In this unusual political year, there has been an effort by some in high places to make Black History Month a celebration of white contributions to racial progress. But not all white contributions have been toward progress. This is the eighth in a series of biographical sketches that present a different narrative of historic events.
If you believe in American exceptionalism, it is hard to find a box to put Nathan Bedford Forrest in. If you also believe that greatness and goodness somehow go together, it is even harder to deal with Forrest. By almost any measure, Nathan Bedford Forrest was an extraordinary leader of great intelligence and remarkable courage.
But, unless you believe in unrestrained racism, almost everything that Bedford did was morally indefensible. The great bad person. Napoleon comes to mind, but without the positive achievements that we associate with him. There are no codes of law or magisterial public works. Just lots of dead bodies.
But, like Napoleon, whose many monuments can be found in France, Nathan Bedford Forrest has been memorialized. There are schools named after him and a giant statue of Forrest on his horse surrounded by confederate battle flags. In certain places, July 13 is celebrated as Nathan Bedford Forrest Day. At one point several years ago, the State of Mississippi considered issuing Forrest license plates. All homage to the great man.
Who was Nathan Bedford Forrest, and what were his achievements? Forrest was a man of limited education. Nevertheless, he had become wealthy in the pre-Civil War south as a slave trader and plantation owner. When war broke out, Forrest quickly joined up to throw himself fully into two of the causes that he most fervently believed in: slavery and killing black people.
Forrest enlisted in the Confederate army as a private. By war’s end, he had been promoted to Brigadier General. President Lincoln’s problems with his generals, especially early in the war, are well known. Less well known are the deficiencies of the Confederacy’s senior officers, which drove Jefferson Davis to distraction. Forrest was not one of the deficient ones. He proved himself a brilliant tactician, an innovator, a man of strong personal courage and a strong leader.
At one battle, Fort Pillow, Forrest captured a large number of black soldiers. Rather than taking them prisoner, his troops massacred them. The result was an end to prisoner exchanges between north and south. As the war turned against the South, Forrest became a master of guerrilla warfare, harassing Union forces and provoking General Sherman’s brutal “March to the Sea.” Forrest made his last stand at Selma, Alabama, escaping by leading another massacre.
With war’s end, as chaos, terrorism and lawlessness descended on the South, Forrest again became a leader. He became a founder of the Ku Klux Klan and sought to rebuild his businesses. One of his goals was to convince the newly freed slaves that they should return to slavery. In this respect, he again became an innovator. He pioneered what Douglas Blackmon has called “slavery by another name,” when, in 1871, he bought the “contracts” of 241 “leased out” black prisoners, giving him an important role at the dawn of what would become the prison industrial complex.
In our times, Nathan Bedford Forrest, like those confederate battle flags that frame his statue just off Interstate 65, has become a source of conflict. Demands are made for the removal of his name from schools or of statues in his honor. Southern conservatives – and some of their northern friends – resist these calls as an attack on their “heritage” or just more “political correctness.”
Some point out that Forrest quit the Klan and made conciliatory statements about protecting black lives. This is where the consequences of our tangled racial history move into a parallel universe, one in which monuments to a slave trading, slave owning, murderous founder of the Ku Klux Klan are actually there to honor him as a kind of an early civil rights leader, and that Southern “heritage” has nothing to do with race.
Like other topics in our shriveling historic and political discourse, there is not much basis for a reasoned discussion there. To usefully employ one of the more useless phrases of our times, it is what it is. He was what he was.