We Don’t Have Enough Contempt for Nathan Bedford Forrest

Nathan Bedford ForrestNathan Bedford Forrest. Memphis Statue (Photo: Ron Cogswell flickr CC)

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.

About the Author

Elaine Frantz Parsons

Elaine Frantz Parsons is an associate professor of History at Duquesne University. Her book, The Ku-Klux Klan and the Reconstruction of American Culture (Forthcoming UNC Press, 2015) explores the rise and fall of the reconstruction-era Klan.

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20 Comments

    1. Hello Donn! Thank you. Does LA have anything of this sort going on now, or was it largely saved by its more complicated racial situation from building these monuments? I don’t remember there being confederate monuments around, but then we definitely would not have sought them out…

  1. Please do not say “I am for keeping monuments up because we need to keep track of who we are/have been.” I’ve been to South Korea, West & East Germany, France, Britain, Mexico, Cuba, and the Netherlands. None of these places have any problem remembering history and they do it without erecting honorific statues and naming buildings after EVIL people. There are no Nazi flags waving with Swastikas and there are no streets, parks, or schools in Germany named after Hitler.

    1. Well said! And I think that there are plenty of ways to commemorate that period besides statues of confederate leaders. We need more monuments to slaves and freedpeople who resisted, persevered, and worked to build a new South.

    2. The problem with the Germany comparison – and I’m saying this as someone who agrees with what you’re saying – is that Naziism was somewhat more removed from the entire scope of German history than slavery, racism and white supremacy are for the United States. The American flag itself has supported slavery almost as much as the Confederate, and Jefferson et al. helped create the conditions for secession, slavery, Jim Crow before Nathan Bedford Forrest and Alexander Stephens were even born. So for the US, it is somewhat complicated to remove every supporting statue, memorial, and plaque, because these things are so interwoven into our society – the statues and memorials and plaques are a symptom of a much deeper issue.

      I don’t really know what the right answer here is, or where we draw the line (should, for example, the Arkansas State Capitol take away the bust of Orval Faubus? In a more extreme example, should we change the name of Washington DC?) I think there is something to being confronted by that history, and being confronted by our complicity in it, and maybe acknowledging that we are in a country that once put these statues up with terrifying regularity does that. And again, I don’t think we should have any second thoughts about getting rid of the Confederacy in public commemoration – change the names of schools, streets, parks without any question. I just think that the more important result of this debate is a growing consciousness on the part of the entire country that slavery, the Confederacy, even segregation were not simply ‘bad things that happened in the past’ but that they’re woven into the fabric of who we are as a country. In some cases, a shift of the purpose of some of these things away from honoring the subject and more toward dissecting the history could be useful.

      Hopefully that made some level of sense.

      1. It occurs to me after a bit of reflection that maybe my comment was inartful. I love seeing all of this debate and movement against Confederate symbols, not just in the South but everywhere, and it’s incredible to watch all of this start to crumble after such a long time. My comment is merely this: are we stopping at the Confederacy? If so, why, and if not… how? I can see this becoming yet another way to sort of deny the underlying truth – “well, we took down the statues, what more do you want?” as if the statues themselves were the problem, not the reason they went up in the first place. That’s what has been so cool about the conversations the country has been experiencing since Charleston: on a lot of levels, we’re grappling with the roots of these things far more than we were before, and the debate is as important as the outcome. Even if the flag hadn’t come down in Columbia (and I’m still stunned and thrilled that it did), the education people received on its history had an effect, and that’s long lasting.

        1. What I hope is being taking down isn’t just pieces of cloth and chunks of stone but the dishonest portrayal of history that has dominated southern culture for over a century. Confederate monuments and icons should be exposed one by one for what and who they actually represent, not just taken down willy-nilly because of a some link to the Confederacy. Without re-education, an attack on icons is useless.

  2. Excellent article. I’ve always heard different claims as to Forrest’s level of involvement in the Ku Klux Klan. Some have said he was one of the founders which is probably not true and some claim he was a Grand Wizard. With his status as a “daring hero” in the South, I have little doubt his membership helped its growth. Forrest’s grandson, Nathan Bedford Forrest II, by the way, was a Grand Wizard of the Klan and also, incidentally, Commander-in-Chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

    1. Let’s do start examining and removing the monuments to false heroes, the spokesmen of white supremacy, and the symbols of a government that sought to preserve slavery at all cost. But, I ask you, let’s stop with monuments to the dead. Within one of the trenches at Shiloh is the dust of my direct ancestor. I don’t know his reasons for leaving his young bride and marching into battle 154 years ago, but there he lies just the same. Soldiers who have died in all wars, regardless of the cause, should be shown respect. Continue to honor the southern dead as the soldiers they were without the battle flags which were officially furled 150 years ago.

  3. please.I see the author is a “damn Yankee”.Knowing that I’m sure she is pro-northerners.But how bout being fair minded.Let’s include the systemstic killing of women children and other innocent citizens during Shermans burning of Atlanta.

  4. My family history is intimately tangled with this man’s legacy; I’ve ancestors that fought under him (probably including Ft. Pillow) and named children after him. I’ve been trying to learn about him to separate fact from fiction. I’m reading a biography and have read numerous articles but nothing mentions some of the events and details I read in this article.
    I see the author is interacting a bit here in the comments. Elaine, I’ll focus on one topic: Forrest’s time as a slave dealer. The collapse of the ‘slave mart’ is something familiar but the story about taunting Frederick Douglass is not something I’ve ever heard before. Are there any sources you can provide so I can look at this in more detail?

    1. I can give you citations for any of these. In fact, most are easily accessible on the excellent (and free!) Library of Congress newspaper site, Chronicling America. The Fredrick Douglass article I saw a few times in different papers, but the one you can find on Chronicling America is in the Home Journal (Winchester, Tennessee), on January 20, 1859, on the first page. The article is called “Fred Douglass’ Daughter for Sale.” Feel free to let me know what else you’d like me to send along. Glad you are interested.

      1. Thanks Elaine… it’s pretty sobering to read that advertisement. For better or worse I’m trying not to judge him by modern standards and so I could view his occupation as a “product” of that time and place. But sanctioning, and even encouraging, that kind of abuse is impossible to ignore by any standard. I’m surprised this small but significant aspect of him isn’t more widely discussed… maybe I’m just not reading the right material. Jack Hurst’s biography certainly doesn’t mention anything like it.

        Again, my ancestry is unavoidably intertwined with him and you’ve given me much food for thought. Thanks for responding.

  5. yes Harold Summers. Let’s include every single evil and awful thing ever committed and all who committed them. The article is about an issue with a reasonable scope to be discussed in an article, and done quite well I must add. Fair and balanced doesn’t mean every article has to include a counter point. There is no counter point here. Sherman is not a counter point, it is another subject altogether that is worthy of much discussion as well in its own forum. But here’s a question for you: How many Sherman monuments are in Atlanta?

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