Prelude to the Battle
From January until April, 1864, Bradford had been in overall command of Fort Pillow, until General Stephen A. Hurlbut ordered the Second U.S. Colored Light Artillery and the Sixth U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery, both under the overall command of Major Lionel F. Booth to the fort. Booth had been promoted before Bradford, and so took overall command of the fort. Losing command and the presence of black troops rankled Bradford, but he kept his peace. Nonetheless, he worried about the possibility that Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest would attack the fort, and that the defenders, particularly the black troops, would fold in the assault.
When the attack came a few days later on April 12, 1864, Bradford was completely surprised, and showed some lack of resolve. Lionel Booth, however, immediately took control, ordering skirmishers to support the pickets that surrounded the fort. When it became clear that the skirmishers could be overrun, Bradford proposed to Booth that more skirmishers be sent out, or the ones already out be pulled back in. Booth vetoed both, explaining that he hoped to hold back the Confederates until reinforcements arrived. Bradford didn't like the plan, but accepted it.
However, everything changed a matter minutes later when Booth was fatally shot. Bradford now found himself in overall command. He was astonished to learn that within a few minutes of Booth's death, his adjutant John D. Hill was also killed. Bradford informed his own adjutant, Lt. Mack Leaming, that he was now fort adjutant again. Bradford also confirmed his own belief that Forrest led a force of over six thousand men. He also decided to pursue Booth's policy of holding the fort and waiting for reinforcements.
One affirmative step Bradford took early in the battle was to attempt to set fire to the rows of barracks just outside the fort, in order to deny them to the Confederates. While one row was successfully burned, the second row was not, and Confederate forces were able to drive of Federal troops, much to Bradford's disgust. The Confederates were able to take hold of the barracks. He ordered the New Era, the Union gunboat anchored in the Mississippi River to start shelling the barracks.
By noon of that day, Bradford had regained some confidence as Confederate troops had attacked the fort, and had been repelled each time. Still, Bradford asked his brother, Captain Theodorick Bradford, the signalman for the fort, to confirm that the New Era would be able to support the garrison with canister should the Confederates break through. He also ordered Captain John Young, the fort's provost marshal, to take cartridges down to the bank to the Mississippi River. Young didn't necessarily like the idea of suggesting defeat, but complied.
Not long after Confederate Captain Walter Goodman approached the fort under a flag of truce. Bradford sent Leaming, Young, and Second Lt. Daniel van Horn to treat with the Confederates. When Leaming returned, he conveyed Forrest's demand for immediate surrender with assurances that the entire garrison, Negro soldiers included, would be treated as prisoners of war. Leaming also confirmed that the Confederates did not yet know Major Booth had been killed. Bradford, realizing how much the Confederates hated him for being a "Tennessee Tory" decided to leave the in the dark. He stalled for time, sending a request for an hour for the officers to meet in Booth's name, hoping that reinforcements would arrive shortly.
Forrest refused, demanding an answer in twenty minutes. Bradford was horrified when Leaming returned with Forrest's demand. He briefly agonized over whether or not to surrender, concluding that he couldn't. 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 decided to prepare 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.
When Leaming returned after meeting with Forrest himself, he relayed Forrest's demand for a plain yes or no answer to Forrest's surrender demand. Bradford panicked, refusing to come out and surrender. 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.
After Leaming had delivered the response and returned to the fort, William Bradford spoke privately with Theodorick Bradford. William was surprised to realize that his brother didn't really believe they could hold the fort, but didn't want to seem like a coward during the meeting. When William hinted that he'd hope Theodorick would have been more honest, Theodorick turned on his heel. Then the attack began. Bradford marveled at how the guns of the fort were badly laid out. He was also surprised to see how the white and black troops were fighting side by side. Then he heard the cry of "Black flag" from the Confederates, confirming that there would be no quarter given.
When the Fort was breached, Bradford did his part to fight off the attackers. He saw his brother, Theo, gunned down by vengeful Confederate troops. He didn't have the time to mourn his brother. It soon became clear that the Confederate forces were overwhelming the Union garrison. Realizing that the garrison was doomed, Bradford ordered his men to retreat to the banks of the Mississippi River in the hopes that the New Era could provide them cover.
