As certain as is the spring blooming of dogwood along the rivers of the Upper South, so too was the renewal of Confederate assaults upon Union outposts and logistical communications. As the weather improved during the second quarter of 1864 and RAdm. David Dixon Porter transferred a significant percentage of the Mississippi Squadron to duty in the Red River, this insurgent activity became less a matter of ad hoc partisans pot-shooting at passing steamers. Rather, it assumed the caliber of a full-fledged and organized interdiction mission more often implemented by regular military units as part of the South’s after-Vicksburg Western strategy.
While Porter and Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks moved into the Red River, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman traveled to Nashville on March 18 to relieve his fellow Buckeye, U. S. Grant, as commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi. With suggestions from his colleague, now appointed lieutenant general and ordered east, Sherman began to plan the spring campaign that would begin on May 1 and hopefully take him to Atlanta.
A friend of the Mississippi Squadron, Sherman always had a key eye for the logistical necessities of war. His new Georgia advance would be no different in that regard. Years later, he wrote in his Memoirs: “The great question of the campaign was one of supplies. Nashville, our chief depot, was itself partially in a hostile country, and even the routes of supply from Louisville to Nashville, by rail and by way of the Cumberland River, had to be guarded.” Since he first participated in the February 1862 Fort Donelson battle, Nathan Bedford Forrest, CSA, had developed a reputation as the greatest human threat to Sherman’s supply apparatus. He was deadly in attacks against Northern soldiers, infantry and cavalry, as well as their supply trains, depots, and, as demonstrated at Dover, Tennessee, in February 1863, did not fear the Union gunboats.
Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, CSA. A thorn in the side of Federal generals since early 1862, Forrest and his cavalrymen understood the importance of Northern logistical centers and transportation both afloat and ashore. They assaulted both regularly thereafter, seeming easily to outwit Yankee commanders and countermeasures. In March–April 1864, with the Mississippi Squadron stretched thin on the Western rivers due to its participation in the Red River campaign, the self-taught military genius nicknamed “The Wizard of the Saddle” struck both Paducah, Kentucky, and Fort Pillow, Tennessee. Later, he would destroy the large supply depot at Johnsonville, Tennessee, and greatly aid Gen. John Bell Hood during the Nashville campaign (Library of Congress).
Only a month before, on February 22, Forrest defeated a Federal force at Okolona, Mississippi, during Sherman’s Meridian campaign and was now “on the loose” in West Tennessee. Ominously, and also on March 18, Memphis District commander Maj. Gen. Stephen A. Hurlbut passed word, “It is reported that Forrest, with about 7,000 men, was at Tupelo last night, bound for West Tennessee. I think he means Columbus and Paducah.”
Union concern over the whereabouts of the elusive Confederate raider, who reached Jackson on the 20th, now intensified. On March 23, Brig. Gen. Mason Brayman, the Federal army commander of the District of Cairo, sent a note over to USN Capt. Alexander Pennock announcing that he, too, had fresh intelligence. The Rebel was en route toward Union City, a crossroads town in northwestern Tennessee.
If the news was accurate, the navy would be advised that gunboats might have to be sent to guard the Kentucky towns of Columbus, Hickman, and Paducah. Early the next day, Pennock received army advice that Forrest was, indeed, marching in force upon Columbus and that communication with Union City had ceased. The fleet captain, asked to send a gunboat to Columbus post haste, promised to have one underway by evening. Brayman, already at Columbus with 2,000 men, requested that the vessel report to him at that point as he was readying an expedition toward Union City, even though he suspected the enemy was off toward Paducah. The Cairo-based general came within six miles of Union City on the 26th before he learned of its surrender to one of Forrest’s colonels the day before.
Also on March 25, as Maj. Gen. Banks and RAdm. Porter moved from Alexandria, Louisiana, up the Red River toward Shreveport, Forrest himself did indeed lead an attack on Paducah, a town of about 6,000 with a reportedly large percentage of Southern sympathizers. Its unformed Federal defenders (numbering about 650) were rapidly driven into Fort Anderson on the Ohio River on the west end of the city. Grayclad soldiers then occupied the nearby houses and fired into the post.
With the Rebels having cornered the town’s Federal soldiers, pro–Union civilians were left to escape on their own or hide. Some fled across the Ohio to Illinois aboard a wharf boat untied from the riverbank. Others, it was later charged, were used as human shields to protect some of the raiders as they shot into the fort. During this time, several women and children were reportedly killed.
Largely unmolested in the streets of Paducah, Forrest’s men plundered the town, capturing horses and supplies. A flag of truce was raised and fighting stopped for a half hour during which the post commander, Col. Stephen G. Hicks, refused a Southern surrender request. He did not know that this was a familiar Forrest tactic designed to elicit victory without bloodshed.
Fort Anderson, Paducah, Kentucky. Located on the west side of the city, this rebuilt supply depot was armed with seven cannon and garrisoned by 665 men, including many African American troops, Able, though wounded at Shiloh, Col. Stephen D. Hicks was in command. On March 25, Forrest’s cavalry rode in, attacked the fort, and took or destroyed such supplies, animals, and other items as desired in what has been called the Battle of Paducah (Library of Congress).
