Was Fort Pillow a massacre against the "colored troops" at the fort or was it a simple case of an ultimatum being given, "surrender or die" and the commander of the fort chose the latter?

   In an article in Civil War History as long ago as 1982, John Cimprich and
Robert C. Mainfort, Jr., two Southern college professors, reprinted some
contemporary evidence about the alleged massacre at Fort Pillow on April 12,
1864. In their introductory comments, they remark that all federal evidence
taken after the Congressional hearings began on April 22 and all Confederate
evidence gathered after the Rebels became aware of the massacre charges
(roughly April 25 at the latest) should be viewed with suspicion. The
material they reprinted was all written before those dates.
  The editors also pointed out that the casualty figures alone indicate that a
strong case may be made for a massacre: 36% of the white Unionists and 66%
of the blacks were killed, some of the highest overall death rates in any
battle of the Civil War.

   Cimprich and Mainfort print three Southern newspaper accounts, two letters
by Forrest’s men, one to the writer’s sisters, and the other to the writer’s
wife, and a previously unpublished official report by the commanding officer
of the Sixth U.S.C. Heavy Artillery (he was not in the fort at the time of
the battle).
   The material has been edited with the relevant portions relating to the
aftermath of the assault and capture below. 
   You can go to Civil War History, vol. 28:4 (December 1982), pp. 293-306, 
to read the complete correspondence and the editors’ comments on the material.
 1. Report by “Vidette,” Mobile [AL] Advertiser and Register, April 17, 1864

        Fort Pillow, Tenn., April 12; via Holly Springs, April 16. Gen. Forrest
attacked this place with Chalmer’s division yesterday. The garrison
consisted of three hundred whites and four hundred negroes. They refused to
surrender, and the place was carried by storm. … Indiscriminant slaughter
followed—about a hundred prisoners were taken, the balance were slain. The
fort ran with blood; many jumped into the river and drowned or [were] shot
in the water. … Our loss was about seventy-five killed and wounded.
 2. Letter of Sgt. Achilles V. Clark, Twentieth Tennessee Cavalry:

My Dear Sisters,
Camp near Brownsville April 14th 1864

I write you a few hurried lines to inform you that I am quite well and have
just passed safely through the most terrible ordeal of my whole life. I
guess that you know what I mean as you doubtless have before this
heard of the taking of Fort Pillow. In as much as I am a member of Forrest’s
Cavalry modesty would direct that I should say nothing in our praise nor
will I but will tell you in as few words as possible what was done and leave
you to judge whether or not we acted well or ill. … we marched on foot in
sight of the fortifications which were said to be manned by about seven
hundred renegade Tennesseans and negroes. … Gen. Forrest demanded a
surrender and gave twenty minutes to consider. The Yankees refused
threatening that if we charged their breast works to show no quarter. The
bugle sounded the charge and in less than ten minutes we were in the fort
hurling the cowardly villains howling down the bluff. Our men were so
exasperated by the Yankees’ threats of no quarter that they gave but little.
The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor deluded
negroes would run up to our men fall upon their knees and with uplifted
hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot
down. The white men fared but little better. Their fort turned out to be a
great slaughter pen. Blood, human blood stood about in pools and brains
could have been gathered up in any quantity. I with several others tried to
stop the butchery and at one time had partially succeeded. but Gen. Forrest
ordered them shot down like dogs. and the carnage continued. Finally our men
became sick of blood and the firing ceased. The result. The report kept in
the Post Adjutants office shows that there were seven hundred and ninty men
for duty on the morning of the fight. We brought away about one hundred and
sixty white men and about seventy five negroes. Two transports came down the
morning after the fight and took off the badly wounded Yankees and negroes
about thirty or forty in all. The remainder were thrown into the trench
before which two hours previous they had stood and bade open defiance to
Forrest and all his ragged hounds, and were covered up about two feet deep.
  3. Letter of Surgeon Samuel H. Caldwell, Sixteenth Tennessee Cavalry

Camp Near Brownsville, April 15, 1864.

My Dear Darling Wife,
We are just from Fort Pillow which fort we attacked on Tuesday the 13th.
1864 & carried by storm. It was garrisoned by 400 white men and 400 negroes
& out of the 800 only 168 are now living So you can guess how terrible was
the slaughter. It was decidedly the most horrible sight that I have ever
They refused to surrender—which incensed our men & if General Forrest had
not run between our men & the Yanks with his pistol and sabre drawn not a
man would have been spared—We took about a hundred & 25 white men & about 45
negroes the rest of the 800 are numbered with the dead—They sure [lay]
heaped upon each other 3 days—…

Nothing more but remain your devoted husband.
S. H. Caldwell.
  4. Report by “Memphis,” Atlanta Memphis Appeal, May 2, 1864

