A Brief History
On October 29, 1877, former Confederate States of America Army General Nathan Bedford Forrest died, but despite being an early member of the infamous racist organization, the Ku Klux Klan and serving as the first Grand Wizard of the notorious hate group, he had changed his tune, denying involvement with the Klan and denouncing the racism and violence associated with the KKK!
If you believe Nathan Bedford Forrest is something of a folk hero to White Supremacists, and conversely a hated and despised person by those seeking racial equality, you would be right! Forrest’s contribution to the Southern cause during the American Civil War is considered by many to be a brilliant military factor in favor of the Confederacy, and this fact is part of the reason he is revered by those Southerners that try to live in the reflected “glory” of the past. To this end, numerous places, including schools and parks, as well as monuments and the like, have been named in honor of Nathan Bedford Forrest. (The fictional character Forrest Gump alleges that he is named in honor of the infamous general!) Tennessee and the city of Memphis in particular venerate this controversial native son. As recently as 2011 the State of Mississippi had a controversial debate over whether or not to issue automobile license plates honoring Forrest. The Confederacy and its military leaders are often conflated with White Supremacy, sometimes with good reason. Many African Americans and liberal minded White Americans accuse Southern “pride” in their Confederate past as a thinly veiled form of White Supremacy. Of course, those celebrating the Confederate past publicly deny such a relationship to racial intolerance. Forrest is also infamous for being the commander of Confederate forces that committed the Fort Pillow Massacre of African American Union troops that had surrendered. The Fort Pillow Massacre, involvement with the KKK, and general revived hatred of all things Confederate have spurred a trend toward removing monuments and names of places in honor of Confederate heroes such as Nathan Bedford Forrest, as well as resistance to any new honors thrown his way.
Forrest became wealthy prior to the Civil War and was a particularly effective Southern military leader during the conflict. After the debacle of Southern defeat in the Civil War, Forrest and other former Confederates chafed under the yoke of the victorious North/Union and sought to undermine the voting power and civil rights of the newly freed Black African American former slaves. The bitterness of defeat was compounded by the imposition of Northern values and punishing (perceived as punishing) policies toward Southern Whites, causing a backlash by irate Southern Whites and the formation of a scattered group of KKK chapters, groups that were quasi terrorist organizations acting against the “reforms” inflicted on the South by the Northern Republicans.
By 1867, Forrest joined the KKK and united the scattered groups into an umbrella organization led by himself personally, with Nathan Bedford Forrest being named the first Grand Wizard of the organization. The Ku Klux Klan terrorized African Americans during this period, both by violence and threats of violence and by other acts such as suppression of voting and other civil rights. Yet, by 1869, after only 2 years in charge of the KKK, Nathan Bedford Forrest had had enough! Forrest resigned from the Klan and began a conversion over his remaining years to a person that preached against racial intolerance and especially violence, including the activities of the KKK. Not content with condemning violence against Blacks, in response to the lynching of 4 Black men, Forrest actually volunteered to help the governor of Tennessee “to exterminate the white marauders who disgrace their race by this cowardly murder of Negroes.” Forrest even spoke before Black organizations and was received with honors! Obviously, such words and actions by Forrest elicited words of disapproval by Southerners less inclined toward racial harmony.
A diabetic, Forrest reportedly died from complications of that disease at the age of 56 in 1877 and was buried in his native Memphis. His remains were moved to a Memphis City Park named Forrest Park (in his honor) in 1904. Alas, with the changing winds of political correctness, the name of the park was changed to Health Sciences Park and in 2015 the City of Memphis decided to remove the statue of Forrest from the park. An attempt to also have Forrest’s remains relocated back to the cemetery where he was originally buried was foiled by the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act of 2013 and U.S. Public Law 85-425: Sec. 410. The former Forrest Park is now in the private hands of a non-profit organization. All this retroactive controversy over a man that is the subject of more historical monuments and memorials in Tennessee than all 3 US Presidents that came from that state!
By the actions described above, it is clear that Nathan Bedford Forrest is remembered for his racist KKK activities and as a warrior that fought against the government of the United States instead of as a peace maker that preached racial accord and denounced racial hatred and violence. For one man to have existed as 2 quite diametrically opposed opposites is truly remarkable, yet it seems only one side of this multi-faceted person is remembered today. Who was the real Nathan Bedford Forrest? The racist that oversaw a massacre of African American Union troops and waged a war against re-uniting the United States and establishing civil rights for Black Americans, or the pacifist that preached against hatred and violence? You tell us!
Note: The great grandson of Nathan Bedford Forrest, Nathan Bedford Forrest III, was a US Army Air Forces Brigadier General during World War II and was killed while flying in a B-17 bomber over Germany in 1943, the first US general officer killed in action during that war. The brave general earned the Distinguished Service Cross, our nation’s second highest medal.
Question for students (and subscribers): If you were familiar with Nathan Bedford Forrest as a racist and KKK leader, did you know he had undergone a change of heart and policy in his later years? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Hurst, Jack. Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography. Vintage, 1994.
Kastler, Shane. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Redemption. Pelican Publishing, 2010.
Wyeth, John. That Devil Forrest: Life of General Nathan Bedford Forrest. CreateSpace, 2017.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Thomas R Machnitzki of Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park in Camden, Tennessee, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.