In the hours following, two Confederate Kentucky regiments under native Paducian Col. Albert P. “Sam” Thompson repeatedly charged Fort Anderson. Sharpshooters and local insurgents sniped at targets of opportunity from the upper stories of residences and from the windows and roofs of the warehouses lining the riverbank. Low as they might have been on ammunition (27,000 of 30,000 available rounds expended), the mostly African American defenders of the little bastion “fought bully,” winning the admiration of the Federal sailor and many others.
In addition to Federal soldiers, Forrest’s riflemen also made targets of the light draught gunboats Peosta and Paw Paw lying in the river near the stronghold. The latter was town stationship while the former had arrived from up the Tennessee just after dawn. Mississippi Squadron Seventh District boss Lt. Cmdr. James W. Shirk, a veteran of USN action at the 1862 Battle of Shiloh, had departed the Peosta for Cairo later in the morning for consultations with Capt. Pennock and missed the fight. Ever afterwards he cursed his bad timing. The gunboatmen remaining later believed that the Confederates might have captured Fort Anderson, “if it had not been for us.”
Lt. Cmdr. James W. Shirk, USN. Destined to become the longest-serving officer of the Mississippi Squadron, Shirk, like Fort Anderson’s Col. Hicks, also fought at Shiloh, serving as a timberclad captain. After captaining the ironclad Tuscumbia at Vicksburg, he became commander of the fleet’s Seventh District, which covered the Tennessee River. Though he was ill much of the time, his vessels would also participate in the upcoming fights at Fort Pillow and Johnsonville (Naval History and Heritage Command).
About 3 p.m., both Acting Volunteer Lieutenants Thomas E. Smith and A. F. O’Neill, commanders of the Peosta and Paw Paw, respectively, learned that Federal pickets had been driven in by approaching Confederate skirmishers. Both of the tinclads weighed anchor and beat to quarters. When the enemy appeared, the former steamed to the upper end of the town and opened fire with her bow guns. The latter dropped down to defend Fort Anderson and also commenced firing.
USS Peosta. When Confederate forces attacked Fort Anderson directly on March 25, 1864, they were met by a stout fuselage both from the Paducah bastion and two nearby gunboats. Both the Paw Paw and the Peosta (shown) were heavily armed and delivered a second devastating barrage when the Southerners, having fallen back, charged again. The two light-draughts would continue their patrols of the Lower Tennessee River for the remainder of the conflict (Naval History and Heritage Command).
The starboard battery aboard the Peosta was served as rapidly as possible. After some minutes, the gunboat dropped down to the foot of Broadway and fired directly up that street at targets of opportunity. When Col. Thompson’s men executed their first charge, she steamed down to a point opposite Fort Anderson and joined the Paw Paw in resisting the attack.
Two fruitless charges later Thompson was dead. The Peosta’s carpenter mate, Herbert Saunders, later told his mother in a letter: “He was shot with a rifle ball in the head and had a shell in him from the gunboat.”
While Forrest and Hicks negotiated over a possible surrender and fighting was briefly suspended, the Peosta returned to her previous position off Broadway. From that point, her lookouts witnessed Confederate soldiers plundering the stores on that street. Soon thereafter the boat headed back toward Fort Anderson. Once more, the starboard battery opened. Meanwhile, the Paw Paw remained near the Federal citadel. Low on ammunition, Lt. O’Neill ordered that his gunners fire slowly, taking care to aim as best they could.
Whenever they had the opportunity, Confederate troops peppered the two gunboats with musket fire. O’Neill for one thought that this action was a deliberate objective to “divert the attention of the gunboats from the fort by harassing them with sharpshooters.”
The Peosta’s tall chimneys and wide wheelboxes were a particular favorite of riflemen firing from the buildings on Front Street. Carpenter’s mate Saunders admitted that “while it lasted, their balls came pretty thick as some of them came in our portholes and some clean through the casemates.”
Lt. Smith later reported that he “reluctantly opened upon them, demolishing the Continental (or City) Hotel and brewery and setting several other buildings on fire.” “One building in particular,” a Confederate soldier remembered, “seemed to have attracted a well directed and concentrated fire.”
Officers from the 2nd Tennessee Cavalry (CSA) later told a correspondent from the Charleston Mercury that the tinclad’s bombardment sent “shingles, brick chimneys and window glass in wild profusion upon our heads.”
The Peosta continued to assail the riverbank warehouse hideout of the dismounted Volunteer horse soldiers. “We directed our whole fire on them at short range with shell, grape, and canister,” Mate Saunders noted.
The large Front Street brewery was a particular annoyance to the Peosta. Confederates shot down into the gunboat from the windows of its upper story, “riddling it considerably.” Lt. Smith ordered his gunners to halt this insult.
One Peosta shell collapsed the brewery’s roof while another hit an adjoining shed from which a rifleman was seen firing. Several more smashed into the building itself, tearing it “asunder.” Several men were wounded, a captain was killed, and a “blue wreath of smoke” quickly hung over the scene. Out of a gunport, Carpenter’s Mate Saunders took satisfaction in seeing that the tinclad’s cannon “soon fetched the bricks around their eyes.”
The gunboats continued to fire into the town in support of the Union troops in Fort Anderson, who were, themselves, actively maintaining their position. A Rebel trooper in the warehouse district near the river and on the receiving end of the bombardment recalled the “bursting shells and the crashing of the solid shot from the gunboats thunder[ed] through the buildings above and around us.”
Observers in nearby Metropolis could now see Paducah in flames and reported women and children escaping across the river to Illinois. A number of families and other survivors reaching the town reported street fighting and several later reported that all of Front Street was in ashes.
