Contextually Speaking: Congress, Federal Power, and the Fort Pillow Massacre

war-in-tennesseeby Susan Eva O’Donovan

When Elihu B. Washburne and his delegation set out on their journey to Memphis to inquire into the origins and outcomes of the May 1866 Memphis Massacre, they bore witness to a swiftly changing relationship between individual citizens and their nation.  As Eric Foner and other historians have explained, the Civil War began a dramatic transformation in the relationship between the federal government and the American people.  During the war, what had been a generally distant relationship between the two groups gave way to a new intimacy in which the federal government loomed ever larger in people’s day-to-day lives.  It was during the war, for instance, that Congress passed the first federal income tax.  Created to raise the money needed to field vast armies and keep the country running, the income tax brought the federal government into citizens’ lives in a direct and unprecedented way. Previous to the passage of “An Act to provide Internal Revenue to support the Government,” in July 1862, states and local governments had been responsible for setting and levying taxes, and it was to their state and local governments that citizens had paid their money.  The new brand of activist federal government manifested in the income tax act would continue to develop through and beyond the war.  It can be seen, for instance, in the March 1865 legislation that established the Freedmen’s Bureau, an agency that brought Congress much more deeply into the private lives of former slaves and white refugees.  The Thirteenth Amendment provides another example of the changing nature of federal power and its extension into new areas of American life.  Prior to December 1865, the question of freedom and slavery had been determined by individual states, not by the federal government.  It can also be seen, of course, in the dispatch by Congress of Elihu Washburn to Memphis in May 1866, but it turns out that his was not the first time the federal government had sent a delegation to investigate affairs on the ground in west Tennessee.  That honor goes to a committee headed by Benjamin F. Wade, the Republican Senator from Ohio, which had been directed by Congress in April 1864 to “inquire into the truth of the rumored slaughter of Union troops, after their surrender, at the recent attack of the rebel forces at Fort Pillow, Tennessee.”  The results of that investigation, which helped pave the way for the one that would be conducted two years later, can be found here.

Although Lincoln’s government had no jurisdiction over Tennessee in the spring of 1864 and could do little to remedy what it viewed as a terrible injustice to its soldiers (correspondence between Lincoln and his cabinet can be found here), Andrew Johnson’s government did have jurisdiction over Tennessee in May 1866.  It was a shift in historical context that enabled a Congress shocked by yet another massacre of black soldiers to further expand federal power, most notably with the passage in June of the Fourteenth Amendment.  Big government was here to stay.

Susan Eva O’Donovan is an associate professor of history at the University of Memphis and Co-Director of the Memphis Massacre Project.

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