This is an op-ed piece written by my friend and fellow Civil War historian Aaron Sheehan-Dean. The piece appeared in the Florida Times Union on March 13, 2007 during the height of the debate surrounding the changing of the school named after Forrest. Click here for the latest.
The current debate over renaming Nathan Bedford Forrest High School has generated some unusually inaccurate representations of the past. Two issues have been singled out: the actions of Forrest’s troops at Fort Pillow, Tennessee in 1864 and Forrest’s involvement with the Ku Klux Klan.
The most authoritative assessment by a professional historian, John Cimprich’s Fort Pillow, A Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory concludes that Confederate troops did massacre black Union troops at Fort Pillow in 1864. Black soldiers died at rates twice as high as that of the white soldiers inside the fort. Anecdotal evidence from Confederates and surviving Union soldiers also demonstrates that Confederates killed black soldiers before they surrendered. Nothing suggests that this was a premeditated act but that hardly lessons its shame. This was not an isolated incident, as recent books on Civil War atrocities make plain. The North’s decision to enlist and arm black men to fight against the South enraged white southerners and Confederates responded with acts of personal violence at Fort Pillow, Saltville, the Crater, and numerous other engagements.
Forrest was the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. It has been noted that he resigned from the Klan after it became more violent. This action suggests that there was some acceptable or benign KKK. Such an institution never existed. From the moment of the war’s end, if not before, white southerners began organizing to narrow the meaning of emancipation for African Americans. The KKK, and other groups like it, sought to deny blacks the right to participate in the civic life of the South. Like modern terrorist groups, they used both premeditated and random violence to terrify and isolate a subject population. They were widely supported by white southerners, and even after their ostensible destruction by federal legal efforts in the 1870s, Klan cells continued to target black leaders through their home in the Democratic Party.
The most important date in this controversy is 1958, the year that the School Board commemorated Forrest by naming a school after him. That act came in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which required the desegregation of school facilities across the country. Naming a school after Forrest added insult to the injury already done to black Jacksonville residents by the fact of segregated schools. It stands as a parting shot in the debate over access to public education and should be repudiated today.
In recent weeks, writers in the Times-Union have referred to Forrest as a "civil rights advocate" (3/6/07) and a "humane" slave trader (12/29/06). These descriptions are historical absurdities. Slave traders made their living literally off of the flesh of others; there was nothing humane in the practice, as scholarship over the past forty years has amply demonstrated. After the Civil War, few white northerners and even fewer white southerners worked to protect the rights of black Americans. The federal government abandoned blacks to the violence and ostracism of the Jim Crow South. The above statements reflect a desperate attempt to remake Forrest in our values. This is not just an impossibility but intellectually and morally dishonest. As our society changes, so do our values. Nathan Bedford Forrest does not represent the values of our day. Does this mean that we should forget him? No, but neither should we commemorate him.