Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A Review of Fort Pillow, a Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory by John Cimprich

I was dusting off some of my book concerning Civil War memory and I came across this one - by John Cimprich...Fort Pillow, a Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005). This book is worth reading, especially if you are interested in the history of the fort and the details of the infamous massacre. I was however, disappointed in the book's lack of analysis - or perhaps I should say misdirected analysis - or perhaps I should say Cimprich sort of jumped on the memory band wagon a little late in the game with nothing really new to offer to the ever-growing collection of titles on Civil War memory. At any rate, I also came across a review I wrote for Southern Historian...way back in 2006, which was published the following year in said journal. As you can see, I was pretty lukewarm on the book back then too. Here you go...

On April 12, 1864, Confederates under the command of Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest overran Federal forces garrisoned at Fort Pillow, a remote fortification in western Tennessee overlooking the Mississippi River. Northerners reeled from news of the Confederate victory. The most biting reports emphasized the murder of black Union soldiers and white Tennessee Unionists stationed at the fort. Forrest’s men – perhaps Forrest himself – flagrantly exceeded the tacit civility of conventional warfare and showed no quarter to surrendering Federal soldiers. In turn, Confederates disputed accusations suggesting Forrest let loose a massacre in pell-mell fashion. Divergent accounts of this event resonated long after the close of the conflict and fueled bitter controversy between formerly warring individuals and their descendants.

Cimprich, unquestionably an expert on this tragic event, meticulously details the days leading to the battle and the massacre itself. Readers will benefit from a blow-by-blow account of the action adeptly composed from participant testimony. But Cimprich’s objective is to move beyond a recreation of immediate incidents and weave the narrative of the fort into a survey of broader Civil War topics. He thus explores the experiences of green troops in combat, daily life of soldiers in camp, guerrilla warfare, and the shift from a Union war policy of conciliation to so-called “hard” war. One can observe all of these issues, Cimprich insists, through an analysis of the fort from its earliest incarnations as a Confederate outpost in 1861.

He may very well be correct. Undoubtedly, the lives (and deaths) of soldiers of both armies affiliated with the fort over its short history corresponded to the full gamut of Civil War experiences. However, Cimprich’s connections are often tenuous. For instance, his discussion of the Union policy of hard war, while well articulated, does not clearly illustrate the fort as a relevant factor in the policy as Cimprich implies. Agreed, Union cavalrymen “may have used Fort Pillow” (51) as a base of operations. Yet, this suggestion could be applied to nearly any fort, outpost, house, or town in the region. Further, Cimprich fails to offer anything particularly new regarding Union war policy. The problem thus rests with Cimprich’s efforts to elaborate on topics that serve to distract from the matter at hand – the fort itself. Far too much of this book travels familiar roads and then tacks on the fort in a concluding statement, seemingly as an afterthought.

Naturally, one would expect a discussion of race in a story that involves the murder of several dozen black Union soldiers. Suggesting that a “cruel spirit animated many of the Confederates,” (82) Cimprich concludes that racism was the principal motivating factor in the massacre. Again, the reader could easily suppose that Cimprich is correct. Yet this assertion seems so obvious as to appear banal. Rather than “proving” racist Confederate soldiers took especial pleasure killing blacks, Cimprich might have further developed intriguing ideas mentioned briefly elsewhere in the text. How, particularly in a war where soldiers on both sides clearly expressed overt racism, did race function in the development of two distantly different national ideologies? Here, the fort could indeed represent a microcosm of the clash between two dissimilar nationalisms.
Finally, the discussion of public memory in the book’s concluding chapter offers a brief look at various interpretations of the massacre story since the war’s close. In short, Cimprich’s work fits neatly with many memory studies published over the last several years. Varying and changing interpretations of the massacre, he argues, reflected specific cultures and historical circumstances fueling regionalism and supporting societies founded on white supremacy. Signing off with a somewhat cliché hope that “society” might one day move beyond intolerance, Cimprich misses an opportunity to describe not only how memories reflect cultures, but also how individuals use memories to shape those cultures.

Criticisms aside, Cimprich does provide a clear narrative of what actually took place at Fort Pillow in April 1864. Further, he provides two handy appendices outlining commanders and units involved in the fort’s history as well as the numbers of killed and wounded. Those interested in the details of the battle and massacre and Civil War soldiers in general will find this book useful.

But hey - judge for yourself and read Fort Pillow, A Civil War Massacre...comments welcome! If you liked the book (more than I did) and disagree with my assessment, fire away!



  1. Keith, I just love historiographical reviews of past events. I follow CW memory discussions, but would like to know more. Perhaps you could discuss what memory is, where did it come from, what's it all about. Who are the leading lights? Thanks.

  2. thanks for the note - in fact, I am planning just such a discussion for the blog this Friday - at least in part (I was asked by a former student to comment on David Blight's work). Stay tuned, I will be happy to elaborate in another post this weekend :)