Renaming the Nathan Bedford Forrest High School makes no sense to anyone who knows the man and who is interested in real, not fabricated, history. Practically any discussion of General Forrest or Citizen Forrest centers on three points of controversy: the General's attack of Fort Pillow, the citizen's pre-war activities as a slave trader, and his possible post-war connection with the Ku Klux Klan. Usually, when these points are discussed in public forum, the misinformation flows freely.
Bedford Forrest was, indeed, a slave trader who made a lot of money dealing in slaves and cattle. But owning or trading in slaves in those days did not mean being in league with the devil, the way it does today. Nothing justifies or excuses slavery, but the fingers of the moral compass point in all directions in this dismal period of our history. Slavery thrived in the North and the South, with black as well as white slave owners in both regions. And remember, the Emancipation Proclamation did not include Northern slaves.
Comprehensive history describes Forrest as a basic, hardworking individual who bootstrapped himself up from a pioneering existence to that of a millionaire. Educated only through possibly the second grade, he learned to read well and was an avid reader, far from illiterate. Living in a log cabin with a dirt floor, he used mules to clear the ground so it could be plowed and farmed. He also learned to protect his mother and younger brothers, since his father had died when he was young. Those attributes make Bedford Forrest a fine example for young people today.
Forrest opposed, and the people of Tennessee voted against, secession. But the political powers in that state forced the issue, and Tennessee seceded and joined the Confederacy without a vote. Forrest followed his Southern heritage and went with the Confederacy. He spent most of his personal fortune outfitting his own battalion, and the Forrest Tennessee Cavalry rode into history with an exceptional record.
The poor judgement of Union Major William Bradford, a West Tennessee attorney who was born in Forrest's native Bedford County, provided the basis for the conflict. Bradford commanded the U.S. 13th West Tennessee Cavalry. Many of his troops were Confederate deserters and others who reportedly hated Confederate soldiers, their families and friends. Major Lionel Booth commanded the contingent of colored troops stationed at the Fort.
Tennessee was split in its loyalty between the Union and Confederacy, and a large number of Unionists in Tennessee wanted to end the war and rejoin the Union on generous terms. Major Bradford became particularly unpopular when he ordered patrols from the fort under the pretense of looking for arms and 'rebel soldiers.' Instead, they scouted the countryside and stole anything of value from Confederate sympathizers, such as food, cattle, jewelry, furniture, clothing, and most anything that wasn't nailed down.
The Union soldiers vented upon the wives of Southern soldiers, subjecting the women to extreme hate and lust through the most obscene kind of language. It has been alluded that the wives of some Confederate soldiers may have been sexually molested by Union soldiers from Fort Pillow, although I have found nothing substantial to support that. What is supported is that Major Bradford's military misconduct doomed the Fort, and he paid the ultimate price when he was killed by a sharpshooter during the Confederate attack.
Many of Forrest's officers from that region begged for permission to return to their homes to protect their wives and families from further molestation (as stated in other historical research documents). When Forrest learned that those in the region around Fort Pillow needed relief, he notified his commander, General Leonidas Polk, of his intention to respond. To continue using West Tennessee as a source of Confederate recruits, conscripts, and supplies, Forrest had to neutralize the effects of Fort Pillow.
One of the more revealing comments about Forrest's conduct at Fort Pillow concerns the message he sent under a flag of truce, demanding unconditional surrender of the garrison and promising to treat all troops as prisoners of war. That was especially significant because of the presence of colored troops within the fort. The orders from the Confederate government in Richmond were that all captured colored troops were to be treated as slaves and returned to their owners or the nearest slave traders for disposition. An unofficial sanction (that also may be another historical myth) from General Kirby Smith, Commanding the Trans Mississippi Department, was that any captured white Union officers in command of colored troops could be shot.
