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Local voices: Another take on Nathan Bedford Forrest


Jim Terry



Napoleon Bonaparte said that history is always written from the view point of the victors.  


Apparently, and over a century and a half latter, this has not been the case with respect to the American Civil War, at least here in the South. In this terrible epoch of our history, hell has been romanticized in military reenactments and antebellum pilgrimages and in the pages of literature with a consistency that none dare to challenge. These were my thoughts when I read Rufus Ward's piece in the July 29 Dispatch regarding a one Nathan Bedford Forrest.  


Let me first of all say that I have nothing but respect for Mr. Ward. As far as I know, there is not a mean bone in his body. In former days he was one of my favorite guests when I hosted a Sunday morning radio talk show.  


But I must say that when I read what he wrote of that man, Nathan Bedford Forrest, I was taken aback. Make no mistake about it, Forrest was a monster! Many accounts say he was as interested in hunting down blacks as he was in taking the war to the enemy.  


Before the outbreak of Civil War Nathan Bedford Forrest, who couldn't read or write and wasn't "received" into the homes of respectable white families, made millions trafficking slaves in violation of the 1808 ban on the importation of blacks from Africa. With a temper like a cougar, he was said to have killed some 26 men with his own hands, many from sucker knife attacks.  


Then there is Fort Pillow. At a fort dwelling near Henning, Tenn., some 300 soldiers, by some estimates, nearly all black, having laid down their arms and begging mercy, were slaughtered in ways that would have made the Devil stand back and cringe. According to James Lowen in the book "Lies My Teacher Taught Me," Forrest ordered black soldiers crucified on tent posts and then burned them alive. According to Robert Lectie in his book "None Died in Vain," page 617, a first-hand account of the killing is put down:  


All the Negroes found in blue uniforms or with any outward marks of a Union soldier upon him was killed -- I saw some taken into the woods and hung -- Others I saw stripped of all their clothing, and they stood upon the banks of the river with their faces riverward and then shot -- Still others were killed by having their brains beaten out by the butts of muskets in the hands of the rebels.  


As cited in too many books, civil war journals, and eye witness re-tellings, all this was going on under Nathan Bedford Forrest's personal supervision. Of course, Forrest disavowed any personal involvement to avoid being tried for war crimes.  


Now comes the year 1877 and this little organization he formed in Pulaski Tenn., after the war which became one of history's most frightening aberrations: The Ku Klux Klan.  


There is no "probably" in it, Mr. Ward, the evidence of Forrest's creating that terrorist organization, with its murderous designs and intents, is too numerous to mention in this article. By the way, he used his own regimental colors, a flag with the familiar St. Andrews cross and the 13 stars, as the Klan's standard-- hence, its popularity throughout the South to this day. To the extent that Forrest disavows the Klan is not because things fell apart and got out of hand, as apologists are so quick to argue, but because the Klan refused to allow him to become its sole dictator.  


But there is a point I concede to Mr. Ward. It is likely that after all his devilment had ended and old age had zapped his energy, shortened his steps, turned his eyes dim, slackened his sinew, and when he had found a new compass in Christianity, Nathan Bedford Forrest did essay some kind of terse, front-porch statement against the KKK.  


Sadly, it is also well documented that no American has had as many monuments dedicated to their memory as does Forrest. Not even the great President George Washington or Robert E. Lee can boast more. And when I travel across the South, it does not escape my notice the cities and county's carrying his name, roads and streets, schools, at one time "Little Nat" was the mascot at Southern Mississippi; littered all over the southland are historical plaques chronicling his exploits--by the way, he wasn't that great a general. Just like Washington, many of his battle victories (ambushes is more accurate), as far as I am able to analyze military tactics, were the result of flat-out luck. 


Sadly, the average black person, even the well-informed ones, have never even heard of the name Nathan Bedford Forrest...but then again, maybe that is a good thing.



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