The Civil War's Black Soldiers
Although this position may have comforted Southern whites, from a practical standpoint it was unworkable. Europeans, whom the Davis administration was courting for military assistance, found the policy offensive. And international law, as the Lincoln administration quickly pointed out, supported the position that these were legitimate soldiers and must receive the same rights as white prisoners of war. Lincoln vowed to retaliate man for man for executed Yankees, and for each black soldier the Confederacy returned to slavery, he would place a Rebel soldier at hard labor. Since there were more Confederate than Federal prisoners of war, Lincoln could ultimately outlast Davis.
In the end, the Davis administration backed down, but Confederate officers on the scene sometimes established their own policy. Either they refused to take black soldiers as prisoners or fought under the black flag, which indicated that they would take no prisoners, nor would they expect the Yankees to take any.
Without doubt, the most infamous series of atrocities in the war occurred approximately forty miles north of Memphis, at Fort Pillow. The Federal garrison consisted of 550 soldiers, nearly one-half of whom were black. In April 1864, 1,500 Confederate cavalrymen under the command of Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest demanded the surrender of the fort. When the Union commander refused, Forrest's troops stormed the fort and killed, wounded, or captured almost the entire garrison. Two-thirds of all black soldiers at Fort Pillow were killed, compared to 36 percent of the white Yankees.
Atrocities only served to solidify the USCT's reputation in the Union army and unite the white officers and black soldiers within those units. Black regiments responded by fighting under the black flag on occasion or executing Confederate prisoners without warning. Black soldiers cried, "Remember Fort Pillow" as they entered battle, and in numerous instances they gained revenge. In the assault on Fort Blakely, where black units charged without orders, their behavior differed little from that of Forrest's men. According to a lieutenant in the USCT, when the black troops charged, "the rebs were panic-struck. Numbers of them jumped into the river and were drowned attempting to cross, or were shot while swimming. Still others threw down their arms and run for their lives over to the white troops on our left, to give themselves up, to save being butchered by our niggers the niggers did not take a prisoner, they killed all they took to a man." White officers sometimes overlooked such retribution, while other times they proved incapable of putting a halt to it. In fact, the problem of black soldiers executing Confederates became so widespread that black Chaplain Henry M. Turner complained publicly about these acts of brutality.