From Jack Hurst's Nathan Bedford Forrest, A Biography: "Captain W. A. Goodman, Chalmers' adjutant general and bearer of the note, said later he clearly remembered the offer to treat the entire garrison as prisoners of war 'because when the note was handed to me, there was discussion about it among the officers present, and it was asked whether it was intended to include Negro soldiers as well as the white; to which both General Forrest and General Chalmers (one of Forrest's brigade commanders) replied that it was so intended'."
When the dispatch was sent under a flag of truce, Forrest had no way of knowing that the Fort's primary commander, Major Bradford had been killed. Hoping for reinforcement from a Union gunboat coming down the Mississippi River, Major Booth signed Bradford's name to a return message asking for one hour to confer with his staff. Forrest sent back a message giving him 20 minutes to surrender.
When 20 minutes was up, Forrest ordered an attack. When the so-called surrender came, a competent commander would have hauled down his colors and sent his troops out under a flag of truce. Major Booth didn't do that. The Union colors flying over the Fort were never run down. Booth's troops came out under the pretense of surrender and tried to make it to the river, hoping to get out to the Union gunboat, which steamed away under fire from Forrest's shore batteries. The Union troops also went to caches of arms and ammunition buried near the river and tried to resume their fight, taking numerous, unnecessary casualties.
The battle of Fort Pillow has been analyzed, researched, and written about since it happened. A post-war U. S. Congressional investigating committee later found that the Fort Pillow disaster was largely due to incompetent Union command, and Forrest was cleared of all charges of misconduct. Among other issues, the surrender was conducted improperly so as to mislead opposing forces as to intent, resulting in a large number of unnecessary casualties.
The military advisor of the committee, General William T. Sherman, himself a brutal battlefield commander, strongly concurred with the committee's findings. Sherman had once offered a reward for Forrest during the war, referring to him in a conversation with General Grant as "that devil Forrest," and said that he would sacrifice ten-thousand troops, if necessary, to get him. That statement had nothing to do with Fort Pillow. It spoke to General Forrest's ability as a battlefield commander, feared and respected even by his enemies.
As an interesting footnote, in 1998, two U. S. Army JAG officers (lawyers) released an analysis they did of General Sherman's infamous march through Georgia, specifically the part from Atlanta to Savannah. They found that under current military rules of engagement, Sherman committed several acts that would qualify as war crimes, which today, would cause criminal charges to be filed against him. To cite just one example, near Savannah, after one of his officers stepped on a torpedo (land mine) that blew off the man's leg, Sherman forced Confederate prisoners to walk in front of Union troops and act as human mine sweepers.
On December 24, 1865, six young Confederate veterans met in the law office of Judge Thomas M. Jones, near the courthouse square in Pulaski, Tennessee. Their names were: James R. Crowe, Calvin E. Jones, John B. Kennedy, John C. Lester, Frank O. McCord, and Richard B. Reed. All had been CSA officers and were lawyers, except Kennedy and McCord; the latter having served as a private in the Confederate army. The meeting resulted in the idea of forming a social club, a post-Civil War version of the VFW or American Legion.
Their number quickly grew, and in meetings that followed, the men selected a name based on the Greek word "kuklos" meaning circle, from which they derived the name Ku Klux. Perhaps bowing to their Scotch-Irish ancestry, and to add alliteration to the name, they included "clan," spelled with a K. And so, quite innocently, a new social club called the Ku Klux Klan was created for the recreation purposes of Confederate veterans.
McCord, whose family owned the Pulaski Citizen, the town's weekly newspaper, printed mysterious-sounding notices of meetings and club activities. Other newspapers picked up his stories about the Klan, and as word spread, the organization grew.
At first, other groups contacted the Pulaski Klan for guidelines in starting their own KKK organizations. But as the Klan spread through Alabama, other parts of Tennessee, and the rest of the South, and as Reconstruction grew more oppressive for the South, the mission of the Klan was seen as serving other purposes. Where law enforcement was weak or non-existent in many areas, the Klan took up the cause.
