Controversy still surrounds Battle of Fort Pillow 150 years later

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HENNING, Tenn. -- One of the bloodiest battles in the Civil War was fought less than an hour's drive from Memphis at Fort Pillow. Deemed a massacre of black soldiers, some African-Americans are now celebrating what happened there and are vowing to remember Fort Pillow.

"My great-grandfather was a survivor of the Fort Pillow massacre," Linda Faye Williams Hearn from Collierville said.

She added, "They're fascinated, even the kids in our family. They're fascinated when they hear."

Williams Hearn takes pride in her family history. It's one they traced back to the Battle of Fort Pillow, which took place on April 12, 1864. It's where her great-grandfather, Peter Williams, joined other slaves to fight alongside the Union Army.

"Our word-of-mouth story was that he was left for dead and that he actually pretended to be dead," Williams Hearn said.

Private Williams was among 304 members of the United States Colored Troops stationed at Fort Pillow in Henning, Tennessee. Only a few survived after a surprise attack by Confederate troops led by General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

"Everyone was pushed back to the area where we're at now, and I could just imagine with the cannon fire, the rifles and everything going off, it would go from a quiet morning to basically chaos," Robby Tidwell, a park ranger with Fort Pillow State Park, said.

That morning was a turning point in the Civil War, and the controversy surrounding it lives on today. It's known as the Fort Pillow massacre. What happened that day was so horrific, "Remember Fort Pillow" became the battle cry from that day forward.

"Many of them actually had laid down their arms and surrendered because they were outnumbered, and yet they were killed without weapons in the surrendering position," Dr. Randolph Meade Walker, a history professor, said.

It's been called 'an orgy of death' and 'intentional murder.' Some say General Forrest's motivation was racism. Other historians say the Confederacy never got an 'official' surrender from the Union leaders, and contend Forrest's motivation was winning the war, nothing more.

Tidwell said, "I've heard it said the battle of Fort Pillow is the biggest controversy of the Civil War and the controversy is, is it a massacre? Is it not a massacre? We have people come in that have real strong feelings on both sides."

Retelling the story is a challenge for state park rangers who manage Fort Pillow. The site of the bloody battlefield is now a spot for tourists, and a newly renovated museum sits below the hill were the general fort was located.

Many of the United States Colored Troops killed at Fort Pillow are now buried as unknown soldiers at National Cemetery on Jackson Avenue in Memphis. The controversy surrounding their deaths lives on 150 years later, and so does the battle cry "Remember Fort Pillow."

"I think that we have raised a generation that is clueless about their roots and as a result, I think they are unconnected to the past," Walker said.

"I would hope that the result, that young black people especially, that see what their ancestors did for them to gain the freedom, that they now have would really look at it and absorb it," Williams Hearn said.

The great-grandchildren of Private Peter Williams are doing their part to keep alive that history. They're using the stories of what happened on that battleground as inspiration for the next generation.

The state of Tennessee just recently updated the museum at Fort Pillow to include more information about black soldiers that were stationed there.

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