Some Questions About the Forrest Speech

The last two post have been about Nathan B. Forrest’s claims to civil rights advocate.  Much of this discussion hinges on a speech that Forrest gave in Memphis to the Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association in 1875.  First, here is the text of the speech:

Ladies and Gentlemen, I accept the flowers as a memento of reconciliation between the white and colored races of the Southern states. I accept it more particularly as it comes from a colored lady, for if there is any one on God’s earth who loves the ladies I believe it is myself. (Immense applause and laughter.) I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to elevate every man, to depress none. (Applause.) I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going. I have not said anything about politics today. I don’t propose to say anything about politics. You have a right to elect whom you please; vote for the man you think best, and I think, when that is done, you and I are freemen. Do as you consider right and honest in electing men for office. I did not come here to make you a long speech, although invited to do so by you. I am not much of a speaker, and my business prevented me from preparing myself. I came to meet you as friends, and welcome you to the white people. I want you to come nearer to us. When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment. Many things have been said about me which are wrong, and which white and black persons here, who stood by me through the war, can contradict. Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I’ll come to your relief. I thank you, ladies and gentlemen,for this opportunity you have afforded me to be with you, and to assure you that I am with you in heart and in hand." (Prolonged applause.) End of speech.

If you do a Google search for "Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association" you will get a short list of sites that include the above-cited speech.  The sites include an SCV Camp, Dixie Outfitters, the History Channel, and an array of politically-inspired websites.  I would like to know where I can find the original speech.  Perhaps the Memphis Daily Appeal or another local paper printed it following the speech, but it would be interesting to see the original hand-written copy by Forrest.  Given his limited education I find it difficult to attribute the content to Forrest.  Of course, he could have spoken without a speech, but then a comparison of transcriptions would be absolutely essential. 

I spent a little time today reading through a section of Brian Steel Wills’s The Confederacy’s Greatest Cavalryman: Nathan Bedford Forrest (University of Kansas Press, 1992) and in my mind the best of the recent Forrest studies.  What I find so interesting is that Wills does not cite this speech at all.  Given the notoriety of the speech I find it difficult to consider that he was unaware of it.  There is an extensive manuscripts list in the bibliography section, which lists Forrest papers at the Chicago Historical Society, University of Georgia, Memphis Public Library, Huntington Library, and the U.S. Army Military Institute at Carlisle.  In addition three Memphis newspapers are listed.  Perhaps a copy of his speech or an early transcription is contained in one of these collections or on microfilm.

I’m sure I’ve overlooked something obvious and I probably run the risk of looking like a fool.  Still, I would like for someone to identify the source for this particular speech. 

Print Friendly
 

21 thoughts on “Some Questions About the Forrest Speech

  1. Peter

    Would it be out of place to ask for further information on the “Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association?” From what I can tell, the only place it appears on the internet is in connection with the Forrest speech (it even lacks any Wikipedia entry). It seems suspect, to me at any rate, that there is no mention of this “forerunner to the NAACP” anywhere except on sites that claim Forrest was a great advocate of Civil Rights.

    Reply
  2. Michael Aubrecht

    Kevin, I don’t want to dominate this conversation with another Mud March debate. As I originally quoted that speech in the post below, I would like to say that I was given a transcript of it by a member of the Nathan Bedford Forrest Historical Society in Memphis, Tennessee. It was also endorsed by Ben Caudill who is a Confederate Chaplain historian with the SCV. Frankly, I can’t quote the original source material and perhaps that’s a poor showing on me using it here. Still, there are two VERY GOOD books on “The Wizard” including Jack Hurst’s “Nathan Bedford Forrest” and “In Search of the Enigma” by Eddy W. Davison and Daniel Foxx, which both discuss NBF’s born-again beliefs in the last years of his life. Both books acknowledge the fact that mortality and morality deeply affected the man, and there are many recollections included that were written by those that knew Forrest on how much he had changed.

    However, I guess that I can’t say that I know for sure EXACTLY what was in his heart, just as you can’t claim to know what his REAL motives were behind his ‘change’ towards African Americans. We can only speculate and you and I take VERY different roads towards our differing conclusions.

