Forrest’s ties to KKK a trumped-up myth

For The Times

I’ve grown to become amused at things that are based on bad history, especially when they are written with such obvious political intent. Such was the recent Times article by Rick Lavender, "Portrait of Forrest sparks campaign spat."

The misinformation in the article, which appears to have been fed to The Times by Greg Bautista, began with the statement referring to "a portrait of Civil War general and Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest."

Certainly Forrest was a general in the Confederate Army, and according to his old nemesis, Union Gen. William T. Sherman, possibly the best cavalry officer produced by the Civil War. His prowess as a cavalry leader and battlefield general earned him the envy of even his adversaries and the title, "Wizard of the Saddle," early on in the war.

But there the truth ends and Hollywood legend begins. Bedford Forrest had absolutely nothing to do with the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. And even within the history of the Klan, differences must be noted between the Klan of the 1860s and the Klan of today.

The KKK that was reorganized in 1915 enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as a bigoted and sometimes violent organization, fueled by hate and ignorance and thriving on fear and intimidation. But that wasn’t always the case. The original KKK of the 1860s was organized as a fun club, or social club, for Confederate veterans. Many historians agree that if a YMCA had been available in the town of Pulaski, Tenn., the KKK might never have existed.

On Dec. 24, 1865, six young Confederate veterans met in the law office of Judge Thomas M. Jones, near the courthouse square in Pulaski. Their names were James R. Crowe, Calvin E. Jones, John B. Kennedy, John C. Lester, Frank O. McCord, and Richard B. Reed. All had been CSA officers and were lawyers, except Kennedy and McCord, who had served as a private in the Confederate army. The meeting resulted in the idea of forming a social club, an 1860s version of the VFW or American Legion.

Their number quickly grew, and in meetings that followed, the men selected a name based on the Greek word "kuklos" meaning circle, from which they derived the name Ku Klux. Perhaps bowing to their Scotch-Irish ancestry, and to add alliteration to the name, they included "clan," spelled with a K. And so, quite innocently, a new social club called the Ku Klux Klan was created to provide recreation for Confederate veterans.

McCord, whose family owned the town’s weekly newspaper, the Pulaski Citizen, printed mysterious-sounding notices of meetings and club activities. As other newspapers picked up his stories about the Klan, word spread and the organization grew.

When the war ended, Forrest was virtually broke, having spent most of his estimated pre-war fortune of $1.5 million outfitting his troops. He was spending his time between business ventures in Memphis and his farm in Mississippi. Organizations such as the Klan were farthest from his mind.

When Forrest was elected Grand Wizard of the Klan in mid-1867 at the Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville, he wasn’t even in town. He was elected in absentia. The best scholarly research shows that Forrest never "led the Klan," he never "rode with" the Klan, nor did he ever own any Klan paraphernalia.

The only known order that Forrest issued using his famous name and perceived authority was for the KKK to disband in 1869, which it finally did in 1871. And even that order was written by his longtime friend and former chief artillery officer, Capt. John Watson Morton.

As to the battle of Fort Pillow, few men within the fort needed to have died on that fateful day. From Jack Hurst’s Nathan Bedford Forrest, A Biography: "Captain W. A. Goodman, Chalmers’ adjutant general and bearer of the (surrender) note, said later he clearly remembered the offer to treat the entire garrison as prisoners of war ‘because when the note was handed to me, there was discussion about it among the officers present, and it was asked whether it was intended to include Negro soldiers as well as the white; to which both General Forrest and General Chalmers (one of Forrest’s brigade commanders) replied that it was so intended.’"

A U.S. Congressional investigation exonerated Forrest of any wrongdoing at Fort Pillow, although the incident became the stuff of northern newspaper propaganda. Sherman later noted that the disproportionate casualties at the fort were the result of incompetent Union command.

Forrest’s involvement with the Klan was far less than Michael Jordan’s was with Nike athletic shoes. It might be wise before anyone drags portions of the history of this country through the mud in a political fray that they bother to sit down and study that history more carefully.

Bill Ward, a former Hall County resident, is a writer and historical researcher living in Salisbury, N.C. He is currently working on a book about Nathan Bedford Forrest. E-mail:

Originally published Thursday, November 11, 2004

Forrest’s ties to KKK a trumped-up myth
Wizard of the Saddle
Courtesy of