by Harry Turtledove

St. Martin's


329pp/$24.95/May 2006

Fort Pilllow

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

On April 12, 1864, Confederate forces under the command of General Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked a Federal garrison at Henning, Tennessee.  The fort, known as Fort Pillow for his builder, General Gideon Pillow, had originally been a Confederate stronghold until the Union overran it in 1862. In the wake of the 1964 battle, Forrest's men destroyed the fort and massacred  In Fort Pillow, Harry Turtledove turns his attention to the battle and its aftermath.

Fort Pillow is the first straight historical fiction Harry Turtledove has written under his own name (he has published five novels under the pseudonym H.N. Turteltaub). Combining his ability to write straight historical fiction with his knowledge of the Civil War, Turtledove focuses on the battle and its aftermath through the points of views of men on both sides of the war.

While many of the characters are historical figures, ranging from General Forrest to Sgt. Benjamin Robinson, an escaped slave fighting for the Union forces, there are others who are inventions of the author to give voice to various viewpoints.  Jack Jenkins give voice to the worst of the Confederacy, an angry, racist, backwoods person. He is contrasted by Matthew Ward, who presents a more well rounded and rational image while still espousing the goals of the Confederacy.

The battle itself takes up about half of the novel, followed by a look at the aftermath as Union forces attempt to make their way out of the area and the Confederates commit atrocities against them.  Turtledove brings a humanity to both sides, and the reader find himself hoping characters on both sides will manage to escape their historical fates and roles. It is when the novel reaches the post-battle phase that it really takes off.

One of the difficulties in writing historical fiction around specific events is that the outcome of the main event is known.  Fort Pillow, as held by the Federals, will fall.  The Confederates will kill many of the black soldiers who fought for the North. The point of a novel like this isn't to surprise the reader with those issues, but rather to examine the reasons for the actions which occurred. By shedding light on the motivations of the soldiers from 145 years ago, this novel also helps to shed light on our own society and how many social changes have occurred and how many more lay ahead. 

Near the end of the novel, one of the characters notes "We aim to make is so that everyone in the whole country will remember Fort Pillow for as long as this nation lives."  In the modern world, most people could not tell you what happened at Fort Pillow. However it is still a part of our history as a nation and novels like Turtledove's help provide information and context in a manner which might make people learn more about it, and will certainly entertain while they are doing it.

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