Fort Pillow was a Confederate fort on the Tennessee bank of the Mississippi River (American Civil War). After the fall of Island No. 10 (7 April 1862), Fort Pillow was the main barrier to Union capture of Memphis. After an army expedition against the fort was abandoned, the burden of capturing the position fell to the Western Flotilla, a collection of ironclads and gunboats created by Flag-Officer Andrew Foote. However, Foote was now quite worn down by his efforts, and had requested that he be replaced. On 9 May, the flotilla was taken over by Flag-Officer Charles H. Davis.
Davis inherited an ongoing attack on Fort Pillow. The bombardment had begun on 14 April, soon after the fall of Island No. 10. By early May, the Confederates were ready to strike back. The American Civil War saw a brief resurgence of the ram as a major element in naval warfare. Steam power had increased the speed and manoeuvrability of the warship and iron armour had greatly improved their durability. Naval gunnery briefly lagged behind. In these circumstances, the Confederates had produced the C.S.S. Virginia. Despite being better armed that her Union counterpart at Hampton Roads, the Virginia had also been designed to be a powerful ram (although her ram had actually broken off after one attack).
The Confederate defenders of the Mississippi had constructed their own fleet of rams. On 10 May, those rams launched a surprise attack on the Union fleet attacking Fort Pillow. The Union fleet’s response was not well coordinated. Two of their ironclads were badly damaged by ramming attacks, before the Confederate fleet retreated back into the shelter of Fort Pillow’s guns.
Fort Pillow itself was soon evacuated by the Confederates. The main Confederate army had been forced to retreat from Corinth. This left the fort exposed to an attack from the rear, and so General Beauregard ordered the garrison to leave, after destroying the fort. During the night of 4 June they carried out that order, before withdrawing towards Memphis. The next morning the Union fleet occupied the site of the fort.
After the evacuation of Fort Pillow, the next Union target was Memphis. On 6 June, the Union’s Western Flotilla, reinforced by their own rams, fought and defeated the Confederate fleet at Memphis, and captured the city. Fort Pillow remained in use. It returned to prominence later in the war, when Confederate cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest captured the fort, and massacred dozens of black soldiers (Fort Pillow Massacre, 12 April 1864).