Carolyn Kaye and Gary Lancaster examine the crutch Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest left at the Billups home in Columbus after recovering there from a wound suffered in battle. The Billups family possessed the crutch for 153 years until presented by the Billups-Garth Foundation to the S.D. Lee Home last Friday. Photo by: Courtesy photo
An original photograph of Confederate General N.B. Forrest that belonged to John M. Billups of Columbus. The story of Forrest's crutch was passed down in the family by his daughter, Mary Billups.
Photo by: Courtesy photo
An after life portrait of T.C. Billups painted from a Matthew Brady photograph of Billups by prominent artist Nicola Marschall. Marschall came to Columbus to paint portraits in the mid-1870s after General Forrest sent a letter to John Billups and others recommending Marschall as an portrait painter.
Photo by: Courtesy photo
June 17, 2017 10:12:33 PM
On Friday the Billups-Garth Foundation presented to the S.D. Lee Home a 153-year-old wooden crutch with the owner's name carved across it. It is a grand example of how confusing history can be. The crutch had belonged to Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the most interesting, controversial and least understood figures to arise out of the Civil War. About all that can be agreed on concerning his life is that he was a self-taught military genius.
White citizens of Columbus credited him with saving Columbus from the destruction such as occurred in Union attacks on Jackson and Meridian. African Americans view him as an oppressor of Black citizens and founder of the Ku Klux Klan. There is some truth and some fiction in each of those views.
The New York Times reported that by the end of the war "Forrest seems to have been considered by many as the most formidable cavalry commander then in the Armies of the South." During the Civil War Forrest defeated four Union Army assaults that were headed in the direction of Columbus.
Because of those successful defensive actions, he was viewed locally as the savior of Columbus from the fiery destruction inflicted on other towns. However, General Grant had observed Forrest's concern with protecting Confederate stores and facilities in Columbus and directed his generals to send a raid toward Columbus to divert Forrest's forces when attacking elsewhere, such as the railhead that was burned at Meridian.
The greatest blemish on his character was the reported massacre of over two hundred Black Union soldiers at Ft. Pillow in 1864. It was reported and described at length by the Northern press, though denied in the Southern press. Forrest always denied that what took place was anything more than deaths occurring during a pitched battle.
After the war ended there was great fear in the North that Forrest would continue to wage a guerrilla war across the South. Not only did Forrest not do so but offered his services to U.S. commanding general, William T. Sherman, when it appeared the U.S. might go to war with Spain over Cuba. Sherman responded it would be an honor have served together had war broken out.
Forrest was an early member and probably a leader of the Ku Klux Klan and his character is still attacked for that, but it is little-recognized that he ordered the Klan to disband when it became violent. It is also rarely observed that much of his animosity was not directed at freed slaves but at carpetbaggers flooding into the South. His later actions and addresses confirm that disassociation.
That misconception was not lost on the New York Times which reported, "He spoke at the Union ratification meeting at Memphis in August, 1866; was at the Democratic National convention (1868)... counseling friendly feeling between the North and South..." By the early 1870s He was even quoted in an interview in a Nashville newspaper as calling for more and better educational and economic opportunities for the freed slaves.
Forrest died in 1877 and his obituary in the New York Times gave an interesting account of his conduct after the war. "Of late years, his views had undergone a considerable change. The guerrilla chieftain had softened down into the retired veteran, anxious, apparently, only for peace with everybody. He was in favor of promoting good feeling between the two sections, and by the terms of his address to his old comrades in arms, asking them to join in decorating the graves of the dead Union soldiers. His last notable public appearance was on the Fourth of July in Memphis, when he appeared before the colored people at their celebration, was publicly presented with a bouquet by them as a mark of peace and reconciliation, and made a friendly speech in reply."
As to Forrest's crutch and his association with Columbus: During the war Forrest was often in Columbus and people recalled that he and his staff, worshiped on Sundays at St. Paul's Episcopal Church and his favorite war horse, "King Phillip", was a gift from the Billups family.
The earliest account of where Forrest got King Phillip stated that the horse was a veteran of the Vicksburg campaign and a gift of the citizens of Columbus. As a child, I recall my uncle T.C. Billups telling me the story of how Forrest got the horse.
He related that after being wounded on one occasion Forrest was recovering at the Billups' house in Columbus. There "Forrest admired a fine saddle horse and asked to purchase the horse, 'King Phillip.' Billups replied, "General I could not sell him at any cost." On the day Forrest was leaving to rejoin his troops, he called for his horse to be brought around. Instead it was King Phillip, the horse he had admired, that was led to him. Billups presented the horse to Forrest as a gift." When he departed Forrest left his crutch with his name carved in the side at the Billups home. That family story had also been told by Mary Billups, the daughter of John Billups who was a friend of Forrest.
In 1870 Forrest had written a letter of introduction to A.S. Humphries, S.M. Meek and John M. Billups of Columbus, on behalf of Nicola Marschall, a Prussian born portrait painter with a national reputation. Forrest recommended Marschall as a "skilled" painter of portraits. Probably as a result of that letter, Marschall came to Columbus during the mid-1870s and spent several months painting portraits including at least nine for members of the Billups family.
The old wooden crutch that was used by Forrest is evidence of just how complicated history can be. There is no doubt that there is an unsavory side to Nathan Bedford Forrest but according to the New York Times, Forrest did reconcile with the Black community of Memphis where he lived. Is Forrest any worse than those who made their fortune in the African slave trade such as Philip Livingston who founded a professorship of divinity at Yale or John Brown of Providence who founded the Ivy League University that bears his name? History sure is complicated.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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