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On April 12, 1864, some 3,000 rebels under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest overran Fort Pillow, a former Confederate stronghold situated on a bluff on the Tennessee bank of the Mississippi, some 40 miles north of Memphis. The garrison consisted of about 600 Union soldiers, roughly evenly divided between runaway slaves-turned-artillerists from nearby Tennessee communities and white Southern Unionist cavalry mostly from East Tennessee. Under a flag of truce which his men violated by creeping up on the fort, Forrest demanded the garrison’s surrender, threatening that if it refused he would not be responsible for the actions of his men. Believing Forrest was bluffing, Bradford refused, whereupon the Confederates swarmed over the parapet.

The overwhelmed garrison fled down the bluff to the river, where they were caught in a deadly crossfire. Forrest’s men continued to shoot well after the Federals had thrown down their weapons, and many men were killed in hospital tents or as they begged for mercy. By the next morning only about 65 blacks had survived a massacre that had continued intermittently through the night. More than seventy percent of the white survivors would perish in rebel prisons. The Confederates lost about 18 killed.

Northern Radicals seized on the massacre to inflame a wavering Northern public. Though Forrest initially described the river as “dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for 200 yards,” and his field commander bragged that his men had taught “the mongrel garrison” a memorable lesson, Forrest and his staff later either denied there was a massacre or blamed it on the garrison itself.

The Fort Pillow affair became a target of Southern revisionists, and many reference works balk at deeming the battle a massacre. But recent accounts drawn from primary sources conclude emphatically that a massacre did indeed transpire, and that Forrest’s field officers did little to stop it, for which Forrest himself bears the ultimate responsibility.

Andrew Ward, River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War (New York: Viking Press, 2005).


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River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War

by Ward, Andrew
Publisher: Viking
Retail Price: $29.95
Issue: Spring 2006
ISBN: 0670034401

Civil War Atrocity

Nathan B. Forrest raid on Fort Pillow

Andrew Ward is a professional writer whose previous works included Fits and Starts: The Premature Memoirs of Andrew Ward; The Blood Seed: A Novel of India; Our Bones Are Scattered: The Cawnpore Massacres in the Indian Mutiny of 1857; and Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Jubilee Singers Who Introduced the World to the Music of Black America. This background and his writing style shape River Run Red.

The book centers upon the Confederate attack on Fort Pillow on April 12, 1864. The fort sat on the Mississippi River north of Memphis. Its garrison of unionist and black Federals became a target of Major General Nathan B. Forrest when he raided western Tennessee and Kentucky. Federal survivors claimed that a massacre followed the fort's fall, but Forrest denied it. It has always ranked as the war's most famous alleged atrocity, and today most studies by professional historians consider it a massacre. Ward's coverage divides into four parts: background of the site and those involved, the incident, the wartime aftermath (including investigations), and the postwar lives of participants. He aids readers' visualization of the story through maps and illustrations. A preface explains his approach to the controversial subject.

Strong points in Ward's analysis include the psychology of those denying guilt, corruption among officers in the first Federal garrison, the poor leadership skills of the unionist Major William Bradford, the shaping factors in Forrest's background, and Forrest's rough management of his own troops. Ward makes a strong case that a massacre resulted when some Confederates' racial hostilities caused a breakdown of discipline and that Forrest knew what happened but covered it up. The analysis builds from extensive research.

Ward primarily aims the book at the popular audience. He will catch and maintain the interest of many of those readers. Chapters have catchy titles and short length. His passionate writing tells the story using vivid images, a wide vocabulary, and in general very polished phrasing.

Ward's analysis and endnotes indicate that his secondary audience is scholars. They will have more mixed reactions. Not all of his content is documented and some citations are either incorrect or incomplete. Sometimes he deduces too much from documents or misreads them. Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Jackson's report on the incident states that Private Eli Cothel was saved from burial when Confederates saw he was alive, not that he dug himself out. General Stephen A. Hurlbut's order sending reinforcements to Fort Pillow went out at 7:00 p.m. (not a.m.) after, rather than before, receiving news of the battle on April 12. River Run Red also contains a number of minor errors. Charles Davis was a captain in the United States Navy, not an admiral. The Federal Army mostly recruited blacks into the infantry, rather than into the artillery. The author should not use unpublished essays and newspaper articles by nonprofessional historians as sources for historical facts and quotations not verifiable elsewhere, nor should he trust an account of the battle by William Witherspoon, a Confederate not present.

Some of the work's analysis is problematic. The New Era's canons probably could not be raised high enough to hit the barracks beside Fort Pillow on the bluff. Most significantly, Ward accepts debatable Confederate claims about depredations and drunkenness by the last Federal garrison.

Professional historians should consult Ward's study but do so with caution. Other readers who like great breadth of context and detail--River Run Red is twice as long as any other book on the subject--will find it entertaining and enlightening on the major aspects of the incident.

John Cimprich (, professor of History at Thomas More College, published Fort Pillow, a Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory with Louisiana State University Press one month after Ward's book appeared.

Cimprich, John, review of River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War, by Ward, Andrew, Civil War Book Review, (Spring 2006).