The Fascinating Facts, Fiction, and Frustrations of Family History and My Obsessive Desire to Possess Them All.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Hiram Smith Neely and the Fort Pillow Massacre

Recently I was involved genealogy group discussion about vacations and genealogy research.  Members talked about planning their travels around visiting ancestor locations.  I cannot do that.  My husband has no interest in genealogy and I can’t imagine him waiting outside a county clerk’s office while I look up old documents.  Likewise, my kids would never put up with me dragging them to a middle-of-nowhere cemetery to find final resting places of people long dead.  I can accept that.  They aren’t obsessive like me.

However, my husband does have an interest in history, particularly of the Civil War.  So, now as empty nesters, I was able to convince him to make a side trip to a Civil War battlefield this summer where my 2nd Great Grandfather fought.  

Hiram Smith Neely's
Civil War Service Record

Hiram Smith Neely was born in 1837 in the small town of Hornbeak located in the western part of Tennessee.  Although Tennessee did secede from the Union in 1861 there was much division of sentiment in the state.  Both Union and Confederate units were formed here.   In December of 1863, Smith and his brother, John, joined the Union 13th Tennessee Cavalry also known as Bradford’s Battalion.  

This unit was involved in one of the more controversial battles of the Civil War.  In April of 1864, Smith and his unit were stationed at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, a small bastion on the Mississippi River, just north of Memphis.  Making up about half of the men assigned to this post was a unit of African-American soldiers.  The Union deployment of black soldiers had profoundly angered the Confederacy.  As a result The South passed laws saying any black soldier captured would be tried as a slave insurrectionist, a crime punishable by death.  African-Americans who enlisted showed extraordinary bravery in light of the consequences if they were captured in battle.  

Around Fort Pillow, the sight of black soldiers caused outrage and fear with the area citizens uncomfortable with seeing former slaves in uniform and armed.   These Rebel sympathizers appealed to the Confederates to rid the area of these black soldiers.  Their cry was heard by Nathan Bedford Forrest, a southern General known for his ruthlessness.  While Fort Pillow was not necessarily a strategic position, it did have a large store of supplies that the confederates desired.  On April 12, 1864 the battle commenced.

Via National Archives
photo in public domain

 Within a few hours the Confederate force of about 2000 overwhelmed the 600 or so Union men of Fort Pillow.  The Neely family story goes that Smith and John were going down to the river to surrender when they heard that the Rebels were not taking prisoners but just shooting all Union soldiers.  They decided against surrender and rather they would just go home.  Yes, they deserted.
Official reports differ as to what actually happened at Fort Pillow.  Northern accounts say the CSA continued to shoot soldiers after they had surrendered.  Forrest contended the fort never surrendered and therefore no quarter was given.  While the CSA suffered negligible loses, almost half of the Union soldiers were killed.  And of the remainder only about 20% of the black soldiers were taken prisoner while 60% of the white soldiers were listed as POWs.  Others, like my 2x Great Grandfather, were not accounted for.

The National Republican
Washington DC
April 15, 1864

The “Massacre at Fort Pillow” as it became known in the North caused much discussion in the press and reached the highest levels in Washington.  Southern newspapers termed it a minor victory and blasted wild Yankee exaggerations.  President Lincoln polled his cabinet as to what his response should be.  It was agreed that for every black soldier that had been killed it should be returned in kind.  While that policy never went into effect, General Grant insisted captured African-American soldiers be treated the same as white POWs.  When the South balked at that Grant suspended prisoner exchanges.  Prisoner exchanges had been common during the Civil War.  Captured troops signed a largely ignored ‘loyalty oath’ promising to not fight again and were traded for captured troops from the other side.  Suspension of prisoner exchanges lead to overcrowding in POW camps resulting in atrocities like those in the notorious Andersonville (where unfortunately some of the Fort Pillow POWs were sent).  It is incredible how such a small battle had such a profound effect on the entirety of the Civil War.


The battle of Fort Pillow is also featured in the novel and mini-series Roots, with the author’s ancestor, Chicken George, being one of the black soldiers of the fort.  A museum dedicated to this part of history is located in nearby Henning, Tennessee.

Hiram Smith Neely married Sarah Jane Rhyne Aug 7, 1856 in Obion County Tennessee.  They had 3 children, including my Great-Grandfather Thomas Andrew, before Smith went off to war.  They had 3 more children after he returned and about 1875 moved to Southeast Missouri.  Sarah died in 1882 in Stoddard County, Missouri.  Smith applied for a Civil War pension in 1891 but he was denied because of the desertion.  Frankly when his choices were death or Andersonville, I think he made the wise decision.  Smith died May 5, 1901 in Dunklin County, Missouri.

Fort Pillow State Park
Battlements 2016
Photo by author

Fort Pillow today is a small state park.  The trenches and fortifications are largely being overtaken by the forest and the channel of the Mississippi has moved west such that the battlefield no longer borders the river.  Although much has changed, standing there I can still imagine the chaos and the life-and-death decisions made by my ancestor over 150 years previous. 

Read More:
National Park Service Battle Summary – Fort Pillow

Controversy at Fort Pillow – History. com

Alex Haley Museum in Henning , Tennessee

Tennessee State Parks – Fort Pillow