General Nathan Bedford Forrest – the first true civil rights leader
The subject of the Mississippi State Flag has dominated current news headlines for several weeks and will likely continue to do so until a decision is reached concerning the Confederate standard and what role it plays in our modern day Mississippi society.
Much, if not all of the related controversy surrounds the misinterpretation of historical facts, altered facts, deleted facts, half-truths, and genuine lies.
One of the greatest Confederate heroes, a man who was raised in our own Tippah County, just two miles from where I am writing this article, is the victim of a modern day massive misinformation program designed with but one goal in mind – to find a villain upon whom to pile all the blames of racism.
The great man of whom I am referring too is none other than Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, our Bedford Forrest.
Did I note a look of consternation on your face as you read that name? Did I see a smirk of disgust, a raised eyebrow, a sigh of… you gotta be kidding?
Well, feel right at home with that initial reaction because that is what most of us have been "taught" to believe. Even some of my supposedly learned colleagues in the newspaper industry have been found guilty of this prevaricated viewpoint.
When writing my novel on General Forrest, "Fame’s Eternal Camping Ground," I spent almost two years researching information. My sources were documents from the Civil War era, military dispatches, old diaries, old newspaper articles and official government publications, just about as factual as you can get. Not only did I want to get the history of the battle of Brice’s Crossroads "correct" I wanted to learn more about the man who has come down to us through perceived history as a great villain, a butcher, a racist, a slave monger, and the original grand wizard.
Well, I can tell you the facts are there, and they are true facts, but the history we have been taught and the true history are not the same.
Nathan Bedford Forrest was raised in Tippah County (now Benton County), just outside the small town of Salem (destroyed by the Yankees). He worked the land himself, cut trees, pulled stumps, tilled and planted the soil, and along with his mother and brothers harvested the crops. Anyone with a modicum of sense knows how difficult and demanding those days were.
Forrest entered the trading business after leaving the farm, he invested wisely, bought slaves, and eventually became a wealthy man. It must be noted here that although he was a slave trader, an accepted and unremarkable profession of that era, he never split a family up when he sold them and never knowingly sold a slave to a cruel master. In fact, several slaves approached Forrest and begged him to buy them from their cruel masters because they knew he would resell them to a decent new owner. (Note: there were hundreds of slave traders in that era, very common both North and South).
When the war started, Forrest asked 45 of his slaves (which he considered as servants) to join him, offering them their freedom after the war, no matter how it turned out. They all joined him and although they had numerous opportunities to desert him, 44 stayed by his side until the end of the war. In fact, part of his special command escort later called "the green berets" (ironic isn’t it), consisted of the most elite and best soldiers available, and among them were eight black men. (Surely you are aware that nearly 100,000 black men fought for the Confederacy?).
As for General Forrest’s battle record, it cannot be denied or downplayed. After his surrender, when asked by a Union Officer who he thought his greatest general was, General Robert E. Lee replied, "Sir, a gentleman I have never had the pleasure to meet, General Nathan Bedford Forrest."
German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel (the Desert Fox), studied Forrest’s battle tactics as did the U.S. Army’s ‘Ole Blood and Guts" General George S. Patton, and General ‘Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf. The Institute for Military Studies concluded that the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads (won by Forrest), was perhaps the most spectacular display of tactical genius during the war. Union General William T. Sherman (the real butcher) said that he would get "that devil Forrest" if it cost him 10,000 lives and broke the US treasury. Sherman sent four successively larger armies after Bedford, and he decisively defeated each one.
Of the 54 engagements Forrest was in, he lost only one. He had 29 horses shot out from beneath him and was wounded at least 8 recorded times, most likely many more. When the chips were down, Forrest would provide a victory. When the Confederacy’s back was against the wall, Bedford always came through. He was revered by a slowly dying nation because "ole Bedford" always delivered, always ‘whooped’ the Damn Yankees every time.
The only black mark on his war record was alleged to be the Fort Pillow incident, where he was accused of killing unarmed black soldiers. History completely vindicates him of this unfair charge. Although some incidents did occur at Fort Pillow, they happened before Forrest arrived and he was absolutely furious. The action that triggered those incidents was the cowardly running away of numerous white Union soldiers who left the black Union soldiers to defend the fort. The tenacity and pride of the black soldiers (with their white officers) would not allow them to surrender which made the men of Colonel Chalmer’s unit mad, resulting in some depredations.
Immediately after the war, Bedford Forrest returned home with the ‘free’ black men who fought with him. Sixty-five black troopers were with the General when he surrendered his command in May 1865. Forrest said of these black soldiers, "No finer Confederates ever fought."
What did Forrest fight for after the war was over? You may not believe it, but Forrest was probably the ‘first white man’ to fight for and promote equality and civil rights for blacks.
Many people ignorant of history say that Bedford was the founder of the KKK. The Klan had already been in existence for a year and a half when he was asked to assume the leadership because the people looked up to him as their hero and proven leader.
The KKK of the late 1860’s bears no resemblance to the thugs and racists of the new Klan formed at the turn of the century. The Klan Forrest rode with was to fight against the Yankee scalawags and carpetbaggers who were raping the south after the war. US. Army occupation forces committed innumerable atrocities, which today would certainly be classified as international war crimes, much of it against the free blacks. General Forrest joined a citizen militia then called the Klan to protect the citizens of the South, black and white alike, from these vicious atrocities.
Under the ‘true’ history of the time, one of the first outings that Forrest went on with the Klan was to a black man’s house who was accused of beating his wife. The black man, holding an axe, told Forrest that he ‘owned’ his wife and could beat her anytime he wanted to." Wherein Bedford took the axe from the man, taught him some southern manners on how to treat a lady (black or white), then told him that he had better never see a mark on the woman again.
