“The slave-running drunkard and Ku Klux Klan leader, Nathan Forrest”

Although the Florida school district in Jacksonville, Florida has voted to change the name of Nathan Bedford High School there is still no word on what the new name will be. What follows is Susan Wittenberg Case’s recollection of what took place at the 1959 meeting that led to the school’s naming after Forrest. It’s important to note that the student body voted to name the school, Valhalla High.

The name that captivated us all and won hands-down was Valhalla High. The team name was the Vikings and colors were orange and white. The boys all liked the idea of the great and fearless Viking warriors and we girls were enthralled with the idea that Valhalla was the name for the Viking heaven. The football jerseys had all been ordered, signs were going up, supplies ordered, logos printed. We were all excitedly awaiting the first game of the season in our brand new junior-senior high school.

A meeting was called and when my parents returned that night I can still see their angry faces. My mother could barely contain her scorn and outrage as she described how the UDC (United Daughters of the Confederacy) had pushed through their own agenda to rename MY school after the slave-running drunkard and Ku Klux Klan leader, Nathan Forrest. The team name was the Rebels, and colors were red and grey. We even had a flag now, the old confederate cross. Officially, the school was now General Nathan Bedford Forrest Junior-Senior High School.

Everyone was in an uproar. You should know that many, many of the students were from military families, as I was, and our identity was to the United States primarily, and not to the failed Confederacy or to the south in general. But even the “civilian” kids were angry. We all felt betrayed. We WERE betrayed. Our vote and voice had been stripped away and something really ugly had been inflicted upon us. It took a long time to feel any sense of loyalty to the school and all these years later, I still have contempt for the old biddies of the UDC.

16 thoughts on ““The slave-running drunkard and Ku Klux Klan leader, Nathan Forrest”

  1. Chris Evans

    I agree with your previous comments about this situation being about the name being about desegregation than as Forrest as a Confederate commander.

    I think Walter Lord had the perfect title for all of this in his book about the Integration of Ole Miss: ‘The Past That Would Not Die’.

    But it is fascinating to read the wide divide of opinion about Forrest between people who think on one hand like the person saying Forrest was a …”slave-running drunkard and Ku Klux Klan leader, Nathan Forrest” and someone like Shelby Foote who truly admired him. Foote gives a fascinating defense of Forrest in a interesting wide ranging interview from 1997:

    http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/931/the-art-of-fiction-no-158-shelby-foote

    INTERVIEWER

    Bedford Forrest’s picture hangs on your wall. He was an ex-slave trader, responsible for the Fort Pillow massacre of captured black soldiers, and after the war deeply involved in the Ku Klux Klan.

    FOOTE

    You could add that in hand-to-hand combat he killed thirty-one men, mostly in saber duels or pistol shootings, and he had thirty horses shot from under him. Forrest is one of the most attractive men who ever walked through the pages of history; he surmounted all kinds of things and you better read back again on the Fort Pillow massacre instead of some piece of propaganda about it. Fort Pillow was a beautiful operation, tactically speaking. Forrest did everything he could to stop the killing of those people who were in the act of surrendering and did stop it. Forrest himself was never a bloodthirsty sort of man who enjoyed slaughter. He also took better care of his soldiers and his black teamsters than any other general I know of. He was a man who at the age of sixteen had to raise six younger brothers and sisters after the death of his blacksmith father. He became a slave trader because that was a way of making enough money to support all those people and to get wealthy. Forrest was worth about a million dollars when the war started, an alderman for the city of Memphis. He was by no means some cracker who came out of nowhere. All writers will have great sympathy with Forrest for something he said. He did not like to write and there are very few Forrest letters. He said, I never see a pen but I think of a snake. He’s an enormously attractive, outgoing man once you get to know him and once you get to know more facts. For instance, he was probably Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, but he dissolved that Klan in 1869; said that it’s getting ugly, it’s getting rough, and he did away with it. The Klan you’re talking about rose again in this century and was particularly powerful during the 1920s. Forrest would have had no sympathy with that later Klan. Last thing in the world was he anti-Catholic or anti-Semitic, which is what that Klan was mainly in the twenties. I have a hard time defending the Klan and I don’t really intend to defend it; I would never have joined it myself, even back in its early days. But I don’t know what you expected men, having gone through four years of utterly savage war, to do—if you expected them to come home and put up quietly with the kind of occupation that happened in France after World War II. The French Maquis did far worse things than the Ku Klux Klan ever did—who never blew up trains or burnt bridges or anything else; they didn’t even have lynchings. The Klan is as nefarious as you want it to be, but you have to understand better what they did do and they did not do. And the “massacre” at Fort Pillow, so-called, truly had better be investigated more closely. When word of the massacre at Fort Pillow got up to Washington, Lincoln wrote to Grant and said, This is intolerable, I want whoever was responsible for it punished. Grant passed the word along to Sherman. If you know anything about Sherman, you know he would have jumped on Forrest like a tiger if he’d been guilty. Sherman never recommended anything along those lines. They sent a committee of Congress down to investigate Fort Pillow and they took testimony from people who were obviously lying their heads off, talking about people being buried alive, women and children shot while pleading for their lives. If you read a biography of Bedford Forrest, you’ll get some notion of what a fine man he was.

