Mack Leaming (February 15, 1842 - August 8, 1893) was a First Lieutenant with the Thirteenth Tennessee Cavalry (U.S.) and adjutant to Major William Bradford. He was stationed at Fort Pillow in 1864, and participated in the battle that took place between U.S. and Confederate forces in April of that year. He shared Major Bradford's skepticism of the black soldiers that had been sent to reinforce the fort.
When Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest launched an attack on the fort a few days later, Leaming was genuinely shocked, as was Bradford. However, Major Lionel F. Booth, the overall commander of the fort, quickly took control of the situation. As the battle progressed, Leaming, who'd never seen combat, was heartened by Booth's confidence, and was pleased when Booth acknowledged Leaming's fear. After watching the various Negro soldiers doing their jobs efficiently, Leaming privately acknowledged that blacks could fight.
Within a short period after the fighting began, Booth and his adjutant John D. Hill were killed. Leaming was once again overall fort adjutant under Bradford. He was assigned by Bradford to set fire to the barracks just outside the fort to keep them from giving the Confederates shelter. The attempt was partially successful, as one row of barracks was burned. However, the second row was successfully defended by the Confederates. Bradford ordered Leaming to in turn order the New Era to shell the barracks. The fort's signaler, Bradford's brother Theodorick, admitted that the distance between himself and the gunboat might lead to some confusion. The New Era did indeed start shelling, but its shells were considerably off the mark.
In the afternoon, Bradford sent Leaming to meet with Confederate Captain Walter Goodman, who approached the fort under a flag of truce. Along with Leaming, Bradford sent Captain John Young and Second Lt. Daniel van Horn out to meet with the Confederates. Leaming reviewed the written demand prepared by General Forrest, and confirmed with Goodman that Forrest would treat the entirety of the garrison in the fort as a prisoners of war, including the Negro soldiers, provided it surrendered immediately. Leaming also determined that the Confederates had no idea that Lionel Booth was dead. When he presented the demand to Bradford, Bradford decided to stall for time, and sent a response in Booth's name, asking for an hour to consider Forrest's demand.
Forrest refused, demanding an answer in twenty minutes. He watched as William Bradford agonized over whether or not to surrender. Both men saw the steamer Olive Branch attempt to land reinforcements along the shores of Coal Creek, and watched as it was driven away by Confederate troops along its shore. Bradford sent back a vague response that stated that Forrest's demand "did not have the desired effect", and sent Leaming back out to meet with the Confederates.
This time, Leaming met with Nathan Beford Forrest himself. Forrest read the note, and demanded a plain yes or no answer. Once again, Leaming returned to the Fort, after snapping off a fussily precise salute at Forrest, but privately fighting back his fear after having dealt with the intimidating general. He relayed Forrest's demand to Bradford, who panicked, refusing to come out and surrender. Leaming began to wish that Booth hadn't been killed, as Bradford's lack of experience was hindering everything. Bradford called a meeting of the garrison's surviving officers, and put the question to them. No one suggested surrender, and so, for the final time, Bradford sent out a note in Booth's name refusing to surrender.
When Leaming returned to the parley, Forrest was gone. Captain Goodman was shocked by the fort's refusal to surrender, asking Leaming if it would reconsider. Goodman hinted at the horror that would come if the Confederates took the fort. Leaming asserted that the fort would not surrender, and each side returned to their respective lines. On the way back to the fort, John Young asked Leaming if the garrison could really hold the fort. Leaming expressed his hope that it could.
When the attack came, Leaming was in the forefront of the defenders, using his saber. While bullets whizzed past him, he wasn't hit. He was able to wound one Confederate attacker and fight off others. During the fighting, he realized the Negro troops were as brave and stalwart as one could hope for. He also noticed that the Confederates were targeting Union officers.
When the fort was overrun, Leaming began to make his way to the bank of the Mississippi River. He saw several of his fellow soldiers picked off by the Confederates from their three different vantage points. Leaming decided to surrender. The Confederates he met refused to accept it, and shot him in the back as he fled.
Leaming survived, and lay where he fell for hours. He was able to staunch his bleeding. Three different Confederates plundered him for his money, his shoes, and his trousers, respectively. Each time, Leaming begged for water, but was venomously denied.
As the sun began to set, Leaming began making the Masonic Grand Hailing Sign of Distress. This finally attracted the attention of a Confederate officer who was also a Mason. The officer saw to it that Leaming was taken indoors, that his wounds were tended to, and that he was given water. This done, the Confederate officer disappeared. Leaming was left alone, as the Confederates were uncertain as to whether he'd live through the night. As Leaming was lying in his bed, he heard Bradford's voice as he oversaw the burial of his brother, Theodorick. Leaming was astonished that Bradford was still alive.
After several hours under the open sky, Leaming was carried down to a barracks by two of his men, Bill Ryder and Elmer Haynes. Both had been dragooned into carries bodies by the Confederates, but knew that the barracks was where wounded Federal troops were being held. Preferring a floor and a roof to the ground and the sky, Leaming was happy to be in the barracks, even though his wound wasn't being tended.
Leaming slept through the night, and woke the next morning to an artillery attack from a river boat. A panicked Confederate officer ordered the barracks burned, determined to keep them out of Union hands. He disregarded the pleas of the wounded inside the barracks. While Leaming couldn't escape on his own, another Union officer helped drag him out. Safe from the fire, Leaming continued to law where he was dragged. He saw a Confederate shoot two Negroes to death, and realized he was numb to the horror of it.
Later, a truce was arranged that allowed for the evacuation of wounded soldiers. Leaming was carried aboard the Platte Valley. He was examined by a surgeon who determined the wound, while bad, didn't need to be tended to right away. He gave Leaming laudanum in the meantime, which did relieve Leaming's pain.
Some time after Leaming was brought aboard, General Forrest's adjutant Charles W. Anderson came aboard the Platte Valley, and socialized with its skipper. Leaming was horrified, believing the skipper was far too deferential and respectful of the Confederate captain. Only Leaming's wound and drugged state kept him quiet. As the two talked, the Confederate troops began burning the barracks outside the fort. While Anderson assured the skipper that they weren't burning living people, the smell of burning flesh revealed that at least some corpses went up with the barracks. As they watched, a Confederate troop began shooting black soldiers, in violation of the truce. As the shooter was immediately arrested, the skipper didn't protest too much, but Anderson realized he'd worn out his welcome and returned to shore.
The ship made for Illinois shortly after Anderson left, much to Leaming's surprise.
While recuperating, Leaming was interviewed by Senator Benjamin Wade and Congressman Daniel Gooch of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. Before the interview, their secretary warned Leaming that the two men wanted to produce an account that depicted the C.S. and General Forrest in the worst possible light. Leaming obliged them.
- Fort Pillow, pgs. 7-9.
- Ibid., pgs. 37-41.
- Ibid., pgs. 54-58.
- Ibid., pg. 62.
- Ibid., pg. 63.
- Ibid. pg. 64.
- Ibid., pg. 75.
- Ibid., pg. 79.
- Ibid., pg. 80-81.
- Ibid., pgs. 96-98.
- Ibid., pgs. 99-100.
- Ibid., pgs. 101-109.
- Ibid., pgs. 113-120.
- Ibid., pg. 214.
- Ibid., pgs. 131-135.
- Ibid., pgs. 175-177.
- Ibid., pgs. 192-197.
- Ibid., pgs. 210-214.
- Ibid, pgs. 233-237.
- Ibid., pgs. 262-266.
- Ibid., pgs. 281-283.
- Ibid., pg. 290.
- Ibid., pgs. 291-294.
- Ibid., 312-316.