Retaliation Over Fort Pillow
In the wake of the Battle of Brice's Crossroads, it had been reported to the general commanding the field, that the United States Colored Troops had been of the mindset not to give any of his men quarter should they be captured by the Federal Forces there. During the course of the running retreat from that field, black soldiers were seen ripping patches off their arms that read "Remember Fort Pillow." The officers likewise, removed their shoulder straps on the run. Report of this opened up a series of correspondence between Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest and Major General Cadwallader Colden Washburn, ascertaining precisely what this astonishing report meant.
Beginning on the 14th of June 1864, General Forrest penned off a letter to Washburn stating that the colored troops then stationed in Memphis took, upon their knees, an oath before Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut, that they would avenge Fort Pillow and give his cavalry "no quarter." The prisoners captured along Tishomingo Creek, now, felt doomed to die.
In a response, five days later, Major General Washburn, confirmed that he knew of such an oath, yet he didn't believe it was taken before General Hurlbut. Shifting any responsibility from the white officers in command, back upon the shoulders of the black troops. He continued further by finding his rebel counterpart's defense always fighting with civility to be completely unacceptable.
The Federal Commander asked for clarification on Forrest's policy with Black Soldiers so there would be no mistake as to their future intentions. If returned to a state of slavery or slaughtered brutally, he wanted it spelled out so that the colored troops knew precisely what they could expect in battle. In doing this, should his counterpart choose the prisoner of war option, he would ask the black troops to recall their oath of vengeance.
Two days previous, a letter had been sent to Lieutenant General Stephen D. Lee by Washburn, feeling somewhat relieved when he found out the Confederate Forces in this sector were commanded by him. Passing through the lines on its way to Lee, it fell into the hands of General Forrest, who answered for his commander. In the body of the letter, it goes on to state that the Confederate conduct at Brice's Crossroads turned into a repeat performance of the affair at Fort Pillow.
The letter infuriated the cavalry commander. It blamed Forrest for more murders, and alluded to General Lee being an accessory to it. He returned a response to General Washburn, to denounce him on his accusations of being a murderer. Forrest had captured many Federal Prisoners including those from Fort Pillow and all had been treated with the utmost humanity.
As any officer would, General Forrest returned the shouldered responsibility of the black oath, back on the officers in command of them. In this, if their troops would be allowed to freely take an oath of death to all Confederate Prisoners, the blood would be on his hands.
For a commander of troops to have knowledge of such a vendetta and not put a stop to it, spells guilt of the highest degree. To not forebear the findings of a federal investigation and take vengeance of your own accord, leads one to question, Major General Washburn's definition of civilized warfare.
Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at firstname.lastname@example.org