When firing from the fort ceased about 8:30 p.m., the Peosta arrived and came to anchor abreast of it. A half hour later, the Paw Paw “fired half a dozen rifle shell, but neither saw nor heard anything more of the enemy.”
Lt. Smith received word about 10:30 p.m. that the Rebels were destroying property and torching the quartermaster warehouses and commissaries’ buildings as they prepared to fall back. The Peosta once again got underway, steamed up to the town, and opened fire, her shells landing, hopefully, in the general vicinity of the raiders. Her deliberate shoot was completed just before midnight.
During the Paducah engagement, the Peosta fired 530 rounds and was hit 200 times by rifle shot. Despite many perforations, she was not seriously damaged, though two men were wounded. The Paw Paw loosed 177 rounds. She was not hit and no one was wounded. Lt. O’Neill did, however, receive a scratch from a mini ball on his right cheek and “a ball went through his pantaloons.”
Neither boat fired again during the remainder of the night. At dawn, Lt. Cmdr. Shirk arrived from Cairo and, as he approached the levee, he saw that the “shells from the gunboats and the fort did a great deal of damage to the town. Several buildings were burned, and a number have holes in them.” Northern newspapers later reported that some 50–125 buildings, mostly privately owned, were destroyed or badly damaged, including “the hospital, gas works, some of the French residences of the city, the custom house, and post office” plus the railroad depot, freight forwarding facilities, and tobacco warehouses.
Although anticipated by the Federals, the battle was not renewed the next morning. Unfortunately, Col. Hicks could not know this and, as a precaution, just after sunup, ordered all of the houses within musket range of Fort Anderson burnt.
Still, neither Shirk nor Brig. Gen. Brayman were very disturbed over the damage done. Paducah was long considered a town made up of Rebel sympathizers profiting from Federal largess and, in the words of the naval officer, these had now “received a lesson which they will not forget in a hurry.” In its report of the raid, the Indianapolis Journal made a blunt assessment: “Paducah is naturally destroyed.” When he learned of the raid, Maj. Gen. Hurlbut bluntly admitted, “I consider the damage done to Paducah as a proper lesson to that place and its vicinity.”
Having held Paducah for 10 hours, Maj. Gen. Forrest, despite the spirited shelling of the gunboats, helped himself to Yankee horses and quartermaster stores while burning 60 bales of cotton, a steamboat, and a dry-dock. Some merchants, the newspapers reported, “lost $25,000 to $50,000 worth of property.”
The Confederate leader and his men then retired to plan their next adventure. As they left, Forrest supposedly observed, according to an April 3 letter from Carpenter’s Mate Saunders to his mother, that “he did not care for that brown paper thing [the gunboat Paw Paw] but did like the looks of the Peosta.” Puffed up by this, the young repairman boasted: “We are the strongest gunboat in the upper fleet.”
On Sunday morning, the refugees who had crossed the river were allowed to return. Also during the day, seamen from the gunboats, by watches, were permitted liberty ashore to see “some of our work.” One part of the city was “riddled with our shot for a mile back and about a fourth of the city is burnt down,” Saunders and the men of the Peosta marveled.1
On the Tennessee River, word spread concerning the attack on Paducah, Kentucky, executed by Maj. Gen. Forrest. The tinclad Alfred Robb arrived at Clifton, Tennessee, on April 2 with a report and, by then, the defensive role of the Paw Paw and Peosta was magnified. Seaman James A. Dickinson of the station boat Tawah wrote what he heard in his diary: “Forrest with 10,000 men attacked Paducah, but was driven off by the Peosta and the Paw Paw after losing 2,000 men.”
On April 4, Forrest, writing from Richmond, Tennessee, advised his superiors, among other things: “There is a Federal force of five or six hundred at Fort Pillow, which I shall attend to in a day or two, as they have horses and supplies which we need.” Before the month’s first week was over, Forrest launched diversionary feints toward Memphis, Columbus, and, again, Paducah. It was hoped that these moves would not only cover his descent upon Pillow, but might also net additional stores and horses.
Fleet Capt. Pennock heard from Lt. Cmdr. Shirk on April 11 that Paducah was again under Rebel threat. It was hoped that Col. Stephen G. Hicks might be reinforced. While District of Cairo commander Brig. Gen. Mason Brayman sent two regiments, Pennock sent Eighth District flotilla leader Lt. Cmdr. Le Roy Fitch.
Several Cumberland River gunboats crossed district boundaries and began to reinforce Paducah on the morning of April 12. An attack was expected all day. Although the Rebels had not shown by evening, most of the Eighth District flotilla did. Forrest’s ruse was working.
Much further down the Mississippi that morning, Fort Pillow, located some 35 miles north of Memphis and a target for the U.S. Western Flotilla in 1862, had lately resumed its previously abandoned function as a guardpost protecting Federal river navigation. The former Confederate outpost was located atop a high bluff and nearly surrounded by two ravines extending back from the river. The one below it was home to several stores and homes, while right along the riverbank were quartermaster and commissary facilities. Coal Creek ravine was above the fort, which was now encircled by the main body of Forrest’s command.
