Join 3,573 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Massacre at Fort Pillow
July 1, 2008 8:53 AM   Subscribe

"Nothing in the history of the Rebellion has equaled in inhumanity and atrocity the horrid butchery at Fort Pillow, on the 13th of April, 1864. In no other school than slavery could human beings have been trained to such readiness for cruelties like these. Accustomed to brutality and bestiality all their lives, it was easy for them to perpetrate the atrocities which will startle the civilized foreign world, as they have awakened the indignation of our own people."
posted by Mayor Curley (38 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
Well that was unpleasant.

War strips away the layers of civilization in those who fight it. The constant fear of death makes a man face himself and our true primal selves are cruel.

Always had been, always will be.
posted by Bonzai at 9:12 AM on July 1, 2008


Very interesting stuff.
posted by The Straightener at 9:14 AM on July 1, 2008


Shorter Bonzai: war is hell.
posted by yhbc at 9:16 AM on July 1, 2008


Bonzai: if anything, war shows what a thin veneer civilization really is.
posted by absalom at 9:21 AM on July 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


states rights my ass.
posted by jenkinsEar at 9:31 AM on July 1, 2008 [3 favorites]


So, what about Nathan Bedford Forrest? One historian labeled him, "the clear, unfettered genius of the Civil War."

The firstest with the mostest. Can't argue with that.

He also started the KKK at Stone Mountain, Georgia. The original Imperial Grand Wizard himself. With creds like Fort Pillow who else?
posted by three blind mice at 9:45 AM on July 1, 2008


I am so going to use this in my next meeting:

"We have gleaned the facts ... from authentic sources, and they may be relied upon as truthful."
posted by TrinaSelwyn at 9:49 AM on July 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


if anything, war shows what a thin veneer civilization really is.

No. Civilisation shows what a thin veneer civilisation is. It is no wonder at all that slave owners would shoot African soldiers like cattle during war. They did it during peacetime.
posted by three blind mice at 9:49 AM on July 1, 2008


Civilization isn't a veneer, it's a protocol.
posted by DU at 9:54 AM on July 1, 2008


Seeing the title, I was thinking this post had something to do with pillow fights.

So it was very odd, to say the least, to start reading the first sentence as if it were spoken by a nine-year-old girl.
posted by Rhaomi at 10:08 AM on July 1, 2008


He also started the KKK at Stone Mountain, Georgia.

Um, no. He founded the Klan in a barn between Columbia and Pulaski, TN. In the early 20th century the Klan had a "rebirth" as a mainstream white, protestant men's group (with an anti-immigrant, anti-black, anti-jew, anti-catholic slant). This rebirth and refoundation was celebrated at Stone Mountain by William Simmons in 1915.

Not to justify or appologize for the atrocities, but you can almost see the motivation (sick though it may be) by the soldiers. Here are a garrison of people who they feel are traitorous to everything that they've been fighting for. Freedmen and turncoats, people who should be on their side. The war is not going well, they've been taking devastating losses and then they come upon this band of traitors. Its very remenicent of My Lai, except in this case those massacred had been actively fighting.

It is no wonder at all that slave owners would shoot African soldiers like cattle during war.

Except these were confederate soldiers, not slave owners. Those that could afford slaves could afford to pay the tarriff and stay home. Confederate does not equal southerner (that should be clear from the Tennessee and Alabama soldiers massacred) and southerner does not equate slave owner.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:30 AM on July 1, 2008


Those that could afford slaves could afford to pay the tarriff and stay home.

Any studies on how many who could actually did? Just curious.
posted by IndigoJones at 10:58 AM on July 1, 2008


This is not new tho many people. The Northern forces, when black, were treated much the worse than the ill-treated white Union soldiers, when captured.If you are interested, read the book, recently olut, by the new president of Hrvard:
http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA6516113.html
an amazing book, for sure.
posted by Postroad at 10:59 AM on July 1, 2008


I did not know that rich people could pay to get out of having to fight their own wars back then. Niiiice.
posted by DU at 11:01 AM on July 1, 2008


While I'm not denying that racism, etc., may have played a role in the Fort Pillow massacre, and I'm certainly not excusing it, I'm kind of under the impression that it is historically rather chancy to surrender after a fortress has been stormed -- you know, historically you had the old "If you surrender right now, we'll take most of your stuff, but if you make us use this trebuchet and assault the walls, everybody inside is dead."

