April 25, 2014

Fort Pillow: dabbled clots of brain and gore

The Battle at Fort Pillow in April 1864 was immediately controversial. The Confederate Army, led by General Nathan Bedford Forrest, attempted to regain the Tennessee fort which was protected by some 600 Union soldiers. About half of those Union solders were black. Forrest and his troops easily stormed the fort.  Union troops were slaughtered by the Confederates, despite offers of surrender, and reports claimed that Confederates more heavily targeted black soldiers who were killed in cold blood.

James Ryder Randall, a Maryland-born poet who had come to hate the "Northern scum," published a poem about the controversial battle/massacre, responding to criticism from Union supporters against Confederate savagery. His poem, "At Fort Pillow,"was published in the Wilmington (North Carolina) Journal on April 25, 1864:

You shudder as you think upon
    The carnage of the grim report —
The desolation when we won
    The inner trenches of the fort.

But there are deeds you may not know
    That scourge the pulses into strife;
Dark memories of deathless woe
    Pointing the bayonet and knife.

Randall instead points to the merciless and savage acts of Union soldiers, who had previously encamped at a church in Point Coupee, Louisiana. Randall had lived in that town while teaching at Poydras College. The church was desecrated by these troops, as was the graveyard surrounding it, including the grave of Randall's mother (or, perhaps, a less literal and more generic mother).

The house is ashes, where I dwelt
    Beyond the mighty inland sea;
The tombstones shattered where I knelt
    By that old Church in Pointe Coupee.

The Yankee fiend! that came with fire,
    Camped on the consecrated sod,
And trampled in the dust and mire
    The Holy Eucharist of God!

The spot where darling mother sleeps,
    Beneath the glimpse of yon sad moon,
Is crushed with splintered marble heaps
    To stall the horse of some dragoon!

Recalling that story, Randall writes, makes his "frantic spirit wince." But, worse is an implied crime against his sister. Without saying it outright, Randall refers to his sister being raped by a Union soldier

The tears are hot upon my face
    When thinking what bleak fate befell
The only sister of our race —
    A thing too horrible to tell.

They say that, ere her senses fled,
    She rescue of her brothers cried;
Then feebly bowed her stricken head,
    Too pure to live thus — so she died.

Though he was not present, Randall claims he continues to hear his sisters screams for help, "as perpetual as the air." It leads him to wrath and he claims he has killed Union soldiers for revenge. Here, Randall (or, more accurately, the narrator of the poem) comes to represent the entire Confederacy, and that revenge for the above atrocities inspired the massacre at Fort Pillow. He happily celebrates his "deadly rifle, sharpened brand," that causes the enemy to "writhe and bleed." Randall's poem, then, justifies responding to violence with more violence. More than that, Randall's poem highlights the fury of war as well as its gore, even while claiming he particularly targeted not the black soldiers, as was believed of Fort Pillow, but whites, though both races are dehumanized as demon targets:

The Southern yell rang loud and high
    The moment that we thundered in,
Smiting the demons hip and thigh,
    Cleaving them to the very chin.

My right arm bared for fiercer play,
    The left one held the rein in slack;
In all the fury of the fray
    I sought the white man, not the black.

The dabbled clots of brain and gore
    Across the swirling sabres ran;
To me each brutal visage bore
    The front of one accursed man.

Throbbing along the frenzied vein,
    My blood seemed kindled into song —
The death-dirge of the sacred slain,
    The slogan of immortal wrong.

It glared athwart the dripping glaives,
    It blazed in each avenging eye —
The thought of desecrated graves
    And some lone sister's desperate cry. 

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