Fort Pillow, Tennessee. Located 40 miles north of Memphis on a tall river bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, these defensive works were named for Brig. Gen. Gideon Pillow, CSA, who ordered them constructed early in 1862. Evacuated by Southerners in April, they were occupied by the Union in June. In spring 1864, the fort was armed with six cannon and had a garrison of around 600 men, nearly half of whom were African Americans. The tinclad USS New Era was an added protection, stationed in the waters below. Forrest’s Cavalry Corps, seeking additional supplies, attacked on April 12, killing many Federal soldiers in what became known as the “Fort Pillow Massacre.” (Library of Congress)
The Yankee garrison, made up of approximately 262 African American and 295 Caucasian soldiers or a few more from the 11th U.S. Colored Troop and a battalion of the 14th Tennessee Cavalry (USA), had a number of cannon, and was reinforced by the tinclad New Era under Acting Master James Marshall. Neither the defenders afloat nor those ashore knew that the feared Rebel commander was about to pounce.
Still, these Union Army and Navy elements had made some rudimentary preparations for mutual defense in the event of any attack, including plans for evacuation. It was agreed that should the fort commander signal that he was under attack and about to be overwhelmed, his last men would “drop down under the bank” and the gunboat would “give the rebels canister.”
First contact between Forrest’s Confederates and Union pickets at Fort Pillow occurred at 6 a.m., quickly sending a few survivors among the latter scurrying back inside to sound the alarm. Within minutes, the Rebel charge was sounded and grayclad soldiers swarmed up to the ravines outside the enclosure and then over the walls while sharpshooters made certain Federal defenders kept their heads—and muskets—below the parapets.
When the first alarms went off, the New Era backed out into the Mississippi and cleared for action. As the sound of musketry increased and fires were seen, Fort Pillow’s commander signaled Marshall, asking that the gunboat fire into the two nearby ravines where Confederates were assembling to assault. These requests were conveyed by an officer standing at the rear of the fort and waving a flag.
The gunboat immediately dropped shells onto the ravine at the lower junction of Ripley and Fulton Roads and before long, she was a big target for Forrest’s enfilading riflemen. She then shifted to the Coal Creek ravine to the north of the outpost.
Maj. Gen. Forrest later reported that the tinclad’s continuous cannonade “was without effect.” Historian Fuchs later amplified that opinion of her efforts. “For the most part,” he wrote in 2002, she was “ineffectual in causing either dislodgment of the enemy or casualties.” At best, he added, the New Era did cause a few Rebel soldiers to move from one ravine to another.
A veteran tincladman later wrote his own assessment of the New Era’s bombardment, laying its ineffectiveness to her howitzers and their ammunition. Recording his memoirs at Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1881, E. J. Huling opined that she “had very little ammunition, except for her howitzers, and most of her shells fell short or did little execution.” The onetime assistant paymaster continued: “Had she been armed with the same kind of guns that the boat I served upon carried (30 pound rifled Parrotts, sending shells three miles), she could have aided materially in defending that fort, and perhaps have prevented the capture.”
In this time, numerous civilian women and children, both white and African Americans, made their way to the riverbank and hid behind the largest of three moored coal barges. Alerted to this development, Marshall eased his tinclad back toward shore. Gaining the attention of the refugees with a speaking trumpet, the New Era’s commander told them to climb into the barge. A line was passed and the barge was towed, under fire, to a position above the bar at Coal Creek.
The gunboat cut the barge loose and turned to reenter the fray. As she churned away, the frantic passengers were advised to go ashore and hide in the woods. All this time, the dependents were under fire from Confederate sharpshooters, who managed to hit and kill one woman. Marshall saw the refugees crouching down and afraid to move and slowed the New Era in order to point out to them, by trumpet, a nearby house to which they might flee.
The side-wheel gunboat churned back to Coal Creek ravine around 8 a.m., and resumed firing on the enemy per requests from the fort’s defenders. N. D. Wetmore, a reporter for the Memphis Argus who was among the first to tour the field after the battle, wrote that the gunboat “shelled the rebels and drove them from a position which they had gained on the south side of the fort.”
The swift current and rain-swollen river made navigation difficult, and required that the New Era fire from her starboard battery only. This necessity soon caused the guns to overheat and foul.
The thick timber made it difficult to dislodge the advancing enemy. U.S. congressmen later took testimony that the affected butternuts shifted position when targeted: “as they were shelled out of one ravine, they would make their appearance in the other.”
According to the gunboat’s log, Capt. John Booth’s Liberty No. 2 came down the river about 9:30 a.m. She landed at the refugee coal barge, where Booth offered to take aboard all who wished to pass with him to Memphis. After the vessel pulled out into the stream, she passed the fort and the New Era, receiving a musket volley from shore in passing.
The fighting ashore grew fiercer all morning. Sharpshooters poured a rain of fire onto the New Era from every direction. Shortly after noon, Acting Master Marshall later recalled, a two-gun masked battery opened on his boat under cover of Wolf’s Hill, but did no damage.
A lull occurred about 1:45 p.m. when Maj. Gen. Forrest sent a surrender demand to the Union commanders under a flag of truce. The tinclad retired to midstream, a short distance from the fort, and maintained a “slow wheel” against the current. No effort was made to drift downstream or otherwise seek better firing positions. The discussions progressed for an hour and a half, during which smoke was seen down the river from approaching boats.
About two and a half miles below Fort Pillow, Capt. B. Rushmore Pegram’s giant Olive Branch, en route to Cairo from New Orleans via Memphis, was hailed from shore by several women. Easing in, the captain of the 697-ton steamer was told that Forrest had attacked the garrison. He had supposedly already captured two steamboats and would take Pegram’s craft too if she continued on.
