By Shane E. Kastler (Author of the book, Nathan Bedford Forrest's Redemption)
Recently, Glenn Beck and David Barton made statements on Beck’s program about Nathan Bedford Forrest that were completely inaccurate. Beck held up a sword that belonged to Forrest, that Barton claims was used at Fort Pillow to skin black Union soldiers alive. This is nothing more than false propaganda that has ballooned to asinine levels over the course of time. Fort Pillow was a vicious battle, but the truth was clearly not presented by Beck and Barton.
Glenn Beck has done much good in making modern Americans aware of what our founding fathers believed and taught. But like most Americans, he is ignorant of many of the facts surrounding the Civil War South. This is most clearly seen in the modern day deification of Abraham Lincoln as the supposed greatest President in American history. Even a cursory look at the facts would show that Lincoln was exactly the type of Federal dictator that Beck claims to rail against today in the form of Barack Obama. But the history books are written by the victors; and because of this a completely distorted view of the Civil War has been taught to American schoolchildren for the past 150 years. Beck is a product of this brain washing; as are most Americans who never bother to question what they are taught in school.
Ironically, much of David Barton’s work is meant to undo this lack of education. His organization “Wall Builders” seeks to educate people about the Christian roots that exist in our country. I would commend Barton for some of his work and have benefitted and recommended him to others myself on occasion. But he, like Beck, appears to be woefully ignorant when it comes to knowledge of many aspects of the Civil War. I would invite both men to devote some of the same time and energy they have spent studying the founding fathers to the Civil War era; especially to the men of the Confederacy that they so quickly dismiss as barbaric racists. What they would find, from the historical record, is that Forrest was much more noble than they imagine, and Lincoln was much, much worse.
In conclusion, I have included an excerpt from my book “Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Redemption” below. It is from chapter 5 of the book, which deals with the events of Fort Pillow. It must also be said that I do not pretend that Forrest was a perfect man. My book speaks of his sins, but it also speaks of his “redemption” when he became a devout Christian later in life. But an examination of his entire life would clearly show that he was not the “devil” he has been made out to be. His reputation deserves to be honored more than what it has been. And these slanderous attacks on him will forever continue as long as men like Glenn Beck and David Barton are allowed to boldly proclaim gross untruths. While I respect both men and believe their statements to be genuinely rooted in ignorance of Forrest; I humbly submit that it is incumbent upon them to check the facts before blurting the lies.
[UPDATE: 8/9/10 - Thomas Nelson Publishers has stopped publication of one of David Barton's books because of it being riddled with historical errors. Glenn Beck wrote the forward to that particular book. Click here for more details.)
An Excerpt from “Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Redemption” By Shane E. Kastler. Published by Pelican Publishing Company, Gretna, LA. Taken from chapter 5 entitled: “Fort Pillow: Forrest’s Notorious Legacy” pages 81-95)
By March of 1864 the atmosphere in Western Tennessee had become poisonous. Forrest and his men had liberated the town of Jackson from Yankee rule, and set up their temporary headquarters in the city. From the citizens they heard numerous accounts of atrocities committed under the leadership of Union Cavalry Colonel Fielding Hurst, head of the 6th Tennessee Cavalry (U.S.A.). Hurst had a reputation of extorting money from Southerners by threatening to torch their towns if they didn’t comply with his wishes. It was determined that he had taken over $5,000 from the citizens of Jackson by such dishonest means, and Forrest vowed to do something about it. Writing letters to his commanding officer Leonidas Polk, as well as the Federal government, Forrest demanded that the citizens of Jackson be given restitution. The Federal government eventually agreed, though Hurst later reappeared in Jackson and got the money back again.
