FW: H-CivWar Book Review: Shaffer on Cimprich_Fort Pillow: A Civil War Massacre and Public Memory_
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Subject: H-CivWar Book Review: Shaffer on Cimprich_Fort Pillow: A Civil War
Massacre and Public Memory_
H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-CivWar@... (October 2006)
John Cimprich. _Fort Pillow: A Civil War Massacre and Public Memory_.
Baton Rogue: Louisiana State University Press, 2005. 208 pp. Maps, tables,
notes, bibliography, index. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8071-3110-5.
Reviewed for H-CivWar by Donald R. Shaffer, School of History, Philosophy,
and Political Science, University of Northern Colorado
Tragic War, Tragic Subject ... Tragic Book?
John Cimprich has written a thin, but useful study of Fort Pillow and the
massacre in April 1864 that made it infamous. While far from definitive,
Cimprich adds to the understanding of the fort's history, judiciously
recounts the slaughter of (mostly) black Union troops there by Confederate
forces under Nathan Bedford Forrest, and ably analyzes some historical
discourse on this incident from its immediate aftermath to more recent
The story of the Fort Pillow massacre is one of the best known episodes
involving African-American soldiers in the Civil War. In the spring of
1864, Confederate cavalry, in a raid through Union-occupied Tennessee,
surprised a smaller Union force--made up of African Americans and Tennessee
Unionists--occupying a heretofore obscure fortification, Fort Pillow, on the
Mississippi River north of Memphis. When the Union commander refused to
surrender, the Confederates stormed the fort killing about three hundred
defenders, many of them after they tried to surrender.
Not surprisingly, the Confederates' ire seemed particularly directed at the
African-American soldiers, who made up most of the fort's garrison.
News of the massacre quickly spread and came to symbolize, for pro-abolition
Unionists, the inhumanity of the Confederate cause, whose official policy
toward captured black Union troops was to treat them as rebellious slaves.
For Confederates, the Fort Pillow massacre became an embarrassment, either
to be denied entirely or justified by blaming the victims.
Rather than moving quickly into the controversy over the massacre, John
Cimprich makes the unconventional decision to discuss at length the history
of Fort Pillow itself. In a book that contains barely more than
123 pages of text (the balance being maps, tables, notes, bibliography, and
an index), Cimprich devotes over half (69 pages) to exploring the story of
the fort from its construction to the withdrawal of its last all-white
garrison in early 1864. "Events preceding the massacre at the fort provide
a context for better understanding the controversial incident," he writes
(pp. vii). This approach is constructive in the sense that it clarifies
Fort Pillow's history within its regional milieu and how the Union
occupation of West Tennessee set the stage for the massacre. It is less
illuminating, however, in revealing how other factors contributed, most
notably the racial hierarchy of the nineteenth-century U.S. South.
Chapter 1 explores the decision of Tennessee secessionists in 1861 to build
an earthen fort on the Mississippi River to block its use by Union forces as
an invasion route, and the fort's actual construction and initial manning.
Chapter 2 examines the rather desultory Union campaign to take Fort Pillow
and nearby Confederate strong points on the Mississippi River. This
campaign succeeded only due to the larger weakness of the western rebel army
after the Battle of Shiloh, which caused the Confederate commander in
Tennessee, P. T. Beauregard, to abandon Fort Pillow in order to consolidate
his forces further south. In chapter 3, Cimprich digresses to discuss the
everyday life of soldiers in Fort Pillow, an interesting if awkwardly
located exploration which could stand in for just about any troops in the
Civil War--Union or Confederate--serving on garrison duty. Chapter 4
returns to the narrative of the first two chapters, exploring the period of
the fort's history from the late summer of 1862 to early 1864, when white
Union forces used Fort Pillow as a base in their counter-insurgency
operations against Confederate guerillas in West Tennessee. Cimprich is to
be commended for discussing the fort's role in wartime commerce and its
relationship to the erosion of slavery in that part of the Mississippi
Valley, although both these subjects no doubt could have been covered in
greater depth and with more attention to their implications for the events
of April 1864--a recurring problem for many topics throughout the book.