About 150 passengers were aboard the Olive Branch plus the reassigned Brig. Gen. George F. Shepley and two whole field batteries complete with 120 men, caissons, and horses. Pegram decided to run past the fort, but was countermanded when he informed Shepley. The general, recently sacked as military governor of Louisiana, saw a chance to rush to victory and redeem his reputation.
About this time, the Hope, usually engaged in the Ohio River trade but on special charter, approached without passengers and towing coal barges. She was hailed by Shepley, who ordered her to discard her tow and take him and a section of battery aboard so they could steam to the rescue of Fort Pillow.
Before this could be accomplished, yet another boat hove in sight from upstream. This was the M. R. Cheek and she, too, was hailed by Shepley. Coming alongside the Olive Branch, this latest visitor received Shepley and two subordinate officers. Work began on transferring part of a battery.
As this business was progressing, the Liberty No. 2 came in sight up the river, her decks lined with soldiers and a few rescued civilians from the fort earlier towed to safety in a coal barge. There was initial suspicion aboard the Olive Branch that this might be a Confederate capture preparing to attack.
That notion was quickly disabused when, drawing into voice range, Capt. Booth shouted that he had rapidly passed Fort Pillow and that all was quiet. A gunboat lay off the outpost, a flag of truce was flying, and it was safe to pass. The civilian captain, though possibly aware of a battle from refugee tales, had not experienced much shooting beyond what he probably took for a guerrilla volley as he sped by the fort on a strong current and passed down.
Shepley was not convinced of Pillow’s pacificity and elected to mount a reconnaissance. Thus the Olive Branch, followed by the Hope and Cheek, steamed up toward the reported battle site. As they approached, Maj. Gen. Forrest ordered defensive preparations.
When the Federal boats came within range, Confederate sharpshooters, stationed on a bluff overlooking the close-in channel of the river, took them under fire. Several shots hit close to the Olive Branch’s pilothouse, and Capt. Pegram ordered his boat to steam across the Mississippi to a bar near the opposite bank. The Hope and Cheek followed.
Straining against the rapid current, the New Era came up with the Olive Branch group in midstream. A boat was lowered away and rowed over to the civilian steamer. A naval officer informed Shepley of the reason for the flag of truce and urged the general to proceed to Cairo at once for reinforcements. As the great wheels of Pegram’s boat thrashed ahead, the Hope and Cheek were ordered tied up in the chute on the right side of the foot of Island No. 30.
Communications being what they were during this time, Union naval officers north of Fort Pillow simply did not know that the desperate fight was going on and believed Forrest was after them. For example, during the afternoon, Lt. Cmdr. Shirk wired Capt. Pennock informing him that Confederates had surrounded Paducah.
By 2 p.m., men from three Rebel Kentucky regiments appeared on line “on the borders of a timber,” but made no assault. Fort Anderson opened long-range fire, while “the gunboats, cruising up and down in front of the town, threw shells over the town in the direction of the enemy’s position.”
Seaman Dickinson aboard the Tawah confided to his diary: “Rebels entered Paducah this afternoon but were driven out by the gunboats.” When nothing further happened, it was speculated that the Southern horsemen might also have their sights set on either Columbus or Cairo and maybe even to crossing the Ohio River a la Morgan.
As the afternoon waned peacefully at Paducah, the opposite was true at Fort Pillow. Choosing to interpret the Olive Branch nautical maneuverings as a major reason to end the parlay, the Confederates resumed the battle at about 3:15 p.m. and charged the fort.
Although the two howitzers on Wolf’s Hill did not damage the New Era, the gunboat could not silence them or otherwise help the Union defenders. The river channel ran directly under the bluff some 80 feet below and there was a broad bar causing shallow water opposite the fort. Neither permitted the tinclad to gain the space necessary to elevate her guns high enough to hit the masked battery.
With the fort about to be overrun, the last Union defenders ran below the bluff, hoping to take up new last-ditch positions while the New Era covered them with her guns. The tinclad did not “give the rebels canister.” Nearly out of ammunition and acting out of prudence if not confusion, Acting Master Marshall ordered his gunports closed and his craft to steam out of range.
The fleeing bluecoat soldiers panicked when they found no naval support awaiting their flight through the bushes. Some tried to resist; most were killed by Southern troops closing in from every angle.
The tinclad captain later testified to visiting U.S. congressmen of the real concern that, if he moved downstream closer in toward shore, his fire might hit the last-ditch defenders. Furthermore, he believed that the advancing Rebels might also find a way to board or sink the New Era. “Suffice it to say, at a critical moment,” wrote historian Fuchs years later, “the gunboat was out of position and the captain exhibited a reluctance that some would describe as ‘criminal prudence.’”
Fort Pillow fell to Forrest late in the afternoon with U.S. losses of approximately 231–261 killed and 87–100 badly wounded. A total of approximately 168 Caucasian and just 58 African American soldiers were POW. The large proportion of African American deaths led to charges of a Southern massacre and a debate which rages to this day.
After Pillow’s capture, according to Forrest’s biographer Dr. Wyeth, the New Era, churning slowly offshore, was signaled by a Rebel officer on the bank waving a white flag. The Confederates wanted to discuss arrangements that could be made for the removal of Federal wounded. The flag was either missed or ignored as the gunboat moved upstream around a bend.
