Archive | December, 2021

Review of The River was Dyed with Blood: Nathan Bedford Forrest and Fort Pillow, by Bryan Steel Wills

14 Dec

Perhaps the Civil War’s most controversial event occurred at the Battle of Fort Pillow where Confederate cavalry troops under Nathan Bedford Forrest overran an outnumbered garrison to capture the fort along the Mississippi River. In the chaotic final moments of the battle, many of the garrison’s troops, a large portion of them African-American, were killed. News quickly spread that Forrest’s men massacred them after they had attempted to surrender. For over 150 years, historians and the general public have speculated on what actually occurred on that April day in 1864. Historian Bryan Steel Wills takes aim at this topic with The River Was Dyed with Blood, Nathan Bedford Forrest & Fort Pillow, which seeks to provide not only a narrative of the event, but the multitude of reactions to it not only at the time but over the years.

Wills places the divisive Forrest at the heart of the issue. His narrative briefly describes Forrest as a self-reliant man whose only education came from his life experiences and who became the war’s most feared cavalryman. His harshness, grit, determination and bravery on the battlefield defined him. His methods of deceiving his opponent into thinking he had more men than he actually had as well as his strongly worded surrender demands, in which he threatened dire repercussions for those who refused, served him well during the war. However, this tactic would serve as evidence against Forrest at Fort Pillow.

Wills provides plenty of accounts from multiple sources on what did occur at Pillow. The fort, perched atop a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, fell quickly once it came under assault by Forrest’s command and Union soldiers retreated down to the river’s edge for safety. Forrest uncharacteristically did not personally lead the assault and once inside, as accounts indicate he became fixated on a Union gunboat operating on the river in the distance instead of taking charge of the situation. Casualty rates were high and there is no doubt that many Union soldiers were killed after the fort had fallen. The main question has always been whether Forrest ordered this “massacre” or did the situation get out of hand once some of his men, who despised black troops, took out their anger unchecked. Wills does not take a definitive stand on the question, instead reviewing many contradictory claims in detail and summarizing the affair as an example of battle fury at its worst, featuring “the pandemonium of a collapsing defense aided by the racial and sectional antagonisms that motivated many of the participants.” The book makes a few things clear, though. In the final moments of the Battle of Fort Pillow some Confederates either believed Forrest sanctioned their refusal to give quarter to a defeated enemy, or they took terrible advantage of his unusual lack of visibility to take independent action in violation of the rules of war of the day. Wills believes that Forrest probably did not personally instigate the killing of men after they had surrendered but that ultimate responsibility does fall upon him for the actions of his men.

After describing the action at Fort Pillow, the author’s narrative then proceeds to trace chronologically the reactions to the assault from the immediate aftermath to years in the future. He does an excellent job presenting various viewpoints, North and South. Reactions varied from the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War that emphatically proclaimed a massacre had occurred to other reactions that claimed the story had been blown out of proportion. Wills does point out that some Northern politicians used the incident at Fort Pillow as ammunition for prosecuting the war to the fullest. Finally, Forrest himself struggled to defend his reputation after the affair. Interestingly enough, Wills traces Forrest’s responses to the accusations of having sanctioned atrocities all the way up to his death in 1877, but never mentions Forrest’s involvement in the Klan which obviously had an effect on his reputation in regards to treatment of African Americans.

The River was Dyed with Blood is more than a simple recounting of the action at Fort Pillow. Wills goes beyond the battle to examine the aftermath of the affair and note how it altered the course of the war and reverberated in the postwar political environment for decades after the last shots were fired.  Anyone wanting a simple narrative of the action should look elsewhere as most of the book is about reactions and responses to it.  The Battle of Fort Pillow itself is summarized in one short chapter, with the backstory leading to it and the controversial aftermath being the focus of the volume. No doubt the events at Fort Pillow will continue to resonate strongly among those interested in America during the Civil War and Reconstruction and this book does add fuel to the fire without definitively answering the essential question of whether or not a coordinated massacre took place along the banks of the Mississippi in 1864. Then again, that question will probably never be answered to the satisfaction of everyone.


Best Books on the Vicksburg Campaign

7 Dec

Perhaps no other campaign sealed the fate of the Confederacy than the fall of Vicksburg. For over a year, Union forces attempted a variety of methods to either capture or bypass the city with no success. Not until Ulysses S. Grant ‘s daring plan landed men south of the city where his soldiers marched across the heart of Mississippi and won several battles, did the city fall after over forty days of siege. There have been quite a few studies on Vicksburg over the years, but here are some of the best.  (I limited my list to only those books that covered the entire campaign and not on books that targeted specific aspects such as Champion Hill and the Siege.)

At the top of my list is Ed Bearss’s epic three-volume The Vicksburg Campaign. Bearss, thelong-time Historian Emeritus of the National Park Service and epic tour guide of the war, masterfully guides the reader on the Union’s entire effort to capture the Gibraltar of the South.  Vicksburg is the Key, Grant Strikes a Fatal Blow, and Unvexed to the Sea are clearly written and expertly researched by one of the field’s true masters and therefore must be on the bookshelf of any true historian of Vicksburg.

Michael Ballard’s Vicksburg, the Campaign that Opened the Mississippi might be the best one volume study today. Ballard, who has also written the definitive biography on John C. Pemberton, the Confederate Commander at Vicksburg, makes a strong point that the complexity and the length of the campaign tends to overwhelm many aspiring historians.  Ballard covers the campaign from both sides, giving credit and blame where it is due.

One of the most recent accounts is Donald Miller’s Vicksburg: Grant’s Campaign that Broke the Confederacy. Miller provides one of the best written accounts of the campaign that although is over 500 pages, never seems to overwhelm the reader. Its only fault is that it does not provide enough information from the Confederate perspective.

Ninety Eight Days: A Geographer’s View of the Vicksburg Campaign written by retired geologist Warren Grabau puts the spotlight on logistics and topography of the campaign. This weighty tome contains some of the best maps of any other book, but its length is not for the average reader.

Long-time Vicksburg National Park Historian Terrence Winschel has written a well-received two volume set entitled Triumph and Defeat: The Vicksburg Campaign. Each book contains essays that examine various aspects of the campaign such as Grant and Pemberton’s leadership, Grierson’s cavalry raid, various battles, the naval aspect, and the siege.

Most single volume books on Vicksburg are mammoth. For anyone wanting a shorter, more concise account would do well to read Vicksburg is the Key: The Struggle for the Mississippi River by William Shea and Terrence Winschel. This volume is part of the Great Campaigns of the Civil War Series that seeks to provide solid scholarship and overviews of battles and campaigns in a condensed volume.

One of the more unique books on my list is Compelled to Appear in Print: The Vicksburg Manuscript of John Pemberton. Edited by David Smith, this important piece of scholarship publishes Pemberton’s long-thought lost response to criticism by Confederate General Joseph Johnston. Although Pemberton’s comments do not completely excuse his actions, it does provide historians with more information on the complicated Confederate command structure that led to defeat.

Finally, I must list The Final Fortress, The Campaign for Vicksburg 1862-1863 by Samuel Carter III. Carter’s book published in 1980 was one of the first books that I read concerning this campaign. Up until that point, my mind had been fixated on events in the Eastern Theater. Carter’s encompassing narrative opened my eyes for the first time on the importance of events in the Western Theater in determining the war’s outcome and convinced me that Vicksburg was just as important as Gettysburg.  My book’s dust cover shows plenty of wear-and-tear from multiple readings as I leafed through the images and maps over and over again as I became fascinated by war along the Mississippi River.