Ironically, Forrest would graciously take extraordinary steps to prevent Hurst’s home from being destroyed by angry Confederates. Being near Hurst’s hometown of Purdy, Forrest dispatched his Chief of Staff Charles Anderson, along with five men, telling them to find Hurst’s home and guard it against vandalism. When they came to the door, a terrified Mrs. Hurst answered, fully expecting to suffer for the wrongs of her husband. “Are you the wife of Colonel Hurst?” Anderson asked. “Yes sir,” she replied. What Anderson said next, stunned her:
“We are not here to harm you, but have been sent for your protection. Although General Forrest has not reached Purdy, he is aware of the ruin and devastation caused by your husband's regiment, and has sent me in advance of his troops to place a guard around your house. This guard is from his own escort, and will remain with you until all of our command has passed, and I assure you that neither your family or anything about your premises will be disturbed or molested.”
A grateful Mrs. Hurst responded,
“Please, sir, say to General Forrest, for me, that this is more than I had any right to expect of him, and that I thank him from my heart for this unexpected kindness. I shall gratefully remember it and shall always believe him to be as generous as he is brave.”[i]
Mrs. Hurst may have been appreciative, but Colonel Hurst was unaffected by the kindness. In addition to extortion, he was accused of holding citizens as prisoners without cause, a common occurrence during the Civil War. Forrest took particular offense to a minister named G.W.D. Harris of Dyer County, Tennessee who was being held at Fort Pillow. In correspondence to Federal General Ralph Buckland, Forrest demanded:
“Mr. Harris be granted a fair trail before a competent tribunal, or else unconditionally and promptly released, or otherwise I shall place in close confinement 5 Federal soldiers, now in my hands, as hostages for his protection, and in case he should die in your hands from ill treatment these men shall be duly executed in retaliation.”[ii]
While these accusations against Hurst were bad, the alleged atrocities got much worse. Forrest cited seven murders Hurst’s men had committed against Tennesseans, including a case of torture and execution committed against Willis Dodds, a young soldier from Forrest’s cavalry. Dodds was captured in Henderson County at the home of his father and was subsequently found hanging in a tree with his hands and feet bound, and his face and genitals cut off. For all these crimes, Forrest demanded Hurst and any accomplices be handed over as prisoners to be duly tried by the Confederate States of America. Not surprisingly, the Federal government refused to comply.
By April of 1864, the Fort Pillow housed close to 600 Union soldiers, 253 of which were black men, many of whom were escaped slaves. Of the white men serving the fort, several were former Confederate soldiers who had deserted to the North, while others were the much maligned “Tennessee Yankees” also known as “Tennessee Tories” – local men whose loyalties were with the North rather than the South. Needless to say, Fort Pillow was made up of men who didn’t have the respect of the Southern army, nor its citizenry.
The commander in charge was Major Lionel Booth, with the second in command being a notorious and hated “Tennessee Yankee” by the name of Major William Bradford. Booth was sent to Fort Pillow by his commanding officer, General Stephen A. Hurlbut, headquartered at Memphis, because of concerns over Bradford’s youth and inexperience. Time would prove that Hurlbut’s fears were well founded.
The Civil War saw many political hacks who sought war heroism as a way of career advancement. By gaining an officer’s commission they could perhaps get their names in the newspapers and gain fame because of the valor of the armies that served under them. The problem, in many cases, was that they had no military training or acumen to speak of. Sometimes a lack of training caused little if any problem, as evidenced by Forrest himself who had almost no education, yet possessed the natural instincts of a warrior. Other times, the lack of military training, or perhaps the simple lack of a military mind, proved catastrophic. Such would be the case with Bradford.
A lawyer who hailed from the same Bedford County, Tennessee of Forrest’s birth; Bradford had made a name for himself through litigation; and in the eyes of many Tennesseans, treachery. Fiercely loyal to the Union, he had attained a Major’s commission from the Federal government, but gained nothing short of outright hatred from many of his fellow Tennesseans.
Fort Pillow, at least originally, wasn’t very high on Forrest’s priority list. Indeed, some said that it was a fairly harmless and worthless fort that he shouldn’t even concern himself with, but some other factors convinced him otherwise.
