Confederates’ Loss of Fort Pillow Dooms Memphis
As the spring of 1862 turned into summer, Confederate fortunes in Tennessee continued to go badly. With a vital railroad link cut, the South decided to evacuate the strategic Mississippi River stronghold of Fort Pillow on June 4, leaving Memphis vulnerable to attack. Union forces pounced quickly. After a lopsided naval engagement on June 6 Memphis fell, remaining under Federal control for the rest of the war.
These losses followed other setbacks in Tennessee that began in February 1862, when Confederate defeats at the Battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson opened up the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers to invasion. Shortly after that Nashville fell, then the Battle of Shiloh cost the South a bloody defeat and the loss of General Albert Sidney Johnston. Now the once-formidable Fort Pillow was gone and Memphis lost; only the fortified town of Vicksburg, Mississippi, prevented complete Union control of the Mississippi River.
The following three newspaper articles describe the Confederate evacuation of Fort Pillow and its subsequent takeover by Union troops. The third article presents an eyewitness account providing many interesting details, though from an obviously slanted Northern perspective.
This article was published by the Albany Evening Journal (Albany, New York) on June 9, 1862:
The Evacuation of Fort Pillow
St. Louis, June 7, 1862.
A special to the Republican, dated Fort Pillow, 5th, 11 A.M., says: The Rebels really evacuated this Fort Tuesday night, leaving one mortar and two guns to answer us on Wednesday. The work of destruction has been complete. Sheds, barracks, hospital buildings, forage, barns, and three large commissary houses, full of stores, were burned. Over a dozen heavy guns were left, part of them spiked and the balance burst and the carriages burned. A reconnaissance to Fulton, two miles below, does not reveal the enemy there.
Combustibles are burning at several points, and it is feared that mines are underneath the fortifications, which are unusually strong. Heavy guns were casemated by heavy woodwork thrown over them in the form of covers on the riverbank. All of them are destroyed. No small arms or camp equipage remain.
Late refugees from Memphis say Doctor Fowlkes, of The Avalanche, will be one of the first to hoist the Federal flag on the approach of the Federal gunboats. They say he has preached secession doctrine under protest for several months, and has been twice imprisoned for fearless denunciations of the Confederate authorities.
Washington, June 8, 1862.
The following dispatch, written the day before the Memphis battle, was telegraphed from Cairo [Illinois] today, and was received at the War Department after those describing the ram engagement:
Opposite Randolph, below Fort Pillow, June 5, via Cairo 8th.
To Hon. E. M. Stanton, Secretary of War:
To my mortification, the enemy evacuated Fort Pillow last night. They carried away or destroyed everything of value.
Early this morning Lieut. Col. Ellet, and a few men in a yawl, went ashore, followed immediately by Col. Fitch and a party of his command. The gunboats then came down and anchored across the channel. I proceeded with three rams, twelve miles below the Fort, to a point opposite Randolph, and sent Lieut. Col. Ellet ashore with a flag of truce to demand the surrender of the place. Their forces had all left, two of their gunboats only an hour or two before we approached.
The people seemed to respect the flag, which Lieut. Col. Ellet planted. The guns had been dismounted, and some piles of cotton were burning.
I shall leave Lieut. Col. Ellet here in the advance, and return immediately to Fort Pillow to bring on my entire forces.
The people attribute the suddenness of the evacuation to the attempt made night before last to sink one of their gunboats at Fort Pillow.
Randolph, like Pillow, is weak, and could not have held out against a vigorous attack.
The people express a desire for the restoration of the old order of things, though still professing to be Secessionists.
(Signed) Charles Ellet, Jr., Col. Commanding Ram Flotilla
This article was published by the Hartford Daily Courant (Hartford, Connecticut) on June 7, 1862:
Another Step Taken
The car of victory rolls on. Fort Pillow is in possession of our troops, and our flotilla has passed down as far as Randolph. The rebel fleet that is now hemmed in between our two fleets, the one ascending and the other descending the Mississippi, must be in a tight place, growing tighter every hour. We expect soon to hear that the Mississippi is clear of all obstructions from rebel forts along its banks or rebel boats upon its waters, and that the great Father of Waters owns no flag but the Stars and Stripes of the Union. Onward, the triumphal procession of the forces of the Union, of Liberty, Civilization and Justice, is irresistibly borne!
This detailed eyewitness account was published by the New York Tribune (New York, New York) on the front page of its June 11, 1862, issue:
From the Mississippi Flotilla.
Full Particulars of Important Events.
The Evacuation of Fort Pillow.
From our special correspondent.
Fort Pillow, within the fortifications, Lauderdale Co., Tenn., 75 miles above Memphis.
Thursday noon, June 5, 1862.
Pillow has fallen at last.
After a most tedious, monotonous, and nearly nominal siege of fifty-two slow-pacing, weary, tiresome days, the last defense of the Rebels on the Mississippi has yielded to the irresistible power of the Union.
Over the famous fort, the National colors are waving in the Summer breeze, and its late traitorous defenders have departed from it forever.
The enemy’s works look desolate and melancholy enough. Everywhere are perceptible the rage and malignity of a baffled foe, of one who determined to destroy what he could no longer defend. On all sides is shown the spirit of insane wrath and suicidal revenge. Yet the presence of the Banner of the Country declares that all is changed; that Order, Law, and Justice are restored, and that the glory of the Future will compensate for the infamy of the Past.
The Evening of the Evacuation.
In my last letter, bearing the stereotyped date near Fort Pillow, I mentioned that we were hourly expecting the evacuation of the enemy. Before the day had passed on which the letter was written, the evacuation occurred.
