Commentary: Fort Pillow and Civil War lessons

The courage, ingenuity and sacrifice displayed by men on both sides do nothing to eradicate the Civil War's legacy of misery and slaughter.

But if there was any redeeming virtue to the ghastly conflict that began 150 years ago next month, it was in the overthrow of a social and governmental system addicted to human bondage.

The slavery forced upon African-Americans in the Southern states was a vile corruption of the ideals of equality set forth in the nation's founding documents (the Constitution's awkward compromise with those ideals notwithstanding).

As the war progressed and Union forces claimed Southern territory, blacks who could escape control of their owners gravitated toward Federal lines. At the same time, "colored" units were deployed from the North to shore up the Union effort.

When Confederate troops encountered blacks under these circumstances, the stage could be set for even more appalling demonstrations of the white South's sense of racial superiority - a sense that in the post-war decades fueled the murders known as lynchings, and that during the Civil War itself gave rise to a few instances of what have come to be called massacres.

Conventional battles in which men were slain wholesale might seem like massacres in hindsight - the fate of Union troops at Fredericksburg comes to mind. But more narrowly, a massacre describes the killing of survivors or prisoners who no longer had the means or will to resist. Readers of these pages recently have had occasion to ponder whether one of the Confederate army's most noted figures, Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, was culpable for a massacre at Fort Pillow, Tenn., a Union stronghold on the Mississippi River north of Memphis.

Syndicated columnist and South Carolina native Eugene Robinson broached the topic in a rip at Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour for being too soft on the memory of Forrest, who was labeled by Robinson as "an abomination." Prominent in the columnist's indictment was that Forrest's troops at Fort Pillow "mowed down scores of black Union soldiers who were trying to surrender." But was Forrest at fault, other than as a commander who failed to prevent the killings?

Civil War authority Shelby Foote (a Memphis resident who died in 2005) describes the episode in detail, and while Forrest scarcely comes across as a humanitarian, Foote credits him with trying to halt the mayhem once the fort was overthrown.

He calculates that 40 percent of the Union garrison, 221 men, were killed. While he dismisses claims of atrocities that spread through the North, such as prisoners being burned or buried alive, he agrees that the scale of killing was excessive, "although it was in fact the opposite of 'indiscriminate.' "

A far lower percentage of black s was taken prisoner than of whites, indicating how the Confederates applied the grim practice of "no quarter." And Foote finds the testimony in a rebel sergeant's letter worth quoting: " ... the poor, deluded negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees and with uplifted hands scream for mercy, but were ordered to their feet and then shot down."

Of 262 black Union soldiers, Foote reports, only 58 were marched off as prisoners. The rest were either dead or incapacitated. There were 168 white Federal prisoners out of 295 who had manned the fort. "Here was discrimination with a vengeance," concludes Foote - although Union Gen. William T. Sherman, assigned by Gen. U.S. Grant at President Lincoln's behest to investigate, reached no determination that Union troops had been murdered after capture.

Fort Pillow fell to the Confederate attackers on April 12, 1864. Eight days later came the climax of one of the most significant Civil War engagements in North Carolina, the Battle of Plymouth. There, too, black people were caught up in a Confederate victory and paid a heavy price.

Plymouth, strategically located where the Roanoke River feeds into Albemarle Sound, was occupied by Federal forces. Rebels built a fearsome ironclad ram, the CSS Albemarle, upstream of the town and used it to smash Union naval defenses.

Confederate troops under 26-year-old Brig. Gen. Robert Hoke then brought overwhelming firepower to bear. The Federals hoisted a white flag. What happened next was ugly.

A 1995 article in the N.C. Historical Review (I wrote about it at the time) delved into reports that up to 600 blacks were killed after the surrender, many as they tried to escape into the river-bottom swamps. The authors judged that figure to be high, but concluded that no fewer than 50 fugitives were slain. Blacks doubtless made a run for it because they feared, justifiably, their treatment at rebel hands.

The South fought ostensibly to defend territory and states' rights. But the rotten odor of racism permeated its cause. Now we are left with lessons both in man's inhumanity to man - an evil to which Americans sadly are not immune - and in how our country's better nature can finally carry the day.