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Correspondent Letters ...from John Watson Morton’s book entitles “The Artillery of Nathan Bedford Forrest's Cavalry: The Wizard of the Saddle”

Correspondent Letters
...from John Watson Morton’s book entitles “The Artillery of Nathan Bedford Forrest's Cavalry: The Wizard of the Saddle”

Washburn to Lee.
Headquarters District of West Tennessee,
Memphis, Tenn., June 17, 1864.


Maj. Gen. S. D Lee,

Commanding Confederate Forces in Tupelo, Miss.

General: When I heard that the forces of Brigadier General Sturgis had been driven back and a portion of them probably captured, I felt considerable solicitude for the fate of the two colored regiments, that formed a part of the command, until I was informed that the Confederate forces were commanded by you. When I heard that, I became satisfied that no atrocities would be committed upon those troops, but that they would receive the treatment that humanity, as well as their gallant conduct, demanded. I regret to say that the hope that I entertained has been dispelled by facts which have recently come to my knowledge. 
From statements that have been made to me by colored soldiers who were eyewitnesses, it would seem that the massacre of Fort Pillow had been reproduced at the late affair at Brice's Crossroads. The details of the atrocities there committed I will not trouble you with. If true and not disavowed, they must lead to consequences hereafter fearful to contemplate. It is best that we should now have a fair understanding upon the question of treatment of this class of soldiers.
If it is contemplated by the Confederate government to murder all colored troops that may by the chances of war fall into their hands, as was the case at Fort Pillow, it is but fair that it should be truly and openly avowed. Within the last six weeks I have on two occasions sent colored troops into the field from this point. In the expectation that the Confederate government would disavow the  action of their commanding General at Fort Pillow massacre, I have forborne to issue any  instructions to the colored troops as to the course they should pursue toward Confederate soldiers that might fall into their hands; but seeing no disavowal on the part of the Confederate government,  but, on the contrary, laudations from the entire Southern press of the perpetrators of the massacre, I can safely presume that indiscriminate slaughter is to be the fate of colored troops that fall into your hands. But I am not willing to leave a matter of such grave import and involving consequences so fearful to inference, and I have, therefore, thought it proper to address you this, believing that you would be able to indicate the policy that the Confederate government intended to pursue hereafter in this question. If it is intended to raise the black flag against that unfortunate race, they will cheerfully accept the issue.
Up to this time no troops have fought more gallantly, and none have conducted themselves with greater propriety. They have fully vindicated their right (so long denied) to be treated as men. I hope that I have been misinformed in regard to the treatment they have received at the battle of Brice's Crossroads, and that the accounts received result rather from the excited imaginations of the fugitives than from actual facts.
For the government of the colored troops under my command I would thank you to inform me, with as little delay as possible, if it is your intention, or the intention of the Confederate government, to murder colored soldiers that may fall into your hands, or treat them as prisoners of war and subject to be exchanged as other prisoners.

I am, General, respectfully, etc.,
C. C. Washburn, Major General.

↔↔↔

Forrest to Washburn.
Headquarters Forrest's Cavalry, Tupelo, Miss.,
June 23. 1864.

Maj. Gen. C. C. Washburn,

Commanding U. S. Forces, Memphis.

General: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt (per flag of truce) of your letter of the 17th instant, addressed to Maj. Gen. S. D. Lee, or officer commanding Confederate forces near Tupelo. I have forwarded it to General Lee with a copy of this letter.
I regard your letter as discourteous to the commanding officer of this department and grossly insulting to myself. You seek by implied threats to intimidate him and assume the privilege of denouncing me as a murderer and as guilty of the wholesale slaughter of the garrison at Fort Pillow, and found your assertions upon the ex parte testimony of (your friends) the enemies of myself and country. I shall not enter into the discussion, therefore, of any of the questions involved, nor undertake any refutation of the charges made by you against myself. Nevertheless, as a matter of personal privilege alone, I unhesitatingly say that they are unfounded and unwarranted by the facts. But whether these charges are true or false, they, with the question you ask, as to whether negro troops when captured will be recognized and treated as prisoners of war, subject to exchange, etc., are matters which the governments of the United States and the Confederate States are to decide and adjust, not their subordinate officers. I regard captured negroes as I do other captured property, and not as captured soldiers; but is to how regarded by my government and the disposition which has been, and will hereafter be, made of them I respectfully refer you through the proper channel to the authorities at Richmond.
It is not the policy or the interest of the South to destroy the negro; on the contrary, to preserve and protect him; and all who have surrendered to us have received kind and humane treatment. Since the war began I have captured many thousand Federal prisoners, and they, including the survivors of the “Fort Pillow massacre,” black and white, are living witnesses of the fact that, with my knowledge or consent or by my orders, not one of them has ever been insulted or maltreated in any way.
You speak of your forbearance in “not giving to your negro troops instructions and orders as to the course they should pursue in regard to Confederate soldiers that might fall into [your] their hands,” which clearly conveys to my mind two very distinct impressions. The first is that in not giving them instructions and orders you have left the matter entirely to the negroes as to how they should dispose of prisoners; secondly, an implied threat to give such orders as will lead to ‘consequences too fearful for contemplation.’ In confirmation of the correctness of the first impression (which your language now fully develops) I refer you most respectfully to my letter from the battlefield of Tishomingo Creek, and forwarded to you by flag of truce on the 14th instant. As to the second impression, you seem disposed to take into your own hands the settlement which belongs to, and can only be settled by your government. But if you are prepared to take upon yourself the responsibility of inaugurating a system of warfare contrary to civilized usages, the onus as well as the consequences will be chargeable to yourself.
Deprecating, as I should do, such a state of affairs; determined, as I am, not to be instrumental in bringing it about; feeling and knowing, as I do, that I have the approval of my government, unpeople, and my own conscience, as to the past; and with the firm belief that I will be sustained by them in my future policy, it is left with you to determine what that policy shall be—whether in accordance with the laws of civilized nations or in violation of them.

Very respectfully, etc.,            N. B. Forrest, Major General

General Washburn's official report to Secretary Stanton is, however, different in tone. “Of 1,300 colored troops sent out,” he wrote, “about 800 escaped. They fought desperately, and I hear were well treated by their captors.” Of this controversy the author of this book can only say that there was absolutely no unfair or harsh treatment of the negroes after the battle of Brice's Crossroads, and that, although he was not present at the battle of Fort Pillow, the charges in that affair, on being investigated afterwards by the government, were shown to be entirely without foundation. Dr. Wyeth has given all the details of this investigation in a succinct and satisfactory manner. Dr. D. C. Kelley, General Forrest's chaplain and a member of his staff, informed the writer that General Forrest had repeatedly told him that it was not his policy to kill captured negroes, but, on the contrary, to handle them well and return therm to their owners, a proceeding in which he was certainly justified under the circumstances.
Chief Surgeon Dr. J. B. Cowan, of General Forrest's staff, reported 492 killed and wounded on the Confederate side. The percentage of loss fell heaviest among the officers.




John Watson Morton, The Artillery of Nathan Bedford Forrest's Cavalry: The Wizard of the Saddle (Nashville: Publishing House of the M. E. Church, South, 1909), 189-191.

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