As Grossman wrote in "On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society":

"But in the heat of battle it is not really all that simple. In order to fight at close range one must deny the humanity of one's enemy. Surrender requires the opposite -- that one recognize and take pity on the humanity of the enemy. A surrender in the heat of battle requires a complete, and very difficult, emotional turnaround by both parties. The enemy who opts to posture or fight and then dies in battle becomes a noble enemy. But if at the last minute he tries to surrender he runs a great risk of being killed immediately.

Holmes writes at length on this process:

Surrendering during battle is difficult. Charles Carrington suggested, "No soldier can claim a right to 'quarter' if he fights to the extremity." T.P. Marks saw seven German machine-gunners shot. "They were defenseless, but they have cohsen to make themselves so. We did not ask them to abandon their guns. They only did so when they saw that those who were not mown down were getting closer to them and the boot was now on the other foot." Ernst Junger agreed that the defender had no moral right to surrender in these circumstances: "the defending force, ater driving their bullets into the attacking one at five paces' distance, must take the consequences. A man cannot change his feelings again during the last rush with a veil of blood before his eyes. He does not want to take prisoners but to kill."
During the cavalry action at Moncel in 1914 Sergeant James Taylor of the 9th Lancers saw how difficult it was to restrain excited men .
"Then there was a bit of a melee, horses neighing and a lot of yelling and shouting ... I remember seeing Corporal Bolte run his lance right through a dismounted German who had his hands up and thinking that it was a rather bad thing to do."
Harold Dearden, a medical officer on the Western Front, read a letter written by a young soldier to his mother. "Wehn we jumped into their trench, mother, they all held up their hands and shounted 'Camerad, Camerad' and that means 'I give in' in their language. But they had to have it, mother, I think that is all from your loving Albert.

...

Surrender-executions are clearly wrong and counterproductive to a force that has dedicated itself to fighting in a fashion that the nation and the soldiers can live with after battle ... "
posted by Comrade_robot at 11:12 AM on July 1, 2008


Ugh, all those typoes are mine.
posted by Comrade_robot at 11:13 AM on July 1, 2008


That Sherman letter to the people of Atlanta is amazing. I had seen quotes from it before but never read the entire document. I admired this part: "Now that war comes home to you, you feel very different. You deprecate its horrors, but did not feel them when you sent car-loads of soldiers and ammunition, and moulded shells and shot, to carry war into Kentucky and Tennessee, to desolate the homes of hundreds and thousands of good people who only asked to live in peace at their old homes and under the Government of their inheritance." You can feel Sherman steeling himself to burn the city to the ground--as he righteously did.
posted by LarryC at 11:33 AM on July 1, 2008 [5 favorites]


Um, no. He founded the Klan in a barn between Columbia and Pulaski, TN. In the early 20th century the Klan had a "rebirth" as a mainstream white, protestant men's group (with an anti-immigrant, anti-black, anti-jew, anti-catholic slant). This rebirth and refoundation was celebrated at Stone Mountain by William Simmons in 1915.

I stand corrected Pollomacho. I remembered someone telling me when I was living in Atlanta that Forrest founded the Klan at Stone Mtn. Having lived 10 years there - never once owning a slave I should add - I should know my KKK history much better than I do.
posted by three blind mice at 11:38 AM on July 1, 2008


It is no wonder at all that slave owners would shoot African soldiers like cattle during war. They did it during peacetime.

This seems silly. One wouldn't destroy the "chattel" upon which one relied for existence. And who shoots their own or even others' cattle? That's like a bunch of farmers burning their wagons, stomping on their chickens, and shooting their draft horses for fun. I get your indignation about any maltreatment of American slaves, and am right there next to you, but, with regard to your blanket point . . . you know what I mean?

You can feel Sherman steeling himself to burn the city to the ground--as he righteously did.

Does it really stand out to anyone else 'round these 'filtered parts as odd when someone trumpets the righteousness of total war? How very . . . odd.
posted by resurrexit at 11:40 AM on July 1, 2008


Fort Pillow was terrible, and the U.S. would do well to learn from its mistakes... but it never will. All nations are violent, and we're one of the most violent; to claim otherwise is to ignore our history. In this case, Forrest was a brilliant commander, but he and his men (like 'clearing the trenches' in WWI) allowed themselves to be carried away. Their biggest mistake in terms of military history, however, may have been allowing some people to live.

The Sherman letter is a bit disingenuous, LarryC. Most battles were fought on Confederate land, and it's a bit weird to say that he "righteously" burned down a city.
posted by sonic meat machine at 11:47 AM on July 1, 2008


Well great.

