The Moral Bankruptcy of the Sons of Confederate Veterans

This past Tuesday a House Committee in Nashville, Tennessee debated a resolution to remove a bust of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest from the State Capitol. In addition to serving in the Confederate army, Forrest sold slaves in Memphis before the war and held a leadership position in the Klan for a time during the postwar period.

Not surprisingly, among those who testified in defense of Forrest were members of the Tennessee Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans. Forrest represents everything the SCV holds dear.

The absurdity of their position was exposed by Rep. Jason Hodges (D-Clarksville) during a discussion of Forrest’s role at Fort Pillow in April 1864. No one disputes that Forrest played some role in the massacre of a large number of black Union soldiers after they had surrendered.

This discussion took place with SCV “historian” Michael Bradley:

Hodges: I heard you disputing earlier ‘how many people were massacred,’ not that there weren’t people massacred. So what is a good number? How many people can you massacre and still be honored? Just out of curiosity. You’re not disputing that the guy didn’t massacre people, you’re disputing how many. What’s a good number to be honored by the state of Tennessee?

Bradley: First of all, we do not know how many people were massacred, that is if we’re going to use the term massacre at all. The term massacre is obviously a loaded word. It was never used by some people and it was by others. For many years Forrest was referred to as ‘the Butcher of Fort Pillow.’

Hodges: Well let’s go with butcher. How many people can I butcher and still be honored by the state of Tennessee?”

This is likely not going to end well for the SCV and others who believe that such a man should be honored in such a place. The governor of Tennessee is expected to push to discontinue Nathan Bedford Forrest Day. Yes, that is really a thing.

If you want a sense of how isolated the SCV is now consider that they are set to open a brand new museum in Columbia, TN in May. The celebratory narrative of the Confederacy that they embrace, which was once widely held is now isolated to a museum that few people are likely to ever visit.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“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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11 comments… add one
  • Connie Feb 18, 2020 @ 4:44

    Still fomenting hatred for white Southerners, eh, Kev?

    • Kevin Levin Feb 18, 2020 @ 5:02

      Hi Connie,

      I always worry when I don’t hear from you. Hope you are doing OK. By the way, I will be speaking on Thursday evening at Flagler College, which is not too far from you. Hope you can come on down.

  • Fergus M Bordewich Feb 3, 2020 @ 11:33

    Anyone who has any doubts about what happened at Fort Pillow should read the report on it by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, available on line. Members of the committee visited the area and took testimony from eyewitnesses soon after the massacre. What they found was stomach-turning. Bruce Tap’s short book about the massacre, well worth reading, too, is a careful, even-handed (perhaps a bit excessive so) account of the massacre and the controversy. Immediately after the battle Forrest had no qualms about proudly claiming the massacre as a great victory, even overstating the number of black soldiers killed and boasting that it demonstrated the racial superiority of white to black soldiers. The site of Fort Pillow, a small Tennessee state park, should be a national monument to the bravery of African-American troops in the Civil War.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 3, 2020 @ 12:21

      You are absolutely right. Here is the report.

      • London John Feb 9, 2020 @ 2:52

        Something I have never understood is why confederate war criminals like Forrest were not punished after the war, with SFAIK the only exception being Commandant Wirz of Andersonville. It can’t be just due to pervasive racism, as the report makes it clear that white Tennessee union troops were among the victims of the FP massacre. PIckett hanged white southern unionist prisoners and enjoyed postwar civilian life unmolested; and the perpetrators of the Lawrence massacre were never punished. Why?

  • Charles Heagy Feb 3, 2020 @ 3:48

    White supremacy adherence is alive and well in 2020 Murika.

  • Ryan Feb 3, 2020 @ 3:38

    I’m convinced that the issue of saving confederate monuments and days of recognition for confederate leaders is now perceived as a conservative political item, not exclusive or unique to interest groups like SCV. This is evidenced by almost every single one of my Republican friends supporting monuments, which they think are war monuments; even though we live in Maryland, and in a part of Maryland that was described as “Unionist” by Jeb Stuart’s Adjutant in 1863. It strikes me as Trumpian to quibble about “Butcher” over “Massacre” and at the same time suggest there wasn’t a massacre.

  • Dietrich Schmidt Feb 2, 2020 @ 21:00

    People just want to know what they want to know. The rest is rationalizing. Just remember that half of our so called ”founding fathers” were slave owners and customers of a person like Nathan Bedford Forrest 80 years prior to the civil war, a glorified general in the Confederate Army of Robert E. Lee. As the past comes in perspective, awareness of wrong doing becomes more evident. History is the teacher.

  • mischling2nd Feb 2, 2020 @ 19:56

    I wonder how many Sons of Confederate Veterans have ancestors who fought for the Union but don’t know it because the history was hidden. Is there even one monument in the entire South dedicated to the memory of Southerners who fought for the Union?

  • Margaret D. Blough Feb 2, 2020 @ 18:05

    There was a brief point in time when the SCV, or at least some portions of it, seemed to be trying to shake off the moonshine and magnolias. They, especially the North Carolina SCV, supported the movement that brought about the monument of Gen. Longstreet at GNMP, which had to include a repudiation of the Lost Cause’s character assassination of Longstreet. I have friends who were in the North Caroline SCV at the time that the first rumblings came out of the Virginia SCV and Brag Bowling of a link with Kirk Lyons and his League of the South fanatics. The fight was long and bitter, with the North Carolina SCV among the most fervent opponents, but Lyons and his minions ultimately won. The people I knew either quit the SCV or were purged. The purges were for the slightest deviations from the League of the South dogma.

    It was tragic. Don’t get me wrong. There remained a lot of issues in the SCV during the brief period of opening where history collided with ancestor worship, but, even with all the flaws, it beats the living daylights out of an organization dominated by a fanatic with close ties to Aryan Nation.

  • Billy Wetherington Feb 2, 2020 @ 13:57

    Kevin: I spoke to the local Sons of Confederate Veterans. Nicest guys in the world. My topic was “How the South Justified Slavery, Morally and Economically.”
    But underlying it all was this feeling they were definitely a lost cause. They didn’t seem to understand the underlying fact. Seemed obsessed with who their ancestors were in the war.

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