It has been almost 150 years since the end of the War Between the States and Nathan Bedford Forrest remains known largely for three things – his talent and daring on the battlefield, the Fort Pillow “Massacre” and his role in the Ku Klux Klan. His military skills have earned him grudging respect by even the most ardent Yankee, but he is otherwise scorned as an unrepentant racist and murderer. But Forrest was not the one-dimensional villain that many uninformed people portray him to be.
Nathan Bedford Forrest: The Slave Trader
Forrest is often reviled for his pre-war activity of trading slaves, and it’s true that not only was he a slave trader, he was quite successful at it. But by no means was he alone. U.S. senator James DeWolf of Bristol, Rhode Island was the most successful slave-trader in American history and he was responsible for transporting at least 10,000 Africans to the Americas. DeWolf curried favor with President Thomas Jefferson in order to continue in the trade long after it was outlawed. When DeWolf died in 1837 he was a multi-millionaire and considered the second-richest man in America.
In contrast, when Forrest enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1861, Forrest was worth roughly 1.5 million dollars. But unlike many of his contemporaries, Forrest never lost sight of the fact that he was dealing with people. Although it is probably safe to assume that he never considered blacks his equals he still followed a strict rule to never buy or sell a slave it if would break up a family. He would also reunite broken families by buying the individual members and then selling them as a family unit.
Forrest was also determined that slaves should be treated humanely. He had a list of men that he refused to sell slaves to because they were known as cruel masters. Forrest also allowed newly purchased slaves a measure of self-determination that was unheard of in that day and age. He would give the slave a pass to move about town with the instructions to “find the man you would like to be your master, and I will then sell you to that man.”
Nathan Bedford Forrest: The Slave Owner
It would seem that Forrest was well-regarded by his own slaves as well. When he formed his own cavalry unit, he offered his male slaves the opportunity to ride with him and fight for the Confederacy. In return, if they served honorably, they would be given their freedom at war’s end, win or lose. Forty-five men accepted the offer, and 44 stayed with him through the end of the war. In 1863, well before the end of the war, Forrest drew up the papers freeing them all.
Of these 45 newly freed men, 44 stayed with him and continued to serve in the Confederate Army until the end of the war. The one other man returned home to nurse his dying wife. In 1876, Forrest wrote, “Those boys stayed with me…and better Confederates did not live…those among us during the war behaved in such a manner that I shall always respect them for it.” Throughout his writings, even in personal letters, Forrest consistently referred to slaves or free man as ‘colored’ or ‘black,’ which were the politically correct terms of his times.
Nathan Bedford Forrest: The Fort Pillow Incident
Recently, Glenn Beck and David Barton made statements on Beck’s program about Nathan Bedford Forrest that were completely inaccurate. Beck held up a sword that belonged to Forrest, that Barton claims was used at Fort Pillow to skin black Union soldiers alive. This is nothing more than false conjecture that has reached reprehensible levels over time. Fort Pillow was indeed a vicious battle, but the truth was clearly not presented by Beck and Barton. Perhaps they should actually read the U.S. Congressional inquiry into the matter.
Only two weeks after the battle the inquiry could not conclusively determine exactly what happened. Both sides failed to control the action, and only Forrest’s direct, personal intervention to stop the shooting saved many of the Union defenders left standing on the beach. Not satisfied with this Congressional inquiry, Union General William T. Sherman convened a not-so-impartial inquiry. He openly stated that he would try and convict General Forrest. However, Sherman’s inquiry also ended without substantive evidence to find Forrest culpable. However, if this actual record does not meet with your satisfaction perhaps Lt. Col. Edwin L. Kennedy, Jr., Assistant Professor, Department of Command and Leadership, Redstone Arsenal, Alabama review of the events at Fort Pillow will: http://www.armchairgeneral.com/nathan-bedford-forrest-and-the-battle-of-fort-pillow-1864.htm. With this evidence at hand, to you Mr. Beck and Mr. Barton I say this: You said it, now you prove it!
Nathan Bedford Forrest: The White Knights
To some extent, Forrest’s association with the Klu Klux Klan has been exaggerated over the years. True, in 1865 he helped form the Knights of the White Camellia, but Forrest’s Knights differed greatly from the modern image of the Klan. Today’s Klan would find the founding members of the White Knights highly objectionable because several of these former Confederate officers were Jewish. Forrest’s original vision was of a political and fraternal group, and the goal was to fight the excesses of the Freedman’s Bureau and the Federal occupation troops.
That intent obviously became badly warped even early on, and some members adopted a violent approach. When these members refused to stop what amounted to terrorism or to give up wearing masks, Forrest asked for the group to disband and renounced his association with them. The modern Klan that we know actually dates back less than 100 years. Founded in Gary, Indiana, in 1915, the Klan may claim they are the legacy of Forrest’s Knights of the White Camellia, but their philosophies and practices bear little resemblance to the views actually held by Forrest himself.
In 1871 a Congressional committee composed of Radical Republicans investigated the Klan, its origins, its activities and the possible involvement of former Confederate leaders. They had the current facts at-hand and the men they were investigating testified before them. Among those compelled to testify was Forrest. The Committee, which would have liked nothing better than to be able to charge and try Forrest, concluded in its official findings that Forrest did not found the Klan, was not the Klan’s leader, did not advise the Klan and instead worked only to have the Klan disband. See “The reports of Committees, House of Representatives, second session, forty-second congress,” P. 7-449. Again with this evidence at hand I say to all of you disbelievers, prove it otherwise.
Nathan Bedford Forrest: After the War
Both Forrest’s public speeches and private writings spoke of peace and reconciliation. This began as early as his farewell address to his troops in 1865. He explained, “Reason dictates and humanity demands that no more blood to be shed. Fully realizing and feeling that such is the case, it is your duty and mine to lay down our arms, submit to the powers that be, and to aid in restoring peace and establishing law and order throughout the land.”
He also instructed his men that “Civil war, such as you have just passed through naturally engenders feelings of animosity, hatred and revenge. It is our duty to divest ourselves of all such feelings; and as far as it is in our power to do so, to cultivate friendly feelings towards those with whom we have so long contended…”
Forrest was invited to speak often in the years following the war, and he encouraged support for the U.S. government and Constitution, and acceptance of free blacks as political and legal equals. His last public speech was in 1875 at a Fourth of July BBQ held by the Independent Order of Pole Bearers, an early black civil rights organization in Memphis. Although many of his white contemporaries urged him to decline the invitation, Forrest ignored their advice.
Speaking to the group, Forrest said, “I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think I am doing wrong. I believe I can exert some influence…and shall do all in my power to elevate every man, to depress none. I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going.” He also encouraged them to vote, saying “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.”
While I do not claim that Nathan Bedford Forrest was a saint and deserves consideration as a civil rights pioneer, an objective look at history shows that he was a far more complicated man than is often portrayed.