When the boat was above, Acting Master Marshall ordered her to take aboard women and children refugees. Just after midnight the tinclad dropped anchor off Barfield’s Point. During the engagement, the New Era’s great guns had expended 191 rounds of shell, 85 of shrapnel, 6 of canister; her sailors and marines also used up 375 rounds of rifle cartridges.
About 5 p.m. as the battle climaxed, two messengers dispatched to Memphis by Marshall earlier in the day were received in the office of naval station commander Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Pattison. After hearing the facts of the fight as then known and taking a request for ammunition, the city’s top naval officer summoned Acting Master William Ferguson, previously executive officer of the tinclad Rattler, and ordered him to take his gunboat, the Silver Cloud, to Fort Pillow post haste. There he was to offer the defenders whatever assistance might be required.
The Silver Cloud lay off the Tennessee city without steam up as workmen completed repairing her furnace fire walls. Unable to move on her own, the tinclad was tied to Capt. Robert K. Riley’s mail steamer Platte Valley.
As Ferguson’s boat pushed north against the stiff current lashed to the 220-foot long much larger side-wheeler, it was hoped that Fort Pillow was safe. About 20 miles above Memphis, the gunboatman learned that such was not the case. A passing transport “spoken” about 10 p.m. confirmed that the little bastion had been taken. The fire wall repairs were completed shortly after this midstream rendezvous and the light draught’s engineers were able to raise steam. Even though she had enough power “to make 6 knots against the current,” the Silver Cloud did not immediately cast off from her tow. Two sets of paddle wheels thrashing north would provide more speed than one stern wheel alone.
Agreeing to stop at Fort Pillow with supplies, the steamer Golden Gate, also with private freight aboard, also departed Memphis, but was captured by irregulars overnight when she halted at Bradley’s Landing, Arkansas. Readers of The New York Times, like other journal subscribers in the East, learned that “the boat, passengers, and crew were rifled of everything” before it was burned.
The Silver Cloud and Platte Valley reached Fulton, Missouri, about three miles below Fort Pillow, at 6 a.m. on April 13. There Ferguson learned that Rebel pickets were on the riverbanks about a half mile further on. The two craft separated and continued cautiously upstream, the civilian craft carefully following in the wake of the gunboat.
USS Silver Cloud. Although the USS New Era fired in defense of Union troops during the April 12, 1864, Battle of Fort Pillow, Confederate attackers forced her off. She remained in the area afterwards, picking up survivors and assisting with burials. When word of the fighting reached Memphis, the light draught Silver Cloud was dispatched upstream to provide assistance, but did not arrive until two days after the engagement. After further assisting in relief and burial duties, she returned to base (Library of Congress).
Upriver at this time, the New Era was just getting underway, having transferred her refugees to the newly arrived stern-wheeler Lady Pike. With the civilian boat following behind, Acting Master Marshall’s gunboat headed back toward Fort Pillow, intent upon seeking a truce under which to rescue wounded and bury the Northern dead.
Meanwhile, as warned, the Silver Cloud came upon the Southern vidette outpost. Small groups of cavalry were seen in the area, including the nearby hills, but they did not resist. Ferguson ordered his gunners to bombard the nearby woods and all suspicious-looking landmarks as the gunboat and transport slowly made their way to a point opposite the fort.
About 8 a.m., the gunboat crept on a short distance further, rounded to, and stood down the river near the bank. As the embedded Argus reporter Wetmore wrote, everywhere in the fort public and private buildings were afire. Small Confederate groups were seen moving about applying the torch to barracks, huts, and stables.
From their hiding spots, Union survivors and wounded came out and waved to the black savior. The Silver Cloud landed and began taking them aboard; as she did so, she was fired upon, without effect, by Rebel sharpshooters. The gunboat stood out into the river and began shelling the hills and bluffs adjacent to the fort. Within a few minutes, riders appeared waving a flag of truce. Firing ceased on both sides and a cutter was sent ashore to inquire.
Maj. Gen. Forrest offered, via his aide-de-camp, to allow the Federal boats to send landing parties ashore until 5 p.m. to bury dead Union soldiers and take aboard, under parole, the wounded. This gesture was quickly accepted. As the gunboat moved to shore, the Platte Valley was signaled to move up and come alongside.
Burial parties were active from both sides, with the Confederates interring far more than the Union sailors. As the bluejackets continued their grisly work and the injured were taken aboard the Platte Valley, smoke from the New Era and Lady Pike was seen upstream. The pair signaled and came in, with the former sending a party ashore under an officer to assist with the burials.
Having taken aboard some 57 wounded soldiers (including seven African Americans), the Platte Valley departed for the naval hospital at Cairo, where she arrived on April 14, five men, according to the Chicago Daily Tribune, having died while en route. Just after her departure, something on the order of 20 additional wounded soldiers appeared from beyond the Confederate lines. As fortune would have it, the Red Rover, the first USN hospital ship, was en route downriver at this time and put into shore to provide assistance.
The total number of injured rescued totaled 89; sailors from the New Era and Silver Cloud buried 205 Federal comrades. When the truce flag was withdrawn, the Silver Cloud immediately stood down the river to report to Lt. Cmdr. Pattison at Memphis. The New Era took station about three miles below the fort, reclaiming a grounded coal barge that was cut loose during the battle.
