Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Wills: "THE RIVER WAS DYED WITH BLOOD: Nathan Bedford Forrest & Fort Pillow"

[The River Was Dyed with Blood: Nathan Bedford Forrest & Fort Pillow by Brian Steel Wills (University of Oklahoma Press, 2014). Hardcover, 4 maps, photos, illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:231/288. ISBN:9780806144535 $29.95]

The April 12, 1864 Battle of Fort Pillow has always provoked polar reactions. According to contemporary Union adherents and later Nathan Bedford Forrest critics, Confederate troops committed a foul, premeditated massacre during the capture of the hilltop fortification. On the other side of the coin, Confederates insisted then, and Forrest admirers today continue to claim, that nothing dishonorable occurred on that day. Aligned with neither of these viewpoints, Brian Steel Wills's The River Was Dyed with Blood: Nathan Bedford Forrest & Fort Pillow seeks a dispassionate understanding of what happened on that day and how it became an iconic moment in Civil War infamy.

Wills is convinced that Forrest did not order, and had no intention of committing, a no-quarter assault on the Union defenders.  Throughout military history, when expected heavy resistance crumbles quickly, and confusion reigns with some enemy troops attempting to surrender while others continue fighting, excesses become commonplace.  The nearby naval contingent also created uncertainty in the minds of the attackers as to whether the garrison would be reinforced and the fight continued or an evacuation would be attempted.  Add in ideological motivations, with Confederate soldiers being opposed by armed ex-slaves and white Unionists accused of both real and imagined abuses of pro-Confederate civilians, and it all becomes a recipe for disaster.  According to the author's interpretation, Forrest was not in the forefront of the attack and lost control of his men.  Of course, critics of the general can be skeptical that Forrest's unusual physical absence in the beginning and the avowed spontaneous nature of the unsanctioned killing were not deliberate attempts to avoid responsibility, but Wills is clear in his assertion that Forrest must bear ultimate responsibility for what happened.

In the book, Wills offers a number of examples from military history that build a broader contextual basis for what happened at Fort Pillow.  Perhaps the most analagous situation occurred in April 1864 at Plymouth, North Carolina, where a fort garrison initially refused to surrender, necessitating a costly assault during which elements of USCT regiments and white Unionist "Buffaloes" were shot while attempting to flee into nearby swamps.  Other examples from the Texas War of Independence, the Revolutionary War, the Indian Wars, the Philippine Insurrection, and WWII are less directly comparable but they illustrate how wartime killings represent a complex mixture of historical, cultural, and political circumstances and motivations, and reducing them to emotionally charged words like "massacre" often unproductively serve to end rather than facilitate serious debate and discussion.

Some of the best sections of the book are those covering the long term consequences of Fort Pillow and how the tragedy was used for political gain. Wills traces the effective use by the Republican Party of Forrest and Fort Pillow during both the 1864 and 1868 national elections. A particularly evocative partisan political weapon was the pen of artist Thomas Nast. A number of his cartoons are reproduced in the book, the one perhaps best demonstrating the enduring cost of Fort Pillow to Democratic high office aspirations being a sweeping cartoon pitting a large group of heroic Republicans on one side and a dastardly set of Democratic villains on the other, with Forrest prominently placed even though he was only a minor player at the party convention.  Wills effectively shows how the memory of Fort Pillow remained in the political consciousness for decades after the war.

The conduct and findings of the Wade and Gooch sub-committee appointed by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War to investigate Fort Pillow remains a contentious issue. Wills is correct that the process was no paragon of credible truth seeking, but it wasn't exactly pure political theater and propaganda either. The author is of the opinion that the sheer volume of evidence presented, however slanted and unchallenged, makes it clear that significant numbers of unnecessary killings had indeed occurred. Even so, it's curious that the more extreme committee allegations (ex. the killing of non-combatants and the use of civilians as human shields) were neither seriously addressed nor their validity analyzed in the book. The truce flag controversy is covered, but the issue of non-combatant deaths is noted only in passing and the human shield accusation is not mentioned anywhere in the narrative.

For a book about a moment in history as controversial as Fort Pillow, it's reconstruction of the battle itself and the immediate aftermath is surprisingly brief and lacking in comprehensive detail.  Along similar lines, the maps, all previously published, are not particularly helpful in following the sequence of events and their timing.  While the author challenges many of the views published by other writers and historians (most notably those of Richard Fuchs), a chapter length critique of the Fort Pillow historiography, one more systematically contrasting Wills's own research and findings with those of Fuchs, Ward, Cimprich and others, would have been a very fruitful addition. On a minor and purely presentational matter, the printing choice of employing no spacing around punctuation marks was a bit distracting.

The River Was Dyed with Blood is too thin in places to be regarded as a work aspiring toward definitive status on the subject of Fort Pillow but it does exhibit a number of atypical contextual interpretations worthy of notice and well reasoned arguments not present in previous studies, which have tended to focus almost solely on racial considerations. Its dispassionate tone is also a welcome departure from the norm.  As a Forrest biographer, author Brian Steel Wills's own objectivity will likely be called into question by some readers, but the unique strengths of this Fort Pillow study should be robust enough to conquer most fears.

More CWBA reviews of OUP titles:
* Civil War Arkansas 1863: The Battle for a State (PB edition)
* Torn by War: The Civil War Journal of Mary Adelia Byers
* Columns of Vengeance: Soldiers, Sioux, and the Punitive Expeditions, 1863-1864
* Los Angeles in Civil War Days, 1860-1865
* Historical Atlas of Oklahoma, 4th edition
* George Crook: From the Redwoods to Appomattox
* Violent Encounters: Interviews on Western Massacres
* A Perfect Gibraltar: The Battle for Monterrey, Mexico, 1846
* Patrick Connor's War: The 1865 Powder River Indian Expedition (Arthur H. Clark)
* Texas: A Historical Atlas
* Civil War Arkansas 1863: The Battle for a State
* Jayhawkers: The Civil War Brigade of James Henry Lane
* Powder River Odyssey: Nelson Cole's Western Campaign of 1865 the Journals of Lyman G. Bennett and Other Eyewitness Accounts (Arthur H. Clark)
* Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester
* The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare In The Upper South, 1861-1865
* The Civil War in Arizona: The Story of the California Volunteers, 1861-1865

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