Last week, Nathan Bedford Forrest’s bust was finally removed from the Tennessee state capitol. The predictable neo-Confederate voices, including the state’s Lieutenant Governor, are shrieking about “woke culture” ruining Tennessee heritage by no longer honoring the man responsible for the Ft. Pillow Massacre and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Many Southern states continue to grapple with the legacy of the Confederacy, refusing to part with symbols of their past that are at best contentious, at worst evil. Even so, it’s hard to see why Forrest, of all people, warrants such fervent defense.
In his Twitter missive, Lt. Governor Randy McNally admits that Forrest is a “problematic figure” but that focusing on his racism ignores “the rest of the story.” A wise read that he doesn’t elaborate on “the rest of the story,” because there isn’t much of one. “A problematic figure,” of course, is the weasiliest of weasel words. Forrest, admittedly a skilled cavalry commander, was a mass-murdering white supremacist. And traditionally, he has been celebrated because, not in spite of that fact.
The veneration of Forrest has always been grossly disproportionate to his importance. As a cavalry commander, he executed a number of dramatic raids in Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. He won several minor battles like Brices Cross Roads which, from a tactical perspective, are quite impressive: at that action, in Mississippi on June 10, 1864 he routed a mixed force of infantry and cavalry which outnumbered him 8,000 to 3,500. With a combination of luck, skill and his opponent’s mistakes1 he managed a classic double envelopment that routed the Yankees. And his physical courage was beyond dispute. At Shiloh, surprised and surrounded by a company of Union soldiers, he fought his way through despite suffering a severe wound to his spine.
Friend and foe alike commented on Forrest’s tenacity. One of his troopers recalled Forrest’s eyes “blazing with the intense glare of a panther’s springing upon its prey” in the heat of battle. He boasted of having 30 horses shot from under him while personally killing 31 Yankees. When Forrest told his men that “I have never, on the field of battle, sent you where I was unwilling to go myself,” he was only speaking the truth; he thus engendered loyalty among his troopers that lasted long beyond the war.
For all these dramatic details, it’s easy to forget that Forrest’s actions had little impact on the war as a whole. Defeating a scratch force of Yankee cavalry or slaughtering an isolated garrison of Black troops were largely shrugged at by the Union high command. One exception was William T. Sherman, who expressed admiration for Forrest’s military ability (famously dubbing him “that devil Forrest”) and supposedly instructed his cavalry commanders to “follow Forrest to the death if it costs 10,000 lives and breaks the Treasury.” Though Sherman’s own experience belied such accolades; his failure to defeat Forrest didn’t hinder his successful march through Georgia.2
Indeed, Forrest’s exploits seemed designed to glorify their commander rather than benefit the Confederacy. Brices Cross Roads, fought in Mississippi early in Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign, won [Forrest] such glory during the time he was supposed to be destroying Sherman’s supply lines.” Along with the ongoing Siege of Petersburg, Sherman’s capture of Atlanta that September, accompanied by the destruction of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, broke the Confederacy’s back, ensuring Lincoln’s reelection and dooming resistance in the Western Theater. Meanwhile, Forrest was mauling second-rate Yankees two states away, which did nothing to stem the tide.
At least cavaliers Jeb Stuart, Joseph Wheeler and Wade Hampton (as odious a figure as Forrest) fought in major campaigns and had a demonstrable influence on the conflict. Forrest largely burned railroad cars, defeated isolated garrisons and massacred prisoners. He couldn’t even catch Yankee horseman Benjamin Grierson during the latter’s genuinely impressive cavalry raid during the Siege of Vicksburg. During that same campaign, while Forrest was engaging in a desultory raid into West Tennessee, the far-less-revered Earl Van Dorn engaged in a truly impactful offensive against Holly Springs which set back Grant’s operational timetable by months. Of course, Van Dorn was soon afterwards murdered by a husband he’d cuckolded; not the sort of man southerners preferred to celebrate.
When Forrest joined with major armies, he spent more time fighting superiors than the enemy, as if his brilliance was negated by cooperating with others. After a failed attack on Dover, Tennessee with fellow cavalryman Joseph Wheeler in February 1863, Forrest warned Wheeler that “I will be in my coffin before I will fight again under your command.” He held even more contempt for Braxton Bragg, the querulous commander of the Army of Tennessee.3 Feeling that Bragg had failed to aggressively exploit his September 1863 victory at Chickamauga, Forrest growled to his commander that “if you ever again try to interfere with me or cross my path it will be at the peril of your life.”
Nonetheless, for a long time Forrest has been venerated as one of the “true geniuses” of the Civil War, receiving colorful nicknames like “the Wizard of the Saddle” and admiration from both armchair history buffs and actual military commanders. Such veneration seems a little ridiculous, as if Brices Cross Roads (in which a total of 11,000 men were engaged on both sides) was of equal weight to Gettysburg (165,000 men at arms) or a similarly momentous struggle. Perhaps it’s inevitable in military circles, where the tactics of Nazi tank commanders are debated ad nauseum without acknowledging their ideology, but one suspects a more sinister reason for Forrest’s endurance.
