The Abandonment of Fort Pillow

June 3, 1862 (Tuesday)

General John B. Villepigue, commander of Fort Pillow

General P.G.T. Beauregard’s withdraw from Corinth, Mississippi may have saved his army, but it doomed Confederate strongholds along the Mississippi River. The most immediately effected was Fort Pillow, a well-armed series of batteries overlooking the water, forty miles north of Memphis. Though construction started nearly a year previous, it wasn’t until May that the bulk of the construction was completed.

With two water-line batteries, several Columbiads, even more heavy siege guns, and artillery dotting the landscape for miles, Fort Pillow was an incredibly intimidating place. But with the fall of Corinth came the fall of the railroad to Memphis and the impossibility of getting supplies to the fort.

Fort Pillow from an August 1862 edition of the New York Tribune

It wasn’t starvation that was the most immediate problem for Fort Pillow’s 3,600 men, however. The Union Naval flotilla that dueled with their Confederate counterparts at the Battle of Plum Run Bend the second week of May, was still close and often shelled the fort from afar.1

By the end of May, Union commanders were readying themselves for a full on assault of Fort Pillow. But at the same time as they were planning it, General Beauregard sent word to the fort’s commander, General John Bordenave Villepigue.

Right before evacuating Corinth, Beauregard informed Villepigue that he must “immediately evacuate Fort Pillow for Grenada [in Mississippi – 150 miles south] by the best and shortest route” before the Union troops moved any farther west. Both understood that this meant Memphis would also fall. “Whenever you shall be about to abandon the fort you will telegraph the commanding officer at Memphis to burn all the cotton, sugar, &c, in the vicinity of that city,” instructed Beauregard.

Anything that General Villepigue could not carry with him – arms, artillery, supplies, etc. – was to be destroyed. As for resupplying, Beauregard optimistically cautioned that “arms will be furnished you from the depot at Columbus, Miss., should there be any there.”2

USS Queen of the West

As word spread through the Confederate ranks along the Mississippi, cries of protest were heralded from Memphis and Jeff Thompson, who, with his partisan rangers, promised to hold the river for a month if he could put the fort’s mortars on rafts.3

But it was too late. All through the day, Villepigue’s troops filtered through Memphis, reminding the citizens that their city was being abandoned by the Confederacy.4 Villepigue, who had been wanting to abandon the fort for over a month,5 got his infantry away. During the afternoon, 600 troops and the rest of the ammunition were taken by steamer to Vicksburg.6

Col. Charles Ellet, Jr. was totally cool with nepotism.

Union Col. Charles Ellet, Jr., had set his eyes upon the steamer and set about to sink her with the Queen of the West, a sidewheel steamer fitted out as a ram and commanded by his son, Charles Rivers Ellet. After ordering his brother, Lt. Col. Alfred Ellet, to tag along in the Monarch, Col. Ellet prepared his men. Unfortunately, “the captain, two out of the three pilots, the first mate, and all the engineers, and nearly all the crew” thought the job too risky and declined the service.

As the Queen and the Monarch pulled in view of the fort, the Rebel steamer shoved off down the river.7 The remaining Rebel artillery crew, however, made their presence known. They double-shotted their guns and quickly drove off the Federal ships.

This was the last work they would do at Fort Pillow. After the short battle, the artillerymen vacated the fort, leaving behind a small crew and General Villepigue himself to do the work of destruction.

“First we set fire to the quartermaster’s stores; next, the commissary, and then every ‘shanty’ on the ‘hill.’ We blew up all the guns, except two which would not burst. It was a terrific sight — the rain pouring down, the thunder rolling midst the lightning flashes, while the Yankees were pouring a stream of fire, making the sight sublime, though terrible.”8

By the morning of the 4th, Fort Pillow was a smoldering, hollow shell. General Villepigue and his men were on their way to Grenada and the Federal troops would soon claim the fort as their own.

Fort Pillow, April 1862

  1. Fort Pillow, a Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory by John Cimprich, LSU Press, 2011. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 10, Part 1, p902-903. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 10, Part 2, p579. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 10, Part 2, p580. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 10, Part 2, p477. []
  6. “Our Evacuation of Fort Pillow” by Edwin H. Sessel, from The Confederate Veteran, Vol. 6, January 1898. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 10, Part 1, p900. Incidentally, Charles Ellet, Jr. also designed the Wheeling, West Virginia suspension bridge in 1848. I’ve been over the bridge many times. []
  8. “Our Evacuation of Fort Pillow” by Edwin H. Sessel, from The Confederate Veteran, Vol. 6, January 1898. []
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One thought on “The Abandonment of Fort Pillow

  1. Being an Ohioan and keenly aware of the South’s hatred to Sherman for his infamous march, I am pretty surprised at so much destruction of goods by the Confederates as they retreat from positions. There is little regard for the populace that remains and their well-being. “War is Hell” should not necessarily be attributed to Sherman alone…

    Keep the posts coming!!

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