One factor was supplies. By this point, Forrest and his men were again in need of more horses, saddles, guns, food, or anything else they could gain from victories over the Federals. No doubt, by conquering Pillow, he would be able to add more provisions to his fledgling cavalry.
Another factor was the men who occupied Fort Pillow. The white, Union troops under Bradford garnered a reputation for pillaging the Southern citizens of the area. Indeed such civilian plundering was not uncommon by Union armies that deemed disloyalty to the Federal government as treason, and therefore felt justified in “confiscating” whatever personal property they chose to help themselves to. Reportedly, Forrest was “distressed by well-authenticated instances, repeatedly brought to his notice of rapine and atrocious outrages upon non-combatants of the country, by the garrison at Fort Pillow.”[iii] The Federals were also accused of “venting upon the wives and daughters of Southern soldiers the most opprobrious and obscene epithets, with more than one extreme outrage upon the persons of these victims of their hate and lust.”[iv] Clarke Barteau, who served as a Colonel under Forrest stated that:
“For days before the capture of Fort Pillow, citizens fleeing to us from its vicinity brought doleful tales of outrages committed by the Federal forces in that stronghold. The helpless families of some of our soldiers had been victims of their raiding parties. A strong feeling prevailed in favor of capturing the fort, but it was not expected to be done without fighting and loss of life.”[v]
While the civilized “rules of war” dictated that non-combatants were not to be molested, this seldom held true in the Civil War South. Suspicions ran high, and loyalty was constantly questioned. Oaths were required, and high taxes levied against Southern citizens who were deemed to be “sympathizers” with the “rebellion.” In such an atmosphere, it’s not hard to see how many in the South would view men like Nathan Bedford Forrest as their knight in shining armor. And its not hard to see how Forrest, his men, and the citizens of West Tennessee would view Bradford’s “Tennessee Yankees” as villainous miscreants who were traitors to their own people, and terrorists of the innocent. Such was the mindset of the times, and the bad blood between the “Tennessee Yankees” and the “Wizard of the Saddle” would soon come to a head.
Not only had Forrest and his men heard second hand reports of Yankees plundering, many of his troops had experienced it first hand as their families reported some of the atrocities taking place while the men were off fighting the war. Several times, citizens near Fort Pillow specifically requested that Forrest do something about the Union garrison there; and at least on one occasion, a delegation of citizens from Jackson, Tennessee pleaded with Forrest to keep a detachment stationed in the area for protection. Initially, Forrest didn’t believe that he had enough men to deal with the problem, but the tearful pleas by some of the ladies apparently changed his mind. According to Ted Brewer of the 20th Tennessee,
“General Forrest was a man of great sympathy and when he heard the pathetic stories told by the ladies he changed his plans and decided to attack Fort Pillow….Forrest felt that if he ignored the citizens’ complaints he would lose many new recruits to desertion before he could reach northern Mississippi.”[vi]
This account seems plausible for at least two reasons. First, Forrest was always known to be sympathetic where ladies were concerned. He revered his mother and was close to his twin sister growing up. He also deeply respected his wife and was always careful to watch his language and mind his manners when she was present. Additionally, he wrote in his official record that the young girl who assisted him at the Battle of Sacramento had “infused him with knightly chivalry.” Right or wrong, Forrest saw himself as a protector of Southern women, and when these tearful pleas came, he no doubt succumbed to their requests.
The second reason Brewer cited was more practical. If Forrest ignored the plight of these Tennesseans, he was sure to lose a certain amount of public support. Always in desperate need of new recruits, he knew he was more likely to get them by faithfully defending the citizens against Northern atrocities. Because of these factors, Forrest decided to move on Fort Pillow. Yet even then he didn’t seem to regard the matter as a major battle concern. In a letter to commanding General Joseph Johnston, he mentioned, almost in passing, of a Union presence at Fort Pillow that he would “deal with in a couple of days.” Indeed he would “deal with them” and what took place would dog him to his dying day.
