Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Black Confederates

Over the years the neo-Confederate community has relied on a short list of narratives purporting to demonstrate the existence of significant numbers of loyal black Confederate soldiers. One of them centers on an interview Nathan Bedford Forrest gave in 1868.

When I entered the army I took forty-seven Negroes into the army with me, and forty-five of them were surrendered with me. I said to them at the start: ‘This fight is against slavery; if we lose it, you will be made free; if we whip in the fight, and if you stay with me and be good boys, I will set you free. In either case you will be free. Those boys stayed with me, drove my teams, and better confederates did not live.

Notice that Forrest was careful in the way he characterized these men. They were not at any time referred to as soldiers, but as loyal slaves fighting side by side with white men in a cause that united both races. As you will read in my forthcoming book on the subject, former Confederates almost never referred to impressed slaves and even personal body servants as soldier.

This narrative fits neatly into the burgeoning Lost Cause narrative. We’ve always known that these black men were impressed slaves, but without easy access to the relevant primary sources their status has always been easy to manipulate by those looking to muddy the distinction between slave and soldier and as a result vindicate the Confederacy.

Thankfully, the National Archives is now in the process of digitizing the Confederate slave payrolls. We now know that Forrest was paid by the Confederate government for the slaves that rode with him during the war. Like tens of thousands of other black men, these were impressed men forced into the army. Their legal status never changed during the course of the war.

Confederate slave payroll, National Archives

Most of the slave payrolls available relate to wartime transactions in Virginia and North Carolina. If you are looking to contextualize these sources, I highly recommend Jaime Martinez’s wonderful book, Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South (University of North Carolina Press).

This will be an invaluable source to those researching how slave labor was utilized throughout the war.

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.

24 comments… add one
  • James Harrigan Mar 10, 2019 @ 3:15

    I’d never seen that Forrest quote before, thanks Kevin. Obviously he was lying about what he said to the “forty-seven Negroes”, which raises a question I’ve long been interested in – why did the defeated secessionists want to obscure the truth about what motivated secession? Why did they feel the need in 1868 to lie about what they were proud to proclaim in 1860?

    • Kevin Levin Mar 10, 2019 @ 3:21

      I think the short answer is that slavery had been abolished and as a result discredited. You can’t prop up a new narrative justifying the war based on a fact that is no longer relevant. White southerners accepted the end of slavery in 1865, but they wrapped themselves even more tightly around the belief that slavery was benign and that they remained loyal right to the very end.

    • Geoffrey N. Carter Mar 10, 2019 @ 11:29

      What was the lie that Forrest told the ‘forty-seven Negroes?’ He told them the fight was ‘against slavery’, which was true as of January 1, 1863. Emancipation was not the original war aim of the Union, but opposition to the possibility of emancipation was the war aim of the Confederacy.

      • TRE ROCKENBACH Mar 11, 2019 @ 8:56

        I think James Harrigan was thinking the same thing I was – that Forrest lied when he told the 47 enslaved men that if they stayed with him and the Confederacy won, he would free them. It’s hard to believe Forrest would hold to his word, since his wealth stemmed from being a planter and slave-trader. I think Forrest also knew that Confederate laws would make manumission illegal, conveniently letting Forrest off the hook for his empty promise.

        • Kevin Levin Mar 11, 2019 @ 9:13

          We don’t really know what, if anything, Forrest said to his slaves during the war.

          • TRE ROCKENBACH Mar 11, 2019 @ 9:22

            Oh, that’s true! We only have Forrest’s claim to the interviewer about what he supposedly told the 47 enslaved men. Sorry, I missed that distinction in my initial read.

            • Kevin Levin Mar 11, 2019 @ 10:36

              No worries. I think it’s something that is easily overlooked.