A little after 6 o’clock last evening, we noticed from the flotilla a heavy volume of smoke rising above the trees on Craighead Point, and knew that it was too great to proceed from the hostile gunboats. We suspected the cause, but closely watched the smoke, which increased rapidly, until we knew the Rebels were burning their works.
As the evening advanced, and the shadows fell deeper, we could perceive the flames flashing up the horizon, and spreading steadily down the river, showing that the entire fortifications, so far as they were combustible, had been given to the torch. Still, we gazed intently through powerful glasses at the dim Tennessee shore, and a number of times we observed a vast lifting of the flame, and a dull, heavy sound, that seemed like distant thunder. That sound was an explosion, but whether from the blowing up of the works, the bursting of guns, or the destruction of machines, we could not determine. The reports were not loud nor penetrating, and might easily have been mistaken for the countless inexplicable noises that had greeted our ears from the same vicinity for weeks previous. But, taken with the peculiar action of the fire, we could give only one solution of the mystery.
Some of the officers were very skeptical about the belief that the Rebels were destroying their works, thinking the fire was a ruse to induce us to pass Craighead Point with two or three of our gunboats, and then attack and overpower us with superior force.
The last accounts received direct from Pillow had been through a prisoner, John Ralston, mate of the Gen. Beauregard, who had expressed no little regret at his connection with the war, and had shed tears when he saw himself treated with every kindness on the flagship by several officers that had known him intimately in other days.
The mate stated that the leading Secessionists had assured him they would not abandon Pillow without giving the Yankees another fight, and making a desperate effort for victory. Jeff. Thompson had declared he would do or die; that he would not give up the last stronghold of the Mississippi without a heroic struggle. Com. Davis, added the mate, might look for the enemy’s fleet any day, and need not expect an evacuation until after a second battle.
The initiated—those who are acquainted with the idiosyncrasies of the Secession character—were fully aware what to “do or die” means in Rebeldom; that it is a fragment of cheap rhetoric indulged in by the “chivalry” as a prelude to running away.
That this instance was no exception, the sequel proves. The Rebels neither did nor died.
Reconnaissances from the Flotilla.
Just before 7 o’clock, Capt. W. L. Phelps, of the Benton, went down the river in a tug to reconnoiter, and discovered that the enemy had quitted Pillow, having previously set fire to the cotton bales they had used for breastworks, the barracks and gun-carriages, and such articles and stores as they could not remove. It was too late at that hour to make further observations, and the Captain returned to the flagship.
A little earlier a reconnaissance was made down the Arkansas shore, and the Rebel fleet, consisting of seven or eight rams and gunboats, was seen lying at the little village of Fulton. From this it was believed they would attempt to dispute the [control] of the river with us on the morrow, and, if they were unsuccessful, that they would abandon their boats and burn them.
Everyone was anxious for the morning—since we had all grown wearied to death of the protracted and fruitless siege, and were burning with a desire to do something or see something done.
An order was given to the gunboats to be ready to move before sunrise, and long before that hour the crews of the flotilla were seen turning out of their hammocks and turning anxious looks toward Craighead Point, which had so long and so vexatiously shut out from their view the vision of Fort Pillow.
The Visit to Pillow.
At 5 o’clock the gunboats, five in number (the Benton, Capt. W. L. Phelps; St. Louis, Capt. Wilson McGunnigle; Cairo, Capt. Bryant; Carondelet, Capt. Henry Walke; and Louisville, Capt. B. M. Dove), the flagship in the van, turned their bows downstream, and were soon below the Point. The Mound City, Capt. A. H. Kilty, was left at the Fort; the Pittsburgh, Capt. Egbert Thompson, has been sent to Cairo for repairs; the Cincinnati was not yet ready; and the Conestoga was at Hickman; so we were deprived of their services if we should need them.
Several of the rams, under the command of Col. Ellet, who is entirely independent of the Flotilla, had without authority or consultation with anyone, preceded the gunboats, and planted the Stars and Stripes at the Fort, much to the chagrin and indignation, I understand, of the Commodore. Col. Fitch had also moved the two Indiana regiments, the 43d and 46th, down to Pillow, and was occupying the Fort when the gunboats anchored out in the stream.
No one was in or about Pillow when it was first approached. Every soldier had gone away the night previous, and the Rebel gunboats at Fulton had also departed under cover of the night.
The Bohemians [i.e., newspaper reporters—ed.] were early on the ground, and began rambling up and down the Bluff, through ravines and over hills, examining the batteries, the deserted camps, and the ruined barracks, sketching the situation, entering magazines, and doing all the necessary but disagreeable duties that appertain to their avocation.
…During our rambles about Pillow, we have met several residents of Lauderdale County, who inform us that much discontent had prevailed at the fort, and that mutinies have with difficulty been repressed. Sickness has sent many a Rebel soldier to his long home, as various graves testify. The troops have subsisted on half rations, and received no pay. They were discouraged and demoralized, and believe the cause of the Confederacy hopeless. They are tired of and disgusted with the war, and many of them have said they would rather be prisoners in the North than soldiers in the South.
The camps and barracks do not show in very good condition. They must have been in want of many comforts and not a few necessities. Empty bottles were the principal feature of their encampment, and that they were empty must have been to them a source of most profound regret. All signs indicated scarcity and penury, and it is no marvel the Rebels complained and desired to free themselves from the incubus of Secession.
Every recent act of the South has had a tendency to alienate its people, and this in connection with our victories must have exercised a baleful effect upon Jeff. Davis’s subjects.
…We are now vouchsafed a bloodless victory, and, though barren of any great profits from guns, supplies, or arms, it gives us the control of the Mississippi, with untold millions of treasure to the North.
We cannot too fully value the importance of the fall of Pillow.
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