On the morning of April 12, two Southern brigades under the command of General James R. Chalmers had surrounded the fort and Confederate sharpshooters were picking off any Federal who dared raise his head above the parapets. Chalmers and his men made short order of the first two lines of earthwork pickets and were simply awaiting further instructions when Forrest came upon the scene at 10:00 a.m. that morning. Under heavy fire from the Federals, Forrest had two horses shot out from under him that morning, leaving him slightly injured. He dispatched 1600 men, under Colonels Robert McCulloch and Tyree Bell to storm the final earthwork where Federal sharpshooters were firing, and thus overwhelm them. While this was going on, Forrest rode to the rear to be treated for his injury. Once the final level of earthworks were taken, the only thing left to do was to obtain a surrender from the Yankees…or storm the fort and overwhelm the outnumbered Federals by force. The final hope that the Federals had was the New Era, a Union gunboat that had been firing at Forrest’s men from the river; but eventually seeing that they were having no affect, the vessel ceased fire and moved on.
The New Era’s departure was a massive blow to the Federals’ already fading chance of survival. The other massive blow came that morning when Booth, the commanding officer in charge, was killed by a sharpshooter. This put the young and skittish Bradford in command, and in his inexperience, or perhaps arrogance, he failed to see that surrender was really his only option. And surrender was requested by General Forrest…three times.
In typical fashion, Forrest sent a message to Booth (not knowing he was already dead), under a flag of truce that stated:
Major: your gallant defense of Fort Pillow has entitled you to the treatment of brave men. I now demand the unconditional surrender of your forces, at the same time assuring you that you will be treated as prisoners of war. I have received a new supply of ammunition and can take your works by assault, and if compelled to do so you must take the consequences.
N.B. Forrest, Major General
Commanding Confederate Cavalry[vii]
Bradford wrote back requesting an hour to receive counsel from his officers, as well as the officers manning the gunboats in the river. The problem was that Forrest’s surrender request had nothing to do with the boats. So he wrote back saying the surrender of the gunboats was not required. As for the fort, he would give them twenty minutes, rather than an hour to decide their fate.
Mention of the gunboats also apparently raised Forrest’s suspicions. They knew there were more boats in the area, so while the ceasefire was under affect, Forrest sent some men to monitor the river in case Federal reinforcements were coming. Forrest suspected that Bradford’s request of “one hour” was a stalling tactic to allow time for boatloads of new forces to arrive; and he certainly wasn’t in the mood to allow that to happen. Bradford finally sent his final message to Forrest, written in the name of the deceased Major Booth, that he would not surrender the fort. Now, the scene was set for catastrophe and fuel was being added to the fire in mass quantities.
While the flag of truce was waving, the men inside of Fort Pillow began to rise up over the fortifications and taunt the Confederate army. As historian Jay Winik writes: “Not only did the fort commander refuse, but the cocky Federals openly taunted Forrest, daring him to try to take the garrison. It was the mistake of their lives.”[viii] This seems to be rather bizarre behavior for a troop of outnumbered men facing a general known to be one of the most skilled warriors on either side of the conflict. Where could such false bravado possibly come from? Were they unaware of the overwhelming numbers they faced? That would be hard to imagine, since they had witnessed a hail of bullets raining down upon them every time they looked over the walls. Did they not realize that it was Nathan Bedford Forrest and his fierce and famous fighters that were assailing them? Again this seems unlikely since everyone knew Forrest was in the area and the communications coming from the Confederates had been written in his name. Such foolish taunting in the midst of overwhelming odds had to have a natural explanation; and indeed it did. The men of Fort Pillow had become, as the saying goes, “ten foot tall and bullet-proof” at least in their own minds; the result of numerous whiskey barrels that had been stationed at various spots around the fort to induce artificial courage. Alcohol was the last bit of kindling to be added to this tumultuous situation; and the subsequent taunts had further angered the Southern men, who really needed nothing else to inspire them to destroy the place. The results were devastating, controversial, and tragic on several levels.
