Monument to Slave Trader, Confederate General, and Klan Leader Removed

Last night the city of Memphis removed monuments to Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis. In Forrest’s words, they ‘kept the skeer’ on them and it finally paid off. In 2013 I wrote this piece on the controversy surrounding the Forrest monument for the Atlantic.

The city got around legislation limiting the removal of monuments on “public property” by setting up a private nonprofit corporation called Memphis Greenspace, Inc. The property was sold yesterday, which made the removals possible. It will be interesting to see if other towns and cities make similar moves.

The timing is important. In April the city will commemorate the 50th anniversary of MLK’s assassination, which will bring people from all over the world to Memphis, but beyond that, no city should have to maintain a monument to a man who sold the ancestors of Memphis residents, massacred black Union soldiers during the Civil War and helped to organize the Ku Klux Klan after the war.

Removal of Nathan Bedford Forrest Monument in Memphis, TN

A case can be made that the memory of Forrest is more important today to neo-Confederates than even Lee and Jackson.

The removal of Forrest and Davis is a reminder that this recent wave of monument removals has yet to crest. It is also a reminder that removing these monuments does not erase history. All you have to do is look around to see that we are still living with Forrest’s legacy.

I only wish Shelby Foote were alive to see it.

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“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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32 comments… add one
  • Erick Hare Dec 23, 2017 @ 8:32

    One of the only redemptive historical actions Forrest did (other than pulling his brilliance as a cavalry general out of the context of the actual cause he was fighting for) was when he dissolved the original KKK which he helped found in the Reconstruction South.

    Other than that the actions the local government has taken in this case is to remove a piece of revisionist history propagated in our nation ever since the Civil War ended, and I applaud them for it.

  • Maryann Dec 21, 2017 @ 18:13

    This was the best news in a bleak week so far…

  • Lynette Dec 21, 2017 @ 17:45

    It’s wrong to erase history, no matter whom it might offend.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 21, 2017 @ 17:50

      There is a difference between erasing history and removing something that no longer represents the values of the community. Trust me, the history of Forrest, the Confederacy, and the Civil War will survive.

      • Reggie Bartlett Dec 22, 2017 @ 7:46

        There is much to be said about “Memphis Values”. By in large it’s drugs, or gang related. It’s a rampage thug culture there. Well, aside from Graceland.

        • Kevin Levin Dec 22, 2017 @ 8:00

          Congratulations. This is just what someone would say if his goal was not to be taken seriously.

          • Reggie Bartlett Dec 22, 2017 @ 16:14

            Well, as someone who has visited Forrest Park before, and been to downtown Memphis twice. I think I have a right to say it isn’t a good place to get caught at night. Forrest’s statue was the only thing worth seeing there, the neighborhood is a demilitarized zone.

            Would you run around Downtown Memphis and South Memphis in the middle of the night Mr. Levin?

            • Kevin Levin Dec 22, 2017 @ 16:52

              Thanks for confirming my initial response.

            • Reggie Bartlett Dec 23, 2017 @ 5:53

              And thanks Mr. Levin, you’ve established that you can’t answer a legitimate question about that city. You gotta retain those “woke” points.

              • Kevin Levin Dec 23, 2017 @ 5:55

                Sorry to disappoint you. Stay safe in 2018.

            • Jimmy Dick Dec 23, 2017 @ 6:37

              Well, coward who won’t post under his real name, maybe instead of the state government of Tennessee working to protect monuments to traitors against the wishes of local communities, it should work to fight poverty. But we won’t see that since the conservatives in power nationwide and in Tennessee are actually working hard to increase their own wealth while ignoring the reality of poverty in this nation. Instead of working to end racism, conservatives seek to support monuments to traitors who fought to maintain a system of white supremacy.

              So far, nothing you have posted has been anything but a whine about your belief system being thrown out into the trash. The trash is where it belongs because that belief system is built upon white supremacy which itself is built upon lies.

              Enjoy 2018 as more of the monuments to white supremacy come down. I suggest you get a big block of cheese too.

    • Msb Dec 22, 2017 @ 8:03

      How does the removal of one statue cause Forrest to disappear? He remains a talented fighter who made his money selling people, murdered prisoners of war and founded the KKK. Not a guy I honor.
      I support the right of any community to decide what memorials adorn their public spaces. That’s simply democracy.

  • andersonh1 Dec 21, 2017 @ 11:46

    “The city got around legislation limiting the removal of monuments on “public property” by setting up a private nonprofit corporation called Memphis Greenspace, Inc. The property was sold yesterday, which made the removals possible.”

    This certainly violated the spirit of the law if not the letter. I hope lawsuits will be forthcoming, though I have little hope that the guilty will be punished here. More and more, we live in a lawless society.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 21, 2017 @ 11:49

      There will likely be a lawsuit, but that itself argues against your characterization of a “lawless society.” Try again.

