Preserving the Public History of the Fort Pillow Massacre

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tags: Civil War, African American history, public history, Fort Pillow Massacre

When Yulanda Burgess first visited Tennessee’s Fort Pillow State Historic Park in 2006, she hoped to see where her great-grandfather Armstead Burgess, a member of the United States Colored Troops (USCT), was taken captive by Confederate soldiers on April 12, 1864. Burgess wanted to walk the same ground as her ancestor. Instead, she got lost.

The park’s trails were washed out by years of heavy rain and spotty maintenance. The few pathways that remained open were poorly marked, with faded paper signs in plastic sleeves nailed to the occasional tree. “That’s how it was before Robby Tidwell took charge,” Burgess says.

Tidwell, the Tennessee State Parks ranger who now manages the site, whacked weeds on Fort Pillow’s earthen fortifications when he was in high school. He found himself drawn to the fort, where one of the greatest tragedies of the Civil War took place—a battle that resulted in the deaths of almost 250 Union soldiers, the majority of whom were Black.

When I visited the park recently, we hopped into Tidwell’s pickup truck for a tour. It took longer than expected, partly because the outer fortifications of the encampment span 1,642 acres, but mostly because every time Tidwell saw a visitor, he rolled down his window to ask how their day was going and if he could help them with anything.

Tidwell has made many improvements to the park in the time he’s worked there. He has recruited Eagle Scout volunteers to rebuild trails, expanded the number of campsites, added playgrounds, and stocked the lake with both catfish and rental kayaks. For Tidwell, the point of these amenities is to draw people in so they will learn more about USCT history. If we forget, he says, “all these deaths [will] have been for nothing.”

Constructed on Confederate orders in 1861, Fort Pillow sits on the western edge of Tennessee, high on a bluff over the Mississippi River. Union troops captured the Confederate stronghold in May 1862 to stop its cannons from threatening shipping on the Mississippi. Almost two years later, on April 12, 1864, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest led around 1,500 troops on a raid to recapture the fort. They far outnumbered the defenders: 295 white members of the 13th United States Cavalry and 262 USCT members, divided between the Sixth U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery and Battery D of the Second U.S. Colored Light Artillery.

Kevin M. Levin, author of Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, says Confederate soldiers saw “their worst racial nightmare” at Fort Pillow when they encountered “Black men wearing uniforms and carrying rifles.” Previous engagements, like that of the famed 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment at the Second Battle of Fort Wagner in 1863, had already shown the Confederates how well the USCT could fight.

Read entire article at Smithsonian