Now I can't build pillow forts without feeling guilty.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:57 AM on July 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


There's another aspect to this story as well, Forrest was a guerrilla fighter, a terrorist (or partisan depending on you point of view), he was commanding a skirmish force rather than an army. There is no way that a band of skirmishers could take and hold prisoners and maintain their constant assault. Again, this is no justification for the autrocity, but it is another factor. Why not disarm the force and send them packing without weapons or supplies? Of course sneding them packing means, for these local soldiers, sending them home back over the next hill where they will regroup and redouble their efforts.
posted by Pollomacho at 11:58 AM on July 1, 2008


Grossman actually wrote on this as well:

"To confront this belief I said basically, 'If the enemy finds just one massacre, like our soldiers did at Malmedy in the Battle of the Bulge, then thousands of enemy soldiers will swear never to surrender, and they'll be very tough to fight. Just like our troops were in the Battle of the Bulge when word got around that the Germans were shooting POWs. In addition, that's all the excuse the enemy needs to kill our captured soldiers. So by murdering a few prisoners, who were just poor, tired soldiers like you, you'll make the enemy force a damn-sight tougher, and cause the deaths--murders--of a whole bunch of our boys.

On the other hand, if you disarm, tie up, and leave a POW out in a clearing somewhere because you can't take him with you, then the word will spread that Americans treat POWs honorably, even when the chips are down, and a whole bunch of scared, tired soldiers will surrender rather than die. In World War II an entire Soviet Army Corps defected to the Germans. The Germans were treating Soviet POWs like dogs, and yet a whole corps came over to their side. How would they behave if they faced a human enemy?

The last thing you ought to know is that if I ever catch any of you heroes killing a POW, I'll shoot you right on the spot. Because it's illegal, because it's wrong, bceause it's dumb, and it's one of the worst things you could do to help us win a war."

...

On the next battlefield our soldiers may commit war crimes and thereby cause us to lose one of the basic combat multipliers that we have available to us: the tendency of an oppressed people to become disloyal to their nation.

One interviewer of World War II POWs told me that German soldiers repeatedly told him that relatives with World War I combat experience had advised, "Be brave, join the infantry, and surrender to the first American you see." The American reputation for fair play and respect for human life had survived over generations, and the decent actions of American soldiers in World War I had saved the lives of many soldiers in World War II."
posted by Comrade_robot at 12:08 PM on July 1, 2008 [7 favorites]


"The American reputation for fair play and respect for human life had survived over generations, and the decent actions of American soldiers in World War I had saved the lives of many soldiers in World War II."
I sure am glad we've still got that going for us.
posted by Floydd at 12:23 PM on July 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


There's another aspect to this story as well, Forrest was a guerrilla fighter, a terrorist (or partisan depending on you point of view), he was commanding a skirmish force rather than an army. There is no way that a band of skirmishers could take and hold prisoners and maintain their constant assault.

Forrest was essentially a terrorist, not part of Lee's army. This is the worst thing I have heard of from him, but he committed many, many evil acts.
posted by caddis at 12:25 PM on July 1, 2008


Oops, I had him mixed up with William Anderson.
posted by caddis at 12:50 PM on July 1, 2008


Pollomacho wrote Confederate does not equal southerner (that should be clear from the Tennessee and Alabama soldiers massacred) and southerner does not equate slave owner

Excellent points. I'd like to expand a bit on the first as it still has relevancy in our modern era.

One of the worst crimes committed by the Daughters of the Confederacy [1] is that they have managed, largely by means of monuments, to convince people that the Confederacy had universal support in the South. Places that remained loyal to America, thanks to the DotR's relentless campaign of lies and privately erected monuments, are now seen as Confederate strongholds. The fact that fully half of Tennessee, and fully half of the people there, supported America and rejected the Confederacy is now obscured and often completely forgotten even by the people who live in the loyalist parts of that state.

Think of how many children wave the vile Confederate battle flag who have ancestors who fought against the Confederacy. Denied their true history they instead believe the lies of the DotC and grow up thinking that a nation founded on the principle that rape, torture, and murder are civic virtues was good.

Bonzai Nonsense. American forces didn't massacre surrendering Confederate soldiers. The good guys acted like good guys, surprising isn't it?

That Forrest murdered surrendered Americans is not at all surprising, he was an evil man, supporting an evil system, why wouldn't he use evil methods? I mean, he was a rapist and a torturer, the murder of Americans at Fort Pillow is probably one of the lesser evils he'd committed.