    Still, I would like to offer a quote from the Robert Selph Henry book “‘First with the Most’ Forrest”: In these latter years of tribulation the prayers of Mary Montgomery Forrest were answered when Bedford turned to the religion which always had been so large a part of her life. On the streets of Memphis one day in 1875 Forrest met the Reverend Raliegh White, the same who as a lieutenant colonel had long commanded the old Fourteenth Tennessee Cavalry, and who now, as he told his general, was in Texas “preaching the word of God.” After a short conversation the two stepped into the quiet of the parlor of a bank near by, to kneel together in prayer. Not long afterward, on November 14, 1875, a calm Sabbath evening, the General walked into the Court Street Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Mrs. Forrest on his arm, and told the minister, the Reverend G. T. Stainback, that he had decided to accept the Christian faith. “There was no half way of doing things with Forrest,” the minister said afterward in a lecture, “and this is the way he entered the religious faith. … The news of his conversion had gone abroad and the church was filled the following Sunday morning. When I called for new members he folded his arms and deliberately walked down the aisle to the altar. I thought then that I had never seen such a magnificent man as General Forrest that day!”

    It doesn’t support the source of the speech, but it certainly supports my opinion of the man who ‘gave it.’ Thanks for listening.

    Reply
  3. Kevin Levin

    Peter, — That is indeed a very relevant question.

    Michael, — The speech was also cited by the guy referenced in my original post on this issue. I am not going to suggest to you how to evaluate your source material, but IMO Pelican Press is one of the most unreliable publishers around. They may be as bad as White Maine. I am actually familiar with that book and it’s scholarship is seriously flawed.

    As for the claim that his soul was saved in 1875 I leave to you. If you choose to give this weight in your assesment of his life so be it. I am not interested in judging his soul or whether he should be praised or vilified. As I’ve said all along that’s not my job as a historian. If you want to hold him up as someone to respect than go ahead, but please refrain from injecting this into a historical discussion.

    Reply
  4. Anonymous

    Kevin,

    Brian Steel Wills does discuss it, but he mislabels it and gets the date wrong, which is why you can’t find it easily. I agree that it’s the best book available on Forrest, but nobody’s perfect and he did get that one tidbit mixed up. Jack Hurst’s biography gives Hurst’s source for the speech, and you can use that as a guide.

    Regards,
    Cash

    Reply
  5. Sean Dail

    Kevin,

    Jack Hurst’s bio contains the text of the speech, which he cites as coming from the Memphis Appeal the day after it was given. I think Hurst makes a good case that Forrest was trying to get his act together in his later years, perhaps not unlike George Wallace in our time. I have to give credit to a man who repents of his former ways, even if it is late in life and might have something to do with fearing God’s wrath at the end of his days…

    Reply
  6. Kevin Levin

    Sean and Cash, — Thanks guys. I appreciate the effort and will follow up on your references. I also admire people who regret earlier mistakes. What I still find bizarre is the jump from that claim to the more extreme claim that somehow this should cancel or even balance out past transgressions in a historical assesment. Even more bizarre is the idea that this speech reflects something along the lines of a civil rights advocate. It demeans the title if we apply it to Forrest given the sacrifices that others who have pushed for civil rights have gone through.

    Reply
  7. Michael Aubrecht

    Kevin a friend named Tom emailed me the following quotes from the newspaper archives:

    The Galveston Daily News, July 11, 1875:
    “On the fifth, celebrated for the fourth, of July, at Memphis, Generals Forrest and Pillow delivered orations to a large concourse of citizens, mostly negroes. A colored society closed the proceedings by presenting General Forrest a magnificent boquet, as a token of reconciliation.”

    The Dubuque Herald, July 10, 1875:
    There does not appear to be much of the old rebel yell about this. At the Fourth of July celebration in Memphis the most active participants were the colored citizens. Addresses were delivered by Gen. Forrest and Gen. Pillow, two of the fiercest of the rebel generals. Gen. Forrest received from the hands of a colored woman a bouquet, which she presented as the “representative of the colored ladies,” and which was tendered as an offering of peace. The general accepted it in this spirit, and in response said: “I accept the flowers as a momento of reconciliation between the white and colored races of the southern states. I accept it more particularly as it comes from a colored lady, for if there is any one on God’s earth who loves the ladies, I believe it is myself.”

    Reply
  8. Kevin Levin

    Excellent! Thank you Michael. I am fascinated by these accounts because it gives us some insight into the ways that the races were learning to adjust to one another in the postwar South. Blacks were now potential voters and white southerners had to learn to adjust to emancipation. Race relations is an incredibly difficult subject, but if we move beyond what appears on the surface of things there is a chance of better understanding the dynamics involved.

