Nathan Bedford Forrest: The Symbol and the Reality

                   Friends, Politically Correct Republicans, Lend Me your Ears!                                                      I come to bury Nathan Bedford Forrest, not to praise him (sort of).

General Nathan Bedford Forrest:

General Nathan Bedford Forrest:

     Enough of the bad Shakespeare. I normally do not mix current political discussions with my history, but it seems we cannot talk about the events of 150 years ago without inevitably being dragged into debates about present issues.  We are all aware by now of the brutal and senseless murder of nine black church members in Charleston, South Carolina and the ensuing controversy regarding the Confederate flag—or more properly, the Confederate battle standard.  While I personally feel that it is improper to wave that symbol of rebellion over any state building or government grounds other than historic sites, and its removal from the South Carolina state capitol  long overdue, the subsequent jihad against the Rebel flag and banning it from all public venues—including the Dukes of Hazard car and Walmart—not only borders on the hysterical, but entirely misses the  point.

     Racism and rampant gun violence are the real problems, not the Confederate battle standard, which was not even the national flag of the Confederacy.  Banning the Rebel flag does nothing to fight racism, still less to control the ability of mentally unstable persons and criminals to have unfettered access to weapons.  The American public has, in my view, been hoodwinked by a neat little bait and switch ploy on the part of politicians who are unwilling to deal with the real issues.

To be sure, the battle standard has been used by hate groups as a symbol, but then so too has the Christian cross; so are we also going to ban the use of the cross in any public display?  Some Jews may regard the Crescent and Star as a hate symbol; some Arabs may likewise view the Star of David in a similar vein; but neither is inherently a symbol of hatred or bigotry.  While I wouldn’t feel comfortable displaying the Confederate battle flag on my person or property I recognize that there are many folks who may display it as a symbol of either regional pride, Southern heritage or just plain as a symbol that they’re a redneck good ol’ boy who likes to drink Jack Daniels and go yee-ha at music concerts.  The same symbol can mean different things to different people, especially so the Rebel flag.  By all means let us deal with racism; and there are many, many things that can be done to regulate and control guns that would save many lives without adversely affecting responsible hunters and sportsmen.

Also caught up in this tidal wave of political correctness (or a shuck and jive avoidance of dealing with the real issues) is the issue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, or more precisely, his likeness in the Tennessee State Capital.  Swept up in their fervor for erasing history, local Democrat and Republican politicians and various pundits among the general public have called for its removal from the august halls of the state capitol.  Please note: no one is calling for the repeal of the drunks-with-guns-in-bars law they passed, or the guns in playgrounds law, or the take your gun to work law, much less rolling back the patently discriminatory voter id laws Tennessee and other states have passed to make it as difficult as possible to vote.  Nope: just remove the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust from Capitol Hill.

Now, in all fairness, General Forrest has always been something of a controversial figure, even during his lifetime.  He never quite made it into the pantheon of the Lost Cause; he was not a Virginia Swan, he did not graduate from West Point and while he was an officer, he was sometimes less than a gentleman.  Before the Civil War he had been a slave trader, an odious occupation even in the South; yet starting as a common soldier his native genius for war led to his rapid promotion.  In battle after battle he was “fustest with the mostest” (as he is often misquoted as saying) defeating the Yankees on numerous occasions.  While military historians tend to denigrate his generalship, his record of success in battle speaks for itself.  As a great captain of war, he is due recognition on that count alone.

His war career did have one black mark, however; at Fort Pillow he was accused of conducting a massacre of Black Union soldiers.  That a massacre of surrendering soldiers did occur there is generally accepted by historians; but Forrest always denied giving any explicit orders in that regard.  After the war he testified before Congress on that score and pointed out that the terms of surrender he offered the Union garrison at Fort Pillow was more generous than Grant’s terms to Lee at Appomattox.

At the end of the war, in his farewell address to his troops he told them

“I have never, on the field of battle, sent you where I was unwilling to go myself; nor would I now advise you to a course which I felt myself unwilling to pursue. You have been good soldiers, you can be good citizens. Obey the laws, preserve your honor, and the Government to which you have surrendered can afford to be, and will be, magnanimous.”

In the chaos of the postwar era, the Klu Klux Klan came into being.  Begun in Pulaski, Tennessee, initially as a fraternal group by bored Confederate veterans, it soon morphed into a vigilante organization and after a time General Forrest was asked to head the “secret empire.”  Before Congress, however, Forrest denied membership.  After serving for about two years (allegedly as head of it) he publicly called for the Klan’s disbandment because of its growing use of violence.

Today, many look upon General Forrest as a symbol of racism and violence.  The historical reality, however, was far more nuanced.  If he did have strong racial feelings, it is clear that in the postwar era he had a sincere change of heart.  At one point he was credited with single-handedly preventing a white race riot.  Then, in 1875, he was asked to speak before a meeting of Black Southerners seeking racial reconciliation and agreed.  His said, in part, this:

“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? I will say that when the war broke out I felt it my duty to stand by my people. When the time came I did the best I could, and I don’t believe I flickered. I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe that I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to bring about peace. It has always been my motto to elevate every man- to depress none. I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going.”

This doesn’t much sound like the rantings of a rabid racist, does it?  There is another bust of another former Confederate soldier in the state legislature as well, maybe they should remove his statue as well: Sampson Keeble, placed there in 2010.  By the way, Keeble was born a slave and in 1873 became the first Black elected to the Tennessee state legislature.  Oh, yes, and then there is the little matter of Andrew Jackson and the Cherokee Indians’ Trail of Tears.  His equestrian statue is very prominent on Capitol Hill in downtown Nashville; how about removing him too while we’re at it?

Sampson Keebles, first Black Tennessee legislator and Confederate veteran

Sampson Keebles, first Black Tennessee legislator and Confederate veteran

 

Nathan Bedford Forrest may have had his faults; he may have been guilty of committing wrongs; but he was also a man capable of growth and change and, all in all, a better man than those who would turn him into an icon of hate and bigotry give him credit for.

Well, I think you get the point.  Let me inflict a little more Shakespeare on you in closing:

 

“The evil that men do lives after them;

The good is oft interred with their bones.”

 

 

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About Christopher Coleman

I am an author, lecturer, and sometime instructor. My interests span a variety of subjects, including Southern tales of the supernatural, American history and folklore, military history in general, as well as archaeology, anthropology, plus various and sundry things that go bump in the night. I currently have six books in print: Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, Dixie Spirits, Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, a factual history of some more esoteric--and hitherto overlooked--aspects the sixteenth President. My book is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, published in hardcover by the University of Tennessee Press and chronicling the wartime experiences of young Ambrose Bierce, noted American author. Bierce has been called many things by many people, but idealist, hero and patriot are terms that should be added to the list after reading this book. I am currently at work on several projects, some dealing with the American experience but also several fiction and non-fiction works looking into the Age of Arthur.
This entry was posted in Charleston Church Shooting, Civil Rights, Civil War History, Civil War Leaders, Confederate Flag as symbol, Flag Controversy, Gun Violence, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Tennessee State Capitol and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Nathan Bedford Forrest: The Symbol and the Reality

  1. Stephanie says:

    He was capable of growth and change, but the rest of his story is seldom told:

    The once-hardened soldier became a born-again Christian, and the ferocity that previously had marked his personality was transformed into a mild-mannered, kindly, meekness as he called for the KKK to disband, and spoke out in favor of black civil rights. – See more at: http://columbiadailyherald.com/opinion/letters-editor/case-nathan-bedford-forrest#sthash.138hiZ7Y.dpuf

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