Civil War book explores another view of Missouri battle

Sunday, June 19, 2011 | 6:18 p.m. CDT

SIKESTON — A Sikeston history teacher's second book will offer a different view of a controversial Civil War battle.

Rick Justice has been a Civil War enthusiast "going on well over 20 years."

The book, which Justice plans to name, "Conspiracy on the Mississippi," is the result of research conducted for a graduate school project.

"About three years ago I had to do a capstone paper for my second master's degree and I chose the Battle of Fort Pillow to do my paper on," he explained. "Fort Pillow was a fort on the Mississippi River that was attacked on April 12, 1864, by Confederate Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. There was a high loss of life on the Union side for the two Union units there. One was a black unit and the other was the 13th Tennessee, which was a Union unit made up of ex-Confederate soldiers."

Losses were so high among the black soldiers that it is often called the Fort Pillow Massacre.

Some modern scholars maintain that "the only reason the fort was attacked was because the black soldiers were there and they were singled out," Justice said. "For the last 150 years, that's been the standard belief about Fort Pillow."

Justice noted in his research that reports of the battle from Northern supporters and Southern supporters don't match up.

Some claim defenders dropped their weapons and surrendered when Confederate forces overcame the defenders and entered the fort. Others maintain fleeing soldiers kept their rifles and occasionally turned to fire.

"The truth has to be somewhere in the middle," he said. "My focus of this book was to find out who was really to blame for the high loss of life at Fort Pillow."

One conclusion Justice reached is that whatever happened during the battle, Forrest did not attack the fort so he could slaughter black soldiers. Official records show Forrest had planned on attacking Fort Pillow earlier — before it was occupied by black soldiers, he said.

That does not leave him blameless, however, Justice said.

"Once they got in the fort, the chain of command did break down. There was mass confusion within the fort — basically there was chaos," Justice said. "Gen. Forrest is to blame for losing control of his men in the heat of battle. Anybody in the military will tell you the commanding officer is responsible for the actions of his men."

By that same logic, however, blame goes even higher up the chain of command to Union Gen. Stephen A. Hurlbut, commander of the XVI Corps headquartered at Memphis, Tenn.

"One of the first things I found was that Gen. Hurlbut had disobeyed a direct order from Gen. Sherman to dismantle Fort Pillow," Justice said.

Hurlbut ordered the fort to be reoccupied, he said.

"When asked about it, his whole argument was that if the Confederates had got in there, they could have stopped traffic on the Mississippi River," Justice said.

But whatever Hurlbut's reasons, "the overall blame is on the shoulders of the Union officer that disobeyed direct orders," Justice said. "In the Union investigation after the battle, they didn't focus on him disobeying a direct order, they simply relieved him of command."

For "political correctness" or whatever other reason, some historians reduce the battle to an event in which Confederates "deliberately murdered surrendering black soldiers," Justice said. "There were over 200 men taken prisoners. One of the arguments I make is if the plan was to kill all the Union soldiers there, then why did the Confederates allow men to live? The day after the battle there were several wounded soldiers that were turned over to Union authorities under a flag of truce."

Justice said he will take a draft to a publisher in Dallas once he has finished gathering images for the book and should have a tentative release date for the book later this month.

"I plan to use re-enactors to take some photographs simulating some of the details in the book so people can have a better understanding of what went on," he said.

The only picture from the battle was a drawing published in "Harper's Weekly" of Confederate soldiers killing black Union soldiers with smiles on their faces "like they were enjoying it," Justice said. "That's been the longstanding image of this battle."

Justice said the book should be interesting for those who "approach it with an open mind" but doesn't expect his work to be well-received by everyone.

"It's going to offend some people, but that's the way history is," he said. "Just because it's offensive doesn't mean you should hide it or cover it up."

Justice said he is also working on a third book which will identify the locations of small Civil War battle and skirmish sites in Scott, New Madrid and Mississippi counties.

Research was temporarily put on hold, however, because of the recent flooding. "A lot of the areas are not accessible right now," he said.

Justice's first book, "The Struggle for Sikeston", published in 2010.

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