Wednesday, April 03, 2019

155th Anniversary of the Battle of Ft. Pillow on April 12

The 155th anniversary of the Civil War battle of Ft. Pillow, Tennessee, known for the massacre of Union African-American troops, comes April 12. In the past, there was some disagreement about "what happened." Grant, writing in his memoirs, wrote of Forrest's battle report:

"Subsequently, Forrest made a report in which he left out the part which shocks humanity to read."

Discussed less frequently is the Battle of Olustee, Florida, which happened earlier (in Feb. 1864) and in which African-American troops were also murdered. One gruesome account is from the Reminiscences of William Frederick Penniman:

In passing over the field, and the road ran centering through it, my attention was first attracted to the bodies of the yankees, invariably stripped, shoes first and clothing next. Their white bodies looked ghastly enough, but I particularly notice that firing seemed to be going on in every direction, until the reports sounded almost frequent enough to resemble the work of skirmishers.

A young officer was standing in the road in front of me and I asked him, "What is the meaning of all this firing I hear going on." His reply to me was, "Shooting niggers Sir. I have tried to make the boys desist but I can't control them." I made some answer in effect that it seemed horrible to kill the wounded devils, and he again answered, "That's so Sir, but one young fellow over yonder told me the niggers killed his brother after being wounded, at Fort Pillow, and he was twenty three years old, that he had already killed nineteen and needed only four more to make the matter even, so I told him to go ahead and finis the job." I rode on but the firing continued.


I was placed temporarily in charge of the field hospital at Waldo [Florida], with a few sick and wounded patients then convealescing, and had an extremely easy billet for next month or two.

One notes that the battle of Olustee happened before the battle of Fort Pillow.

See also

The battle of Olustee came to be regarded as somewhat of a waste of lives given the small strategic advantage to be gained by taking over a part of Florida. Although Olustee established the willingness of Confederates to savage African American troops, the later battle of Fort Pillow came to be the pivot for that theme.

However, Lincoln's plan for Florida went beyond military targets. Because of Florida's relatively small population AND the Union's control of significant population centers, Florida was a likely "poster child" for Lincoln's ten per cent plan. To that end, Lincoln commissioned his secretary, John Hay, a major and placed him in charge of securing converts to meet the 10% quota. The defeat at Olustee ended that plan.


[Hay] returned to Florida in January 1864, after Lincoln had announced his Ten Percent Plan, that if ten percent of the 1860 electorate in a state took oaths of loyalty and to support emancipation, they could form a government with federal protection. Lincoln considered Florida, with its small population, a good test case, and made Hay a major,[c] sending him to see if he could get sufficient men to take the oath. Hay spent a month in the state during February and March 1864, but Union defeats there reduced the area under federal control. Believing his mission impractical, he sailed back to Washington.


Gillmore, on 31 January 1864, described his mission as follows:

Maj. Gen. H. W. HALLECK,

General-in-Chief, Washington, D.C.:

GENERAL: In reply to your letter of the 22d instant I beg leave state that the objects and advantages to be secured by the occupation of that portion of Florida within my reach, viz, the richest portions between the Suwannee and the Saint John's Rivers, are: First. To procure an outlet for cotton, lumber, timber, turpentine, and the other products of that State. Second. To cut off one of the enemy's sources of commissary supplies. He now draws largely upon the herds of Florida for his beef, and is making preparations to take up a portion of the Fernandina and Saint Mark's Railroad for the purpose of connecting the road from Jacksonville to Tallahassee with Thomasville, on the Savannah, Albany and Gulf Railroad, and perhaps with Albany, on the Southwestern Railroad. Third. To obtain recruits for my colored regiments. Fourth. To inaugurate measures for the speedy restoration of Florida to her allegiance, in accordance with instructions which I have received from the President by the hands of Maj. John Hay, assistant adjutant-general.


The scope of the advance was to be limited:

Jacksonville, FLA., February 11, 1864

General Seymour,

Beyond Baldwin:

Eight companies of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts have been ordered to Baldwin. Don't risk a repulse in advancing on Lake City, but hold Sanderson unless there are reasons for failing back which I don't know. Please inform me how your command is distributed between here and the South Fork of the Saint Mary's. Please report by telegraph from Baldwin frequently.





Jacksonville, FLA., February 12, 1864

General Seymour,

(By cuurier from Baldwin):

I want your command at and beyond Baldwin concentrated at Baldwin without delay. I have information of a mounted force that may trouble your right flank by fording the Saint Mary's River. When we landed here they were 80 miles from Baldwin, on the Albany and Gulf Railroad. You should have scouts well out on your front and right flank. I have sent word to Colonel Tilgman to be on the alert. I think Fribley had better move forward and join you, but you must judge. The locomotive has not arrived yet.



In a letter of March 7, 1864, Gillmore stated

On the 18th. I was greatly surprised at receiving a letter from General Seymour, dated the 17th (see Appendix P), stating that he intended to advance without supplies in order to destroy the railroad near the Suwannee River, 100 miles from Jacksonville. I at once dispatched General Turner (my chief of staff) to Jacksonville to stop the movement. He was the bearer of a letter to General Seymour (see Appendix Q). Upon arriving at Jacksonville, after considerable delay, due to the inclemency of the weather, he learned that General Seymour was engaged with the enemy in front, near Olustee.


AND in 1865

Headquarters, Department of South Carolina
Hilton Head, S.C. November 1, 1865

In the foregoing report of Brigadier-General Seymour he says he moved forward on February 20—

With the intention of advancing on Lake City, and, if successful, of destroying the railroad communications between East and West Florida at the Suwannee River, such being the general plan of operations upon which the occupation and control of East Florida had been founded.
In reference to the above statement I will say that General Seymour was never intrusted, and it never was my intention to intrust him with the execution of any general plan in Florida. I confided to him the objects I had in view in occupying East Florida, and the salient features of the plan by which I proposed to secure those objects. But he was never authorized to advance beyond the South Fork of the Saint Mary's River in my absence. On the contrary, he had plain and explicit instructions with regard to what was expected and required of him, and the ill-judged advance beyond the South Fork of the Saint Mary's River was in direct disregard of those instructions, and the disastrous battle of Olustee its legitimate fruit. General Seymour says, "But the disparity in numbers was too great, and the defense too obstinate to permit of decisive results" at the battle of Olustee. We now know since the close of the war that there was no "disparity in numbers," and we knew at the time that the "results" were a "decisive" defeat upon the field of battle and the frustration—as well by loss of men as by loss of prestige—of a well and carefully digested plan of campaign. General Finegan, who was in command of the enemy's forces, told two members of my staff (Capt. D. S. Leslie, One hundred and fourth U.S. Colored Troops, and Capt. Henry Seton, Fifty-fourth New York) that he had only about 5,000 men at that battle. General Seymour had 5,500 men. Our losses were 1,800 men in killed, wounded, and missing, 39 horses, and 6 pieces of artillery. Indeed, our forces appear to have been surprised into fighting, or attempting to fight, an offensive battle, in which the component parts of the command were beaten in detail. The enemy did not fight behind intrenchments or any kind of defenses.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,



There are least two things to note:

1. Neither Gillmore nor Seymour had a plan to advance to Tallahassee. Gillmore ordered a concentration at Baldwin. Seymour disobeyed this, but only planned to go to the Suwannee River.

2. There is no discussion, in these documents, of the savage treatment of African-American troops.


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