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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Honoring the war criminal Forrest

Terrorism was my calling

Nathan Forrest: Still confounding, controversial

February 19, 2006

"The past isn't over; it isn't even past."
- William Faulkner

Self-made businessman and brutal slave trader.

War hero and war criminal.

Civic leader and Klan boss.

Nathan Bedford Forrest has been called all these and more, a man whose complex and sometimes contradictory legend has grown to almost mythic proportions. The Confederate cavalry general and leader of the original Ku Klux Klan, to a greater extent than other Rebel figures such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, stirs debate to this day.

Born in the backwoods, enriched near Big Muddy, glorified in war and vilified in peace, Forrest is one of the most praised and pilloried of Tennesseans.

His statue towers over a park in Memphis; his bust glares down at legislators in the state Capitol building; children attend Forrest School in Chapel Hill and families vacation at Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park near Eva.

But the Memphis statue has been the target of graffiti artists, the capitol bust of protests. The state parks system also manages the remains of Fort Pillow, site of the massacre that stained Forrest's reputation forever.

According to one count, noted by University of Tennessee journalism professors Paul Ashdown and Ed Caudill in their 2005 book, "The Myth of Nathan Bedford Forrest," there are 32 statues of Forrest in Tennessee - more than the number of Lincoln statues in Illinois or George Washington statues in Virginia.

Some, however, think Tennesseans would be better served by ignoring an ignoble warrior. Just last year, black leaders in Memphis tried to remove the statue and his name from a city park.

The various versions of Forrest are hard to reconcile.

"We have a hard time with ambiguity," Ashdown said.

That ambiguity, for some, fuels fascination with Forrest.

"It doesn't matter if you love him, hate him or don't know much about him," Caudill said, "he's a great story. And we love great stories."


The war years

The battle at Brice's Cross Roads, in Mississippi, was his masterpiece. He divided his troops in the face of a much larger Union force, and, using the terrain to his advantage, attacked from multiple angles to achieve an overwhelming victory.

If Brice's Cross Roads was his most glorious moment, the assault on Fort Pillow was his most shameful.

Fort Pillow stood on the Chickasaw Bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River north of Memphis. Though it was supposed to have been abandoned, the fort was manned by 605 Union troops, including loyal Tennessee cavalry troopers and two artillery units composed of 284 black soldiers, plus their white officers.

On April 12, 1864, Forrest sent a note demanding surrender, and then unleashed his troops.

Estimates of the Union dead were as high as 297, roughly half the garrison. Though blacks made up about half the Union troops, they died at twice the rate of their white comrades.

"The massacre took place, there's no doubt about it," Ashdown said.

But to this day there is debate over whether Forrest ordered the massacre, allowed it to happen, ordered a halt to the killing or didn't know about it at all until later.

To Caudill and Ashdown, it doesn't matter.

"Any way you cut it, he was responsible," Caudill said. "He was the commander."


Klan years

After the war, Forrest set about trying to rebuild his fortune. He'd sold off part of his land, but quickly set up a sawmill on his Mississippi plantation. He tried his hand at insurance and paving, but filed for bankruptcy within three years.

Ashdown and Caudill point out that Tennessee, like the rest of the defeated South, was a society that had collapsed into lawlessness. In many places, returning Confederate soldiers formed vigilante committees to keep the peace.

One such group banded together in 1866 in Pulaski, Tenn. The original Ku Klux Klan was formed to fight outlaws, carpetbaggers and what its founders deemed the excesses of Reconstruction. Loosely organized dens spread quickly throughout the South.

Forrest wasn't a founder of the Klan, but he was recruited into its leadership. His exact role in the secret society remains murky, Caudill said.

Unlike the groups that resurrected the name in the early 20th century, the original Klan didn't have racism as its reason for existence.

"They were really vigilantes," Caudill said of the first Klan. "You don't want to defend the Klan, but the Klan of the 1860s was not the Klan of the 1920s."

As the Klan expanded, however, it became increasingly violent, prompting Gov. William G. "Parson" Brownlow to call out the militia to extinguish the group. In 1869, because of the rising tide of violence, Forrest ordered the Klan to disband.

Conciliatory years

During the last few years of his life, Forrest tried to build a railroad, but failed. As his fortunes dwindled, though, his outlook on race became more progressive.

He frequently said that freed blacks would drive the region's recovery from the ravages of war.

On July 5, 1875, at a barbecue near Memphis, Forrest accepted a bouquet of flowers from a black woman named Lou Lewis and, according to a newspaper account reprinted by Forrest biographer Jack Hurst, told the primarily black audience that he wanted to strengthen race relations.

"I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms and wherever you are capable of going," he said.

Later in his brief address, he said, "We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment."

Remembering Forrest

Today, state Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar, walks beneath a bust of Forrest whenever he enters the House of Representatives chamber of the state Capitol building. Like the Memphis statue, the bust has been the object of protest over the years. Shaw, the chairman of the Legislature's Black Caucus, said it's time to stop honoring Forrest.

"While I think it's important that we commemorate history, I don't think we need to highlight people like Nathan Bedford Forrest," Shaw said. "That doesn't speak well for us. We've got to become race-neutral to overcome (inequality), and I don't think we can become race-neutral if our parks are named after him."

He was a traitor and a war criminal who joined the Klan.

In short, he devoted the bulk of his life to murdering and terrorizing black people. From Slave trader to Klansman, he was dedicated to the repression of black people.

They should take every statue and plaque dedicated to him and melt them for scrap.

posted by Steve @ 12:00:00 AM

12:00:00 AM

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