The dictatorial-like power exercised by the Union commanders of the five military districts into which the South was divided, bore much of the responsibility for the Klan violence that began to grow. The commanders backed the managers of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (Freedmen's Bureau), founded by Congress on March 3,1865. Many of the managers tried to help the freed slaves, but all too many more were busy creating opportunities for themselves.
Quoting again from Jack Hurst's Nathan Bedford Forrest, A Biography, speaking of Forrest: "He could argue with considerable truth that most of those who professed to be outraged by slavery's inhumanity were as jealous of the economic advantage it accorded slaveholders as they were concerned about the plight of slaves. After Appomattox, most of those supporting aid for the freedmen appeared to favor it largely as punishment for the former master.
There was considerable Northern interest in granting the land of the Southern slave owners to their onetime slaves. But there was no Northern interest at all in giving freedmen Northern land and protecting their safety and civil rights by bringing significant numbers of them north. Indeed, at that time, few Northern states permitted blacks much more than the all-but-serfdom that postwar Southern legislatures instituted shortly following the surrender."
When the Federal army moved southward, many thought there would be no real war. Surely the Negroes held in the captivity of slavery would view the invading army as an opportunity to turn against their masters, and an all out slave revolt would quickly inhibit the South's will to fight. At least that was anticipated by many in the Union camp.
Certainly, that had been one of the greatest fears held by white Southerners, even among the ninety percent of non-slave owning whites, where the slave population was heaviest. Wealthy slave owners had fed the fear held by some whites of an uprising of armed Negroes, which had happened before in Virginia. That and the fear of having their women carried off and raped by Negroes probably ranked second only to fearing a massive crop failure. Some claimed to have dreamed about armed slaves invading their homes.
The optimistic thought in the Federal congress and elsewhere was that the Union army would have no more than a stroll through the South. After all, the Confederate army would be made up mostly of a bunch of old farmers and small shop keepers. The slaves would rise up in total insurrection, hell-bent to gain their freedom, and do much of the job for the invading forces from the North. Then the soldiers of Lincoln's army could turn around and go home and everything would be settled.
The Union League of Philadelphia, founded in1862 to support Abraham Lincoln and raise regiments for the Union army, formed post-war groups throughout the South, becoming almost a Klan counterpart. The fears that white Southerners long harbored of a disastrous racial uprising were no less real, just because the uprising never came. Nat Turner's rebellion in Virginia in 1831 and a bloody Haitian slave revolt of 1832 gave substance to the threat. The Union Leagues, consisting mostly of freed Negroes and members of the Freedmen's Bureau, played on the worst fears of white Southerners by bearing arms and parading through towns in military formation.
The post-war political situation was boiling over, with many Confederate veterans disenfranchised, not allowed to vote or run for office. Northerners moving into the South and uneducated freed slaves were filling public offices and being appointed to official positions. The object of many members of the Republican congress in Washington was to inflict revenge on the South, instead of rebuilding the region. It did not take long for the Klan, with its intimidating appearance and penchant for night riding, to take on a different role. Voter intimidation was born, and the Klan began to attract what someone described as "a rough bunch of boys."
In April, 1867, the Ku Klux Klan held its first convention in Nashville. Members from all known Klan groups had been invited and much evidence exists to show who was present. No proof exists that Forrest was even in Nashville at the time. Some of the best scholarly research on the Klan fails to show exactly when or where Forrest learned of the organization or became associated with it.
Citizen Forrest, was elected the first Grand Wizard (not dragon) of the Klan, probably in May 1867, and most likely in absentia. His role in the Klan is sketchy at best, and many believe he was only a figurehead. It's certain that Forrest never owned any Klan paraphernalia or never "rode" with the Klan.
The Citizen Forrest never "commanded" the KKK, as some want to believe, which was one of the Klan's greatest problems. It had no central leadership or control. As the organization spread farther across the South, individual groups operated as they pleased, and the KKK became something that the original organizers in Pulaski had never dreamed of or intended.
