History Contra Pitts

Gail Jarvis
21 March 2011

Journalists present the side of the story which favors their political point of view. And today’s mainstream journalists usually frame their columns in a way that bolsters “the new paradigm in social attitudes." This fact affects their interpretation of events—especially their interpretation of history. Admittedly, they can be quite persuasive, presenting events in a way which makes their arguments appear conclusive. But clever language cannot change the fact that there are two sides to every story.

Columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. recently castigated the state of Mississippi for proposing a license plate honoring Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. To lend credence to his position, Mr. Pitts maintains that his “facts” come from “official reports.” (Obviously he hopes this helps establish his trustworthiness.) Pitts then refers to General Forrest as “the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan” and a "terrorist, traitor, mass murderer," who was guilty of “massacring 300 mostly black soldiers.”Nathan Bedford Forrest

Since this villainous portrayal of Forrest is not universally accepted, Pitts uses a typical semantic ploy: “But the facts are immutable.” Facts might not be mutable, but they can be presented selectively. This is reason why the oath one takes before testifying in a court of law requires not only that you tell the truth, but that you “tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Journalists are not constrained by courtroom ethics, and so they can pick and choose their facts.

There are indeed two sides to the General Forrest story. Depending on how you want to portray him, you can usually find history websites that recount the Forrest story in ways which help your case.

Those who link Forrest with the Klan never point out that during his lifetime there was only the original 1865 Klan; a vigilante organization created in a reaction to the harassment of civilians during Reconstruction. This version was disbanded after a few short years and was not connected with the second Klan, whose terrorist activities usually come to mind when the word "Klan" is mentioned. This second version of the Klan didn’t even exist until roughly 1915—long after General Forrest’s death.

No reputable data exist regarding the exact nature of Forrest’s association with the Klan.  He was certainly not its founder and it is unclear whether he was actively engaged with the organization either as its Grand Wizard or otherwise. Some historical accounts claim that he was its Grand Wizard, but the more scrupulous ones will only state that he was “believed to be.”

The congressional committee investigating the Klan in 1871 summoned two former Confederate generals, Nathan Bedford Forrest and George Gordon, to testify. Their names had been associated with the original Klan in Tennessee. Both men claimed the secret organization was in fact the populace’s way of dealing with the fear campaigns imposed on civilians by armed members of Loyal Leagues during the military rule of Reconstruction Governor William G. Brownlow. Forrest testified that when the Loyal Leagues began to disband, he personally urged the Klan to discontinue its activities. Forrest further testified that although he initially approved of the Klan, he never participated in its activities.

The official report of the Klan committee contains this judgment:

The statements of these gentlemen (Forrest and Gordon) are full and explicit….The evidence fully sustains them, and it is only necessary to turn to the official documents of Tennessee to show that all Forrest said about the alarm which prevailed during the administration of Governor Brownlow was strictly true. No state was ever reduced to such humiliation and degradation as that unhappy commonwealth during the years Brownlow ruled over her.

The label "traitor" has been indiscriminately applied to most Confederates. We can assume those who do not believe that states can voluntarily secede from the Union make this charge. If Southern states were deemed not to have legally left the Union, then they could be accused of a traitorous aggression against their own country. But the Confederate states firmly believed they had a Constitutional right to secede. Still, the debate as to whether states can unilaterally withdraw from the Union continues to this day. It has been thoroughly explored on various Internet sites and would require too much space to adequately discuss here.

Certainly, the most serious charge Leonard Pitts makes against General Forrest is that he was a "mass murderer," guilty of “massacring 300 mostly black soldiers." He is referring to the military clash at Fort Pillow. For General Forrest to be found guilty of such a heinous charge, there must be solid evidence that he either ordered a massacre or allowed it to happen. But no such evidence exists. Forrest’s orders to his troops were routine for such an encounter. And General Forrest was not even inside the fort during the brief skirmish which lasted less than twenty minutes. Forrest was astride his horse on a knoll some distance outside and beyond the walls of the besieged fort.

Deciphering details of the Fort Pillow battle is a difficult task because official reports issued by Union officers conflict with official reports issued by Confederate officers. Likewise, the newspapers in the South did not describe the incident as a massacre as some Northern newspapers did. The massacre version was picked up and repeated in a report issued by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. This committee was, in essence, a propaganda tool for the Radical Republicans. From its Washington chambers, it investigated and issued reports on all aspects of the war, based on ex parte testimony. As the North’s enthusiasm for the war was waning, the Fort Pillow incident was like an answered prayer for the Joint Committee. It wasted no time in issuing a report maligning the Confederacy with accusations of having ordered a deliberate massacre of black Union soldiers.

But the Joint Committee’s report was a little too extravagant and one-sided. As the emotions of the moment gradually faded, cooler heads began to notice discrepancies in the report. While doing research for his 1899 book, "That Devil Forrest—The Life of General Nathan Bedford Forrest," Dr. John Wyeth was able to locate fifty soldiers, both Union and Confederate, who were present at the Fort Pillow battle. The sworn testimonies he obtained from them forcefully contradicted the specious version of events presented by the congressional committee.

Historians are continuing to investigate data surrounding the Fort Pillow incident. One history buff has devoted years to researching the Congressional Record, state archives, historic newspapers, pension documents, enlistment papers, books about Fort Pillow, and any other bits of minutiae related to the controversial battle. To date he has determined that out of the 557 white and black Union soldiers at the fort, 346 survived the encounter. That leaves 211 left to be accounted for. Even if all 211 were killed in action, that is substantially less that the inflated number of 300 deaths casually bandied about by those promoting their versions of a supposed massacre.

We’ll probably never know the full story of what happened at Fort Pillow. But two post-war incidents militate against a Forrest-ordered massacre of black soldiers. Firstly, when the war ended, there was never any retaliatory action taken against General Forrest, which is admittedly odd, because there was such a clamor for reprisals against the Confederacy at the time, and this demand for retribution was accelerated by the assassination of President Lincoln. I have to believe that if the federal government believed it had the evidence to convict Forrest, it would have attempted to do so. After all, Henry Wirz, the commander of the Southern POW camp at Andersonville, was arrested, tried, and hanged for actions far less horrific than the accusations made against General Forrest.

Secondly, there was an episode that occurred in 1868, while the so-called massacre was still fresh on people’s minds. General Forrest was invited to be an official speaker by The Colored Democratic Club, a club whose members came from the Memphis vicinity near Fort Pillow. Forrest’s invitation and warm reception by the organization would indicate that club members did not believe that he had ordered a massacre of black troops just a few years earlier.

Eventually, if you were to dig deeply enough into the career of any public figure—especially that of a military figure, you would probably uncover questionable activities which might be interpreted either positively or negatively. Take the case of General Dwight Eisenhower. In his implementation of the WWII Morgenthau Plan, Eisenhower was accused of inhumane treatment of surrendered German POWs. The accusations against Eisenhower include denying POWs the protections of the Geneva Convention, housing them in unhygienic allied camps, and rationing their food to the point of starvation. Death estimates range wildly from over 700,000 to around 50,000.

Once again, like the versions of General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s actions at Fort Pillow, there are conflicting claims as to the cause of deaths of the POWs: (1) They were a direct result of General Eisenhower’s disdain for German soldiers. (2) They were primarily the result of conditions beyond Eisenhower’s control.

And so, depending upon one’s political inclinations, a journalist could choose either description and claim that his version is based upon "facts" and "official reports."

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