Tennessee Governor Bill Lee Should Call For Removal of Nathan Bedford Forrest Bust

The bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest – slave trader, Confederate general, and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan – located inside the Tennessee State Capitol building was installed in 1978. That same year Tennessee Governor Bill Lee was attending Auburn University, where he took part in parties dressed in a Confederate uniform.

Photographs of Lee in uniform recently surfaced after denying any existed. This prompted an apology, but it seems to me that the governor could go further in addressing his flirtation with the Lost Cause. Lee has stopped short of joining calls to remove the Forrest bust, instead advocating the placement of signs to add historical context.

This is entirely inadequate. There is no reason why this bust should remain in the hall outside the chamber where the people’s business is conducted. Black Tennesseans have protested the placement of this bust beginning on the day it was unveiled. Today few people will deny that the values Forrest represents are antithetical to the moral code that the vast majority of Americans aspire to embrace.

The same culture that made it acceptable for a young Bill Lee to dress up in a Confederate uniform is also responsible for the bust of Forrest.

It’s time for the governor to do what’s right and call for the removal of this symbol of white supremacy from the state capitol.

About the author: Thank you for taking the time to read this post. What next? Scroll down and join the discussion in the comments section. Looking for more Civil War content? You can follow me on Twitter. Check out my forthcoming book, Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, which is the first book-length analysis of the black Confederate myth ever published. Pre-order your copy today.

63 comments… add one
  • Robert Hand Feb 21, 2019 @ 14:51

    Mr. Levin, as a proud Tennessean, and as a proud relative of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, I’ll say that you can go to h-e-double hockey sticks, sir! There’s nothing at all shameful about dressing in a Confederate uniform, and, if Governor Lee has apologized for doing so, he should be ashamed of himself! Tennessee’s freed slaves had no better friend than General Forrest, and all Tennesseans should be about learning that and embracing the truth!

    • Kevin Levin Feb 21, 2019 @ 14:53

      I am sorry to hear that you share the same values as a slave trader, Confederate general, and Klan leader. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      • Mary Stevens Feb 21, 2019 @ 16:30

        Mr. Levin: I can tell by your name that you are Jewish. You should apologize to all Southerners since many Southerners with Confederate roots freed your ancestors in Germany. Otherwise, you may not be here. YOu mentioned slave traders i the above. I’m sure that you know that no Southerners brought slaves to the states. They were brought by slave traders from New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Delaware and Rhode Island. Also, many Jewish were slave traders and many fought for the Confederacy. The most famous being Judah Benjamin. The Confederate soldiers defended their homeland. The Klan started after the war and had nothing to do with the Confederacy.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 21, 2019 @ 17:27

          The antisemitism of slave apologists never gets old.

        • Ratherdrive Feb 21, 2019 @ 21:39

          “The Confederate soldiers defended their homeland?’

          Their “homeland” was the USA, NOT their State, and as Americans “levying war against the USA,” they became absolute traitors, by definition.

          The CSA never had legal existence for even a single moment’s time, as it is obviously impossible to secede from a “Perpetual Union,” as it was so designed to be, by the Founders.

        • Kate Steed Feb 22, 2019 @ 7:03

          Wow. I personally know people with the surname Levin who are not Jewish. Quite an assumption. And really not anyone’s business. And, by the way, quite a defense of racism. Missing one topic however: free labor in the plantations and cotton fields of the south. Enslaved labor built this country. Ready for reparations? My advice? Listen to the words and pain of those affected by racism wherever it exists. And sadly, it exists in every corner of America. If you can do something about it, do it. Don’t defend or rationalize. Listen.

          • CliosFanBoy Feb 25, 2019 @ 13:48

            she probably thinks Abraham Lincoln was Jewish because of the “Abraham.”

    • Msb Feb 21, 2019 @ 22:06

      Your ancestor made his living by selling people as if they were things. Then he had a successful career as a soldier for an effort to build a slave-holding empire. Then he founded the KKK. Being descended from him is not your fault. Defending him is your choice. I would make a different one.

      • James Harrigan Feb 22, 2019 @ 2:09

        Msb, FTW!

      • Robert Hand Feb 23, 2019 @ 21:26

        Msb, the General is my lineal relative, not an ancestor, but I remain quite proud of him, and shall. I have other relatives in whom I take no pride, whatsoever, but being related to those evil individuals is certainly not my fault, as we don’t get to choose family. I expect to see none of them in the next world, as I feel certain that they have special places in he-(well, you know)! Among those are Abraham Lincoln (spit!), Ulysses Grant (spit!), and William Tecumseh Sherman(double spit!).

        • Msb Feb 24, 2019 @ 8:04

          This reply answers nothing of what I said. You must naturally decide for yourself whether slave trading, treason and domestic terrorism are admirable activities. I do not find them so.
          You may be quite surprised by the standards of judgement in the afterlife. I doubt God smiles on treating any of God’s children as less than fully human.

