WORRY ABOUT THE DOGS. Depending on who’s talking and when, history around Fort Pillow changes.
At the time of this story, it was called the Cold Creek Correctional Facility, a minimum-security operation that included farming about 6,000 acres in Lauderdale County. Next it was called the Fort Pillow Prison and Farm, next door to something called the West Tennessee High Security Facility, now the West Tennessee State Penitentiary. Folks around there just call the whole thing the farm. When you’re driving a van full of scouts to camp at Fort Pillow State Park, you make a left off 51 at Henning and drive right by all of it.
As we slept in our tents in the dead of a winter night, we awoke to the distant but ever closer bay of hounds – angry hounds onto something and desperate to get at it – and to the unmistakable complaints of an old pickup, its oily roar and creaking shocks announcing its approach to our campsite at some speed. The driver climbed down from the cab and faced the wide-eyed bunch awash in the headlights. She was a leathery little woman, driven hard and put up wet.
“Listen here,” she said. “They lost a couple over to the farm and I done let my dogs out. I come here to let y’all know you don’t need to worry about them runners,” she paused, pointing at us with one bony finger, “You do need to worry about my dogs.”
Fort Pillow was built by Confederate troops in 1861 high atop the Chickasaw Bluffs to command the Mississippi below, and when the Confederates lost it in 1862, the path to Memphis was open. In 1864, men under the command of General Nathan Bedford Forrest defeated the Union troops at Fort Pillow, a garrison of white and black soldiers in about equal number. What happened depends on whose dogs are barking.
The Union reported their casualties in the several hundred, most killed after the fort was taken, and that most, if not all, of the black soldiers were slaughtered. One Confederate version says that some 200 prisoners were shipped south, but the who and where seem to be as lost as the war. Another version protects Forrest, claiming that, even though this was his direct command, he wasn’t even there. Maybe he went south with the prisoners.
Fort Pillow State Park is a beautiful, but eerie place. The fort is gone, save earthwork remains and reconstructions. Even the river is gone, changing its course and leaving winter trails of ferns and moss far below in its lost bed and riots of vines and greens growing there in summer. And they’re there, too.
The Union and Confederate troops. Those who died and those who lived. And the truth.
All there in the strange way the wind blows through the trees on the bluff, in the unsettling sounds in the night. There in the way unsettled history haunts a place and us.
I’m a Memphian, and I can still hear those dogs.
Dan Conaway is a lifelong Memphian, longtime adman and aspiring local character in a city known for them. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.