A Scrimshaw Mystery Solved!

Massacre at Fort Pillow - Harpers Weekly, dated April 30,1864.
Massacre at Fort Pillow scrimshaw

I like a good mystery! And I especially love to solve mysteries. This scrimshawed 22.2-ounce & 7.25-inch Sperm whale tooth falls into that category.

Most scrimshaws reflect images familiar to the scrimshander, such as whaling scenes, ships, or portraits. Sometimes, a whaler would depict an historic event, usually well-known, but occasionally obscure. Such is the case of this scrimshawed Civil War battle scene.

Based on a very fuzzy photograph, I purchased this tooth, sight-unseen, from an elderly lady who had just moved to Colorado from New Hampshire, and was down-sizing her belongings. She told me that it had been in her New England family for several generations, but she did not know any history about the tooth, or the scene. I sent money to a friend in Colorado Springs, who exchanged payment for the tooth, then mailed it to me.

Once in my hands, I studied the tooth, which depicted a Confederate army over-running a Union position (Image #1). What was most unusual, was that the Union soldiers were all “U.S. Colored Troops”, with a few white officers. Unbelievably, the Confederates were shooting & bayoneting the black troops in the back, and two rebels were slitting the throat of one Union officer. Historically, black Federal troops were not allowed to engage Confederate troops, because Confederate President Jefferson Davis had declared any armed Negro as a run-away slave in arms. Therefore, black Federal troop and their white officers were to be shot on sight! Surrender was not an option.

I scanned the tooth to acquire an accurate JPG rendering of the scrimshawed scene. I immediately began calling Civil War buffs, Civil War museums, and Civil War experts, all over the United States. I would describe the scene to anyone who would listen, offering to e-mail an image. For more than three months, I only received referrals from one expert to the next. No one recognized the scene.

Finally, one telephone call paid-off. I do not even remember to whom I was speaking. As I described the scene, the expert said “That sounds like ‘The Massacre At Fort Pillow’”. That was all I needed to hear! Within minutes I had GOOGLED the story, and a JPG of the original illustration from the 30 April, 1864 issue of Harper’s Weekly (Image #2).

To read MORE about this scrimwork, and the event depicted, click here.