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 Beautiful Belmont, Part 52 -- Remembering Fort Pillow.

by John Salisbury Cochran.

See previous entry: Beautiful Belmont, Part 51 -- Separation.

One evening, just as I had completed a letter to Minerva and had thrown it sealed on my law office desk, my friend, Colonel Mack J. Learning, formerly of La Porte, Indiana -- a noble fellow who was dangerously wounded in the spine and left for dead at the massacre of Fort Pillow [where Confederate forces had embarked on the deliberate slaughter of the black garrison] -- entered my office. His brother-in-law was the celebrated poet Benjamin F. Taylor of Chicago, who wrote some of the finest poems in English literature, and whom I am glad to call my friend. "Doing some writing?" asked the colonel as he entered. "Yes," I replied, "writing to an old sweetheart."

We exchanged pleasantries for a few more moments, and I then steered the conversation to more serious matters, towards a subject that had interested me for some time. Aware that Colonel Learning was one of the witnesses before the commission investigating the violation of the rules of warfare on the part of the Confederates in the battle of Fort Pillow, I asked him to discuss the experiences he had lived through while stationed there. In measured tones, his story was as follows: "I was colonel of a regiment in that fight and they overpowered us with great numbers. We fought them until we were about out of ammunition and there was no longer any hope, then stopped firing, running up the white flag of surrender. They rushed in on us and instead of showing quarter [mercy], as we had thrown down our guns, began killing indiscriminately and without regarding our appeals. I could have killed two or three myself, but for the fact I was relying on the code of surrender, and I know there were many of us who could have done the same."

Learning described how one of the Confederates had shot him despite the fact that his hands were raised in surrender. The man was one of General [Nathan Bedford] Forrest's cavalry. The ball went through him, lodging against his spine, and he dropped to the ground senseless. He had $100, a fine gold watch, and an engagement ring on his finger, and awoke to find a Confederate soldier bending over him, rifling my pockets. Still lying on his back, he spoke to the soldier, who was greatly astonished and confused. Unable to move, Learning asked him if there was any member of the Masonic order in the Confederate command. The man replied that his captain was a Mason. Learning asked him if he would bring the captain to him, and the soldier brought back the officer.

"I gave him the Masonic sign," Learning continued, "told him I was from La Porte, Indiana, and wanted him to do me a favor as I expected to die. He called over his regimental physician, who examined me and told me I had only an hour or so to live, and after helping me all he could they carried me into one of the log barrack buildings, laying me on my back with my head against the wall. I told the captain of my engagement to the young lady in La Porte, gave her address, gave him the ring, picture, and watch, and asked him to send them to her with the news of my death. He promised me faithfully to do so and took the money from the soldier to send it as well. Just then I heard the firing of heavy guns outside, along with hurried commands given by the Confederate officers. The heavy firing was from the federal gunboats coming to our relief. I heard the orders given by the Confederates to burn the buildings, and soon could hear the crackling of the flames and could smell the smoke."

As it turned out, the very building in which Learning was lying was itself burning, and the fire from the roof was falling all around him. A burning ember lodged in a knapsack hanging just over his head; the strap finally burned through, and soon the whole sack fell on the side of his face, still burning. Attempting to move his head, he fell unconsciousness from the effort. Just as he did so, he felt in great pain, as though he were being dragged by the shoulders. It was the Confederate captain pulling him from the burning building out to the open field and away from the fire. "I have never heard from him since. Poor fellow, he must have been subsequently killed," Learnig concluded.

"Do you really think he would have kept faith with you?" I asked when the colonel finished.

"I have not the slightest doubt of it in the world," he replied, "something must have happened. When I came to consciousness again," he resumed, "I was in the hospital, being treated by a federal surgeon. After a long time, I recovered somewhat, and returned to my present wife, whom you know was the sweetheart that I had left back in La Porte in those days. You have no idea how I would love to know what the fate of the captain was, for my wife never heard from him."

Not a month after this conversation, Col. Learning walked into my office, his face all aglow, and said, "Do you remember my story of a few weeks ago of the Fort Pillow episode?" I replied that I did. "I have found my captain!" he enthusiastically exclaimed. He carried in his hand two letters, one from a friend in La Porte, calling the attention of the colonel to another enclosed letter. The enclosure was to the postmaster at La Porte asking whether any person from that city had been a federal colonel and commanded a regiment at Fort Pillow. It stated the writer had forgotten the name of the federal colonel and also the city in which he lived in Indiana, but that the colonel, just before he died, had left a watch, some money, a gold ring and a picture of a lady to whom he had been engaged, whose name he had also forgotten. The Confederate soldier stated that he had promised the federal colonel to deliver the items to the lady, but so far had not been successful in finding any trace of her or the friends of the colonel. It requested the postmaster, if he could somehow find trace of them, to have them write him in Texas. The postmaster, knowing of the incident, had sent the letters to Learning, who was then living in Sedalia.

Learning sat down in my office and wrote the Confederate captain at once. In a few days he received a reply, asking the colonel to meet him in Kansas City on a certain day, as he was the owner of a large cattle ranch in Texas, and would be in that city on that day with a large consignment of cattle for the eastern market. Colonel Learning, with his wife, met the Texan there and they enjoyed a week or more of most pleasant social reunion. It turned out the Confederate captain was a bachelor and was very wealthy. He offered Learning a half interest in all he had free if he would cast in his lot with him on the ranch. I am not aware whether Learning ever accepted it, as I separated from him soon after and have never met him since. To the Confederate captain, it was like someone rising from the dead to know that Colonel Learning had survived his terrible wound. The colonel, in fact, still carried the ball when I last saw him.

See next entry: Beautiful Belmont, Part 53 -- Robbers and Detectives.

For the table of contents and first entry in this series, see: Beautiful Belmont, Part 01 -- Table of Contents and Brief Introduction.

This entry is adapted from Bonnie Belmont: A Historical Romance of the Days of Slavery and the Civil War, by John Salisbury Cochran, which was published originally in 1907. The book has been reedited extensively for inclusion in the Pierian Press Fulltext eBooks database, and is included on the Stratton House Inn Web site by special permission. This special edition of Beautiful Belmont is licensed for use ONLY on this Web site. It may not be copied or downloaded, but may be used for educational purposes and personal pleasure under fair-use provisions via this Web site. Please note that this Stratton House Inn iteration of the book does NOT include the subject headings assigned each chapter for use in the Fulltext eBooks database.

CO-AUTHOR: Wall, C. Edward. (Editor)
CO-AUTHOR: Schultheiss, Tom. (Asst. Editor)

DATABASE: Fulltext eBooks: Copyright (c) 2000 The Pierian Press, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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