Trip Report: Fort Pillow

Another stop on my late summer vacation last year was Fort Pillow.  For some reason I left this post in the queue unpublished.  So pardon an “out of sequence” post!

The state park is a bit out of the way, and I had not visited the site since the late 1990s.  Fellow blogger Nick Kurtz ran a site visit post on Fort Pillow in 2009.  There’ve been a few changes to the park since then.

For those unfamiliar, Fort Pillow was originally a Confederate fortification built in 1861-62 at one of many extreme bends in the Mississippi River.  It became the “front line” after the fall of Island No. 10 and the Federals conducted a lengthy siege running through May 1862.  Confederates abandoned the work in early June after the fall of Corinth, Mississippi.  The fort became a backwater garrison for the Federals, providing protection against raiders. Those raiders directly confronted the fort on April 12, 1864 when General N. B. Forrest attacked the post as part of a run through west Tennessee.  That battle is better known as a massacre due for the treatment of the garrison’s U.S.C.T. at the hands of Forrest’s raiders.  Nick provided a very fair assessment, in my opinion, of that battle.

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Entrance to Fort Pillow

Fort Pillow State Park covers one of the Chickasaw Bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River bottoms.  Along the drive in, one passes through a state prison.  And adjacent to the park are two large wildlife management areas.   And even after entering the park, visitors have several miles of park road before reaching the visitor center.  All accentuating the feeling of remoteness.

Among the artifacts displayed at the visitor center is a section from a 32-pdr seacoast gun.

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Section of 32-pdr Gun and Recovered Shot

The iron fragment was recovered from the river just outside the park at the nearby town of Fulton.  In addition to several replica field pieces, 3-inch Ordnance Rifle registry number 809 is on display in the visitor center.

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3-inch Ordnance Rifle, No. 809

Among the other artifacts is an exploded 13-inch mortar shell.

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13-inch Mortar Shell

The fragments are a reminder of the first battle of Fort Pillow in the late spring of 1862.  At that time, Federal mortar boats shelled the Confederates occupying the fort from Plum Point Bend just upstream.  On May 10, 1862, a Confederate squadron of rams attacked the Federal fleet and sank two ironclads (in shallow water where they were later recovered).

Outside, the park features an extensive trail system.  Interpretive markers mostly orient visitors to the April 1864 battle.  Of note, the bridge seen in Nick’s post was undergoing repairs when I visited.  So I had to trudge the round-about way through the ravines to the reconstructed fort.

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Reconstructed Fort

I think the fort was reconstructed in the late 1990s.  At the time of the war, the “river side” commanded the Mississippi River below.  But as the markers say, the river has wandered far from the bluffs today.  All that remains is a bayou.

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Replica Gun and Embrasure

When Forrest attacked the fort in April 1864, most of the garrison’s guns pointed landward, as this replica is positioned.  U.S. Colored Troops manned the guns of the fort.   Confederate sharphooters, occupying some of the garrison’s outbuildings, reduced the effectiveness of the gunners.

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Ditch in Front of the Fort

The fort’s exterior matches the form of the time, including a ditch.  The treeline prevents full replication of the defenses, which likely included abatis and exterior breastworks.

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Confederate Works from 1862

Along other points in the trail system, breastworks dating to 1862 remain.  Confederates built these trenches during their fortification of the bluff.  A few interpretive markers discuss the Confederate defenses.  But I’d argue that story is better told from the river side, which is inaccessible today.

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River Overlook

As I discussed some time back, the river’s course changed since the Civil War, leaving the landscape considerably altered.  As I gave a “tour” of that section of the river some time back, I’ll direct you to that post for details.  But let me simply point out that the naval Battle of Plum Point (or Run) Bend, on May 10, 1862, took place in the distance of the view above.

Fort Pillow, due to its location, is best saved for a dedicated day trip or as a half day stop during a vacation.  The museum offers a surprising number of artifacts from the war. The extensive trail system ranges from easy to difficult as it traverses the ravines of the bluff.  My staff enjoyed the hikes, but grew weary after walking through the woods.  Addressing that issue, I’d like to see more interpretation, perhaps more nature oriented highlights.

Still the fort is an important site to visit, particularly because of the 1864 battle.  The proximity of Alex Haley’s boyhood home in nearby Henning, offers the chance to explore many aspects of African-American history.