Brig. Gen. Brayman learned from evacuated dependents on the afternoon of April 12 that the Rebels were at Columbus, demanding its surrender. The officer wired Capt. Pennock, and, about 3 p.m., the fleet captain sent Lt. Cmdr. Fitch with two tinclads to the rescue.
Covering the 19 miles down from Cairo to Columbus, Fitch went ashore on the 13th and found that the investing Confederates had already retired. Neither he nor any of the Union officers involved ever knew that the threatening enemy force consisted of only 150 men sent to create a distraction.
About this time, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles received a telegram from Pennock reporting that Fort Pillow had, indeed, been attacked. This atop Confederate demands for the surrenders of both Columbus and Paducah. With Columbus safe, the fleet captain reported, Fitch would steam on to Fort Pillow with orders to shell the Rebels out and to keep the river open.2
Alerted by Pennock, Lt. Cmdr. Fitch sped to Fort Pillow’s relief with Moose and Hastings at flank speed. He knew that a prompt arrival was necessary to prevent Forrest from throwing up batteries and cutting off communication with the squadron below. The two tinclads reached Fort Pillow on the afternoon of April 14, and their crews were undoubtedly pleased to find that the main Southern force was gone. Still, the pair promptly joined the New Era in shelling away a few remaining Confederate horsemen torching coal barges at a point just above Coal Creek. The grayclads “displayed considerable bravery” admitted Fitch after the encounter.
Gunboats at Fort Pillow after the battle. In command at Cairo while RAdm. Porter was on the Red River, Fleet Captain Alexander Pennock, upon learning of the Fort Pillow assault, ordered a pair of tinclads then at Columbus, Kentucky, to steam to Fort Pillow’s relief. Upon their April 14 arrival, they joined the New Era in shelling away a few remaining Confederate horsemen. At dawn next morning, burial parties from the three vessels went ashore to complete the interment of the remaining dead (Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, v. 1).
The three tinclads, in line ahead formation, pursued the Rebel riders down the wooded shore for some distance, steaming through a chute next to Island No. 30 while sending random shots after them. The chase lasted until dark when the cavalry faded away. Having determined that the enemy had not crossed Hatchee River, the USN task group commander knew that Fort Pillow was safe—if still smoking. At dawn on April 15, burial parties from the three tinclads went ashore at Fort Pillow to complete the interment of the remaining dead. The New Era’s magazine was replenished and she resumed her position as local guardship as Fitch returned upriver.
While the belated succor of Fort Pillow was underway, a Confederate diversionary force made another move on Paducah, driving in the Union pickets and once more offering the city a flag of truce to remove women and children before attacking. When the hour was up, no assault materialized.
Lt. Cmdr. Shirk covered the scene of this return visit with the Peosta, Paw Paw, Key West, and Fairplay. When Confederate riders were reported in the upper part of the town and nearby Jersey, the four tinclads pounded the areas, reportedly driving the enemy back to the local fairgrounds out of range. Still, during the noise and confusion, butternut cavalrymen managed to steal into the city and wrangle all of the U.S. government horses remaining in town—their major goal—and some belonging to civilians as well.
Upstream at Cairo that evening, Capt. Pennock wrote out a brief message to RAdm. Porter, then facing his own immediate challenges at Grand Ecore, Louisiana, providing the latest available information on events at Columbus, Paducah, and Fort Pillow. He concluded with the optimistic assessment, “With the able assistance of Shirk and Fitch, I have no doubt of being able to take care of the river and keep it open.” When the squadron commander learned of the loss, he passed orders for the Essex, Benton, Choctaw, and Lafayette, the four heavy gunboats not actively participating in his Red River expedition, to steam north and secure Pillow against further assault.
Back in Illinois waters late on April 16, Lt. Cmdr. Fitch reported it safe for river traffic to pass Fort Pillow. Pennock immediately informed Porter and Welles, in writing and by telegraph. The news allowed cancellation of the big ironclad movement. Forrest, as he himself acknowledged, could not long stop the movement of river commerce, though the very next night, 30 Confederate soldiers near Fort Pillow, supposedly part of Forrest’s rear guard reportedly dressed in Northern uniforms, fired upon the steamer Minoa as she passed, doing no significant damage.3
1. U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (128 vols.; Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880–1901), Series I, Vol. 32, Pt. 1, 504–505, 547–552, 607–608, 611–612 (cited hereafter as OR, followed by the series number, volume number, part number, if any, and page[s]); OR, I, 32, 3: 217; U.S. Navy Department, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (31 vols.; Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1894–1922), Series I, Vol. 26, 183, 195–207 (cited hereafter as ORN, followed by the series number, volume number, part number, if any, and page[s]); Charleston Mercury, May 2, 1864; The New York Times, April 1, 1864, April 8, 1865; New York Tribune, April 2, 1864; Chicago Times, March 29, 1864; Memphis Daily Bulletin, March 31, 1864; Chicago Daily Tribune, March 28–29 and April 6, 1864; Indianapolis Daily Journal, April 2, 1864; Wisconsin State Register, April 2, 1864; Ripley Bee, March 31, 1864; Polk County Press, April 2, 1864; The Paducah Sun, March 24, 2014; Ronald K. Huch, “Fort Pillow Massacre: The Aftermath of Paducah,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, LXVI (1973), 62–70; Nashville Times, March 9, 1864; William Tecumseh Sherman, Memoirs (Penguin Classics; New York: Penguin Books, 2000), 365, 379, 382; John Allan Wyeth, Life of General Nathan Bedford Forrest (New York: Harper & Bros., 1904; reprint, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959), 315–319, 326–330; Mark Zimmerman, Iron Maidens and the Devil’s Daughters: U.S. Navy Gunboats versus Confederate Gunners and Cavalry on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, 1861–65 (Nashville, TN: Zimco Publications, 2019), 123–128; Herbert Saunders, “The Civil War Letters of Herbert Saunders,” edited by Ronald K. Huch, Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, LXIX (January 1971), 22–24; William R. Morris, “The Tennessee River Voyages of the U.S.S. Peosta,” Morris homepage, http://www.centuryinter.net/nacent/bs/peosta.htm (accessed March 3, 1997); Robert S. Henry, “First with the Most” Forrest (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1944; reprint, New York: Mallard Press, 1991), 251; Thomas Jordan and J. Pryor, The Campaigns of Lieut. Gen. N. B. Forrest and of Forrest’s Cavalry (New Orleans and New York: Blelock & Co., 1868; reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1996), 412–414; Lonnie E. Maness, An Untutored Genius: The Military Career of General Nathan Bedford Forrest (Oxford, MS: The Guild Bindery Press, 1990), 224–227; Andrew Ward, River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War (New York: Viking Press, 2005), 102–125; Byrd Douglas, Steamboatin’ on the Cumberland (Nashville: The Tennessee Book Company, 1961), 159.
