In the early morning of April 12, 1864, a force of 1,500 Confederate cavalry under General Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked 600 Union soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tennessee. These were not just any Union soldiers. More than half were Black, most of them former slaves—a fighting force most rebel soldiers had never seen before. Though Black soldiers had fought in a handful of engagements in 1862 and 1863, their presence in combat was still relatively new.
The fight did not last long. The callow Union commander, who was white, made several grave mistakes, which included refusing to surrender. His force was quickly overrun. Soon the slaughter began—the deliberate shooting by Confederates, enraged by the presence of Blacks, of unarmed soldiers who were either trying to surrender or had already surrendered. The carnage did not stop on the battlefield. Wounded and sick men alike were butchered in the hospital tents. By the time the last prisoner was executed, nearly half of the Fort Pillow garrison lay dead, the overwhelming majority of them Black.
The meaning of the killings soon became clear.
In its early years, the Civil War had been seen as an attempt to put the Union back together. Lincoln had said as much many times, and most people in the North endorsed this idea. Most were not abolitionists. Most were profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of former slaves suddenly mixing with white people.
But Lincoln changed his mind. By emancipating the slaves in January 1863, he changed the meaning of the war. With the stroke of a pen he transformed it from a morally unanchored attempt to reunite a divided nation into a war for the freedom of the nation’s four million slaves—a war of Black liberation. Just as radically, he had asserted that an army of Black men would be raised from their native soil and would become the instruments of their own deliverance.
While the goal of universal abolition hung suspended in the fog of war, the first and most critical phase of Lincoln’s emancipation campaign was actually enlistment: Black men mustering in and putting on uniforms and learning how to march and shoot with their white counterparts. And with enlistment came, quite possibly, the chance for true social revolution.
“Never since the world began,” wrote abolitionist Frederick Douglass, “was a better chance offered to a long enslaved and oppressed people. Once let a black man get upon him the brass letters U.S.; let him get an eagle on his button and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth or under the earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.” A Black soldier in the ranks was the best argument in the world against—as Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens put it—"the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
By the time of the Battle of Fort Pillow, Black soldiers—both free men and former slaves—had fought in only a handful of engagements. They had suffered abuse at the hands of white officers, been insulted by common soldiers, and given atrocious medical care. They were routinely killed after being taken prisoner by the Confederate army. But they had persisted, many with great courage and valor.
Fort Pillow caused a sensation in the North. It was at once the war’s most lurid atrocity and the one that everyone knew about. Images that rocketed through newspapers in the North showed white rebel soldiers hacking wounded, surrendering Black soldiers to pieces with sabers. They showed Southern soldiers in a fury killing the thing they had subjugated, the thing that was now rising up against them. There was something at once horrifying and futile about these acts, and this was the meaning of Fort Pillow and the new war of Black liberation.
Black soldiers were changing the war’s moral and physical logic. By its end, 180,000 Black men would enlist in the Union army, more than half of them former slaves. They made up an astounding 10 percent of that army. And they fought as hard and heroically as white ones. The all-Black 25th corps, which had the distinction of being the first infantry to enter the fallen rebel capital of Richmond, alone boasted four winners of the Congressional Medal of Honor. In a war of attrition—the fighting was never bloodier or the casualties greater than in its final year—the presence of Black soldiers did precisely what Abraham Lincoln told Ulysses S. Grant they would do: They changed the balance of the war. They helped the Union win and thereby ensured that all of those Black lives mattered.
S.C. Gwynne is the author of Hymns of the Republic and the New York Times bestsellers Rebel Yell and Empire of the Summer Moon, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He spent most of his career as a journalist, including stints with Time as bureau chief, national correspondent, and senior editor, and with Texas Monthly as executive editor. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife. Hymns of the Republic is available now in paperback from Scribner.