of words.
Whether the events of April 12, 1864 constituted a battle or a massacre is a topic long debated not only among historians, but among the descendants of Civil War soldiers who fought and bled that day.
“Remember Fort Pillow,” a documentary produced by Rhodes College Professor Dee Garceau, was screened at the University of Memphis Thursday. It was followed by a panel discussion that explored the often-overlooked brutality of the siege led by Confederate Major Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest against Union soldiers at the fort.
“The story of Fort Pillow is still not told,” said panelist Yolanda Burgess, a direct descendant of a Union soldier wounded during the siege.
“I will challenge anyone who says this was not a massacre. It was outright slaughter. Unjustifiable.”
After hours of fighting, Forrest demanded the surrender of the Union soldiers still holed up inside the fort, with promises to treat them as prisoners of war if they gave themselves up.
If they refused, Forrest reportedly told them he would not be responsible for their fate. They refused.
In an even more brutal assault than the first, Confederate soldiers charged the fort, and the killings continued until they took control of it.
But even after the Confederate troops had clearly emerged victorious and the Union soldiers had no choice but to lay down their weapons, Forrest continued the onslaught. Those who tried to surrender were shot or stabbed with bayonets, and African-American soldiers fighting for North were especially singled out for slaughter, even if they were unarmed.
“(Forrest) had a reputation even before this battle as being a brutal sergeant. People were terrified of his, both white and black, when it came to the way he would fight his war. He took no prisoners,” said Brooke Barrett, spokeswoman for Fort Pillow State Historic Park in Henning, Tenn.
The park will host special memorial events Saturday in honor of the battle’s 150th anniversary, including historical tributes, canon firings, hay rides, hikes and educational speakers.
“At Fort Pillow, you’d be surprised. When you go you still get this feel for the significance of what happened there,” she said.
For Annabeth Hayes, one of the student researchers for the documentary, working on the project was an eye-opening experience.
“Growing up around here, you grow up with that regional bias,” Hayes said. “Then you grow up and you go to school and you learn the truth. It’s very much life changing. It sounds cheesy, but it was.”