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History Lessons

Fort Pillow at length; the Delta lost and found.



On April 12, 1864, Fort Pillow was the last place you'd want to lay your head. The site, on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River and just 40 miles north of Memphis, housed a Union garrison composed of more than 300 freed slaves and 350 white Unionists. They were met by more than 3,000 Confederate troops headed by General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Forrest called for surrender. Union commanders called for a truce. But what happened was a blood bath: Of the freed blacks, 60 survived to be taken back into slavery; of the white Federalists, more than 100 survived to be marched to the notorious prison camp at Andersonville. The Confederacy called the scene at Fort Pillow a hard victory. Northerners called it a premeditated massacre.

Who was responsible for the carnage? Was it the corrupt, blundering Union leadership? Or was it Forrest, who, some argue, was too preoccupied to stop the bloodshed? Or was it Forrest's commanders, who were following orders to take no prisoners?

Andrew Ward's first full-length account of the battle, River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War (Viking), could put a rest to the debate. Or it could stoke the ongoing debate that made Forrest an especially hot topic this summer in Memphis. Ward's research, though, makes it clear: Union blacks and whites who'd been wounded or surrendered were killed, and many African-American civilians who tried to flee were slaughtered.

This story of national divisions and race relations is not new territory for Ward. He wrote of a 19th-century Indian uprising in Our Bones Are Scattered (1996), and his history of Fisk University's Jubilee Singers, Dark Midnight When I Rise (2000), was an award-winner. His documentary adaptation of the latter also made a memorable addition to the PBS series American Experience.

Andrew Ward will be signing River Run Red on Tuesday, October 4th, at 6 p.m. at Davis-Kidd Booksellers.

Speaking of Fisk: All is not lost in Lost Delta Found (Vanderbilt University Press) by Memphian Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov. The subject is white musicologist Alan Lomax's researches in Mississippi in the early 1940s, which were documented in Lomax's The Land Where the Blues Began. That book is famous for its fieldwork in the post-plantation South. But Lomax's African-American assistants from Fisk University -- John Work (musical director of the Jubilee Singers), sociologist Lewis Wade Jones, and grad student Samuel Adams Jr. -- are not famous, because the full body of their findings (transcriptions of songs, hymns, sermons, folklore, and other elements of black culture) never made it to the Library of Congress, which sponsored Lomax. Those findings went missing, until they were discovered in Lomax's private papers. Lost Delta Found rescues them but says something too about the sad remnants of racism in even the highest circles of learning.

Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov will be signing Lost Delta Found on Thursday, September 29th, from 5 to 7 p.m. at Burke's Book Store. Joining them will be Gordon's wife, Tara McAdams, signing copies of her book The Elvis Handbook (MQP Press).

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