The Fort Pillow massacre, one of the most horrifying events of the American Civil War, has long needed a thorough, dispassionate...

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“River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War”
by Andrew Ward
Viking, 518 pp., $29.95

The Fort Pillow massacre, one of the most horrifying events of the American Civil War, has long needed a thorough, dispassionate, scholarly examination. This book, unfortunately, isn’t it.

Fort Pillow, Tenn., a small Union outpost on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, was lightly defended by a detachment of white and African-American soldiers. On a gray morning in April 1864, the fort was overrun by a large cavalry force under Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. What happened next has been debated ever since, but there is little doubt that scores of Union troops — the majority of them African-American — were shot down after they tried to surrender.

Union partisans branded the episode a massacre while Confederates denied it with equal vigor. Survivors’ testimony before the Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War made it clear that a massacre had taken place, but the committee — dominated by Republican “radicals” who thought Abraham Lincoln too gentle in his prosecution of the war — had its own political agenda, which may have tainted the outcome of its investigation. Perhaps for that reason, Congress refused to take action on the committee’s report.

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On the other side, Isham Harris, Confederate governor of Tennessee, wrote a sweeping rebuttal to the congressional report, and this was widely circulated in the South. The conflicting documents merely served to solidify the positions of both sides.

Lincoln discussed the matter with his Cabinet but decided not to retaliate for the massacre. “Once begun, I do not know where such a measure would stop,” he said.

Neither Forrest nor anyone else ever was held responsible for the massacre. To this day there are conflicting accounts whether Forrest actually ordered his men to shoot their prisoners, or was merely slow in stopping them, or whether he tried to halt the slaughter as soon as he saw what was going on. Whatever the case, Fort Pillow helped convince Northerners that Forrest was even more of a devil than they had thought previously, while Southerners embraced him as even more of a hero.

In “River Run Red,” Seattle-area writer Andrew Ward, who admits to “a fascination with 19th-century massacres,” has probed the events at Fort Pillow perhaps more thoroughly than anyone. The evidence of his exhaustive research is readily visible in this book. But having assembled a mountain of information — some of it only distantly related to the subject — Ward evidently couldn’t bear to leave any of it out. The result is a book at least twice as long as it needs to be, one that veers off course frequently and lacks a coherent organizational structure. Not until page 156 does Ward finally begin telling what actually happened at Fort Pillow.

His description of the battle is detailed and cogent, but Ward dwells interminably on the morbid events that followed, offering dozens of hideously bloody accounts of men being shot, stabbed, beaten, burned or otherwise mutilated. At first these are shocking, but the unnecessary repetition soon just becomes mind-numbing. This is simply overkill about killing.

Too bad. This great unwieldy mass of information will probably only add to the confusion over Fort Pillow. A tough editor — one willing to cut the text by more than half its present length — could have made it a readable and much more valuable book.

Steve Raymond, a former Times editor, reviews American history for The Seattle Times. His newest book, “Nervous Water,” will be published next year by The Lyons Press.