Because Forrest was, for many white Southerners, not only a brilliant general but an aspirational figure. No scion of aristocracy like Robert E. Lee, he was a quasi-literate son of Tennessee “white trash” who remade himself as a successful businessman and heroic soldier. But his success came through that most evil of trades: besides owning dozens of slaves on his cotton plantations, he regularly sold slaves in Memphis, amassing a fortune of over $1.5 million by the late 1850s. Forrest was a self-made man, made by exploiting men and women; historians estimate he sold 7,500 Blacks into bondage in the decade before the Civil War.
Inevitably, Forrest’s biographers try to mitigate this by noting that he treated his own slaves well. This paternalistic defense rings hollow after reading accounts by his victims. Horatio Eden, sold by Forrest as a child, recalled his Memphis slave pen as a “square stockade of high boards with two room Negro houses around…We were all kept in these rooms, but when an auction was held or buyers came, we were brought out and paraded two or three around a circular brick walk in the center of the stockade. The buyers would stand nearby and inspect us as we went by, stop us, and examine us.” Another ex-slave, Samuel Hall, remembered that Forrest would “buy up slaves…and sell them like people sell hogs.”
Inevitably, their mistreatment expanded beyond buying and selling flesh. Louis Hughes recounted the commonplace cruelty afford to his wife at Forrest’s hands: “None of [her] family were sold to the same person except my wife and one sister. All the rest were sold to separate persons.” Horatio Eden witnessed a scene of savage, casual violence, possibly by Forrest himself: when one man knocked over a chamber pot, Forrest “picked up another chamber and broke it over the Negro’s head.” Such indignities were by no means extraordinary in the antebellum South; but their very banality places defenses of Forrest as “a man of his time” in their proper context.
Thus Fort Pillow neatly tied Forrest’s military prowess and racial misdeeds. Forrest once summarized his military philosophy as “war means fighting, and fighting means killing,” and at Fort Pillow, Tennessee (April 12, 1864) he carried it out. Confronted by a small garrison of United States Colored Troops and white Tennessee Unionists abreast the Mississippi River, Forrest was infuriated by their reluctance to surrender. After feeble resistance by the Federals, Forrest authorized his men to give no quarter; his men, confronted with traitorous Tennesseans and uppity freedmen, needed little prompting. Achilles Clark of the 20th Tennessee described the scene:
The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor deluded negros would run up to our men fall on their knees and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. The whitte [sic] men fared but little better. The fort turned out to be a great slaughter pen. Blood, human blood stood about in pools and brains could have been gathered up in any quantity. I with several others tried to stop the butchery and at one time had partially succeeded but Gen. Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased.
220 of the 600 Union soldiers present were killed, another 130 wounded. Many were shot in the back, clubbed or bayoneted to death, crucified on tentpoles or even burned alive. Only a handful of Blacks survived the carnage, while a fair number of white Union soldiers were taken prisoner. One historian judged Fort Pillow more of a race riot than a battle; certainly, the grisly details bespeak atrocities rarely experienced in the Civil War outside of guerrilla raids in “Bleeding Kansas.” On the other hand, they presage similar outrages abetted and condoned by Forrest during Reconstruction.
Forrest’s apologists claim that the General tried to restrain his men (whereas Clark, and others, said the Rebels simply grew tired of killing), that it was a heated frenzy rather than calculated murder. Perhaps, though that defense is more a lawyer’s brief than genuine exculpation; Forrest’s men understood what was expected of them. The abnormally high casualty rate4 speaks for itself. Forrest, in his official report, was forthright about what he’d done:
The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for two hundred yards. The approximate loss was upward of five hundred killed,[sic] but few of the officers escaping. My loss was about twenty killed. It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.
Fort Pillow possessed marginal military value, but its impact was outsized. Forrest’s atrocities, which (along with similar massacres at the Petersburg Crater and Olustee, Florida) convinced Northerners that the Confederates would never accept Colored Troops as legitimate opponents, resulted in Ulysses Grant (who said Forrest’s report “shocks humanity to read”) ordering suspension of the prisoner of war exchange – a decision which harmed the South far more than the North as the brutal campaigns of 1864 ground down Confederate armies. Far from discouraging Black soldiers, it fortified their resolve: later in the war, Colored units in Mississippi and Alabama battled Forrest wearing badges that read, “Remember Fort Pillow.”
At war’s end, Forrest found himself bankrupt; with slave trading no longer viable, he struggled to recoup losses on his plantations. He became president of a railroad company which he quickly bankrupted; he alienated his former partners in Memphis by chronically running up debts. Like most Confederate generals, he was stripped of his citizenship; it took several years of lobbying before Andrew Johnson finally pardoned him. Forrest seemed destined to oblivion until he found a new cause – which, in most ways, was an extension of his old one.