    Chris

    Reply
  2. Bob Huddleston

    We are told that NBF favorite horse was “King Phillip”. But we are also told, as Foote here, that Forrest had 20 or 30 or 40 horses shot out from under him. Does that mean he rode any old nag into battle and saved Phil for parades?

    Reply
  3. Michael C. Lucas

    What a crock of propagandist crap. The school name change was for the preservation, honor, and education of Southern history, and a valiant Southerner not some racist politically correct challenge such as the present case of historical malfeasance by mob rule. Where in the history of the war is there record of Gen. Forrest as being a drunkard? This is however another record of a continued agenda of bigoted attacks against Southern, Confederate, and American history. Thanks Kevin your doing a great job of perpetuating ignorance.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      The school name change was for the preservation, honor, and education of Southern history, and a valiant Southerner not some racist politically correct challenge such as the present case of historical malfeasance by mob rule.

      You must have studied under H.K. Edgerton. Well done.

      Reply
      1. Michael C. Lucas

        Why is it your contention that every action if not most, by those who memorialize a Confederate Soldier, Confederate flag or the Confederacy is a wanton act of racism and bigotry for massive resistance to desegregation? Why do you trivialize the right of self determination and humanity of Confederate American descendants?

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        1. Corey Meyer

          Michael,

          Have you ever noticed how the naming or name changes of these schools or the flying of the confederate flag coinside with desegregation? I mean if it was one thing, then sure…just got lucky. But when it is a huge string of similar events…there may be something to it. It seems that you are unwilling to see that large string of events and the cause behind the resistance.

          Reply
  4. Brad

    A valiant Southener?

    Naming a school for a slave trader. Man, that’s a joke. Better off naming it for some off the people he sold off into bondage.

    Reply
  5. Dan

    Never let self-determination—-such as a student body deciding it wants a non-confederate name—stand in the way of spreading (and maintaining) Confederate heritage! ; )

    Reply
  6. Steve

    There is no hard evidence Nathan B. Forrest was a member of the KKK. I read the testimony, and no where does NBF say he was a part of the KKK? He “knew” of it but was not a member. If there is Hard evidence that proves NBF was a member of the KKK I would like to see it. I did find some very interesting things reading in the testimony, one remark that caught me by surprise made by N.B. Forrest “There were men found down there disguised, White men and Negroes both” ! Pays to do your own research, if anything, Nathan Bedford Forrest should be credited for disbanding the KKK! But the political correct contra-Confederates will never admit to it! Nathan Bedford Forrest shut down the KKK by his influence as to who he was, not by being the “leader” of the klan, really really piss poor research on the parts of people who claim he was in the klan, with nothing more than heresay of books written years after his death. I suggest we now need to rename all the schools named after General U.S. Grant for his general order number 11, or how about Gen. Sherman’s racist remarks about blacks and Native Americans. We can even go so far as to remove Lincoln names from schools for his remarks about blacks! Where does it end, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, slave owners, are we going to remove their names from schools as not to offend?

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I suggest we now need to rename all the schools named after General U.S. Grant for his general order number 11, or how about Gen. Sherman’s racist remarks about blacks and Native Americans. We can even go so far as to remove Lincoln names from schools for his remarks about blacks! Where does it end, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, slave owners, are we going to remove their names from schools as not to offend?

      You have every right to do so. The question is whether you will receive sufficient support to make it happen. Your understanding of the relevant history is suspect.

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    2. Patrick Young

      Steve, you wrote; ” I suggest we now need to rename all the schools named after General U.S. Grant for his general order number 11, or how about Gen. Sherman’s racist remarks about blacks and Native Americans. We can even go so far as to remove Lincoln names from schools for his remarks about blacks! Where does it end, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, slave owners, are we going to remove their names from schools as not to offend?”

      School boards in my neck of the woods have the power to name schools. There is a school near me that is named after the Socialist Presidential candidate Norman Thomas. A school near my office was the first one named after President Obama. The issue is not whether these names offend someone somewhere, it is whether the democratically elected school board or other decision-making entity gets enough voter pressure to change them.

      Looking at the Jacksonville meeting, I’m guessing there were not a lot of people there who identified with a man like NBF who sold black people, someone who was a human trafficker whose clients may have included torturers and rapists. Perhaps in your neck of the woods, this is the sort of person you would want teens to emulate, but here on Long Island such a person would be viewed as having committed crimes against humanity. But I understand that I was raised in a different culture from you.

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      1. Michael C. Lucas

        Dear Mr. Lucas,

        If I remember correctly you are a student at Virginia Tech. May I suggest that you take advantage of their History Department before you graduate.

        Best,
        KL

        Reply

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