Controversies amplify lore of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest

Civil War figure larger than life to friends, foes alike
Staff Writer

By historical accounts, he was a handsome man who overcame poverty and a lack of formal education to become one of the military’s most respected tacticians.

As a general, he was decisive under pressure — the kind of leader men wanted to follow. He embraced his reputation as a tough guy, once reportedly stating that "war means fighting and fighting means killing."

But the full history of Nathan Bedford Forrest is far from glorious. A controversial Civil War slaughter and his role in the birth of the Ku Klux Klan have made him a lightning rod for controversy.

Nearly 130 years after his death, Forrest remains under fire. Middle Tennessee State University’s Student Government Association has passed a resolution asking the university to remove Forrest’s name from the campus’ Army ROTC building. The college had already changed its mascot to get rid of a reference to Forrest.

"He was an incredible cavalry officer in the Civil War. That is where he made his fame," said Walter Durham, state historian and author of 18 books on various aspects of Tennessee history.

But, Durham said, Forrest’s historical significance in Tennessee is "exaggerated."

"The stories about him have grown to where he’s become a legendary figure, and a lot of myths have grown about his place in history."

Forrest’s name is on roadside historic markers all over the state. Durham said he believes those markers make mention of Forrest more often than any other Tennessean, including the three presidents who called the state home.

Until 1951, Coffee County was home to Camp Forrest, one of the Army’s largest training camps during World War II. In 1942, German prisoners of war were housed there. The camp was closed shortly after the war and subsequently sold to the U.S. Air Force, which built what is now known as the Arnold Engineering Development Center on its grounds.

Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park in Eva, Tenn., was dedicated to the general in 1929. The Benton County park bears his name because in 1864 he led a successful raid on a Federal supply and munitions depot nearby.

And a 25-foot-high statue of Forrest riding a horse looms large over a privately owned park near Interstate 65 north of Brentwood. The statue has offended many people since it was erected in 1997.

Who was Forrest?

A biographer once called Forrest "the wizard of the saddle." Many historians agree that he was the finest cavalry officer in the Civil War.

Forrest was born in Chapel Hill, in what is now Marshall County. His family didn’t have wealth, but he acquired land and money, primarily through the slave trade, according to the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, published by the Tennessee Historical Society.

He enlisted as a private in the Confederate army when Tennessee left the Union. Forrest quickly rose through the South’s military ranks, largely because of his keen eye for tactics and his boldness in battle. According to the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, he bravely led his men out of besieged Fort Donelson, was injured at Shiloh and earned victories in battles around present-day Thompson’s Station and Brentwood.

"In the context of the Civil War, Forrest is an outstanding cavalry officer — very effective," Durham said.

Then came Fort Pillow. The fort in Lauderdale County, Tenn., was manned by Union soldiers, many of them emancipated slaves. Under Forrest’s leadership, the Confederates took it in April 1864. But what might have otherwise been a routine raid turned into a bloody rampage that claimed the lives of scores of soldiers, many of them black.

It came to be known as the Fort Pillow Massacre.

Some historical accounts say Forrest lost control of his men. Some say the casualties came during the regular course of battle. Others claim Forrest orchestrated the merciless massacre of the blacks there.

Whatever happened, Durham said, Fort Pillow left a stain on Forrest’s military career and his legacy in history. It wouldn’t be the last.

After the war, Forrest became part of an effort to mobilize an organization to protect whites from the vengeance of freed black slaves, Durham said. Many whites were concerned that the newly freed slaves might seek to harm whites.

The Ku Klux Klan was created to defend whites from slaves who might want revenge. It quickly evolved into something much more sinister.

"It was not used as a protective device. It was used to intimidate the African-American population," Durham said.

Historians still debate the depth of Forrest’s involvement in the formation of the KKK in 1866. According to the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, he became the Klan’s first elected grand wizard in 1867.

He would later call for the Klan to disband. Forrest eventually quit the KKK, some accounts say, because of the violent turn the organization took.

Rutherford County Historical Society member Susan Daniel has researched several books on local history and is the editor of the society’s publications. She believes the furor over Forrest’s ties to the KKK are misunderstood.

"He did not form what the Ku Klux Klan is today," Daniel said. "I think the Klan connection has never been fully portrayed … the way it ought to be — the way it was intended."

What’s his relevance today?

Forrest’s military legacy lasted for generations. Erwin Rommel, the famed Nazi field marshal during World War II, was said to be a serious student of Forrest’s tactics.

He was the best cavalry leader the state ever produced, Durham said, but the general’s importance may be overblown, he added.

"He was an important figure in the Civil War, and in the formation of the Ku Klux Klan. But he really made no other contribution to Tennessee or the well-being of Tennesseans," Durham said.

Other historians, such as Daniel, disagree.

"He was a Middle Tennessee boy and he claimed quite a bit of notoriety," Daniel said. "He was probably one of the best generals the Southern states ever had."

Two hundred and five MTSU students signed the petition seeking the name change. If a building name committee at MTSU votes to remove Forrest’s name from Forrest Hall, the change would ultimately be decided by the Tennessee Board of Regents.

"We run into this around the state from time to time," said J. Stanley Rogers, a former MTSU student body president who now serves on the Board of Regents.

Rogers, who graduated from MTSU in 1961, said he was reserving judgment on the issue until it’s formally brought to the board.

"I think students certainly have the right to express their opinion," Rogers said. "I love history and I love a lot of our past. Sometimes there has to be a balance."

Daniel doesn’t want to see the hall’s name changed.

"He was a hero to most of the Southern people … I don’t think it had anything to do with his racism, if he had any," she said of Forrest. "I think it was named for him because he proved himself as a hero.

"I don’t think it’s Confederate imagery. I think it’s hero worship, basically," she said. "His issues involved racism, but it goes above that.

"I get tired of this constant changing of things just because somebody’s nose gets out of joint about it."

While he downplays Forrest’s role in the grand scheme of state history, Durham said he’d be reluctant to encourage the university to rename the building.

"Putting that name on that building was part of Tennessee history. At that time, some people wanted that name on that building. It says something. What it says, I’m not sure. Maybe it says the Old South legends are still alive and still want to be recognized," Durham said.

"It was not done for no reason. It was done because someone wanted to make a statement."

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