Friday, July 17, 2015

Did They Name A Street In My City After A Massacre Of African American People?

Like a lot of cities in the South - hell, like probably every city in the South - my hometown of Virginia Beach has plenty of streets and landmarks named for Confederate heroes. As a nation we're having an argument about whether this is racist and what to do about it. People who defend the names argue that we're commemorating heritage.

Fine. But sometimes there's more to it than that, isn't there?

One of my neighborhoods has a cluster of Southern Civil War leaders. Within this cluster someone has placed "Pillow Drive" next to "General Forrest Circle." If you're a history buff, you probably immediately understand why this is problematic.

Brigadier General Gideon Pillow doesn't really belong in the company of the indisputably brave and brilliant men who led the Southern effort. He's little known, and he's not respected.

One of the more laughed at generals of the American Civil War, Gideon Pillow is often associated with failure in his military life.

This is from The Life and Wars of Gideon J. Pillow by Nathaniel C. Hughes, Jr. and Roy P. Stonesifer.

According to Who Was Who in the Civil War, Gideon Johnson Pillow was “one of the most reprehensible men ever to wear the three stars and wreath of a Confederate general” (Sifakis 508).   It was reported that during the January 2, 1863 Battle of Stones River, Pillow hid behind a tree instead of leading his men into the fray. 

That's from the Civil War Trust's website.

No, Pillow the man is not someone you'd want to remember. Pillow is more famous - infamous, really - for the fort he named, which became the site of a brutal massacre of African American soldiers conducted by the forces of General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

The Fort Pillow Massacre in Tennessee on April 12, 1864, in which more than 300 African-American soldiers were killed, was one of the most controversial events of the American Civil War (1861-65). Though most of the Union garrison surrendered, and thus should have been taken as prisoners of war, the soldiers were killed. The Confederate refusal to treat these troops as traditional prisoners of war infuriated the North, and led to the Union’s refusal to participate in prisoner exchanges.

The link is from History.com, and it adds that the fort itself was of little military value. After capturing it, Forrest's troops abandoned it within hours.

All the wounded who had strength enough to speak agreed that after the fort was taken an indiscriminate slaughter of our troops was carried on by the enemy with a furious and vindictive savageness which was never equaled by the most merciless of the Indian tribes. Around on every side horrible testimony to the truth of this statement could be seen. Bodies with gaping wounds, some bayoneted through the eyes, some with skulls beaten through, others with hideous wounds as if their bowels had been ripped open with bowie-knives, plainly told that but little quarter was shown to our troops. Strewn from the fort to the river bank, in the ravines and hollows, behind logs and under the brush where they had crept for protection from the assassins who pursued them, we found bodies bayoneted, beaten, and shot to death, showing how cold-blooded and persistent was the slaughter of our unfortunate troops.

This is from the report of Acting Master William Ferguson of the US Navy about the capture.

You probably also know that Nathan Bedford Forrest is famous for what he did after the war. He was one of the earliest leaders in the Ku Klux Klan.

I'm going to investigate the details of how people in the city named these streets. A check on Zillow indicates developers seemed to start building the houses there in 1965. It was the centennial of the end of the war, and there was a resurgence of interest in that conflict in America. For Virginia, it was also a time when local people were fighting the integration of our schools.

So why did they name it Pillow? To honor a third-rate military leader, or as a sly way of noting one of Forrest's "accomplishments?"

I'll dig deeper, and I'll post more about it. I absolutely agree that it's important to talk about our heritage with fairness to all sides. But let's admit something we all know: People in America have a long history of using our laws, our economic practices, our customs, and yes, our heritage... to hide our darkness in plain sight.

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