In the spring of 1867, Forrest was approached by former General George Gordon to head the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan had grown in numbers and stature since its founding in Pulaski, Tennessee the previous year: “We found it necessary to have someone of large experience to command,” one Klan leader recalled. “We chose General Forrest.” Forrest was well-aware of the racial backlash against Reconstruction; his hometown, Memphis, had recently been rocked by a ferocious race riot. Historians still dispute Forrest’s level of involvement in the Klan; it seems probable that he was more figurehead than active leader, occasionally giving speeches to Klansmen but exercising little control over its operations.
There’s no doubt that Forrest knew what the Klan was doing, however, and even less that he approved. By the time Forrest joined, the Klan had already mutated from a nominal veteran’s organization to a paramilitary militia terrorizing freed Blacks, white Republicans and anyone complicit in Tennessee’s Reconstruction. Forrest judged their actions “a damn good thing” that “we can use to keep the n*****rs” in their place. He avowed that he was opposed to Black suffrage “under any and all circumstance” and that violence and intimidation were justified in blocking a Republican takeover of the state.
Lt. Governor McNally suggests Forrest underwent a “redemption arc” based on a few acts suggesting a less racist Forrest. He eventually broke with the Ku Klux Klan, supposedly over their escalating violence, and in 1869 issued an order that it be disbanded (an order which was ignored).5 It seems, like many Southerners of his time, Forrest was mainly concerned by the Klan’s negative publicity; reports of their depredations led to increased Federal intervention, culminating in the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 and now-President Grant’s dispatch of troops to the South.
Testifying before a Congressional committee in 1871, Forrest expressed little remorse for the group he’d supposedly disowned. Initially, he compared them to the Freemasons as a benign fraternity while denying his own membership. Later on, however, Forrest claimed that the Klan arose because “the Southern people were very much alarmed” by the irruption of white Republicans and newly freed Blacks who held “night meetings” to “conspire” about politics. “This organization was got up to protect the weak,” Forrest insisted, “with no political intention at all.” Forrest later boasted that he had “lied like a gentleman” in his testimony.
Later, Forrest did denounce a specific act of violence; after four Blacks were killed by white assailants in 1874, he urged the Governor of Tennessee “to exterminate the white marauders who disgrace their race by this cowardly murder of Negroes.” He also gave a speech, shortly before his death, suggesting that he supported some civil rights for Blacks, asserting that “we were born on the same soil, breathe the same air, and live in the same land. Why, then, can we not live as brothers?” It was a speech that drew criticism from hardline Southerners at the time and became a favorite of later apologists, attempting to prove Forrest wasn’t actually racist.
One can accept that Forrest mellowed in the twilight of his life. But mellowing hardly constitutes a “redemption arc,” certainly when other Confederates repented of racism, joined the Republican Party like John S. Mosby or, in James Longstreet‘s case, personally led militia against race rioters.6 But it was also easy to make such comments as Reconstruction wound down; the freed Blacks, whether “brothers” or not, would never be fully equal under Jim Crow. Their rights, defended so magnanimously by Forrest, were fully at the mercy of white whims. By the time of Forrest’s death in October 1877, Reconstruction had formally ended; Federal troops were withdrawn from the South, and the nadir of race relations began. It’s hard to argue that a few bland words about brotherhood made up for a lifetime of violent, ugly white supremacy.
Nonetheless, Forrest became one of the most celebrated Confederate figures on the American landscape. At its peak, Tennessee had 32 monuments dedicated to Forrest, more than all three of the state’s presidents (Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk and Andrew Johnson) combined. Tennessee also celebrated an annual Nathan Bedford Forrest Day as late as 2019.7 Not that this hasn’t met resistance, inspiring protests, petitions and frequent vandalism from Black and liberal activists: the infamously ugly Forrest statue on I-65 8 has been repeatedly defaced, shot at and in December 2017, stained with pink paint.
Perhaps the Volunteer State can be excused a degree of hometown pride, however misguided. But it’s harder to defend the Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans urging the creation of Forrest monuments in Georgia, Alabama and other states. Many of these dedications had an explicitly racist tinge: in the 1950s the Daughters pushed for Jacksonville, Florida (a state Forrest never fought in) to rename a high school after Forrest during the backlash to Brown vs. Board. As late as 2000, Selma, Alabama dedicated a new statue praising Forrest as “the Defender of Selma;” in 2011, Mississippi proposed a commemorative license plate dedicated to Forrest (defeated by the state legislature). Only in recent years have states started removing statues, monuments and busts to the General, and not without backlash.
Those like Lt. Governor McNally who not only defend but celebrate Nathan Bedford Forrest reveal unpleasant things about themselves. Perhaps in a world where conservatives decry textbooks portraying the Klan as “morally wrong” as scabrous “critical race theory” and where voting rights are increasingly under attack, we shouldn’t be surprised. As Ta Nehisi Coates remarks, many whites find it “painful to face up to Nathan Forrest, to the notion that the pomp and glamour, all the talk of honor and independence was, at the end of the day, dependent on slavery.”