    • Ratherdrive Feb 23, 2019 @ 15:53

      Slaves “had no better friend than N.B. Forrest?”
      Do you suppose that the slaves agreed, while Forrest was making a tidy profit as slave trader?

      • Robert Hand Feb 23, 2019 @ 21:19

        The 3,000 freed slaves who mourned his death at his funeral agreed, Blatherdrive!

        • Kevin Levin Feb 24, 2019 @ 2:52

          I don’t doubt that African Americans showed up to watch the funeral procession, but can you provide evidence that they “mourned his death”?

        • Ratherdrive Feb 24, 2019 @ 14:55

          Bobby H.
          What leads you to believe those 3000 former slaves were mourning, rather than celebrating his death?

  • James Harrigan Feb 21, 2019 @ 21:03

    Kevin, your original post is so obviously right that there’s nothing to add. But I’m glad that you provoked a couple of die-hard racist confederate apologists to show up – it’s always instructive to be reminded that odious people like this are still out there.

  • London John Feb 22, 2019 @ 1:22

    You’re really bringing them out of the woodwork with this one, Kevin. Keep it up.

  • Layla Feb 22, 2019 @ 13:41

    The slave-owning, slave-peddling American Colonists traitorously fought against their King and Country for their political independence in 1776. And the slave-owning Confederates fought against the slave-owning Unionists for their political independence in 1861. Surely, if Forrest must come down, so too, Sherman must come down.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 22, 2019 @ 14:25

      You are certainly free to call for the removal of monuments to Sherman. Make your case.

      • Layla Feb 22, 2019 @ 14:40

        You probably think I’d begin with the usual charges that he was a war criminal and that the soldiers under his command ruthlessly and mercilessly raped, pillaged, plundered, burned, terrorized, and murdered civilians. Nope. I will begin with something far more odious, nefarious, and sinister; Sherman, like Forrest, was a white-supremacist.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 22, 2019 @ 14:48

          The vast majority of Americans in the 1860s were, by our standards today, white supremacists. Like I said, you are free to make your case for the removal of Sherman monuments and if people flock to your cause than you will have some sense that you are making a compelling case. Best of luck.

          • Layla Feb 22, 2019 @ 14:57

            Fair enough. But if we’re going to forgive Sherman for his white-supremacy, then we will also do the same for Forrest.

            • Kevin Levin Feb 22, 2019 @ 15:07

              There is much to criticize the United States for in its treatment of Native Americans before and after the Civil War, but Sherman didn’t trade human beings, fight for a nation whose goal was the preservation/spread of slavery and become a leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Let’s at least acknowledge those salient differences.

              • Robert Hand Feb 22, 2019 @ 20:39

                Neither did Forrest “fight for a nation whose goal was the preservation/spread of slavery and become a leader of the Ku Klux Klan”, Mr. Levin. You did make this confession, which totally shocked me: “The vast majority of Americans in the 1860s were, by our standards today, white supremacists.”, but you still want to judge only General Forrest and his fellow southerners by “today’s standards”, which is patently unfair. Shame on you, sir!

              • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2019 @ 2:37

                I am happy to judge them by the standards of the 1860s. As for your shock, you clearly have not read much of this blog or anything else I have written.

            • Ratherdrive Feb 23, 2019 @ 15:36

              Layla:
              One of those two will not be forgiven for his treason. And it was not Sherman.

              • Layla Feb 24, 2019 @ 10:57

                Ratherdrive;

                The treason charge is laughable. Truly laughable. Unless, of course, you can show me where Forrest was convicted in a court of law. So please, go ahead and show me the criminal conviction against Forrest for “treason”. I’ll wait.

              • Ratherdrive Feb 24, 2019 @ 14:48

                Layla,
                Surely you do not contest that N.B. Forrest “Levied war against the USA?” I believe there were several million witnesses. Our Constitution says that that act was an act of treason.

                All CSA officers were granted pardons for their treason after the war. Which of course would make no sense if the treason had not occurred.

                And perhaps you are not aware, but acceptance of a pardon includes an admission of guilt that the transgression did in fact occur, and that IT WAS A CRIME.

                Sorry to keep you waiting; hope it was not too long.

        • Eric A. Jacobson Feb 22, 2019 @ 15:02

          You did begin with charging Sherman as a war criminal, because you listed your reasons. 🙂

          You are too clever by two. Nonetheless, let me know how many monuments of Sherman there are in America. Btw, there are more monuments to Forrest in Tennessee alone than to the three men from Tennessee who became Presidents. Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk (I’ll leave out Andy Johnson) did much more to advance the United States than Forrest ever did. Even Johnson, for all of his faults, stayed loyal to the Union.

          So as Kevin said you go right ahead and make your case against those pesky Sherman monuments.