Forrest disbanded the Klan in 1869 because its mission had been achieved. Union appointed Governor Brownlow and the viscous carpetbaggers had been defeated. Primarily because Forrest told the President of the United States that if they didn’t stop stealing land and goods from Southern US citizens, abusing them, and molesting free blacks, he had the capability to start the Civil War over again. The US government was well aware that he could do exactly what he threatened to do with half a million white and several hundred thousand black soldiers standing firmly behind him.
At a time when the northern states were passing laws ‘forbidding’ blacks to live in their territories, Bedford Forrest publicly, and at great personal risk defended the civil rights of the black people.
Forrest said there was no reason black people could not be doctors, store clerks, bankers, or in any other jobs ‘equal’ to whites. He said they were skilled artisans and needed to be employed in those skills so that successive ‘black’ generations would not be dependent on a welfare society. (Forrest was a man of vision).
To prove his point, when he organized the Memphis & Selma Railroad, Forrest took it upon himself to hire blacks as architects, construction engineers, foremen, train engineers, conductors, and many other high level jobs, not just laborer positions. (The first affirmative action).
The Independent Order of Pole Bearers Association (a forerunner of the NAACP), invited General Forrest, the first white man ever invited, to speak at their convention on July 5, 1875. During his speech, too much applause, Bedford said: "I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to elevate every man – to depress none. (Applause.) I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going." Forrest went on to say, "I came to meet you as friends, and welcome you to the white people. I want you to come nearer to us. When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment. Many things have been said about me which are wrong, and which white and black persons here, who stood by me through the war, can contradict. Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I’ll come to your relief."
Whereupon N. B. Forrest thanked Miss Lewis for the bouquet of flowers and then gave her a kiss on the cheek. Such a kiss was unheard of in the society of those days, in 1875, but it showed a token of respect and friendship between the general and the black community and did much to promote racial harmony among the citizens of Memphis.
Author Jack Hurst wrote: (Forrest) was a man possessed of physical valor perhaps unprecedented among his countrymen, as well as, ironically, a man whose social attitudes may well have changed farther in the direction of racial enlightenment over the span of his lifetime than those of most American historical figures.
Now, let’s compare two "great" men of those days. The first of our comparisons wrote: (quote):
"I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races — that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races from living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race." (End of quote).
Now for the second quote:
"I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to elevate every man – to depress none. (Applause.) I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going. I have not said anything about politics today. I don’t propose to say anything about politics. You have a right to elect whom you please; vote for the man you think best, and I think, when that is done, you and I are freemen. Do as you consider right and honest in electing men for
office. I did not come here to make you a long speech, although invited to do so by you. I am not much of a speaker, and my business prevented me from preparing myself. I came to meet you as friends, and welcome you to the white people. I want you to come nearer to us. When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment. Many things have been said about me which are wrong, and which white and black persons here, who stood by me through the war, can contradict Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I’ll come to your relief." (End of quote).
As noted in a memo from Mr. John Pankopw: "It seems quite obvious to me that the first quote brands the speaker as a racist, unworthy of being memorialized. Wouldn’t you agree? The quote of the second speaker indicates that he sought to "strengthen fraternal relations" between whites and black, to "elevate every man and depress none." He pledged to defend his audience (composed of blacks) from oppression. His remark "we may differ in color, but not in sentiment," shows a remarkable idea of racial brotherhood given the era when the speech was made."
The first quote was made by, Abraham Lincoln, the second by Nathan Bedford Forrest.
It’s obvious that General Forrest did more for racial equality in his time than any other person of that era.
When General Nathan Bedford Forrest died in 1877 it is noteworthy that his funeral in Memphis was attended not only by a throng of thousands of whites but by hundreds of blacks as well. The funeral procession was over two miles long and was attended by over 10,000 area residents, including 3000 black citizens paying their respects.
It is clearly obvious that history has done a chopping-job on one of the greatest Sons of the South. He is portrayed (if at all) as a slave trader, butcher, and enemy of the black race, when in fact, just the opposite is true. If monuments are only to be erected to those of perfect moral character, then to whom do we build? Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt had racist attitudes, Kennedy and MLK were allegedly immoral adulterers. What of their monuments? Washington was a slave owner, and coveted his neighbor’s wife, Jefferson allegedly had a child with his (slave). What of Bill Clinton, how big will his monument be?
Nathan Bedford Forrest was a product of his time, and if history should give him the true credit and honor that is due him, he would be listed among our greatest American citizens. War hero, civil servant, industrialist, visionary, and above all else – a true pioneer in racial equality and justice.
There are so many social problems today we do not need to waste our time unrealistically judging people of the past by our modern standards, nor do we need to destroy cherished historical emblems based on misconceived perceptions. The irony of the entire matter is the fact that if all the hate groups, such as the NAACP, JDL, and White Supremacist groups knew true history, perhaps their hatred would not be so bitter and we could all focus on a better future for our children.
Thousands of Southern Patriots fought and died under that banner we identify as the Confederate Battle Flag. More men died for that blood stained banner than all the men who died in WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam combined. And, you know what? Many of them were Black Southern Patriots, defending a free nation they firmly believed would one day offer them freedom and bring them into the bosom of the greatest Christian society every built.
Bedford Forrest believed the key to racial harmony was not only equality in work, in opportunity, but also in education. Education on both sides of the color line. His remark in Memphis to the large gathering of free black citizens ended with the words, "and when you are oppressed I’ll come to your relief." And he did, many times over.
The true memory of Nathan Bedford Forrest is being oppressed today by ‘false twisted and assumed’ history. Honest Americans, both black and white, should come to his relief and demand to know from our venerable historians – the real facts.