    Reply
  9. Cash

    Kevin,

    Unfortunately, my books are packed away while I’m relocating, so I don’t have the Wills book with me.

    Regards,
    Cash

    Reply
  10. HankC

    Kevin,

    I think you are missing the major component behind Forrest’s claim to faith. I do not see an interest in ‘judging his soul’ as much as an interest in the change, if any, the purported conversion had on Forrest.

    Consider the following: On researching a town that expands from languid backwater to thriving metropolis between 1870 and 1880, it is discovered that the railroad came to town in 1875. Is it in the best historical interest to dismiss the railroad as a player in the town’s history because I know nothing about how a steam locomotive works?

    My point being is Forrest’s life trajectory significantly altered after his supposed claim to faith, or not?

    Historical interests tends to the discontinuities and fractured rather than the steady and smooth flow of history. Events, ideas and causes leading to these perturbations in history’s fabric (9/11, the Civil War, et al), our reactions and their long-term effects are the great stuff of history.

    HankC

    Reply
  11. Kevin Levin

    Thanks for the comment Hank. Let me make clear that I am not suggesting that Forrest’s decision to join the church should be discounted and in fact it may be historicall significant for a biographer. What I am suggesting, however, is that I am not in a position to judge anything metaphysical about such a confession. In other words, I am not willing to engage in a debate about what such a confession does or does not do to his soul or where that places him in the eyes of God. I wasn’t trained as a historian to engage in such speculation or explanation.

    As a historian it seems to me that it would be a huge mistake to take such a confession and with it downplay or minimize the rest of his life. Forrest made this move within a few years of his death. In my view that is one moment among many in his life. Forrest shaped and was shaped by his larger world and that is what needs to be assesed by the biographer.

    Reply
  12. Cash

    Kevin,

    If memory serves me correctly, either Hurst or Wills, or perhaps both, commented on Forrest’s letters to other southern leaders at the time talking about the possibility of controlling blacks’ votes.

    Regards,
    Cash

    Reply
  13. Anonymous

    I’m not familiar with Hurst, but Wills definitely addresses this, which is not surprising as most studies of the postwar South emphasize the need to control or encourage the black populace in certain ways.

    I went through Wills and I can’t seem to find anything that remotely corresponds to the address in 1875. The book is chronological so perhaps he mentions it in another section.

    Reply
  14. Kevin Levin

    Sorry Cash, but I can’t seem to find it even going back that far.

    Michael was kind enough to pass on two references, but unfortunately, they don’t contain anything close to the full speech that Forrest supposedly presented. They reference the offering of flowers and reconciliation which isn’t surprising as these themes are standard bill of fair at such gatherings.

    Reply
  15. Cash

    Hi Kevin,

    I have my books available again and I wanted to get back with you on this subject. See Brian Steel Wills, _A Battle From the Start,_ p. 338 in the middle of the page. The paragraph starting wtih “Biographer J. Harvey Mathes …” and the footnote dealing with that paragraph [79], found on p. 425 in the “Notes” section give you the references to this event.

    Regards,
    Cash

    Reply
  16. Elisabeth Payne Rosen

    Kevin–
    I don’t know whether you received the copy of my novel, HALLAM’S WAR, which was sent to you by Unbridled Books, but if you did and don’t have the time or the desire to read it, reading an interview with me at the SIBA (Southern Independent Booksellers Association) website (www.authorsroundthesouth.com/…/38-author-news-a-interviews/ 7549-elisabeth-payne-rosen-hallams-war – 33k) might give you an idea of some of its themes–southern responsibility for slavery, for example. I think you will find that you and I have much in common, though you are a “strict constructionist” re. historical accuracy and I, as a writer of fiction, take a different path towards the truth. But, as I’ve suggested earlier (or rather, as Jill Lepore suggested in her New Yorker article) a case can be made that fiction (and even Ken Burns documentaries?) MAY on occasion come/stumble closer to “the truth” than even the most rationally investigated set of facts. In any case, I think I got my facts straight, too. I would still love to have your response to my book. I think I have something of value to contribute to the conversation I find on your blog. Thanks for reading the interview, if you will.

    Reply
  17. Kevin Levin

    Cash, — Thanks for the reference.

    Elisabeth, — I appreciate the offer, but I have no time to read books that are unrelated to my research. Sorry about that, but perhaps in the not too distant future I will have a chance to check it out. Good luck with the book.

    Reply

Join the Conversation