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New look at an old horror

Fort Pillow, A Civil War Massacre, and public memory.



Nobody’s ever going to know for certain what happened at Fort Pillow, just across the Mississippi River from Osceola, on April 12, 1864.

The controversy has run on for more than 140 years now – one side claiming a massacre by Confederate soldiers of nearly 300 Union troops, most of them black, who had just surrendered following a brief, one-sided battle; the other side claiming that no such thing happened, and that saying so amounted to a great slander of the South in general and Nathan Bedford Forrest in particular.

Historians and other partisans, including a number of novelists, brought the squabble forward into the 20th century, and, with little diminution in intensity, into the 21st.

Evidence was slippery, just about all the eyewitness testimony was suspect, and a perplexing mythology shrouded the events almost immediately and never really dispersed. Because of those factors, and others, Fort Pillow came to be regarded as a topic that just didn’t admit of disinterested investigation and speculation.

You just couldn’t do Fort Pillow without taking sides.

A new book, “Fort Pillow, A Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory,” by John Cimprich, who is a history professor at Thomas More College in Crestview Hills, Ky., takes the longest, coolest look at this old horror that anyone has taken so far. And it makes the best guess we’re ever likely to get about what happened there on that spring night long ago.

It’s not pretty. A genuine massacre. Point-black mass murder, spattered with blood and brains, defenseless victims pleading for mercy, racism a prime motivation, just a few brave men trying to stop it and finally succeeding, Forrest himself either complicit or negligent but escaping judgment on inconclusiveness of evidence. There was a smoking gun, but it wasn’t his.

Prof. Cimprich didn’t make his call until he had the whole mountain of Fort Pillow lore in his head. All the journalism, the congressional investigations, the military inquiries; all the books and journals and letters by people who were there and by those who weren’t, by the propagandists and the dime novelists, by the descendants of victims and perps. It’s still a guess, yes, but there isn’t likely to be a more informed one.

The book is from Louisiana State University Press at Baton Rouge. In hard cover, it is $29.95.

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