Friday, February 3, 2006

"River Run Red"

Andrew Ward's River Run Red : The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War is a bottom up narrative history of the events surrounding CSA General Nathan Bedford Forrest's 1864 assault and capture of Fort Pillow and its sanguinary aftermath. Ward's history is wide in scope (the battle ends only halfway through a lengthy book) and he has amassed an impressive number of soldier and civilian first-person accounts from both sides--although predominantly Union--in order to tell his tale. The common soldiers (both black and white) are the focus here. Unfortunately, Ward seems to have succumbed to the somewhat understandable temptation to include in his narrative seemingly every anecdote he encountered in his research, regardless of relevance.

Other problems occur in the author's construction of military events. Granted, battle is confusion itself, but if your combat narrative is simply narrow individual accounts strung together with little attempt at a higher organization the reader is left with quite a mess to untangle on his own. Ward never takes the time to place the individual regiments of either side on the battlefield at the different stages of the fight and only provides a vague description of the locations of the Confederate brigades. This situation is compounded by the lack of any useful maps. In addition, the kinds of errors that creep into the text (although general readers would probably consider them minor) indicate the lack by the author of a deep understanding of Civil War military operations.

Ward, although certainly no Forrest apologist, does attempt an evenhanded approach in many places. The brutality and extreme corruption of the Federal occupation of West Tennessee is detailed over several chapters. This context is not used to excuse Confederate behavior during the aftermath of the Fort Pillow battle, but rather to provide insight into the mutual hatred Confederate and pro-Union Tennesseans had for each other.

The heart of Ward's narrative is clearly the experience of black soldiers before, during, and after the battle. It is remarkable how many stories and writings from these men the author was able to find. A viewing of the bibliography reveals work that is adequately researched, although I do wish Ward had categorized his source material. In the end, River Run Red, although interesting in places, cannot lay claim to definitive status. Expectations will probably rule here. Readers searching for a highly structured, well-argued, and thesis driven examination of Fort Pillow will instead find a rather loosely organized popular style narrative history.

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