What fascinated me in Sunday's Civil War notes was the mention of a fight at Fort Pillow. The remains of the fort are just a few miles up the road from my house, but I was unaware of the actions that took place there in 1862. Here's a summary of what I learned.
the start of 1862 the line that separated Union and Confederate territory ran
along the Kentucky-Tennessee border, reaching the Mississippi at Columbus.
However, after the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson by U. S. Grant in
February 1862, the Confederates had to abandon that line in favor of one that
that ran through Tennessee. The western end of that line was located at New
Madrid and Island No. 10. However, even these new positions were dangerously
exposed to Union attack. At the end of February a force of over 20,000 men
under General John Pope marched overland to capture the two strongholds. On 3
March Pope began a siege of New Madrid, on the northern bank of the river. On
13 March the Confederate defenders of the town pulled back to Island No. 10,
abandoning the town.
Pope, with 20,000 troops launched his attack on 7 April. Two gunboats
bombarded the Confederate positions at Watson’s Landing, south of New Madrid,
and west of Island No. 10. Pope’s troops landed soon after. Trapped by greatly
superior forces, the Confederate defenders of Island No. 10 had no choice but
The capture of Island No. 10 was a key moment in opening of the
Mississippi. Only one more position, Fort Pillow, a Confederate fort on the
Tennessee bank of the Mississippi River. remained between the Union fleets and
Memphis. On the same day that Island No. 10 fell, U.S. Grant launched his
counterattack at Shiloh,
forcing General Beauregard to retreat to Corinth and destroying any chances
that Fort Pillow might be held. After
a Union army expedition against the fort was abandoned, the burden of capturing
the position fell to the Western Flotilla, a collection of ironclads and
The Confederate defenders of the Mississippi had constructed their own
fleet of rams. On 10 May, those rams launched a surprise attack on the Union
fleet attacking Fort Pillow. The Union fleet’s response was not well
coordinated. Two of their ironclads were badly damaged by ramming attacks,
before the Confederate fleet retreated into the shelter of Fort Pillow’s guns.
The Confederates soon evacuated Fort Pillow itself. The main Confederate
army had been forced to retreat from Corinth. This left the fort exposed to an
attack from the rear, and so
ordered the garrison to leave, after destroying the fort. During the night of 4
June they carried out that order, before withdrawing towards Memphis. The next
morning the Union fleet occupied the site of the fort.
After the evacuation of Fort Pillow, the next Union target was Memphis.
On 6 June, the Union’s Western Flotilla, reinforced by their own rams, fought
and defeated the Confederate fleet at Memphis, and
captured the city. Fort Pillow remained in use. It returned to prominence later
in the war, when Confederate cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest captured the
fort, and massacred dozens of black soldiers (Fort Pillow Massacre, 12 April
This is a summary of two articles found at
J (14 August 2007), Battle of Island No. 10, 7 April 1862 ,
Rickard, J (23 February 2007), Battle of Fort Pillow, 10 May 1862 ,