Bruce Tap. The Fort Pillow Massacre: North, South, and the Status of African Americans in the Civil War Era. London and New York: Routledge, 2014. 216 pp. ISBN 978-0-415-80864-4; $130.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-415-80863-7.
Reviewed by Angela Riotto (University of Akron)
Published on H-War (December, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
In an effort to introduce college students to the craft of history, Routledge offers its Critical Moments in American History series. Intended for classroom use, books in this series combine lengthy primary source excerpts and historiographical reviews to provide informative and concise histories of key events and movements in American history. In The Fort Pillow Massacre, Bruce Tap outlines the events of the massacre, while placing them within the racial and social context of the American Civil War. Through his examination of government reports, eyewitness testimonies, and newspaper articles, Tap successfully delivers a succinct and instructive account of the battle and subsequent massacre.
On April 12, 1864, a Confederate force commanded by Major General Nathan B. Forrest surrounded the Union-occupied Fort Pillow on the Mississippi River. After approximately five hours of bombardment, Forrest demanded the garrison’s surrender, which the commanding officer refused, and shortly afterward Confederates took the fort by force. While the battle was insignificant from a strategic standpoint, the subsequent indiscriminate massacre of Union soldiers, particularly of the African American members of the garrison, made the Fort Pillow Massacre one of the most notorious instances of Civil War brutality.
While there were allegations of mistreatment of black soldiers before and after the Fort Pillow Massacre, this particular event represented a marked shift in Northern responses to racial oppression and violence. When news of the Fort Pillow Massacre spread throughout the North, there was a tremendous outpouring of anger, unseen previously, toward Confederate president Jefferson Davis and the those officers—Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest and Brigadier General James R Chalmers—considered most responsible for the perpetuation of the massacre. Yet, in spite of Northerners’ demands for retaliation, in the end nothing concrete was accomplished on behalf of the African American soldiers involved—the Federal government never imposed any retaliatory measures against Confederate prisoners of war and no Rebel officers were ever tried for war crimes. President Abraham Lincoln did demand explanations from the Richmond government, promising the implementation of other measures if Davis did not address the alleged atrocities committed at Fort Pillow; but when the Confederate government simply ignored Lincoln’s demands, the Federal government never pursued the subject again in any meaningful sense.
Seeking to uncover the reasons for Lincoln’s weak response to the massacre, Tap turns his attention to Northern notions of race and racial equality. He argues that despite the broad Northern support for emancipation, many white Americans, whether Northern or Southern believed that African Americans were fundamentally inferior to whites. Moreover, although Northerners were initially enraged at news of the massacre, they were too ambivalent toward blacks and their potential equality to implement any retaliation measures. Furthermore, Tap contends that Northerners were even less willing to follow through with their promises of equality and freedom for blacks. So while most Northerners were not unhappy about the end of slavery, the slave as citizen was still something that made many uncomfortable. This ambivalence and discomfort resulted in the failure of a concrete response to the massacre. Moreover, these feelings resulted in the shortcomings of Reconstruction, especially in regards to African Americans’ demands for citizenship. The Fort Pillow Massacre, then, not only sheds light on Southern discomfort with blacks as citizens, but also reveals an American society that was still troubled by the notion of racial equality and was still struggling to define what racial equality meant in terms of social, political, and economic relationships.
By focusing on investigative reports, official orders, newspaper articles, political cartoons, letters, and eyewitness accounts, Tap demonstrates how the massacre became both a symbol of Confederate authorities’ refusal to recognize blacks as legitimate soldiers, and also served as an indication of the white North’s ambiguous attitude toward freed slaves. Tap especially highlights that while the enlisting of African Americans in Union armies was the first step toward a position of social and political equality between the two races, the North’s lack of a concrete response to the massacre revealed that most white Northerners did not envision a biracial society based on equality. Tap’s focus on Northern ambivalence toward blacks is the strength of the book. By comparing the initial outrage toward Forrest and the Confederacy to the later ambiguity regarding the measures that should be taken against the perpetrators, Tap illustrates how historical analyses of the Fort Pillow Massacre have much more to offer than mere questions of who, what, and why.
If Tap’s book were only an analysis of Northern notions of race as seen through the response to the Fort Pillow Massacre, that would have been enough; but Tap also provides a detailed account of the massacre, discussing the attitudes of Confederate generals as well as the attitudes and emotions of Confederate soldiers toward armed African Americans. He goes further to discuss how historians have interpreted the massacre over the last 150 years, particularly how broader societal trends, not simply scholarly research, have influenced historical interpretations. Yet, for a reader familiar with the event and the historiography, these chapters distract from Tap’s real contribution. Perhaps he could have condensed them into an introductory chapter. However, for those unfamiliar with the event and scholars’ interpretations of it, these chapters and Tap’s inclusion of primary documents are indispensible. Accordingly, this book would be great addition to undergraduate Civil War course syllabus. It touches on a variety of important topics, such as the causes for and responses to emancipation, Northern and Southern whites’ opinions of blacks, the failure and successes of Reconstruction, and African Americans’ push for citizenship and for more equal rights. Instructors could use this book as an ending reading assignment as a way of discussing multiple themes across both the Civil War and Reconstruction and also connecting Civil War-era Americans’ struggle with race with those of the present.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Angela Riotto. Review of Tap, Bruce, The Fort Pillow Massacre: North, South, and the Status of African Americans in the Civil War Era.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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