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FW: H-CivWar Book Review: Shaffer on Cimprich_Fort Pillow: A Civil War Massacre and Public Memory_

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  • Bob Huddleston
    Of interest... Take care, Bob Judy and Bob Huddleston 10643 Sperry Street Northglenn, CO 80234-3612 303.451.6376 Huddleston.r@comcast.net ...the greatest and
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 30, 2006
      Of interest...

      Take care,


      Judy and Bob Huddleston
      10643 Sperry Street
      Northglenn, CO 80234-3612
      303.451.6376 Huddleston.r@...

      ...the greatest and the noblest man of the last century was Abraham
      Lincoln.Though America was his motherland and he was an American, he
      regarded the whole world as his native land.

      Mahatma Gandhi, August 26, 1905

      -----Original Message-----
      From: H-Net US Civil War History discussion list
      [mailto:H-CIVWAR@...] On Behalf Of Grear, Charles D
      Sent: Saturday, October 28, 2006 5:27 PM
      To: H-CIVWAR@...
      Subject: H-CivWar Book Review: Shaffer on Cimprich_Fort Pillow: A Civil War
      Massacre and Public Memory_

      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.

      Copyright (c) 2006 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits
      the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit,
      educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the
      author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and
      H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For other uses
      contact the Reviews editorial staff: hbooks@mail.h-net.msu.edu.

      Charles D. Grear, Ph.D.
      Assistant Professor of History
      Division of Social Work, Behavioral, and Political Sciences Prairie View A &
      M University cdgrear@...
      (936) 857-4024

      H-CivWar Book Review Editor
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