Both the KKK and its violence grew at an alarming rate. The Republican rule instituted by the Union to punish the South for secession was soon undermined by the violence of the secret terrorist organization. The Klan acted as the enforcement arm of the Democratic Party. In 1868 alone, 300 Georgia blacks were murdered or assaulted by white terrorists. And in north-central Florida around Jackson County, the Young Men's Democratic Clubs -- one of many other names for Klan-like organizations -- were blamed for killing more than 150 Negroes and Republicans during Reconstruction.
The violence and extreme acts of brutality became alarming, even to a seasoned battlefield commander like Bedford Forrest. In 1869, he used his excellent war-time reputation and perceived authority to call for the hooded organization to disband. In 1871, the Klan began a gradual hibernation, like a fierce beast, until its reawakening in the 1920s.
The last survivor of the six original Klansmen, John B. Kennedy served as the circuit court clerk in Lawrence County, Tennessee for 22 years. The original six founders lived to regret their association with the KKK. Kennedy died peacefully in Lawrenceburg in 1921, refusing to ever discuss his association with the "social club" that he had helped start.
Ironically, in the decade of the 1920s, as it began its new twentieth-century rise to power, the Klan helped defeat Al Smith, the country's first Roman Catholic candidate for president. Working hard within his KKK organization to help bring about Smith's defeat was a young U. S. Senator from Alabama, a lawyer and former judge, Hugo Black. President Franklin D. Roosevelt later appointed Black to the U. S. Supreme Court, making him the first, and probably only, Klansman to sit on the high court. However, Black took his judicial responsibilities seriously, and for the next 30 years became an ardent supporter of desegregation in the South, making him a social outcast in his own home state.
Nathan Bedford Forrest, II, the General's grandson, moved to Atlanta and became the assistant of William J. Simmons, leader of the neo-Klan that became very active in Georgia during the Klan's twentieth-century rebirth. He served as the grand dragon of the Georgia Klan and as the organization's national secretary for five years.
Nathan Bedford Forrest, III, an Army Air Corps Brigadier General, commanded twenty-six B-17 aircraft. In a 1943 bombing run over Kiel, Germany, his plane was shot down, and he became the first American general to die in combat in the European theatre in World War II. With three daughters, he became the final male Forrest in his great-grandfather's direct line.
MOVING INTO OUR CURRENT TIME FRAME, for those who insist on being politically correct and have a need to avoid treading on the toes of societal sensitivity -- which seem to become more sensitive each day -- then let's do the job right. Let's purify our national heritage to cleanse it of all our sinful transgressions of the past.
First, petition members of Congress to pass a law requiring the destruction of the presidents' faces at Mount Rushmore, South Dakota. You may also want to have the Confederate memorial at Stone Mountain, Georgia, destroyed and a statue of Abraham Lincoln removed from the rotunda of the capitol building in Washington, D. C.
Because the sculptor who carved those three works, Gutzon Borglum, was a
racist and white supremacist who believed in segregation. Not only was he
an active member of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia in the 1930s and '40s,
serving on a number of planning and organizational committees, Borglum also
was the Grand Dragon of the Klan in that state.
Note that Borglum only worked on the Confederate memorial at Stone Mountain during the height of Klan resurgence in the 1920s. He was the first of three chief carvers who, after many delays and over several decades, supervised sculpting. Roy Faulkner, who had worked under Walter Hancock, finally finished the figures on the mountain in the 1960s.
Next, let's change the name of one of the largest military bases of its kind in the world -- Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Those who have bothered to read a good history book about the Civil War will know that Confederate General Braxton Bragg commanded the Army of Tennessee. There are many others, such as Fort Gordon, Georgia, and Fort Hood, Texas, named for Confederate General Sam Hood who led his troops on the ill-fated charge up Little Round Top at Gettysburg.
