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river run red

7 November 2006

Andrew Ward's 2005 book River Run Red, now in paperback, presents itself as "a cross between a narrative history of Fort Pillow and a portrait gallery of the people who converged upon it" (xiv). The actual battle narrative of the 12 April 1864 assault and subsequent slaughter of its garrison is sparingly told. Instead we get a mosaic of hundreds of individual stories, some of them stories of one day, some of a lifetime.

No single incident in the Civil War condenses as many hatreds as Fort Pillow. Confederate cavalryman Nathan Bedford Forrest led an attack on the position, on the Tennessee bank of the Mississippi River, hoping to capture its garrison of Tennessee-recruited Union infantry and black Union artillery. He did capture many (the white soldiers were sent mainly to Andersonville, the black soldiers enslaved or re-enslaved). But his men also killed hundreds of the fort's defenders, and continued to kill them long after resistance had ceased.

Even as late as 2005, one problem that Ward faces is the definition of "massacre." Faced with that accusation in 1864, Forrest and other Confederate officers rejected it with all the rhetoric at their command. The Union troops put up a desperate and treacherous resistance, said Forrest. Or, they had been warned that no quarter would be given. Or, they could expect no quarter, because any arming of blacks against the Confederacy was an incitement to insurrection that mocked the laws of warfare. Or, no real massacre took place; or, if any did, Forrest tried to stop it.

Despite these excuses, Fort Pillow became a rallying cry for black troops and for radical white Republicans alike. Whatever led individual Confederates to kill so many helpless Union soldiers at Fort Pillow – whether it was the heat of anger or a cold-blooded policy of Forrest's to terrorize other black and Unionist troops – the result was the same. Fort Pillow changed the stakes of the war. No longer were the Union forces fighting merely over constitutional issues and socio-economic systems. Black soldiers and the whites who stood beside them were thenceforth fighting literally for their very lives.

Ward's substantial text precedes 130 pages of footnotes and index. (And publishers, please, please: when you have over a hundred pages of footnotes, do make sure that running titles identify which pages in the text those notes refer to; there's no excuse in the computer age not to employ this exceedingly simple device.) The amount of research here is staggering, and it is largely in unplumbed primary sources: Congressional testimony, pension files.

Fort Pillow began to be forgotten, except as the barest of iconic references, shortly after it was fought. No heroes emerged alive from the battle, or at least not for long. Forrest and his fellow Confederate general James Ronald Chalmers were stained for life by the incident, though they worked fervently to recast the stain into a badge of honor. The place itself started to crumble into the river shortly after the assault, and though preserved as a state park today, it continues to slide into the Mississippi; it has never been one of the highlights of battlefield tours. Andrew Ward's dedication to retelling its stories is one of the most valuable recent projects in Civil War history.

Ward, Andrew. River Run Red: The Fort Pillow massacre in the American civil war. 2005. New York: Penguin, 2006.