After his extensive discussion of the fort's history before 1864, John
Cimprich finally explores the event that made Fort Pillow more than simply a
minor footnote in the Civil War. He describes the massacre, its aftermath,
and how the historical memory of this incident developed over time. Chapter
5 provides a straightforward narrative and analysis of how black troops came
to garrison Fort Pillow and the tragic events of April 12, 1864. It would
have been a bitter irony to the black soldiers and Tennessee Unionists
manning the fort had these men known that they were not even supposed to be
there. The commander of the Union's Army of the Tennessee, William Tecumseh
Sherman, had ordered Fort Pillow abandoned in early 1864, seeing it as
unnecessary in his spring invasion of Georgia.
When the old garrison withdrew, Gen. Stephen A. Hurlburt, the Union
commander on the scene, reoccupied the fort with black troops and local
Unionists, in violation of Sherman's orders. Hence, Fort Pillow became an
inviting target for a large Confederate cavalry force led by the legendary
General Forrest. Cimprich's discussion of the Confederate assault on Fort
Pillow is admirably dispassionate and judicious in the way he weighs the
worth and validity of the sources that document the massacre even as he
discusses what they reveal. Chapter 5 is unquestionably the best in the
Cimprich follows up in chapter 6, looking at the aftermath of the massacre.
He explores the initial Union and Confederate response to the event,
providing a useful discussion of the earliest firsthand accounts of the
event and the resulting investigations by both Union military authorities
and the U.S. Congress' Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. The book
concludes with another interesting chapter charting the memory of the Fort
Pillow massacre. Cimprich mostly documents the development of "the
pro-Confederate interpretation of Fort Pillow," which highlighted
allegations of the "garrison's depredations, drunkenness, and desperate
resistance" (pp. 111), an interpretation that sought to make the victims
responsible for the massacre, when not denying entirely that it ever
occurred (which was often the case).
The last chapter again highlights what is the main weakness of _Fort
Pillow: A Civil War Massacre and Public Memory_--its brevity. Although
there is much worthwhile in this book, Cimprich leaves many significant
topics unexplored or underexplored. By focusing much of chapter 7 on the
development of Confederate memory, particularly as it pertained to Nathan
Bedford Forrest, he leaves the northern interpretation and more recent
interpretations of this incident too thinly covered. Indeed, one memory
topic begging for attention, which Cimprich virtually ignores, is the recent
rise of the neo-Confederate sentiments among Civil War enthusiasts and how
this movement deals with Fort Pillow, not to mention its larger view of
African Americans in the conflict.
Indeed, the black perspective on the Fort Pillow massacre is insufficiently
explored by John Cimprich. It need not be. There is the testimony of
numerous African-American survivors in the report of the Joint Committee on
the Conduct of the War. To his credit, Cimprich acknowledges the existence
of this source and supports its historical reliability. However, he makes
little use of its African-American testimony, either in recounting the
massacre or in other chapters.
Likewise, Cimprich barely utilizes the depositions of African-American
veterans in Civil War pension files. The reviewer, in the research for his
own study on black Civil War veterans (_After the Glory: The Struggles of
Black Civil War Veterans_, 2004), found numerous pension files in which
African Americans gave sworn testimony about their military service.
Cimprich has apparently sampled at least a few of these depositions as they
pertain to the massacre, but there are unquestionably many more pension
files he did not examine of veterans of the 6th U.S.
Colored Heavy Artillery and the 2nd U.S. Colored Light Artillery, the black
units present at Fort Pillow in April 1864. The historian that thoroughly
mines the congressional testimony and Civil War pension files for the black
perspective on the Fort Pillow massacre is going to have a fascinating and
groundbreaking study. Hence, it is especially regrettable that Cimprich
makes so little use of the words of African Americans, as they were at the
center of the massacre, and their memory, both wartime and postwar, is every
bit as important as how whites viewed the event, arguably more so. This
oversight is yet one more example of a regrettable pattern by Cimprich of
lacking curiosity and a willingness to explore more thoroughly important
aspects of the Fort Pillow massacre.
In short, _Fort Pillow: A Civil War Massacre and Public Memory_ makes a
meaningful contribution in examining an especially tragic location in
America's most tragic war. Still, the value of Cimprich's book is limited
by its shortness and by his decision to concentrate so much on the history
of Fort Pillow at the expense of the event that made it significant.
There is so much more John Cimprich could have said on the subjects he did
discuss and on other significant aspects of the Fort Pillow massacre.
That he apparently decided not to do so is itself a tragedy in an otherwise
commendable piece of scholarship.
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Charles D. Grear, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of History
Division of Social Work, Behavioral, and Political Sciences Prairie View A &
M University cdgrear@...
H-CivWar Book Review Editor