          • Kevin Levin Feb 22, 2019 @ 15:09

            Great points, Eric.

          • Layla Feb 22, 2019 @ 15:15

            Oh dear, we don’t have enough monuments to white-supremacist, slave-owner, and Native-American murderer Andrew Jackson? Let’s put some more up then. Get right to it why don’t ya?

            PS- Did you leave out Andy Johnson because he was a white-supremacist and slave-owner?

            • Eric A. Jacobson Feb 23, 2019 @ 9:52

              I’ll stick with those who defended the United States of America. Forrest fought to destroy it. Even Johnson thought people like Forrest were “traitors” and should never again be able to vote or hold public office. Forrest and Presidents are not the same. They never have been.

              Btw, even in New Orleans, when the Confederates were removed, Andy Jackson remained. Clearly you fail to see this is not just about race. This is about Confederates and Confederate imagery. Racial bigotry was woven into the fabric of America from the onset. Intellectually honest people recognize that. You fail to do because you think there is a moral equivalency between Forrest and others of the 19th century. He falls far short of most.

              The Confederacy was an effort to destroy the United States and preserve slavery. If you want to defend that please proceed.

              • Layla Feb 23, 2019 @ 11:04

                Spare me your theatrics and self-righteous indignation. The fact that you casually excuse the vile white-supremacy and murderous brutality of Sherman reveals just how morally bankrupt your arguments truly are. If you are not offended by the moral failings of a ruthless murderer and racist like Sherman, you cannot possibly be offended by the behavior of Forrest. As for the so-called “treason” of Forrest, you should probably be aware that the United States owes its existence to treason. But I’m sure that too, doesn’t bother you in the least.

              • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2019 @ 12:41

                You clearly did not read Eric’s comment carefully enough.

              • Ratherdrive Feb 23, 2019 @ 16:04

                Well said, London John.
                We are often told that Brits have no interest in American history, nor do they have a need. Clearly not a universal characteristic, as you prove. You have a better command of the subject than 75% of Americans.

            • Ratherdrive Feb 23, 2019 @ 15:46

              Layla, neither of the Andrews were traitors against the USA.
              But Forrest. on the other hand, clearly WAS a traitor.

              Erecting and maintaining statues of traitors is obviously the opposite of Patriotism.

              • Layla Feb 24, 2019 @ 10:50

                Forrest was a brilliant soldier who fought courageously to defend his people and his country. He is the very embodiment of a Patriot. To call him a “traitor” is a farce and an abuse of language.

              • Kevin Levin Feb 24, 2019 @ 11:17

                Four million people would beg to differ.

              • Ratherdrive Feb 24, 2019 @ 14:34

                Layla,
                Did N. B. Forrest “levy war against the USA?” That is the definition of traitor. He did, and he was.

                He was an American, his “Country” was the USA, and he was most certainly a traitor according to our Founders, when he fought against it. A Patriot he certainly was NOT. He was EXACTLY the opposite of a Patriot.

                The CSA never had legal existence for even a single second in time. It was totally, illegal, and null-and-void from the start, no matter how much they WANTED it to be valid..

            • Robert Hand Feb 23, 2019 @ 21:33

              Layla, thank you so much for your reason, intelligence, and faithfulness! G-d bless you!

              • Layla Feb 24, 2019 @ 10:48

                You are most welcome Robert 🙂

        • HankC Feb 22, 2019 @ 15:14

          … and took up arms against the United States ?

        • Msb Feb 24, 2019 @ 8:34

          Well, this is a nice sign of progress. In my youth, Confederate apologists were still loudly trumpeting the so-called inferiority of African Americans while waving the CBF during massive resistance to the Civil Rights Movement. (And yelling about “miscegenation”, a hypocrisy so painful that one was driven to laugh, to avoid crying.) Publicly disapproving of white supremacy as part of skirmishing on the latest battlefront – pretending Confederates were no worse than their contemporaries or predecessors as Americans – is a real step forward, even though it requires shutting one’s eyes to nearly every nuance. If you also disapprove of sexism, that’ll put you in line with the values of e.g. Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) and Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), and right at the edge on the 20th century.
          I agree that it must have been terrible to be in Sherman’s path across Georgia and the Carolinas. It must have been pretty unpleasant to be in Lee’s path during his shorter visit to Pennsylvania. Of course, Sherman didn’t kidnap any African Americans he came across for transport to and sale as slaves in the Confederacy, as Lee’s army did.

          • Ratherdrive Feb 24, 2019 @ 14:20

            Yes, and the African Americans kidnapped by Lee had been born free in Pennsylvania and Maryland with full Rights as American citizens. LEE thus became an abject SLAVER, by definition.
            And yet some still refer to him as an honorable fellow, traitor though he obviously WAS.

