The Siege of Fort Pillow

While Fort Pillow is know best for the infamous massacre which occurred when General N.B. Forrest attacked a Federal garrison there on April 12, 1864.  Often overlooked is the siege of Fort Pillow two years earlier as part of the combined Army-Navy advance down the Mississippi River.  Like many of the battle sites in that area, “Old Man River” has significantly changed this battlefield’s topography over time.

At the time of the Civil War, the river made an “S” bend between the town of Osceola, Arkansas and Fulton, Tennessee.   Opposite Osceola was Plum Point.  From there the river made a very sharp bend to the east before turning to the southwest around Craighead Point.  Just above Fulton, the river passed the first of four Chickasaw Bluffs.  These sweeping bends, along with the presence of several sandbars, snags, and Island No. 30, made Plum Point Bend and Craighead Bend among the most difficult on the river.

After the fall of the Island No. 10 batteries in April 1862, Confederates fell back to Fort Pillow located at the First Chickasaw Bluff in order to halt further Federal advances downriver.

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Old River Bottom - Now Cold Creek

The Confederate river batteries covered the river channel at a point where Federal gunboats had to contend with cross currents and snags as they shifted their course through the bend of the river.  In the view above, Cold Creek runs through an old river channel.  It is my opinion that channel was not the main river course in 1862, but rather a side chute.  The main channel at the time of the war ran through what is today a lake simply called “The Chute” about 1000 yards west of the boat ramp in the foreground.   Still one can get a measure of the height of the bluffs in this view.  Although a bit more dramatic is the view from the restored fortifications in the State Park.

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View from Top of Chickasaw Bluffs

But with erosion and trees, a visitor has a hard time understanding the complicated river bends.  For that, one should visit the overlook on the west edge of the State Park.

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Osceola, Arkansas from Fort Pillow Overlook

Just left of center is a tall smokestack of a steel mill just outside Osceola.  Again, at the time of the war, the river made a sharp turn east (to the right) across this view.  Then turned back into frame, crossing from right to left at the base of the bluff.  A portion of that old channel is in view from the overlook, turning to the right.

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View of the Chute from Fort Pillow Overlook

The Chute is in view past the summer foliage to the right in this view.  Today, the river bypasses the old series of bends, passing directly south through Driver Cutoff.  So one must really work to visualize the landscape as it existed in 1862.

When the Federal Navy arrived at Osceola, they found the river at flood stage and were reluctant to directly attack Fort Pillow.  Instead, they opted to move up mortar boats to harass the fort.  (Federal officers considered cutting a bypass around the bends.  And not unlike what later happened at Vicksburg, many years after the need had past, the river provided just such a cutoff!)

The mortar boats, mounting 13-inch mortars, tied off in Plum Point Bend to launch their shells into the fort.  Those mortars were identical to Army types but on naval mountings.  I’ll offer a view of an Army 13-inch mortar from Fort Moultrie, South Carolina for reference.

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13-inch Seacoast Mortar Model 1861, Fort Moultrie, SC

The 13-inch Model 1861 could fire a shell 4200 yards, or 2 1/3 miles.  Based on examinations of the old river charts, the range from the turn at Plum Point Bend was close to two miles from Fort Pillow.

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Driver Cutoff from Fort Pillow

If my estimates for distances and locations of the old river channel are correct, the mortars were positioned near the island in Driver Cutoff, just to the right of center in this view.

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View of Fort Pillow from Sans Souci

The closest one can get to the mortar boat location today is a landing on the Arkansas side known as Sans Souci.  In the distant center, beyond the tows working up river, is a rise of trees.  That is the First Chickasaw Bluffs.

So to sum this all up.  In May 1862, mortar boats were lofting shells…

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13-inch Mortar Shell, Fort Pillow

… towards Fort Pillow at ranges approaching two miles across the bends of the Mississippi River.  As often was the case with indirect fires during the Civil War era, the bombardment was mostly ineffective.   Simply observing the fall of shot, to aid with adjusting fires, was not possible.

The Confederates of course would not stand for just sitting idle while the Federals fired their mortars.  With a squadron of rams, they would sortie upriver to destroy this threat on May 10, sinking two ironclads.  But the story of that battle is rightfully the subject of another post.

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