2. James A. Dickinson, Diary (photocopy), April 2, 16, 1864, James A. Dickinson Papers, Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, Fremont; ORN, I, 26: 214–216, 219–226; OR, I, 32, 1: 553, 556, 558–563, 568, 571–574, 595–597, 609, 612–614, 621; OR, I, 32, 3: 520; U.S. Congress, Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Fort Pillow Massacre (38th Cong., 1st sess., House Report 65; Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1864), pp.3–4, 85–89; St. Louis Daily Missouri Democrat, April 16, 1864; St. Louis Daily Union, April 16, 1864; Hartford Daily Courant, April 18, 1864; Cincinnati Daily Commercial, April 20, 1864; Chicago Daily Tribune, April 15, 17, 1864; Memphis Argus, April 14, 1864; The New York Times, April 16, 18, 20, 24, and May 3, 1864; New York Evening Post, April 15, 21, 1864; Brian Steel Wills, The River Was Dyed with Blood: Nathan Bedford Forrest and Fort Pillow (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014), 102–109; Ward, River Run Red, 157–158, 176–182; Richard L. Fuchs, An Unerring Fire: The Massacre at Fort Pillow (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2002), 46–49, 51–53,81–83; Logbook of the U.S.S. New Era, April 12, 1864,” quoted in John Cimprich and Robert C. Mamfort, Jr., “Fort Pillow Revisited: New Evidence about an Old Controversy,” Civil War History, XXVIII (December 1982), 294–295; Cimprich and Mamfort, “Dr. Fitch’s Report on the Fort Pillow Massacre,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, XLIV (Spring 1985), 30–31; Wyeth, Life of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, 319–349, 373, 380, 589; Henry, “First with the Most” Forrest, 254–260; Charles W. Anderson, “The True Story of Fort Pillow,” Confederate Veteran, III (November 1895), 323; E. J. Huling, Reminiscences of Gunboat Life in the Mississippi Squadron (Saratoga Springs, NY: Sentinel Print, 1881), 7; James Dinkins, “The Capture of Fort Pillow,” Confederate Veteran, XXXIII (December 1925), 461; Thomas Jordan and J. Pryor, The Campaigns of Lieut. Gen. N. B. Forrest and of Forrest’s Cavalry, 424–446; James Alex Baggett, Homegrown Yankees: Tennessee’s Union Cavalry in the Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009), 215–224; Brian S. Wills, A Battle from the Start: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 174–177; Maness, An Untutored Genius, 229–260; George S. Burkhardt, “Fort Pillow,” in his Confederate Rage, Yankee Wrath: No Quarter in the Civil War (Carbondale: University of Southern Illinois Press, 2013), 105–117.
3. OR, I, 30, 4: 508–509; OR, I, 32, 1: 556–614; ORN, I, 215–218, 226–233; The New York Times, April 18, 1864; Hartford Daily Courant, April 18, 1864; Wyeth, Life of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, 333–361; Thomas Jordan and J. Pryor, The Campaigns of Lieut. Gen. N. B. Forrest and of Forrest’s Cavalry, 424–454; David Dixon Porter, Naval History of the Civil War (New York: Sherman Publishing Company, 1886; reprint, Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, 1984), 518–519; Ward, River Run Red, 280–282. It is not our purpose to review the charges of a Fort Pillow massacre, a matter which has been hashed and rehashed in the nearly 150 years since. We have noted several titles in our bibliography and call the reader's attention to Robert C. Mainfort, Jr., "Fort Pillow Massacre: A Statistical Note," Journal of American History, LXXVI (December 1989), 836–837, and John Cimprich, “The Fort Pillow Massacre: Assessing the Evidence,” in John David Smith, ed. Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 150–168. Recriminations regarding the USN responsibility in the fiasco began to appear in the newspapers almost immediately. One particularly galling story suggested that the reason only one gunboat was at Fort Pillow during the attack was because at least five, including Lafayette and Avenger, were up the Big Black River seeking to prize 4,000 available cotton bales. The New York Times, April 18,1864.