  • Andy Hall Dec 21, 2017 @ 8:17

    The heritage folks should use this as an opportunity to make lemonade. They could organize a grand procession with reenactors from all over the country, escorting the Forrests’ mortal remains back to Elmwood Cemetery, from which they never should have been removed in the first place. It could be big, bigger than the burial of the Hunley crew in Charleston in 2004. They could charge registration fees and maybe even afford to hire Edgerton to appear as Grand Marshal.

    • Jimmy Dick Dec 21, 2017 @ 10:27

      That would mean spending money from the accounts that sustain their style of living instead of spending it on themselves and their living expenses.

  • Louis Drew Dec 21, 2017 @ 7:07

    This post should be read after first reading your 2013 piece. General Forrest was certainly not someone I’d want anyone today to emulate in either his attitudes or his actions. His statue belongs in a museum where, rather than forget his place in history, it can be properly interpreted and placed in context. Huzzah to the City of Memphis…

  • Rob Baker Dec 21, 2017 @ 6:48

    Is this the one over the grave?

    • Kevin Levin Dec 21, 2017 @ 6:51


  • Reggie Bartlett Dec 21, 2017 @ 6:18

    This removal was questionably legal.

    My money is down the city is going to be sued. Maybe, just maybe, these liberal crooks will be forced to put it back up. It certainly helps that Forrest’s body was under the statue, so this also counts as a grave-site, which means any alterations had to go through Forrest’s living descendants. Which the city of Memphis clearly did not do. They had to do many underhanded things here for “woke” points.

    Shelby Foote was a far better man than Levin and his sucking up to Coates.

    • Kristoffer Dec 21, 2017 @ 7:25

      IIRC, Forrest’s body was moved to under the statue long after his burial to attract tourists. So he didn’t want to be under the statue to begin with.

      I’ll leave Coates alone (I have my own issue with him, but it’s a side issue from this post). Kevin’s comment about Foote probably had nothing malicious in it, but rather reflected that it would have genuinely interesting for Foote himself to see it, considering his comments on race:

      • Kevin Levin Dec 21, 2017 @ 8:39

        Just take some time and read Foote’s interviews with the Sons of Confederate Veterans for Confederate Magazine in the early 1990s and then get back to me.

    • Andy Hall Dec 21, 2017 @ 8:12

      We’ll see how this falls out in court.

      But I’ve seen the text of the Tennessee law protecting cemeteries, and I’m very dubious that a court will rule that the former Forrest Park qualifies as a cemetery under either the general understanding of the term, or in the apparent intent of the original legislation. I wouldn’t want to go into court arguing for the protection of the monument based on that sort of tortured legalism. It really does sound like Bill Clinton’s lawyers arguing over what the meaning of “is,” is.

      • Kevin Levin Dec 21, 2017 @ 8:38


  • David Dec 21, 2017 @ 5:07

    General Forrest was a great general with a fascinating military mind that’s why there’s a statue. The statue has nothing to do with slavery so quit your crying. And your comment about Shelby Foote was uncalled for.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 21, 2017 @ 5:20

      You apparently know nothing about the history of the monument. There is a link to an essay I wrote for the Atlantic in 2013. Start there. And my comment about Foote was entirely appropriate.

      • Jim Simcoe Dec 21, 2017 @ 14:25

        What’s most fascinating about Forrest is that after the war, he experienced a revolutionary religious conversion. He renounced all his former beliefs; describing his past attitude toward being a human trafficker as stemming solely from a desire for money and social power, not some high minded uplifting of Black African peoples. So a statue in civilian garb would always have been more appropriate. ‘General’ statues belong on their battlefield sights.

        • Kevin Levin Dec 21, 2017 @ 14:30

          So a statue in civilian garb would always have been more appropriate.

          So, you are saying that a man who sold families apart, fought for the Confederacy, and led the Klan after the war deserved to be memorialized because he experienced a religious conversion?

          • Jim Simcoe Dec 26, 2017 @ 6:08

            It’s not so much that he experienced a religious conversion; its that part and parcel was his refutation of all his warlike,racist beliefs. My point was that using tunnel vision, Neo-Confederates can ignore the man he became, the better to inflame dissension, acting all wide-eyed with surprise that anyone would object to a ‘General’ statue. At least as I’ve seen it written, Forrest even presented himself to the Black leadership in New Orleans, saying he would now act as a friend to the limit of his powers! Its just odd that THAT part of his life kinda faded from view!

            • Kevin Levin Dec 26, 2017 @ 6:12

              Thanks for the follow up.

    • Andy Hall Dec 21, 2017 @ 9:10

      I like Shelby Foote. I could listen to him talk all day long.

      I just wouldn’t bother taking notes.

  • Gregory Newson Dec 21, 2017 @ 2:59

    Shame is a dangerous messenger

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