  • Robert Gudmestad Mar 11, 2019 @ 10:37

    I think it’s also important to note Forrest’s language for the enslaved men — that they needed to be good “boys.” When whites in the South used diminutive words like “boy,” “uncle,” or “auntie” for adult African Americans, they were marking a clear hierarchy between people of different races. African Americans typically had to address white people as “Mister,” Missus,” or “Miss.” Coupled with the admonition to be “good,” Forrest’s paternalistic attitudes are clear.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 11, 2019 @ 10:38

      Excellent point. Thanks for the comment.

    • Joshism Mar 14, 2019 @ 12:56

      While “boy” is diminutive, I question whether calling someone “uncle” or “aunt” is necessarily diminutive. I guess if it’s used in place of a name, but I’ve known white people who referred to a black person as “Aunt Soandso” as a term of endearment.

  • Ken Noe Mar 11, 2019 @ 11:13

    The men that Forrest signed for had no legal last names, not as far as the Confederate army was concerned. Then he pocketed their pay. Hmmmm. Guess he got to payday first with the most men?

    • FRANK V VATTELANA Mar 12, 2019 @ 10:55

      Ken, Can u provide proof that Forrest pocketed the black mens pay??

      • Kevin Levin Mar 12, 2019 @ 10:59

        The pay for impresses slaves obviously went to the owner. One can assume he “pocketed” the money unless there is evidence to the contrary. Perhaps there is such evidence.

      • Kenneth Noe Mar 12, 2019 @ 17:04

        He signed for it in the document above, since they were his legal property. Do you have proof that he paid them?

  • fundrums Mar 12, 2019 @ 3:00

    Its been clearly documented that Forrest turned to Christianity after the war at the insistence of his wife.

    In 1875, Forrest was invited to speak to a black civil rights group called the “Pole-Bearers” Association, a forerunner for today’s NAACP. “Though mocked by some white people for appearing, Forrest addressed the black people in love saying,

    “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. I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going. 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.”

    I’m only sharing this to show that even Forrest had a conscience.

    Michael Aubrecht

    • Kevin Levin Mar 12, 2019 @ 9:33

      Donald Trump also claims to be a Christian. Just sayin’.

      • FRANK V VATTELANA Mar 12, 2019 @ 10:57

        Kevin, can you see Trumps heart and know his thoughts like God can?? Just sayin!

        • Kevin Levin Mar 12, 2019 @ 10:58

          Absolutely. It’s on display ever day of the week for all to see. LOL

    • Andy Hall Mar 12, 2019 @ 14:05

      “In 1875, Forrest was invited to speak to a black civil rights group called the “Pole-Bearers” Association, a forerunner for today’s NAACP.”

      The organizations were, in fact, quite different. The Pole Bearers were a mutual support organization of Freedmen and -women, and even had a paramilitary arm — that’s where the name comes from, because the men sometimes drilled with poles or pokes, weapons that were inexpensive to make or obtain, and easily hidden. The modern (i.e., post-WWII) Civil Rights Movement is widely understood as embracing the principles of non-violence, but that’s a 20th century thing, and not the case with the Pole Bearers at all.

      In the summer of 1875, Memphis was teetering on the edge of a widespread outbreak of racial violence. The Pole Bearers had been rumored to be behind one or more murders. Reconstruction had ended, and the Democrats were once again regaining political control in the state. Forrest’s appearance before the Pole Bearers needs to be seen in that light. He basically advised them to be good citizens, participate in the civil political process, and work with their white neighbors for the common good. There wasn’t anything about his address that encouraged them to press on civil rights, or to challenge the status quo as it was then.

      If he turned to Christianity at the end of his life, then fine. But it hardly erases the real harm he and men like him did to so many others.

      • Kevin Levin Mar 12, 2019 @ 14:45

        The dedication of the Forrest monument shortly thereafter must also be viewed through the lens of racial unrest. Black militia units could be found in a number of places in the postwar South, but they were all viewed as a threat and were eventually disbanded by the end of the century. Your interpretation of Forrest is spot on.

  • Bryan Register Mar 12, 2019 @ 9:01

    Also pertinent: there he was, at the beginning of the war, claiming that the war was about slavery, a claim continually denied by Forrest’s boosters.