Forrest ordered 1200 men to charge the fort, while Confederate sharpshooters laid down a galling cover fire to the parapets. Once inside the fort, a chaotic melee ensued with point blank shots being fired and hand-to-hand combat engaged on mass levels. The Federals were completely outmanned, outgunned, and overpowered. Some retreated towards the Mississippi River where they wrongly assumed Union boats would come to their aid. Others fought gallantly. Still others laid down arms offering to surrender. Of these, some were taken prisoner, while others were reportedly shot being shown “no quarter.” In the midst of the chaos, according to the Confederates, some Federals would lay down their arms and surrender, only to run again, pick up a weapon and fire. It was difficult to tell who had genuinely surrendered and who had not. All the while, the Union flag continued to wave over the fort, advertising to all who could see that the Federals had not surrendered and the fight was still on. As for Forrest, he was still outside the fort, until twenty minutes after the assault began.
Testimony of what occurred was multi-varied and conflicting. As Davison and Foxx write:
“The easy question: was there needless killing at Fort Pillow? There was. The difficult questions may never be put to rest. The one constant in such an investigation of controversial behavior on the battlefield is that armed conflict clouds judgment and loosens, even makes useless, the rules of civilized society.”[ix]
For those who have never experienced combat, especially in hand-to-hand, close quartered Civil War style, it is impossible to truly understand what goes on in a soldier’s head, and the actions that ensue. It’s easy for the high-browed, pompous pacifist to kick back in his easy chair, in the safety of his living room and cast judgment upon the man who wages war in the midst of a “kill or be killed” atmosphere. Therefore all civilian commentators, who would offer their “two cents” would be wise to admit their limited perspective as it relates to combat conditions. In the midst of utter chaos, with bullets flying, swords slashing, bayonets being thrust, and punches being thrown – survival instincts kick in. Soldiers aren’t thinking about etiquette…they’re thinking about living to fight another day. It’s kill or be killed. Insanitas belli, “the fury of battle” has caused incidents in every war in history that make people pause and question the rightness or wrongness of such actions. But “insantias belli” doesn’t mean that right and wrong cease to exist. The fury of battle doesn’t justify every act committed by a soldier…but it can certainly explain why it happened. And when we consider the adrenalin that surely flows in the midst of warfare, coupled with the already existent bad blood between the Tennessee Yankees, runaway slaves, Confederate deserters, and Forrest’s men; a slaughter would not be surprising.
Nevertheless, the scope of this book is not to try and explain every possible scenario of what took place at Fort Pillow. Nor is it to defend Forrest as faultless. In all honesty, this book’s thesis would be better served if Forrest were guilty of horrendous atrocities, because it would simply prove in greater fashion that he was an amazingly depraved man, who still found grace through Jesus Christ. I don’t write as a Fort Pillow apologist, nor as a Bedford Forrest ideologue who refuses to see error where error occurs. Forrest certainly had numerous shortcomings, faults, and sins; and some of those were manifested at Fort Pillow; but to suggest that his sole purpose in attacking the fort was to “massacre” everyone housed there is simply inaccurate. As historian Edwin Bearss states: “if Forrest had intended a ‘massacre’ there would have been few, if any survivors.”[x] Couple this with the fact that Forrest had officially asked for their surrender and promised “prisoner of war” status to those who acquiesced, even commending the Federals for their “gallant” defense seems to make it pretty clear that a “massacre” wasn’t Forrest’s intent, at least originally. But what about after the surrender offer was rebuffed?
