Who was Nathan Bedford Forrest?

By Kyle Veazey
Posted February 24, 2013

On the fourth floor of the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, on a top shelf just to the left of the map collection, lie more than a dozen books that profile one famous Memphian: Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.

There are the old ones, such John Allan Wyeth’s biography that dates to 1899. There are the new ones, such as Jack Hurst and Brian Steel Wills’ efforts from the 1990s. There is even one devoted solely to his image, a topic of no small amount of discussion in Memphis these days.

You’ve heard the news: Forrest’s name was removed from the city park on Union Avenue near the Medical District by an act of the City Council this month. Forrest and the park named in his honor have been a topic of debate for years in Memphis, a city constantly at struggle with its rich but often indefensible past.

He was a barbaric racist and leader of a vile organization, Forrest’s critics say.

Can’t change history, say his defenders. He’s misunderstood, too.

But in an issue so often characterized by politicians’ words from the extremes, where lies the truth?

There are many universally accepted facts when it comes to Forrest’s biography. He was a slave trader in Memphis before the Civil War broke out — and a key figure in the Ku Klux Klan after it ended.

During the war, he became a cavalry leader, said to be the only general on either side who started out as a private. Though he lacked formal training, few debate Forrest’s military genius, his ability to stymie forces larger than his own — and his knack for frustrating Union occupiers in the Western theater.

So great was his military acumen that Shelby Foote, the late Memphis writer whose narrative history of the Civil War gained acclaim, said in Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” documentary series that the war produced two “authentic” geniuses: Abraham Lincoln and Forrest.

Yet there is considerable debate surrounding Forrest in two main theaters: 1) What happened at Fort Pillow in the spring of 1864, when his soldiers stormed a Union-occupied garrison; and 2) his later life, particularly as it relates to his involvement with the Ku Klux Klan.

Here’s a closer examination of both, explored not with the words of politicians, but of the research of historians:

At Fort Pillow

By late morning on April 12, 1864, Forrest rode up to the Confederate headquarters outside of Fort Pillow, an installation some 40 miles upriver from Memphis. The Southerners under his command had surrounded the fort, built originally as a Confederate outpost but occupied by Union soldiers — many of them black.

By midafternoon, his forces clearly in siege of the garrison, Forrest sent a request under a flag of truce for surrender. It was declined. So Forrest’s forces, superior in number, stormed the fort. The result was brutal: A high percentage of the Union forces died, some of them in such panic that they drowned or were shot in the Mississippi River, turning the big muddy into a sea of red.

Given the high numbers of casualties, a congressional inquiry was commissioned. It found grave atrocities, with charges that some soldiers were burned or buried alive, and the critical charge that some surrendering soldiers were killed. That many of those men were black created a rallying cry for the Union for the rest of the war.

But the detailed accounts of that day, gleaned from a variety of sources, are unclear about just how responsible Forrest was for the massacre. They were his troops, yes, but did he explicitly tell them to massacre the fort and kill surrendering soldiers?

In his book “The Confederacy’s Greatest Cavalryman: Nathan Bedford Forrest,” Wills observes that upon giving the signal for the rout to begin, Forrest stayed behind. Had he planned a “massacre,” Wills asserts, Forrest would have been at the front leading the charge.

“While certainly it would be tempting and, to some, appealing to accuse Forrest of such official misconduct, the record simply does not substantiate this charge,” Wills wrote.

Foote gave the affair five pages in his three-volume work, concluding that Forrest did all he could to prevent a massacre. Foote agreed with the sentiment that the congressional conclusions were lies. To back up his claim, Foote said Lincoln himself ordered retaliation to take place if the claims were true. That fell to the unforgiving Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who did no such thing, presumably because there was no evidence a massacre took place.

But in his 2001 book “An Unerring Fire: The Massacre at Fort Pillow,” Richard L. Fuchs, a New York lawyer, makes a differing judgment. To Fuchs, a “deliberate massacre” had taken place — and he laid the blame directly at Forrest’s feet.

“General Forrest participated in the affair through either a deliberate failure to control his forces or by subtly encouraging a result he sought and knew would be the inevitable consequence of a Confederate victory over the garrison,” he wrote.

In later years

It has been said that Forrest founded the Ku Klux Klan. While that isn’t technically accurate, its overall theme — that he was the first galvanizing figurehead in the association — is true.

Hurst said the early incarnation of the Klan existed to provide law and order in the postwar South and regain the vote for ex-Confederates. Violence and threats of violence were the organization’s tactics, and the re-establishment of white supremacy in the South — the re-establishment of a social system that suppressed newly freed black people — was undoubtedly its overarching goal.

Wills wrote that Forrest later issued an order toning down the increasingly violent activity of the Klan. But he argues that it wasn’t so much a noble order as it was a way to rein in an organization that had grown so large he had essentially lost control of it.

Hurst writes that in his later years, Forrest disavowed the Klan’s racial hatred and actually advocated for “social as well as political advancement for blacks.”

Said Hurst: “He had certainly moderated (on the race issue). He absolutely had, yes. You can argue that he moderated a whole lot more and a lot faster than some others in his section.”

A complicated story

Even the historians themselves often don’t agree on how to view their subject.

Forrest’s biographers are often impugned as apologists, though Hurst himself criticizes those apologists in his own work. That may well be true, though, for some of the earlier works on Forrest seem quite sympathetic.

In an interview last week, Hurst argued for an examination of Forrest based on the context of his times and said he believes that his name should not have been taken off the park. Rather, he’s in favor of adding names — Ida B. Wells, he mentioned — over removing them.

Perhaps the best summation of the difficulty of delivering a true picture of Forrest lies in the newest book on the library’s shelf, Paul Ashdown and Edward Caudill’s book on Forrest’s image, “The Myth of Nathan Bedford Forrest.”

In it, the authors cite John E. Stanchak, editor of the magazine Civil War Times Illustrated, in his introduction of a series on Forrest in 1993. Stanchak wrote that essentially everyone agrees that Forrest was a tough customer, was the greatest cavalryman of his era, and was a military genius.

The rest, he argued, is either lost — or twisted — to history.

“Everything else we know about this man,” Stanchak wrote, “is bent to fit some political or intellectual agenda.”

© 2013 Memphis Commercial Appeal.

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