      • Robert Hand Feb 22, 2019 @ 20:42

        Sadly, Sherman is my relative, but I don’t want to take down his undeserved monuments, any more than those of my righteous relative, General Forrest. It’s all history, and should be preserved!

        • Msb Feb 23, 2019 @ 22:25

          No, monuments are not history. They are celebrations of individuals who a community decides embodies values that it wishes to celebrate. Taking one down or raising another does not burn a single history book or close a single history class. It may change the discussion in a community about what values the community wishes to celebrate, which looks like an unmixed good.
          And a bust dated 1978 is about as historical as my diploma, which was issued in the same year. Interesting to wonder, however, who in the Tennessee state house thought that a bust of a Confederate general and KKK founder was a useful addition to the decor, only 2 years after the bicentennial of the USA.

          • Ratherdrive Feb 24, 2019 @ 14:12

            MSB,
            Not to mention, the practice of erecting and maintaining statues to honor traitors and their treason is absurd beyond all reason.

    • HankC Feb 22, 2019 @ 15:17

      to be fair, there is a statue of the traitor Washington in London.

      • Msb Feb 23, 2019 @ 3:05

        True, it’s in front of the National Gallery. The companion statue is Jame II, in Roman dress. Go figure!

        • London John Feb 23, 2019 @ 12:54

          I think most people assume that the guy in 18th-century dress is Gainsborough or Reynolds or someone like that.

      • Ratherdrive Feb 23, 2019 @ 15:40

        Even George III appears to have had a high opinion of Washington.

      • HankC Feb 24, 2019 @ 5:21

        to be clear, the London statue of Washington is a gift from the people of Virginia given several centuries after the Revolution.

        • Ratherdrive Feb 24, 2019 @ 13:59

          Yes, as I recall, that is true. Do you feel that it informs this discussion in some way?

    • Ratherdrive Feb 23, 2019 @ 15:32

      The Founders of the USA were indeed traitors, but traitors to a King.
      N.B F.. by contrast, was a traitor to US.

      A huge difference, obviously.

      • Robert Hand Feb 23, 2019 @ 21:30

        Blatherdrive, both our Founders and General Forrest fought against a tyrannical and over-reaching despotic government. No difference in my eyes!

        • Kevin Levin Feb 24, 2019 @ 2:35

          How exactly made the federal government “tyrannical” after a free election took place in November 1860? Let’s see, how about we look at what seceding states said in the weeks and months after Lincoln’s election.

        • Ratherdrive Feb 24, 2019 @ 14:07

          Wow. One was a traitor to the duly-elected, legal Government of the USA, in other words a traitor against us ourselves, and your eyes see no difference. Evidently, treason is quite acceptable to you.

        • Rory Washburne Feb 24, 2019 @ 21:27

          You don’t see a difference in rebelling against a monarchy and parliament with no representation(Washington) or rebelling against a government that they were not just active participants, but we’re allowed to count 3/5 of their slaves in the HOR and Electoral College(Forrest)? Seems like very different circumstances to me.

  • Meg Groeling Feb 22, 2019 @ 14:04

    Will you be looking for a second in the duello?

  • London John Feb 23, 2019 @ 10:07

    I think we need to consider not everything that a person did in their life, but what their statue commemorates. Confederate statues specifically commemorate their subjects’ fighting to preserve slavery, and as has been pointed out here, were put up as triumphant expressions of white supremacy. IMO they should therefore come down.Union statues specifically commemorate their subjects’ role in saving the nation and destroying slavery. Several Union heroes of the Civil War later became war criminals of the Indian Wars, but that’s not what their statues commemorate. If Union statues were to come down it would weaken the impact of taking down Confederate statues.
    Here in Britain we’re having a round of the perennial Churchill – hero or villain? argument, which I think is somewhat analogous. I think the only possible answer is Both, but few seem happy with that. The hero side is of course leadership in WWII, which is what his statue in Parliament Square commemorates. It does not, I believe commemorate his villain side, which was mainly in relation to India (although some of his detractors cite less important reasons). Incidentally, there is also a statue of Gandhi, whom Churchill hated, in Parliament Square. That’s as it should be.

    • HankC Feb 26, 2019 @ 10:10

      I think the memorials should be left in place, with all references to the subject removed.

      That renders it. more or less, a random artwork.

      Sand-blast or chisel off the name and what’s left is similar to the boot monument at Saratoga.

  • London John Feb 28, 2019 @ 4:44

    It’s a bit surprising that it hasn’t been mentioned that along with everything else Forrest was a war criminal – the Fort Pillow massacre. I don’t know why he wasn’t punished.
    Another point: some fans of Forrest claim his patriotic duty was to his state. But many white Tennesseans chose to fight for the United States. Do they have a memorial?

    • Msb Feb 28, 2019 @ 22:49

      You are right. Nobody should forget Fort Pillow.

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