Also, plan on having Grant's Tomb removed. Let's start with Grant's infamous General Order 11, which called for the removal of all Jews within 50 miles of his command post. And even though Robert E. Lee, who was actually opposed to slavery, freed some of his few slaves before the Civil War began and the rest shortly afterward, Grant kept his slaves even after the war had ended.
The Emancipation Proclamation, being a highly selective document, did not "free the slaves," as most of us were erroneously taught, and it did not affect slaves in the Northern states, including Grant's home state of Ohio or Washington, D. C. As one Massachusetts man wrote, "The Proclamation has in measure divided the North and the army. The army hate to think they are fighting for the Negro....There are officers, very few I am glad to say, who say they won't fight for the Negro or under the Proclamation."
Then there are all those monuments and things named for Abraham Lincoln. By any of today's standards, although the terms were probably not in any dictionary during Lincoln's time, he was a racist and a white supremacist. This is easily seen in reading the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, and a number of speeches Lincoln made during the 1850s and '60s. Mary Todd Lincoln, from the border state of Kentucky, was reputed to have been very much pro-slavery with strong sympathy for the Confederacy. To clear up a point of confusion, in Lincoln's time, opposing slavery did not mean necessarily feeling kindly toward African-Americans. Those thoughts were mutually exclusive.
By an agreement made between Liet. Gen. Taylor, commanding the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana, and Major Gen. Canby, commanding United States forces, the troops of this department have been surrendered.
I do not think it proper or necessary at this time to refer to causes which have reduced us to this extremity; nor is it now a matter of material consequence to us how such results were brought about. That we are beaten is a self-evident fact, and any further resistance on our part would justly be regarded as the very height of folly and rashness.
The armies of Generals Lee and Johnson having surrendered, you are the last of all the troops of the Confederate States Army east of the Mississippi River to lay down your arms.
The Cause for which you have so long and so manfully struggled, and for which you have braved dangers, endured privations, and sufferings, and made so many sacrifices, is today hopeless. The government which we sought to establish and perpetuate, is at an end. Reason dictates and humanity demands that no more blood 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.
The terms upon which you were surrendered are favorable, and should be satisfactory and acceptable to all. They manifest a spirit of magnanimity and liberality, on the part of the Federal authorities, which should be met, on our part, by a faithful compliance with all the stipulations and conditions therein expressed. As your Commander, I sincerely hope that every officer and soldier of my command will cheerfully obey the orders given, and carry out in good faith all the terms of the cartel.
Those who neglect the terms and refuse to be paroled may assuredly expect, when arrested, to be sent North and imprisoned. Let those who are absent from their commands, from whatever cause, report at once to this place, or to Jackson, Miss.; or, if too remote from either, to the nearest United States post or garrison, for parole.
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, and heretofore so widely, but honestly, differed. Neighborhood feuds, personal animosities, and private differences should be blotted out; and, when you return home, a manly, straightforward course of conduct will secure the respect of your enemies. Whatever your responsibilities may be to Government, to society, or to individuals, meet them like men.
The attempt made to establish a separate and independent Confederation has failed; but the consciousness of having done your duty faithfully, and to the end, will, in some measure, repay for the hardships you have undergone.
In bidding you farewell, rest assured that you carry with you my best wishes for your future welfare and happiness. Without, in any way, referring to the merits of the Cause in which we have been engaged, your courage and determination, as exhibited on many hard-fought fields, has elicited the respect and admiration of friend and foe. And I now cheerfully and gratefully acknowledge my indebtedness to the officers and men of my command whose zeal, fidelity and unflinching bravery have been the great source of my past success in arms.
I have never, on the field of battle, sent you where I was unwilling to go myself; nor would I now advise you to a course which I felt myself unwilling to pursue. You have been good soldiers, you can be good citizens. Obey the laws, preserve your honor, and the Government to which you have surrendered can afford to be, and will be, magnanimous.
N.B. Forrest, Lieut. General
Headquarters, Forrest's Cavalry Corps
May 9, 1865