Instead, the New Era was targeted by Confederate sharpshooters and canon from inside the fort. Bradford watched helplessly as the New Era withdrew up river. He privately cursed Captain James Marshall. When asked by a soldier what to do, Bradford his men "Boys, save your lives." After contemplating his next move, Bradford joined the surviving garrison in flight.
The Fort Falls
After fleeing for a time, Bradford attempted to surrender. Instead, he was shot at. Panicked, Bradford began wading across the Mississippi. Several Confederates spotted him, and ordered him to surrender. Bradford returned to the shore, but when he was waist-deep, Confederate troops again fired at him. They all missed, and Bradford fled up the river bank. He ran into a Confederate soldier who took Bradford's surrender just before he realized who Bradford was. Bradford successfully convinced the Confederate not to shoot him. Under guard, Bradford was returned to the fort, where he saw a pile of Union corpses, Major Booth among them. He realized his brother was probably in such a pile, and, defying the Confederates, set about finding Theodorick's body for a proper burial.
Bradford gave his parole, and began looking for Theodorick. Shortly after he found his brother's body, Bradford was approached by General Forrest himself. Forrest reproached Bradford for not surrendering the fort. Bradford tactfully explained that he didn't quite trust Forrest's promise of good treatment, and shared his honest belief that the fort could have held. When Forrest learned of Bradford's intent to give Theodorick a Christian burial, Forrest, who'd lost his own brother in combat some months before, softened somewhat, and ordered that two Negroes help Bradford dig a grave.
The Confederate lieutenant overseeing Bradford didn't like it. Nonetheless, he followed orders. He also told the soldier who'd caught Bradford (whom Bradford learned was named Matt Ward) to shoot Bradford in the belly if Bradford made any effort to escape. Bradford realized his career was over, but was grateful to be alive. Despite giving his parole, he nonetheless watched for an opportunity to escape.
That came during the funeral. Bradford read several passages from the Bible, then produced a jug of whiskey he'd managed to procure. He shared the whiskey generously with Ward. While the two debated the politics of the war, Ward drank a great deal of whiskey, until he was quite drunk. Bradford also drank some, although not as much as he pretended.
Despite his drunkenness, Ward was able to stay on his feet for some time. He even forced Bradford to sing "O Susanna" and "Camptown Ladies", despite Bradford's personal loss. Crying, Bradford did. Only after the singing was done did Ward pass out.
Escape, Recapture, and Death
With Ward unconscious, Bradford set about escaping. He found a pair of trousers in a sutler's quarters, and removed the remainder of his uniform. He then began to walk away from the fort. He was challenged once by a lieutenant, who didn't quite believe Bradford was a civilian, but couldn't prove it either. As Bradford made his way, he heard Bedford Forrest's voice not far off. Nonetheless, he made it to the outer perimeter, where he was challenged by a Confederate corporal on sentry duty. The guard believed Bradford's claims that he was a sutler, and sent him on his way.
Bradford was one the road for several hours before he was caught by a Confederate patrol near Covington, Tennessee. While the soldiers who caught him didn't recognize him, their commanding officer, Colonel William Duckworth did. And so Bradford was shut up in a room with a cot for the night.
The next day, Bradford was escorted to Brownsville with several other prisoners. Just outside of town, the group encountered a cavalry regiment. As it was getting dark, and Brownsville was a still a good distance away, the whole group decided to set up camp. Among the cavalry was Jack Jenkins, the guard Bradford had bluffed. Jenkins recognized Bradford, and volunteered to guard the prisoners.
While Bradford made it the jail in Brownsville alive, he realized just how much Jenkins hated him, which caused him more terror. After a night in Brownsville, Bradford and the other prisoners were transferred to Jackson, Tennessee. On the road, Jenkins gave Bradford an opportunity to relieve himself. Bradford agreed. After completing this, Bradford stepped away from spot he'd urinated, which gave Jenkins the excuse to open fire. Bradford was badly injured by the first fusillade, and killed by the second, with the words "Shot trying to escape" the last thing he heard.
In the novel's Historical Note, Harry Turtledove explains that while it is known that Bradford was killed while being transferred as a prisoner, the exact circumstances are disputed by primary sources of different biases. He chose the most likely scenario by comparing the commonly agreed details.