First Middle Tennessee State University And Now A Florida High School

Civil War Culture

Now is not a good time to invest in N.B. Forrest stock.  A recent controversy erupted at Middle Tennessee State University involving a petition to change the name of a building named after Forrest and now students at a Florida high school are requesting that the Board change the name of Nathan B. Forrest High School.  According to this article, "The students claim Forrest’s ties to the Ku Klux Klan, which Forrest later broke off, is the reason the Westside high school should be given a new name." 

Here is what one "historian" by the name of Al Wadsin had to say: "He was a southern patriot and he deserves to have something named after him, like Lee or Jackson — they are all patriots. They are all good Americans, and I think they all got a bum rap on the slavery issue."  Thanks Al for that shot of reconciliationist history and for the analytical rigor that went into your reference to a "bum rap."  Perhaps my friend and fellow historian Aaron Sheehan-Dean who was also interviewed for this article can help us out here.  "He was a slave trader before the Civil War. He was a very effective Calvary leader for the Confederacy during the Civil War. And then after the Civil War, he was involved in the early stages of the Ku Klux Klan" writes Sheehan-Dean.  Why he left the Klan, according to Sheehan-Dean is irrelevant since "The whole purpose of the Klan was designed to protect the old order the Civil War had overturned.

I know there are some people out there who prefer to see Forrest as some kind of Christian Warrior, but in doing so haven’t we left the realm of history in favor of an extreme form of presentism?

6 comments… add one

  • BorderRuffian Dec 7, 2006

    Faneuil Hall in Boston is named after the slave trader Peter Faneuil who was involved in the more odious trans-Atlantic slave trade.
    If we apply a politically sanitized test to the naming of a high school in Florida why not to a very prominent landmark in American political history?

  • Kevin Levin Dec 7, 2006

    Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. I have absolutely no problem with Bostonians petitioning to change the name of any public space. As I’ve stated consistently on this blog the names of public spaces often reflect a certain generation’s values and as these evolve over time as well as the local populations it is reasonable to expect that there will be calls to change the names of certain sites.

  • Justin Felux Dec 7, 2006

    I think Bedford Forrest was the most morally reprehensible figure the Civil War produced. From his prewar slave trading to his wartime atrocities to his postwar leadership of the Ku Klux Klan, there is no reason that Forrest’s name should ever be uttered with anything other than contempt. The fact that he is lionized as some kind of hero or genius is quite frankly disturbing. Black students today attend schools named after him. Statues and monuments to Forrest have spread like cancer across the country, especially in Tennessee. Gift shops at historic sites now sell more T-shirts featuring Forrest than ones featuring Robert E. Lee.

    That Forrest bears responsibility for Fort Pillow is beyond a doubt. Immediately following the attack, Forrest, along with Chalmers and the South in general, lauded the capture of Fort Pillow as a great victory. Forrest and Chalmers both bragged about what they did, with Forrest claiming that Fort Pillow would “demonstrate to the Northern people that Negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.” The Southern newspapers all initially celebrated it as a great victory. It wasn’t until outrage began to spread in the North that they started trying to deny what happened there.

    But in a way, Forrest has become somewhat of a scapegoat. Giving no quarter to black union soldiers was a common practice for the Confederates. Fort Pillow was just the most striking example of that policy in action. Even so, the fact that Forrest was a murderous bigot is without question. In one instance, an officer brought a captured black Union servant before Forrest. Forrest cursed and berated him, and when the man tried to explain that he was a free man, Forrest pulled out his pistol and shot him in the head. The Confederate officer who was present denounced Forrest as a murderer and said he would never serve under him again.

    I think even Forrest’s reputation as a cavalry commander is exaggerated. For instance, at Short Mtn. Crossroads Forrest was whipped by two companies of the 18th Ohio Infantry, even though he personally led three charges against them and outnumbered them 9 to 1. He was also thoroughly whipped by James Wilson at Franklin and again during Wilson’s raid through Alabama and Georgia. On CSPAN recently, Gary Gallagher said he believed that Forrest reached his natural level of competence as a cavalry commander of small forces of a few thousand men — I think that is a correct assessment. Forrest was far too unstable to command an army.

    I also liked the point Gallagher made in his critique of Ken Burns “Civil War” series, about how the role of Forrest in the Civil War was grossly exaggerated. One gets the sense from watching it that Forrest was the main Confederate commander in the West. Then you had Shelby Foote putting Forrest on a pedestal, and ridiculously naming him as one of the war’s “authentic geniuses” along with Lincoln? Huh!?

  • Johnny Dec 7, 2006

    There are more statues to Forrest in Tennessee than there are to Lincoln in Illinois or Washington in Virginia.

    With that said, I’ve never read anything about a story about Forrest personally shooting an unarmed black prisoner in the head.

  • Charles Bowery Dec 8, 2006

    I would recommend _River Run Red_ by Andrew Ward for anyone seeking to learn more about Forrest and about Fort Pillow. Ward is not a professional historian, but this is an excellent book.

  • Sounds to me like these students have done exactly what we want them to do at their level. They have reviewed the historical facts and see how yesterday’s point of view doesn’t fit with today’s. It would be a shame for their request to fall on deaf, ignorant ears.

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