As Confederate flags come down across the South, some are revisiting monuments to Confederate leaders. Much of this conversation has focused on one of the most controversial of Confederate generals, Nathan Bedford Forrest. Recently, some memorials to Forrest have been renamed or removed. Two years ago, Nathan B. Forrest High School in Jacksonville, Florida (mascot: Colonel Reb), was renamed. Unknown parties stole a bust of Forrest in Selma, Alabama in 2012, though Forrest admirers replaced it this March in time for the commemoration marking the 50th anniversary of the March 25, 1965 Selma march. Memphis is even now moving forward in its plans to remove a statue of Forrest, along with his and his wife’s remains, from Health Sciences Park to the local graveyard where they had originally been interred. The park itself had been called “Forrest Park” until the city renamed it two years ago.
Though the removal of monuments to Forrest is a great step forward, the arguments given for removing them have been far too narrow, focusing too much on his role as a leader of the Ku Klux Klan. We should think more broadly about what we are rejecting when we take Forrest from his pedestal.
White racists have long honored Nathan Bedford Forrest as a symbol of white supremacy. A broader swath of Americans, less comfortable with his racism, have admired Forrest as a model of American manhood. Forrest stands in American lore as a fantasy of omnipotence in the face of adversity. As his first full-length military biography, written in 1868 and approved by Forrest himself, first sketched, Forrest, left fatherless, made his way to personal, financial and political success as a slave trader. When the war came, he rose from simple soldier to storied general. “Clear in his comprehension of the possible, untiring in his activity and personal energy, ready and affluent in resources to remove or surmount obstacles that would paralyze most men,” Forrest’s superior officers, hard men, deferred to his superior courage and instinct. His tired and hungry soldiers, odds always against them, rallied to his banner and routed their less-determined enemy.
Forrest was easy on the eyes, too, as his admirers then and since have routinely emphasized. The 1868 biography lovingly described his “six feet one and a half inch of height”, ”broad shoulders”, “full chest” and “symmetrical, muscular limbs”, noting also his “dark gray eyes, singularly bright and searching” his “regular white teeth” and his “clearly cut, sun-embrowned features.”
The American manhood that Forrest has embodied is one grounded in the willingness to use violence to defend one’s interests. Likely apocryphal stories from Forrest’s childhood have him killing dangerous animals, defending his mother’s property by shooting a neighbor’s ox and then shooting through the neighbor’s clothes when he threatened to retaliate. Contemporary newspaper accounts trace his progress as a civilian: stabbing a white man in 1854 in a dispute, for instance, and killing a freedman with an axe-blow to the head in 1866. Of course, Forrest’s violence was particularly aimed toward black Americans: Forrest climbed from rags to riches over the bodies of slaves. Slave trading was not for the morally sensitive, but Forrest stood out even among slave-traders in his oppression of his human property. In January of 1860 his “Slave Mart” collapsed in a heavy rain, “burying beneath its ruins six valuable slaves,” killing at least two. He was also certainly the source of an article published in January of 1859 claiming that he was in possession of a daughter of “Fred Douglass.” Emphasizing that she was “of the class known among the dealers as a ‘likely girl,’” Forrest cruelly noted her vulnerability to rape. The article called out Douglass for hypocrisy in failing to purchase her. We can assume that she was not actually a daughter of Douglass: Forrest loved to overawe. Even when it came to depravity, his big talk frequently outran his big actions. Forrest was trying to degrade and insult Douglass. Yet this reveals him as man eminently comfortable with, and indeed playful about, the fact that selling girls to men who would rape them was his business.
Forrest was also responsible for the notorious Fort Pillow Massacre of April 12, 1864, which earned him the title “the butcher Forrest.” After Forrest’s soldiers breached the understaffed fort, they massacred black, and some white, defenders of the fort as they attempted to surrender. Though there is some doubt about the details of the atrocities (Did Forrest’s soldiers really nail two men to boards and throw them into the flames? Did they really coolly gun down three teenaged non-combatants who had attempted to hide in the river near the shore? How many wounded men did they actually bury alive in a mass grave or set on fire?), there is no question the massacre occurred, nor that killings of unarmed and injured men extended for many hours after the fighting ended. Many survivors testified to it, an army surgeon testified that the wounds he encountered were unlike any he had seen before in their close range and accuracy, the unnaturally high casualty rate was heavily skewed towards black soldiers, and there was a much higher proportion of dead to wounded soldiers than in normal combat. Forrest’s level of responsibility for his soldiers’ brutality is contested: he may not have intended all that occurred. But he was a decisive leader in charge of a terrible atrocity. According to anecdotes circulated by his supporters, he even joked about the event in later years, claiming that his men ate the black soldiers and he ate the murdered babies himself for breakfast.
Ironically, the most widely circulated claim about Forrest is the one that is most in dispute: Forrest was, and is, widely believed to have been the leader of the Ku Klux Klan. But the Klan was in fact quite decentralized. Though Klan founders wrote a “Prescript” setting up a tightly articulated organization with a Grand Wizard presiding, in practice no one had the capacity to co-ordinate the far-spun local groups. Forrest was an avid Klan supporter, and likely a leader of a Klan group in Memphis. Someone may have declared him Grand Wizard. Yet there is very little evidence that he had a meaningful role beyond Memphis. His position within the Klan has been inflated, largely because he inflated it himself: when press and Congress questioned him he coyly implied that he was Grand Wizard, capable of instantly mobilizing tens of thousands. There is no cause to doubt that, given the opportunity, he would have led the Klan. As it stood, however, he was capable only of capitalizing on the empty claim that he had the power to cause, shape, or end the terrorism rural white men were committing upon black families across the South. To quote historian Carole Emberton, “If there is one thing more despicable than being the leader of the Klan, it is falsely claiming to be the leader of the Klan.”
Why, then, is public objection to Forrest primarily focused on his role in as leader of the Klan, as though his much more sustained, direct, and verifiable roles as a slave trader, war criminal, and private perpetrator of violence are not damning enough? It may be that Americans still have a bit too much love for a man of violence, too much tolerance for the war criminal, too much understanding for the man who made his fortune on the back of the oppressed. Only by focusing on his relationship to stark racial terrorism are we able to agree that this is not a man to be held up as for public reverence. It is time for monuments to Forrest to come down, not simply because of his role in the Klan, but because we are a nation of law and justice that deplores the use of violence by the strong to control, harm, and exploit the weak.