  • Al Mackey Mar 12, 2019 @ 18:27

    Forrest’s speech to the Pole-Bearers was five years after the 15th Amendment was ratified and nine years after the Civil Rights Act. What he was doing was recognizing what had already happened and trying to turn it to political advantage. He was looking for votes for Democrats, not civil rights for blacks. As Andy’s told us, there was a specific situation in Memphis in 1875, and Forrest was looking to control that situation. There was no miraculous conversion. It was just a realist counting votes and looking to master a particular situation. Blacks were asserting their rights already at the time, and were willing to confront those who opposed them, violently if necessary. Forrest wanted to gain control of that.

    I know it’s almost sacrilege to say this to the Forrest cult that exists out in cyberspace, but there’s no evidence the man ever changed his mind. He wanted to control blacks. He didn’t want them off doing their own thing. He couldn’t do anything about giving them their civil rights because they already had them by law. He was looking to control their votes, and using the result of that vote to control them. He knew electing Democrats meant curtailing rights for blacks, and he was out to elect Democrats.

    You can see the reporting on the event here:

    http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045160/1875-07-06/ed-1/seq-1.pdf

    http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045160/1875-07-06/ed-1/seq-4.pdf

    Forrest claims that almost all confederate soldiers were friends of black folks. They had a funny way of showing it. They were such friends they perpetrated terrorism to intimidate and murder blacks. The perpetrated atrocities on black soldiers who surrendered during the Civil War.

    Gideon Pillow also spoke at the meeting, urging blacks to disband all their political organizations because southern whites were their true friends. Uh-huh.

    Forrest and Pillow were among the prominent white men the Pole Bearers invited to the picnic for peace and reconciliation.

    All historical events have a context, and this is no exception.

    The following month, Forrest wrote to Edmund W. Rucker, “our Election paste [sic] off quiet and for the Democratic party. The Civil Rights Bil [sic] has Setled [sic] the Republican party.” In that same letter, he wrote, “the white people” need “only do as we have dun [sic] all work to gether [sic].” [quoted in Brian Steel Wills, A Battle From the Start: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest, p. 369]

    Forrest had good reason to want blacks to believe he wanted reconciliation. “Living in a city whose only barbers were blacks, he had made it a postbellum practice never to patronize the same one twice in succession, lest a plot be hatched to slit his throat.” [Jack Hurst, Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography, p. 366]

    The 15th Amendment had been ratified five years earlier, and a presidential election was coming up in the following year. Forrest was a staunch Democrat and surely wanted as many votes for Democrats as possible.

    This speech is less a demonstration of Forrest as a civil rights advocate and much, much more a demonstration of Forrest as a canny pol, looking to get black folks on board for the election of candidates who would work against their interests.

    • Andy Hall Mar 13, 2019 @ 7:20

      Much better summary than mine, Al, thanks.

      I do think it’s fair to say that Forrest mellowed some near the end of his life — he died just two years later — and did take some steps to ease ease the postwar political climate in Memphis. His encouragement (again, with Gideon Pillow) of former Confederate veterans to attend Decoration Day ceremonies is another example of that.

      But fundamentally, that’s the opposite of what any civil rights leader does, then or now, which is to seek out injustice, call it out, and challenge it. Forrest did nothing of that sort, ever.

  • Joshism Mar 14, 2019 @ 13:02

    Forrest’s claim that he said “This fight is against slavery” in 1861 (i.e. at the start of the war, as he claims) is incredibly disingenuous. While it doesn’t stand up well to the evidence, the idea that the Confederacy was fighting for reasons other than the preservation and protection of slavery at least has some vague basis in fact.

    To attempt to claim the Confederacy was fighting against slavery is ludicrous – a step short of claiming Lincoln was fighting against vampires and/or was a shapeshifting reptilian from the lower fourth dimension.

    I would have loved for the interviewer to have Forrest elaborate on that claim.

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