Benjamin Robinson (born c 1834) was a former slave who escaped his master and joined the Union Army during the American Civil War. He was assigned to the Sixth U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery. By 1864, he'd been promoted to sergeant. Robinson participated in and survived the Battle of Fort Pillow.
Robinson was born near Charleston, South Carolina. During the American Civil War, he'd been sold to a plantation near Jackson, Mississippi. When Federal troops arrived in Mississippi, Robinson was able to escape and join them. He worked as a stevedore for the Union army until it began accepting Negro troops. He volunteered, and rose to the rank of sergeant.
Robinson was part of a crew that operated a twelve-pounder. Robinson's job was to raise and lower the cannon, allowing it be aimed at attackers. The day before the battle began, Robinson had been shared his concerns that the parapet of the fort was too thick to allow the heavy guns to be aimed at attackers close to the fort with Sgt. Joe Hennissey. His concerns were dismissed, as the USS New Era was anchored in the Mississippi River nearby. This concern was soon confirmed on the first day of the battle, when Robinson served in a gun crew commanded by Captain Carron. It was Robinson's first taste of battle, and he was pleased when his immediate commander, Sgt. Mike Clark informed Major Lionel F. Booth of the crew's excellent performance. Once Booth had left, Robinson shared his concerns about the parapet with Clark, who immediately saw the problem.
As the battle wore on, Robinson and his crew were left largely to their own devises as their white commanders realized they had the situation in hand. However, they and the rest of the fort received a substantial blow when Major Booth was fatally wounded. Robinson watched helplessly as Booth died.
Despite this blow, the garrison continued to fight off the Confederate attack. Robinson and his crew were continually stymied by the thick parapet and their inability to lower their gun sufficiently to hit on-coming Confederate troops. Nonetheless, he was heartened by how he and his comrades fought, which in turn led him to consider some of the lessons about race relations he'd learned as a slave.
During the a truce, Robinson's colleague Sandy Cole confirmed that the general leading the attack on Fort Pillow was indeed Nathan Bedford Forrest. From their vantage point on the parapet, Robinson could see Forrest meeting with Union troops. Robinson lamented the fact that the truce was on, as it would have been a golden opportunity to kill Forrest. Cole reminded Robinson that they should obey legal niceties. If they did kill Forrest, the lives of every black troop would have been forfeit if the Confederates made it in. Even now, there was a strong probability that the Confederates would give no quarter. Robinson pointed out that so long as they were armed, they could make the Confederates pay.
When the attack finally came, Robinson was the senior officer command his gun, after Sgt. Clark was injured. Robinson was able to use his gun on attackers at point blank range. After that single shot, however, there wasn't enough time to reload. Robinson and his colleagues, Sandy Cole and Charlie Key, used the various tools for cleaning and reloading the gun as weapons, keeping the Confederates at bay, but the three were forced to retreat after grabbing discarded muskets.
Robinson saw the removal of the U.S. flag, and new that the Confederates had carried the day. He and his colleagues Key, Cole, Nathan Hunter and Aaron Fentis, all Negro survivors of Battery D, clustered together and fought the Confederates as they came. They were able to keep the attackers at bay for a time, but it was clear to Robinson that as the Confederates kept pouring in, the fort was done for.
Robinson and the remainder of Battery D ran to the banks of the Mississippi River. When the reached the banks, the found stores of ammunition Major William Bradford had placed there early in the attack. As they began loading, they realized that Confederate sharp-shooters were firing on the New Era, making it impossible for the ship to open up its guns. After a hail of bullets, the New Era fled up river.
Things went from bad to worse for the group, as each were injured in turn, although none were fatally so. Soon, only Robinson was left standing. He and a white soldier discussed the virtues of surrender, until they saw two Union soldiers gunned down after attempted to surrender themselves. The white soldier was killed next Robinson. When a group of Confederates approached, Robinson knew it was hopeless and surrendered. He was immediately shot in the thigh. The Confederated moved on, leaving Robinson to die.
Robinson was not fatally wounded, however. After he tended his wound the best he could, Robinson was spotted by another group of Confederates, who ordered him to crawl over. Robinson did so, and was immediately plundered of his uniform and money. The Confederates dragged him over to a pile of dead Union soldiers. Robinson expected to be bayoneted, but the Confederates didn't bother. Looking around, Robinson realized the corpse of Major Lionel F. Booth was next to him. Robinson realized that if he remained still, other Confederates might believe him to be another corpse and leave him be.
This plan almost worked too well. After hours of laying by the pile, Robinson began to doze. He awoke to two Confederates preparing to throw him in a ditch. Robinson confirmed he was alive. The two Confederates carried him into a nearby hut, where they tentatively agreed to kill Robinson the next day. Once they'd left, Robinson crawled out of the hut and made his way down the river. He heard another Confederate beat a wounded Negro to death, despite his colleague's reminder that Lt. Newsom Pennell had ordered them to stop such killing. For his part, Robinson silently promised that he'd fight that much harder the next time he was in battle.
Robinson made it to the Mississippi, but had to play dead, as the riverbank was heavily patrolled. He spent the cold night lying as still as possible. He awoke to the artillery fire launched by the USS Silver Cloud. Robinson also did his best to appear dead, as Confederate troops were still killing wounded Negro troops. Then, Forrest's aide, Captain Charles W. Anderson arrived with prisoner Captain John Young under a flag of truce. Robinson watched as Anderson treated with Acting Master William Ferguson, the commander of the gunboat. Anderson proposed that there be a ceasefire until five o'clock that day to allow the crew of the Silver Cloud to carry every survivor, white and black, aboard the ship. Ferguson was initially surprised that any blacks were alive. Robinson, however, confirmed that he was still alive. When Anderson agreed to move all Confederate troops back from the outer perimeter of the fort. Ferguson accepted, although he was perturbed when he learned that no one, including Captain Young, knew how many men still lived.
After Ferguson returned to his boat, Anderson turned his attention back to Robinson. Anderson inquired about Robinson's rank. Robinson replied that he'd reached the rank by being the best soldier he could be. Anderson coolly wished that the Confederates had been able to kill more Negroes. Robinson said the same thing about the Confederates, prompting Anderson to reach for his revolver. However, Anderson checked himself.
Robinson was relieved when he was carried aboard the Silver Cloud. He and the other wounded were carried up river to Mound City, Illinois. While in the hospital there, he was reunited with Charlie Key, Sandy Cole, and Aaron Fentis. They survived their wounds, and would recuperate, as would Robinson.
After a few days, the soldiers were visited by two members of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War: Senator Benjamin Wade and Congressman Daniel Gooch. It was made clear to Robinson that their primary purpose was to depict the battle in the light most negative to Forrest and the C.S. When a soldier named Elias Falls testified about seeing a Confederate officer disciplining a soldier for shooting down a Negro, Wade directed the soldiers to leave out any such testimony, and that his purpose was to show the C.S. as monsters to the U.S. Robinson described his own experiences, which truthfully did not include any instances of Confederate officers trying to reign in abuses.
Both Wade and Gooch thanked the men, promising them that Fort Pillow would become a symbol of the Union cause. Robinson realized that now he was a part of history, and felt a great deal of pride.