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These are some reviews from a recent issue of The Civil War News:
An Unerring Fire: The Massacre at Fort Pillow
by Richard L. Fuchs.
Illustrated, maps, appendix, notes, 190 pp., 2001. Stackpole Books, 5067 Ritter Rd., Mechanicsburg, PA 17055 $22.95 plus shipping.
There are some issues in American history that will simply not go away. The place of race in American memory and its connection to the legacy of the Civil War is one which for now can produce no winners.
Battle lines have been drawn across the intellectual and historical inquiry landscape. Arguments are certain to continue relative to the role and place of African American participation in the American Iliad. Still, given this milieu, it’s worth noting that some scholars are willing to take the issue head on at breakneck speed. Such is the case of Richard L. Fuchs’s An Unerring Fire: The Massacre at Fort Pillow.
One only needs to read the title to know where Fuchs stands on the Civil War controversy. This one-volume history of this Civil War controversy is not only a tidy summation of the story, but also provides a glimpse into the craft of a historian as it reflects the value of good historiography.
What really happened at Fort Pillow, in Tennessee, on April 12, 1864? That’s the starting point for this book. It is a question that the author answers repeatedly as he weaves his argument that the predominantly black defenders of this isolated and poorly designed fort were murdered after their surrender.
Sixty-six percent of the dead were African Americans and Fuchs accuses the Confederacy and, more specifically, Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest with this war crime.
Opening the book with a brief biographical sketch of Forrest, Fuchs builds his case around the persona of Forrest and that his antipathy for blacks, growing out of the culture in which he was raised, was the single greatest determinant in the fate of the fort’s defenders.
The author does not mince words and his writing is clear, concise, and effec-tive as he tells the tale of the attack on the fort, the truce maneuvering of Forrest’s men into better tactical positions taking advantage of a ceasefire, and the subsequent final assault on the fort and its aftermath of wanton disregard for human life.
Those white Union soldiers who were killed were from west Tennessee, a particularly strong region of the state with Unionist sympathies. For these men also, no quarter was given, and payback was especially brutal as these men were viewed as nothing less than traitors. According to one of Forrest’s subordinates, Gen. James Chalmers “boasted that Fort Pillow was an opportu-nity to teach ‘the mongrel garrison of blacks and renegades a lesson long to be remembered,’ an objective no less indulged in by General Forrest.”
The account of the aftermath of the fort’s surrender, which the author asserts was no less than a mass lynching, is particularly brutal. Descriptions of the carnage is horrific and not for the weak of stomach. It is obvious that Fuchs wants the reader to understand the particular brutality of this event.
The historiographical approach works quite nicely with this, the only book currently in print about this particular engagement. Fuchs’s scrupulous use of notes and case building reflects his training as an attorney and one could argue that the author indeed has put Forrest and his motivations on trial.
Fuchs’s examination of the various records and his skillful use of those records brings to a close, in his estimation, the view that this tragic episode could have easily been avoided, but that racial hatred prevailed and that the demons that drove Nathan Bedford Forrest all his life were unleashed in a climactic feeding frenzy hitherto not seen on an American battlefield.
An Unerring Fire will be of interest not only to students of Civil War history but also to any American who is interested in the legacy of race in American history. Until any subsequent publication proves itself worthy, this book should stand the testament of time regarding a dark and tragic day in 1864, which still reverberates today.
James Percoco was the 1993 Walt Disney Co. American Teacher Awards Outstanding Social Studies Teacher of the Year and has twice been named Outstanding State Educator of the Year by the Virginia Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. He teaches U.
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