Jackson, Tenn., April 18, 1861
        … The enemy announced their determination not to surrender, and were
accordingly defiant and insolent in their demeanor. They ridiculed the idea
of taking the fort, and intimated that the last man would die before surrendering. Gen. Forrest told them that in order to prevent the effusion of blood he had demanded the surrender, but now the consequences were upon their own heads. 
        Then the work of slaughter and death commenced. The sight of negro soldiers
stirred the bosoms of our soldiers with courageous madness. The moment our
men were seen upon the wall, the foe, which a few minutes ago was so defiant
and insolent, turned to cowards. Still they would not surrender. Those that were hid or protected still kept firing upon and killing our brave boys; but our troops still rushed upon them, all the time fighting and killing. The sight was terrific—the slaughter sickening. Wearied with the slow process of  shooting with guns, our troops commenced with their repeaters, and every fire brought down a foe, and so close was the fight, that the dead would frequently fall upon the soldier that killed. Still the enemy would not or
knew not how to surrender. The Federal flag, that hated emblem of tyranny
was still proudly waving over the scene.
        Seeing that nothing could be gained by further fight the enemy rushed to
the Coldwater for the purpose of swimming across; but the troops stationed
here by Gen. Forrest opened upon them, and hundreds were killed in the water
endeavoring to escape. Others rushed to the passage between the fort and the
river for the purpose of passing down the river towards Memphis. But the
troops stationed here by Gen. Forrest to guard this very contingency, opened
fire upon them, and the enemy rushed upon a coal barge and endeavored to push it off; but a concentrated fire from our whole column, soon put an end to this experiment. Several hundred were shot in this boat and in Coldwater, while endeavoring to escape. The number in the water was so great, that they  resembled a drove of hogs swimming across the stream. But not a man escaped in this way. The head above the water was a beautiful mark for the trusty  rifle of our unerring marksmen. The Mississippi River was crimsoned with the red blood of the flying foe. Our soldiers grew sick and weary in the work of slaughter, and were glad when the work was done.
        General Forrest begged them to surrender, but he was told with an air of
insulting defiance that he could not take the place, and that they asked for
no quarter. Not the first sign of surrender was ever given. Gen. Forrest expected a surrender after entering the fort, and anxiously looked for it, as he witnessed the carnage; but no token was given. …
  5. Report (Rough Draft) of Tom I. Jackson

Geo B. Halsteead
Capt and A A Genl.

Headquarters 6th U.S.C. Arty. (Heavy) Fort Pickering, Tenn April 19th 1864


        I have the honor to respectfully submit the following report of the battle
of Fort Pillow Tenn. 12th April 1864. March 25th 1864 the first battallion
of my regiment received orders to proceed to Fort Pillow and garrison said
post[;] the battallion was under the command of Major L. F. Booth. After
arriving at his destination the Major immediately proceeded to place the
fort in a defensible position, by throwing up rifle pits working his command
day and night to do so[;] the force stationed at the fort consisted of (204)
enlisted men 6 U.S. about the same of the 13th Ten Cavalry and one section
of Lamberg Battery. By rank Major Booth had assumed command of the Fort, on
the Morning of April 12th the Fort was alarmed by the firing of the pickets
they were already up and standing to arms, …. in this charge Major Booth was
killed, having just issued the order Boys never surrender, the command of
the fort then devolved upon Major Bradford (who from accounts received is
brave to a fault)[;] after the Major had assumed command the enemy sent in a
flag of truce demanding the surrender, but the little Garrison sent word
back no, we never surrender. under this flag of truce the Rebel Genl Forrest
advanced his lines, after the flag was returned the enemy made another
charge and where driven back with great slaughter they then sent in another
demand for surrender stating that having fought so bravely, they would treat
them all as prisoners of war, but this was returned with a decided refusal,
it was under this flag that the enemy succeed in placing his forces in such
a possition that when the flag was returned with the answer of no surrender
he could with more ease charge the fort. The flag had scarcely been taken
down when Forrest ordered his command to charge the fort and though the
command fought with desperation they succeed by their superior numbers in
entering the fort commencing an indiscriminate slaughter of both whites and
blacks, but still they would not surrender, remembering as they informed me
they could not disobey the order of Major Booth, and as an evidence that the
fort never did surrender, we have the flag of the battalion, preserved to us
in the following manner, private Eli Cothel Company (B) 6 U.S. Heavy
Artillery (colored) being wounded some three different times, and scacely
able to move saw the flag proudly waving from the staff crawled to the same,
and hauled it down and while the rebels where not noticing what he was doing
he tied the same around him using it as a bandage to his wounds. in doing
this he had exerted himself to much and from the loss of blood fainted away
and was taken for dead, the rebels where just about placing him in his grave
when he came to, seeing that he was alive they said let be. The “Dam Nigger
will die anyhow,” but when the boats came that where to take the wounded to
Mound City he was taken aboard and carried to Mound City Hospital, where he
was found by Mrs. Major Booth who was searching for some information in
regard to her husband, as soon a[s] private Cothel learned who she was, he
drew the flag from his bosom and with tears in his eyes present[ed] the same
to her telling that the Major had told him never to give up the flag and
her[e] it is the rebels have it not—such bravery in a white man would
promote in a colored if he but convinces his enemys that he can do his duty
he is satisfied. The forces that attacked the command was under the command
of Forrest, Chalmers, and from the best information we have was between 5000
and 6000. the force of the garrison being about 500, out of the number from
my regiment we know of but forty that are living. …
        I think I can truly say Captain that men never fought more brave than did
the colored soldiers at, Fort Pillow on the morning of April 12th, 1864

        Hoping that the same will be sufficient.
I Am With Respect
Tom J. Jackson
Lieut Col Comdg Regt.
  6. Report by ‘Marion,” Mobile Advertiser and Register, April 26, 1864

Camp of the 20 Tennessee Cavalry
Okalona, April 20th, 1864
….A feeble resistance is offered by those within [the fort], then the lines
give way in confusion, and gunners, Yankees, and negroes, rush madly from
the fort down an almost perpendicular bank towards the river, under a rapid
and destructive fire from our rifles. The polluted “star-spangled banner”
was torn from its fastenings and trampled in dust, and high above the
ramparts of the conquered fort, proudly floated our own [l]oved ensign,
flapping defiance at the ominous looking gunboats anchored above. For ten
minutes death reigned in the fortification, and along the river bank, Our
troops maddened by the excitement, shot down the ret[r]eating Yankees, and
not until they had attained t[h]e water’s edge and turned to beg for mercy,
did any prisoners fall in [t]o our hands—Thus the whites received quarter,
but the negroes were shown no mercy.