Undoubtedly, the combination of the fort’s inhabitants, and the taunting that took place prior to the charge, led to some men being vindictively killed. Some were also seem to have been killed after laying down their arms and trying to surrender. While this is inexcusable, the fact that some laid down arms only to take them back up and fire again, would perhaps explain why this occurred. In all honesty, the Confederates hated the men inside Fort Pillow, just as those inside Fort Pillow hated Forrest and his men. And when mutual hatred mixes with weaponry, fueled by alcohol, mass carnage is the result; with one side eventually conquering the other. At Fort Pillow the conquerors were the Confederates, but by war’s end, the conquerors were the Federals and their atrocities were at times just as severe, if not worse. Forrest’s men attacked soldiers. At times, Union commanders ordered the attack, pillage, and execution of unarmed civilians. Several of these acts were committed in Tennessee prior to Fort Pillow, with Forrest’s men having knowledge of them.[xi] Once again, this doesn’t justify Fort Pillow, but it does perhaps explain the vitriol that fueled the battle.
Furthermore, the question must be asked: what role did Forrest play in the attack? As commander in charge he bore the responsibility for his men; and some testified that executions took place because Forrest had called for “no quarter” to be given to the Federals. With this in mind, it seems clear that at the very least, Forrest may have turned a blind eye to what was sure to go on once the fort was seized. Many times he led charges, but at Fort Pillow he stayed back for twenty minutes. While this might seem out of character for him, it must be remembered that he had suffered an injury that could have kept him from being in the midst of the fray. Or perhaps, after being jeered by a drunken enemy, he “cut the dogs loose” for twenty minutes before calling them off.
According to both Forrest and Chalmers, once they came inside the fort they ordered a cease-fire and demanded no more Federals be shot. Forrest made this claim until his dying day, stating that he had actually come between his men and black Union soldiers, not allowing them to be murdered. While many would raise a skeptical eyebrow at such a suggestion, it should be noted that there were many black troops not shot; and one wonders why all of them weren’t executed if a “massacre” was intended.
The overwhelming conclusion was that Forrest had ordered a “massacre” of black men and Tennessee Yankees. But a closer look at the facts leads to a different conclusion. The death rate among the Federals at Fort Pillow was somewhere between 31 and 42 percent, which is hardly a “massacre” by Civil War standards.[xii] Furthermore, Forrest had the chance to kill others, yet didn’t. The Federal surgeon at Fort Pillow, Charles Fitch testified that he surrendered to one of Forrest’s officers and asked to be taken to Forrest so he would be protected as a non-combatant. Fitch reported that Forrest was incensed at him for being the surgeon of a black regiment. Fitch stated that he was not, but this only drew greater ire from Forrest who retorted that he was a “Tennessee Yankee!” Again, Fitch tried to talk his way out, only to dig his hole deeper, when he stated that he was from Iowa. By now Forrest was incredulously asked: “if you’re from Iowa, then what are you doing down here?” He went on to say that Iowans had no business in Tennessee and if they had minded their own business the war would have already been over. Forrest then ordered Fitch to be guarded and protected by his men, for which Fitch offered thanks.
[i] CV, volume 3, page 212.
[ii] O.R., volume 32, part 3, pg. 117., Willis 172.
[iii] Thomas Jordon and J.P. Pryor, The Campaigns of General Nathan Bedford Forrest and of Forrest’s Cavalry, (New York: De Capo Press, 1996, originally published 1868) pg. 422.
[iv] Ibid, 422-423.
[v] Detroit Free Press, December 1, 1884. Quoted in Andrew Ward, River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War (New York: Viking Press, 2005) pg. 141.
[vi] Ward, pg. 142.
[vii] Eddy W. Davison and Daniel Foxx, Nathan Bedford Forrest: In Search of the Enigma, (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Co. 2007), 228.
[viii] Jay Winik, April 1865: The Month That Saved America, (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2001), pg. 281.
[ix] Davison and Foxx, pg. 217.
[x] Davison and Foxx, pg. 11-12.
[xi] For several specific incidents, see Walter Brian Cicso, War Crimes Against Southern Civilians, (Gretna, La: Pelican Publishing Co, 2007).
[xii] Davison and Foxx, pg. 241.