Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2013: Nathan Bedford Forrest and the politics of the Ft. Pillow massacre

The persistence of neo-Confederate themes into the present day is illustrated by this report on a Ku Klux Klan rally this past weekend in Memphis from Don Terry for the SPLC's Hatewatch site, Under Huge Police Presence, Memphis Uneasily Faces the Klan 03/31/2013:

Officials said 61 white supremacists showed up for the rally to protest the city’s decision in early February to rename three Confederate-themed parks, including one honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest (now Health Sciences Park), the wealthy slave trader and ruthless Rebel cavalry officer who later became the first national leader of the KKK. (The others were Confederate Park, now Memphis Park, and Jefferson Davis Park, now Mississippi River Park.) When North Carolina-based Klan leaders first announced the rally a few days after the parks were renamed, they said they would be bringing “thousands of Klansmen’’ to Memphis for “one of the biggest KKK rallies of all time.”

The threat was like a bad flashback for city officials. In 1998, the last time the Klan rallied here, the streets were filled with tear gas and the sound of broken windows as hundreds of anti-Klan demonstrators clashed with police. There were about 25 arrests.

History did not repeat itself Saturday. The Klan was brought in and out of the rally site on city buses, escorted by police. According to media reports, there was one arrest and police "removed" a few people from the protest area, including a teenage boy with a Confederate flag draped over his shoulder. In 1998, there were more than 1,200 anti-Klan demonstrators and onlookers on hand. This time, it appears many potential protesters were drawn away from downtown to a counter-event hastily organized by business leaders and city officials called Heart of Memphis, an all-day gathering held at the fairground with food, music and panels on improving race relations in the city of more than 600,000. [my emphasis]
Nathan Bedford Forrest became nationally infamous for the massacre of African-American Union soldiers at Fort Pillow in April 1984 1864 by Rebel troops under his command after the Federals had thrown down their weapons in surrender.

Contemporary depiction of the Fort Pillow Massacre (Harper's Weekly 04/30/1864 issue)

The Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War took testimony and published a Fort Pillow Massacre report in 1964 just after the event; the massacre itself occurred on April 12, 1864. Although the report was carefully prepared and has held up well under historical examination, it and the Fort Pillow Massacre itself became objects of political controversy immediately and remained so for many years.

The book I've been citing in earlier posts, Black Flag Over Dixie: Racial Atrocities and Reprisals in the Civil War (2004) edited by Gregory Urwin, includes two chapters on the Fort Pillow Massacre, one of them being Albert Castel's "The Fort Pillow Massacre: A Fresh Examination of the Evidence" which first appeared in Civil War History 4 (Mar 1958). In his introduction, Urwin calls it a "now-classic article that proved the victorious Rebels had slaughtered surrendering and wounded African American. Caste's work has stood the test of time and continues to be the starting point for all serious studies of this event." But, as he also notes, despite it being the "most infamous massacre of U>S> Colored Troops" during the Civil War - thought the massacre at the Crater was larger - it remains a subject of polemics for neo-Confederates. "A strong Forrest cult exists among fans of the Lost Cause, and Confederate apologists have composed elaborate arguments to deny that the general and his cavalrymen were guilty of any war crimes at Fort Pillow."

The safely staid Encyclopædia Britannica's article on the "Fort Pillow Massacre" says, "Confederate forces under General Nathan B. Forrest captured Fort Pillow on April 12, 1864, and proceeded to kill all the black troops within; some were burned or buried alive. A Federal congressional investigating committee subsequently verified that more than 300 blacks, including women and children, had been slain after the fort surrendered. After the incident, black soldiers going into battle used the cry 'Remember Fort Pillow!'" (Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite, 2012) Although given the greater severity of the Crater incident, it's odd to see Britannica calling Fort Pillow "the ugliest racial incident of the war."