[1] And other similar groups, but mostly the DotR
posted by sotonohito at 1:58 PM on July 1, 2008


Bonzai Nonsense. American forces didn't massacre surrendering Confederate soldiers. The good guys acted like good guys, surprising isn't it?

Never? I think you're being a little naive.

War can reduce anyone to a primal state this is why atrocities happen. If you would prefer to believe that the Confederate soldiers were somehow morally inferior humans and that Americans would never do such a thing that's your prerogative but it's not a belief founded in reality.

War is dehumanizing to the participants. All sides. All wars. It is part of the price we pay.
posted by Bonzai at 2:33 PM on July 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


War is dehumanizing to the participants. All sides. All wars.

Not the Cola wars.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 5:40 PM on July 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


>>War is dehumanizing to the participants. All sides. All wars.

Not the Cola wars.


Obviously written by someone too young to remember Pepsi commercials from the 80's. It was absolutely dehumanizing to realize that advertising executives thought I was that dumb.

But shush anyway! I promise I'll never make another sombre post like this. But I just want to remind people about Fort Pillow without a lot of snark.
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:01 PM on July 1, 2008


Mayor Curley, we solemnly recall the Cola Wars hereabouts each time the battle cry "Pepsi Blue" leaps to our fingertips. You are not forgotten!

And comments posse, that is a whole lotta tasteless and ill-advised defense of killing up there. Not that I expect you to feel ashamed or anything. After all, I've effectively dehumanized you in my mind.
posted by mwhybark at 6:29 PM on July 1, 2008


Yes, Sherman righteously burned Atlanta.

It was hardly an act of total war--he ordered the evacuation of the city first. The linked letter is a reply to some Atlantans who were protesting the order. And as he makes clear in the letter, he burned the city to hasten the end of a brutal war, which it surely did.
posted by LarryC at 6:51 PM on July 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm actually not defending killing, though I guess maybe someone could read it that way. Reading Grossman, incidentally, has made me much more of a pacifist than I was more -- his main thesis is that the vast majority of people generally don't want to kill other people, even to the point that many people will resist killing other people even if other people are trying to kill them. One of his points is that forcing people to kill (through conditioning or training) if they are not naturally inclined that way affects them psychologically. (Grossman is even against video game and TV violence because he thinks it is desensitizing.)

However, in war, which again, is a terrible thing, people obviously do get killed. This is one of the circumstances in which it happens, and is more common than is usually told. It is another reason why war is so bad and why we should not be so eager to go to war.

Again, not defending killing.
posted by Comrade_robot at 7:09 PM on July 1, 2008


It is well that war is so terrible -- lest we should grow too fond of it. -Robert E. Lee
posted by Snyder at 11:34 PM on July 1, 2008


Bonzai Yes, war is horrible, and yes people involved in wars do horrible things. However that doesn't make all sides equally horrible, or all wars equally horrible. The Imperial Japanese Army, to choose a modern example, routinely displayed brutality that went well beyond any other army during WWII [1]. Rape, indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, etc were not occasional horrors, but were the standard policy of the Imperial Japanese Army. Rape by soldiers, for example, was generally an organized activity conducted with the approval and monitoring of superior officers.

Compare and contrast to the US army, or even the Nazi army, neither of which routinely, regularly, and as a matter of policy, carried out mass rapes.

Which brings us back to Forrest and the Civil War. While it seems highly unlikely that no US soldier ever shot a surrendered Confederate, it is known that no US commander ever ordered the killing of surrendered Confederates, while we do know that Forrest ordered the killings at Fort Pillow. Kind of says something about the relative brutality of the belligerents, doesn't it?

Further, I do think the culture of the soldiers must be taken into account. Even though the average Confederate soldier did not own slaves, he was acculturated to think of blacks as sub-human monsters who must be brutally "kept in their place" or else they'd rape white women. Put a person with that sort of mindset in a situation where he's facing armed black people fighting actively against the system of brutal control that (from the Confederate's POV) is the only thing preventing them from running wild and raping every white woman in sight, and its quite easy to see why the Confederates would be willing, even eager, to kill surrendered black soldiers, and the white American soldiers fighting with them. Add in Forrest's slave owner's mentality and Fort Pillow seems not so much a fluke, or an example of the generic brutality of war, but an inevitability.

LarryC For even more fun visit Richmond VA someday and note the interesting use of the passive voice in all the monuments, tourist materials, and tour guide lectures, about the burning of Richmond. All of which help imply strongly that the US army burned Richmond, when in actuality it was the retreating Confederate army that started the fires while the US army tried to put them out. More lies and misdirection from our traitor worshiping neo-Confederate friends.

