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The Question:

Was the Union army in control of Fort Pillow before it was attacked during the Civil War? Were they flying the "black flag"? If so, what does that flag mean?

The Answer:

Fort Pillow was built by Confederate Gen. Gideon Pillow and was located on the Mississippi River, about 40 miles north of Memphis, Tenn. It was the site of one of the bloodiest and most controversial battles of the Civil War.

It was abandoned by the Confederates and occupied by Union troops in June of 1862. Almost half of the 600 Union troops stationed there were black. A Confederate attack on April 12, 1864 led by Gen. Nathan Forrest slaughtered the Union troops, with a higher ratio of blacks killed than whites.

Later called the "Fort Pillow Massacre," a Congressional subcommittee investigation revealed conflicting eyewitness accounts about what went on during the battle. Some accounts claim that the Union troops surrendered, but were massacred anyway; others claim that the Union soldiers never surrendered, lacking experienced leadership, and that many of them were drunk at the time of the attack, leading to a failure to properly defend themselves. Still, the ruthless details of the killings led many to believe the Confederate attacks were racially motivated.

The "black flag" generally signified that no quarter was to be given in the absence of surrender. Confederate soldiers are said to have cried "Black Flag!" as they charged the fort, but we're not sure whether an actual black flag was flown.

You might like to check out The Battle of Fort Pillow and this shorter summary.

—The Editors


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