For his part, Castel wrote, "An analysis of both the Northern and Southern evidence leads to the conclusion that Forrest's troops, having captured Fort Pillow as a result of superior strength and tactics, out of a combination of race hatred, personal animosity, and battle fury then proceeded to kill a large number of the garrison after they had either ceased resisting or were incapable of resisting." Castel's someone clinical wording presumably reflects the weight that the neo-Confederate view had in 1958 among professional historians who should have known better. But the facts in this case were on the Yankees' side, as he explains:

... it is the considered opinion of the writer that the testimony gathered by the committee is of historical and scholarly value, if used, as all ex parte evidence of its type must be, with critical discrimination. While it does contain certain contradictions and weaknesses, most of these are attributable more to the physical and psychological condition of the witnesses - many of whom were wounded, and all of whom, most likely, were bitter toward the Confederates - than to the political and personal motivations of the investigators. In other words, the writer is totally unable to accept the Southern charge that the committee's report was a conspiracy of falsification and fabrication. On the contrary, he finds the testimony it contains strong, consistent, and convincing on the main point of issue: massacre of the garrison after it had quit fighting. Moreover, much of the testimony is repeated in affidavits independently obtained by the Federal military authorities, Finally, the Confederate testimony not only contains a sizable number of contradictions and errors but was obviously motivated throughout by a desire to soften the facts of the massacre and to exonerate the great Southern military hero, Forrest. [my emphasis]
Urwin's book also includes an essay by Derek Frisby, "'Remember Fort Pillow!' Politics, Atrocity Propaganda, and the Evolution of Hard War."

The Committee's report, which Frisby attributes to Chairman Benjamin Wade, Senator from Ohio, "an ardent abolitionist and a leading Radical." Frisby claims, "Through the sheer force of Wade's domineering personality, the committee's policies and those of its chairman became practically indistinguishable." Frisby doesn't seem to like Wade in particular very much, and plays up the ways in which the Committee report was used for propaganda purposes. But he recognizes that not only was the report substantively accurate, but that its publication and usage by the Radical Republicans "to charge Southerners with additional fiendish behavior and thereby demonstrate the need for Radical military and Reconstruction policies" were effective in strengthening support for the war, serving "as a rallying point to invigorate soldiers to fight," and increasing support among Northern whites for the continued use of "colored" soldiers and giving them equal pay. And he writes:

Overwhelmingly, the available historical evidence from both Union and Confederate sources independent of Wade's investigation proves that atrocities were indeed committed. Thus, to paraphrase Lincoln, it mattered little whether thirty or three hundred were murdered, the Fort Pillow fight still qualifies as a massacre. But Fort Pillow was not the first or last time Rebel troops committed such outrages, nor was it even the largest racial massacre of the war. Nevertheless, this incident received a congressional investigation and held much of the public's attention during the crucial spring of 1864. The historical significance of Fort Pillow lies not in determining the number of black soldiers killed there or the manner in which they died but in how and why Union officials shaped the perception of the "Fort Pillow Massacre" and the effect this perception had on the Union war effort and Reconstruction. The Fort Pillow Report not only revealed what the Civil War had become but what the Radicals wanted the war to be: a hard war to overthrow the Southern slaveocracy and reconstruct the society that supported it. As George Julian said shortly after the report's publication, "A grand opportunity now presents itself for recognizing the principles of radical democracy in the establishment of new and regenerated states."
Frisby seems to find the Radical goals distasteful if now downright reprehensible. But he does recognize the accuracy of the charges and the reasons for their effectiveness.

But the passage he quotes is a little too "postmodern" for my taste. The victims very much did matter, their sacrifice was real and important, even if it hadn't played such a key role in public opinion. The "perception of the 'Fort Pillow Massacre'" is a part of the political story. But his dismissing the actual massacre of not being the real "historical significance" of the massacre rubs me the wrong way. And, honestly, did the Fort Pillow massacre reveal "what the Radicals wanted the war to be." A number of them, including Benjamin Wade he so evidently dislikes, were very vocal about what war policies they wanted, often much to President Lincoln's annoyance.

Which brings me back to a comment of Castel's, just before the passage quoted above on the accuracy of the Congressional investigative report: "Much of their criticism" from pro-Confederate partisans, "is more or less justified, particularly in regard to the propaganda intent of the committee's report."

Say what? The Confederates objected to the Yankees using the truth of the Fort Pillow racial massacre! Duh! What does that have to do with the report's accuracy? It was a civil war. Of course one side would try to discredit any claims of the other, dishonest though it was on the Confederacy's part.

Postwar advocates of the Confederate viewpoint didn't have reasons of state to justify their position in defense of the massacre.

The truth generally makes the best war propaganda.

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