[1] Note, I'm excluding the Holocaust from this because it wasn't actually a military action, nor something that particularly involved the army. It was conducted by the SS and kept secret from the army.
posted by sotonohito at 4:10 AM on July 2, 2008


convince people that the Confederacy had universal support in the South

My family, not so unique in the modern mobile American society is a good example of the false history of the civil war. My ancestry is a coming together of two old families, one from Indiana, one from North Carolina. One family worked in industry, did a little farming, never owned slaves and most didn't join the confederate cause. The other owned large tracts of land, held people in involuntary servatude, rallied for slavery in the territorial and later state legislatures, and split violently between those loyal to the union and those who fought for the CSA. Later, members of this branch of my family would even join the Klan (though they'd never admit it now). Of course the Confederates were the ones in Indiana.

My North Carolina ancestors suffered greatly for not joining the cause, they lost it all, went bankrupt many times over and have had a rough go. Those in Indiana kept right on making money. Hell, there's a sharecropper farming the our land that's been passed down generation to generation right now!

Even though the average Confederate soldier did not own slaves, he was acculturated to think of blacks as sub-human monsters who must be brutally "kept in their place" or else they'd rape white women.

I think that's a bit of a stretch. Certainly, by no means were blacks considered equals, but a lot of these soldiers had never really encountered black people in their lives. Major slaveholding was a concentrated endeavor in the large scale farming areas. Yoeman farmers in the piedmont country of much of the south weren't the whip wielding bigots you see portrayed on things like Roots. A lot of the real bigotry, fear and loathing of black people by rural white southerners came from the post-civil war era. The Jim Crow days where a formerly white voting majority found itself contending with African-Americans sudenly becoming 5/5 of a person and the sense of losing control. This was a time also of great poverty and hardship for these people and they sought someone to blame and those who wished to suppress the black power and maintain their own hold on the government made sure to pander to that sentiment. You get movise like Birth of a Nation and the rebirth of the Klan in the turn of the century as a result, but really, the old plantation gentry are still the same old boys in charge. Again in the 1960's you see the bullshit South rising again as the same Cracker politicians play the same race card to maintain power against a rising tide of black power.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:32 AM on July 2, 2008


Certainly I'm not suggesting that all warriors commit atrocities, indeed it is a somewhat rare phenomenon. But it can happen in any war by any side. (Excepting of course The Cola Wars) I'm sure there were no atrocities in Grenada (unless you count the Clint Eastwood movie) But let a war go on long enough and put even good decent men in the wrong situation and you will always get some.

I don't think anyone is immune. I think American parents in the 40s and 50s tried to raise good decent people, but those kids went on to commit atrocities in Vietnam. I think the kids we got over in Iraq and Afghanistan were raised by good decent Americans with good decent American values. The parents probably voted for Ronald Reagan and had apple pie every 4th of July. But there have been American atrocities in this war too.

You can't ask human beings to kill other human beings and not expect problems.
posted by Bonzai at 7:59 AM on July 2, 2008


Compare and contrast to the US army, or even the Nazi army, neither of which routinely, regularly, and as a matter of policy, carried out mass rapes.

The Nazi state, founded as it was on a basis of racial inequality, did have, as a matter of policy, some pretty shocking stuff. For example:
Barbarossa Decree of 13 May 1941</a

Decree on the jurisdiction of martial law and on special measures of the troop

Treatment of criminal acts by members of the Wehrmacht or its retinue against native civilians
1. For acts which members of the Wehrmacht or its retinue commit against enemy civilians, there is no compulsion to prosecute, even when the act represents at the same time a military crime or offense.

2. In judging such deeds it is to be considered in any proceedings that the collapse in the year 1918, the later period of suffering of the German people, and the battle against National Socialism with the movement’s countless sacrifices of blood are incontestably to be attributed to Bolshevik influence, and that no German has forgotten that.

--

Nazi treatment of Soviet civilians in particular was very poor (the SS was generally far worse than the regular Army, but neither treated them particularly well), and Soviet POWs had an extremely low survival rate. The "Bullet Order" basically said that if there were any non-American or non-British enlisted POWs who escaped, it wasn't necessary to return them to the POW camp.

General policy wise, the US Army treated civilians far better than the Germans did. Part of this, of course, was that the US Army generally _was_ "welcomed as liberators", as they say in the parlance of our times.

posted by Comrade_robot at 10:32 AM on July 2, 2008


« Older The swingin' sounds of Spider-Man! After years of ...   |   Paintings... with ducks added.... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments