When It Comes To a Bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, ‘The Cruelty Was the Point.’

Yesterday the Tennessee Historical Commission voted 25-1 to relocate a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest from inside the State Capitol to the Tennessee State Museum. It’s a decision that many people believed would never come. There is, however, very little to celebrate.

Photo credit: WBIR News

In contrast with the vast majority of Confederate monuments that have been debated and removed over the past few years, the Forrest bust was not unveiled in 1890, 1910, or even in 1930. It was dedicated in 1978. We can’t look at the dedication of the Forrest as the work of earlier generations whose values are fundamentally different from our own. This is not a case of righting the wrong of a generation far removed from our own.

A 1978 dedication in the world of Confederate monuments is barely history at all.

Douglas Henry, a Tennessee state senator and member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, first proposed adding a bust of Forrest to the State Capitol in 1973. Its passage must be understood within the broader context of the civil rights era. Despite the emphasis on his military career in Henry’s proposal, Forrest’s participation in the slave trade before the war, his role in the massacre of United States Colored Troops at Fort Pillow in April 1864, and his participation in the Ku Klux Klan was well known.

It should come as no surprise that African Americans protested the dedication of the Forrest bust from the beginning. It should also come as no surprise that the the proposal’s passage was praised by the Ku Klux Klan. Forrest was one of their own.

Just five years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the Forrest bust was another form of “Massive Resistance” against the gains made by African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s.

As Adam Serwer is fond of saying, ‘The cruelty was the point.’ The eventual removal of the Forrest bust should not be accompanied by any fanfare from public officials. It should be removed quietly and with a formal apology from  Governor Bill Lee to the people of Tennessee.

45 comments… add one
  • Joshua N. Reynolds Mar 14, 2021 @ 10:11

    This was a fascinating read. I just drove through the majority of TN on my move to DC and it was so troubling just how many places and things still bear Forrest’s name. I like your framing of the generational aspect of the foundation of this bust–I am currently a graduate student at American University working on a 21st Century Confederate monument digital history project, and one of the themes I am grappling with is how groups like SCV and UDC incorporate their values and motivations into a “modern” American society through commemoration.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 14, 2021 @ 10:28

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      …I am grappling with is how groups like SCV and UDC incorporate their values and motivations into a “modern” American society through commemoration.

      Sounds like an interesting project. I am struck by the extent to which the SCV and UDC identify with the past as a means to counter much of what they fear or disapprove about the present.

  • London John Mar 13, 2021 @ 3:44

    From this story it appears that for most of the 20thC white Tennesseans were pretty unanimous supporters of white supremacy and the neo-Confederate cause. During the CW Tennessee not only contributed the largest number of Confederate soldiers of any state, but also had the largest number of white volunteers for the Union army of any Confederate state. More than 100 of those murdered at Fort Pillow were members of white Tennessee Union regiments.Did Tennessee Unionism have no legacy?

    • Fergus M Bordewich Mar 13, 2021 @ 12:22

      Yes, they did have a legacy, but it was complicated. For a few years after the war they dominated the state government, under governor William “Parson” Brownlow, a staunch Unionist from Knoxville. But they were generally not friendly to the enfranchisement of Blacks, and thus counted largely as conservatives on the Republican spectrum. When Brownlow left to become a senator, his successor made common cause with the Democrats, and the Unionists thereafter lost power.

  • Craig L. Mar 11, 2021 @ 15:31
    • Reggie Bartlett Mar 19, 2021 @ 13:41

      Many who carried out that massacre were Choctaws whom the First Kansas Colored had raided a time or two in the Indian Territory as a result of Honey Springs.

  • Andrew Hall Mar 10, 2021 @ 13:53

    More on Douglas Henry, from Wiki:

    In 1987, Henry demanded the removal of a portrait of Tennessee’s former Reconstruction-era and Radical Republican Governor William G. Brownlow from the state capitol, because Brownlow had withheld voting rights to Confederate high officials and military leaders that Brownlow and other Radical Republicans in the Tennessee Reconstruction era referred to as “traitors”, while at the same time, enfranchising freed African-American males and extending other civil rights to African-Americans across Tennessee during the Reconstruction era.[4][8] Henry’s request was honored, and the Brownlow portrait was quickly removed from the Tennessee State Capitol.[4]

    In 1998, Henry made sure the new 25 feet (7.6 m) Nathan Bedford Forrest Statue would be visible to travelers from Interstate 65 by requesting that the Tennessee Department of Transportation remove brush and trees from adjacent right-of-way at taxpayer expense.[4] The fiberglass statue was created by lawyer and sculptor Jack Kershaw, who was one of many lawyers hired to defend James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin of Martin Luther King Jr. The New York Times identified Kershaw in a 2010 obituary article as a founder of the League of the South, a group known for its secessionist messages and anti-immigration rallies.[9]

    • Kevin Levin Mar 10, 2021 @ 13:56

      Thanks, Andy. It’s all beginning to make sense. 🙂

    • Msb Mar 13, 2021 @ 10:29

      Gosh, I hope Kershaw was a better lawyer than sculptor. Or maybe he hated Forrest and wanted to mock him? If a sculptor perpetrated a similar “portrait” of anyone I loved, I’d sue.

      • Fergus M Bordewich Mar 13, 2021 @ 12:26

        You will find an excellent discussion of Kershaw, his wretched sculpture, and other Forrest monuments in “Down Along with that Devil’s Bones,” an excellent new book by Connor Towne O’Neill.

        • Kevin Levin Mar 13, 2021 @ 13:11

          I also recommend the book.

          • Msb Mar 14, 2021 @ 5:05

            Thanks to you both for the recommendation!

      • Andy Hall Mar 25, 2021 @ 20:25

        Well, Kershaw didn’t get his most infamous client, James Earl Ray, sprung from jail, so that goes in the loss column.

  • Fergus M Bordewich Mar 10, 2021 @ 11:24

    Very interesting news. Has there been any change in the way that the state of Tennessee presents the Fort Pillow massacre at the site where it happened? When I was there a few years ago, the tiny museum was evasive about what really happened, opting for the fudging label of “controversial” for what was the worst war crime committed on American soil outside the Indian wars.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 10, 2021 @ 11:51

      Others may know more, but I don’t believe there has been much movement on that front.

      • Fergus M Bordewich Mar 10, 2021 @ 11:54

        I thought not. This ought to be a big issue in Tennessee.

      • Kevin Levin Mar 10, 2021 @ 17:23

        I stand corrected. A friend of mine just shared some photographs of new exhibits at Fort Pillow, which look to be quite impressive and reflective of current scholarship.

  • Yulanda Burgess Mar 10, 2021 @ 9:57

    Thanks for posting this. I have not received the official word on the outcome from my contacts. I had anticipated it happening but didn’t know when. NBF discussions always leads to Fort Pillow. Action continues on establishing a national memorial at Fort Pillow. The third HR bill was introduced and the biggest hurdle has been lack of approval from the Tennessee congressional representative. NBF continues to be a local hero to a large population. At this stage, it will not progress in that environment. This is true even with the removal of the NBF bust from the Tennessee State Capitol signally a change in how that state’s officials chose to memorialize the Civil War. Removing the NBF bust will be an incremental observation for the alternative plan that will not include the Fort Pillow NPS feasibility bill.

    • Fergus M Bordewich Mar 10, 2021 @ 17:42

      Thanks, Yolanda. Can you provide any details on the proposed legislation relating to Fort Pillow? Sponsor, etc.? I’ll see what I can find, but if you have more info, please post. Thanks!

  • Walter Kamphoefner Mar 10, 2021 @ 8:48

    I have some good news and bad on Nathan Bedford Forrest. There is now a marker on church property telling the true history of Forrest’s slave market: https://www.commercialappeal.com/story/news/2018/03/05/new-historical-marker-tell-truth-nathan-beford-forrest-slave-trade-memphis/395351002/
    The bad news is that the marker was damaged in June 2020, though it was scheduled to be repaired:
    https://www.commercialappeal.com/story/news/2020/07/19/nathan-bedford-forrest-marker-memphis-calvary-episcopal-church/5468242002/

    • Kevin Levin Mar 10, 2021 @ 8:58

      As if we needed an additional reason to remove the bust.

  • James R. Johnson Mar 10, 2021 @ 7:57

    If all the troops at Fort Pillow had been white, and slaughtered, this conversation would never have taken place. We should immediately remove the bust of Colin Powell at Ft. Leavenworth! He lied to the U. N. about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and got thousands of soldiers killed..Some of them were white.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 10, 2021 @ 8:18

      Best of luck with that.

    • David Doggett Mar 10, 2021 @ 12:37

      James R.Johnson, what in the world do base your lie on. If that many White soldiers on either side had been massacred in cold blood and prevented from surrendering, it would have been the major scandal of the war. The fact is there was never a well understood policy to kill White soldiers on sight and to take no prisoners, yet that policy was well understood by some Confederates regarding Black soldiers; and some leaders, like Forrest, either actively encouraged it, or allowed it. You have no evidence.

      • James R. Johnson Mar 11, 2021 @ 6:14

        My point, poorly made perhaps, was that had all the Union troops at Ft. Pillow been white, that would have not helped make the case for removing NBF’s bust. Case in point would be “Bloody Bills” massacre of 20 to 30 unarmed white Union soldiers at Centralia. No big deal! And I notice you have no response to that lying SOB Colin Powell’s performance in front of the U. N. and his Ft Leavenworth bust. How many people died, needlessly, because of his lies!

        • Kevin Levin Mar 11, 2021 @ 6:20

          This is still a very poor argument. I fail to see what Colin Powell has to do with a decision to honor a slave trader, Confederate general, and Klan leader in the halls of a State Capitol building.

        • Bryan Cheeseboro Mar 11, 2021 @ 7:18

          Being a military commander includes making decisions that very often involve getting people killed; and a lot of times, those decisions are mistakes that cannot be taken back. Perhaps this is what happened with Colin Powell.

          The difference with Nathan Bedford Forrest is that throughout his life, he showed no regard for African American life or liberty. I’ve heard about a repentance at the end of his life. I certainly support that idea, regardless of what a person has done; but such an action is a minor whisper compared to the shout of years of terrorizing Blacks with slavery and murder. And if he did repent, memorializing him in a Confederate uniform is a mistake. The monument should depict him in civilian clothes, on his knees, begging Black people to forgive him.

          To me, the difference is this:

          Do White people feel safe around Colin Powell?

          Did Black people feel safe around Nathan Bedford Forrest?

          • Kevin Levin Mar 11, 2021 @ 7:50

            Here is another difference. Colin Powell served the United States of America. Forrest served a nation committed to the preservation and extension of slavery–an institution that he personally benefited from before the war.

          • Reggie Bartlett Mar 19, 2021 @ 14:00

            Here we go again, there isn’t definitive proof that Forrest even ordered any kind of massacre. Fort Pillow was one of the few times where Forrest was not at the front, while Forrest ordered the attack on the fort, it was General Chalmers that ultimately led the assault. The only definitive involvement of Forrest in any massacre is him riding to the front to stop the mass killings as the battle wrapped up.

            • Kevin Levin Mar 19, 2021 @ 14:37

              I suggest reading any number of scholarly studies on this subject, including Brian Steele Will’s excellent biography of Forrest (pp. 192-96).

              • Reggie Bartlett Mar 19, 2021 @ 15:02

                I own the Wills, Hurst and Foxx/Davison biographies.

                • Kevin Levin Mar 19, 2021 @ 15:07

                  That’s a start.

                  • Reggie Bartlett Mar 19, 2021 @ 15:13

                    Yes, and whenever the “war criminal” part gets touted about this particular incident. The implication is always that it was premeditated and constantly touted about as such in bad faith intentionally, instead of a fit of passion, a cathartic release of rage, something war is always noted for being, and wouldn’t be…you know. WAR. Without such.

                    The Wills biography states that Forrest was ultimately responsible, yes his command was I wouldn’t hold him responsible as an individual for it, but Forrest didn’t “order” a massacre. Forrest didn’t “order” any sort of mass murder, it was his men who he briefly lost control of in a fit of passion, while he wasn’t even physically there.

                    • Kevin Levin Mar 19, 2021 @ 15:20

                      I never suggested that he did order the massacre. He was ultimately responsible for what occurred as any commander would in similar circumstances. This is not a man who deserves to be honored in any shape or form.

                    • James R. Johnson Mar 20, 2021 @ 11:10

                      At the Battle of Fort Pillow, didn’t Forrest give the Union troops two chances to surrender? The Union troop commander, Booth, refused both offers. The vastly superior force of Confederates overwhelmed the enemy, and it appears it was a bloodbath. Sorry, you don’t get to change the rules of engagement during the battle! The colored troops ran, as usual, to the river, turning and shooting back at the Confederates on their way, and they were killed. It looks to me as if Major Bradford was looking for an excuse to provide cover for his dumb decisions. Cry foul to cover your incompetence! By the way, who said the Union troops tried to surrender? Union troops?

                    • Kevin Levin Mar 20, 2021 @ 11:42

                      This makes perfect sense as long as you ignore both Union and Confederate accounts of the battle.

                    • James R. Johnson Mar 20, 2021 @ 11:58

                      Show me one Confederate “eyewitness account” that says the colored troops surrendered and the Confederates shot them all.

                    • Kevin Levin Mar 20, 2021 @ 12:24

                      This is like playing Whack-a-Mole:

                      The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor deluded negroes would run up to our men fall upon their knees and with uplifted hands would scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and shot down. The white [sic] men fared but little better. Their fort turned out to be a great slaughter pen. Blood, human blood stood about in pools and brains could have been gathered up in any quantity.

                      Confederate Sergeant Achilles V. Clark

                    • James R Johnson Mar 20, 2021 @ 13:21

                      Who is he? What regiment? What company? Who wrote this account. When was it written down? Was this man a a Southern Unionist, or a “real confederate” soldier? Just holding you to the same standard you ask for.

                    • Kevin Levin Mar 20, 2021 @ 13:28

                      Here is a link to the letter that it was pulled from. Clark served in the 20th Tennessee Cavalry.

                      There is nothing remarkable about the excerpt. I wrote an entire book about the Crater massacre in July 1864. Confederates wrote openly about their massacre of Black soldiers. I am sorry that this is such an inconvenient truth for you.

                    • James R. Johnson Mar 21, 2021 @ 7:13

                      Well Kevin, if this “letter” isn’t the biggest piece of propaganda I have ever read, I don’t know what could top it! You and Joseph Goebbels could have been soul mates! Let me give you the benefit of the serious doubt, and assume this piece of garbage is real. This illiterate, un-schooled Confederate soldier writes this well? He should be up for a Pulitzer prize. He says, in his opening, that he is going to “write a few hurried lines, and then writes a treatise on the Battle of Fort Pillow! Now, this Confederate soldier is carrying in his haversack, pencils, paper, at least ten pages worth, and an envelope or two, just in case he had to write a “book” about a battle. Just happened to have that on him! The Union troops were twice asked to surrender and they refused. The second refusal was accompanied by a message that no quarter be given, and there was none! On top of all of this, this young man had time to measure trenches, and to make note of the most minute details of the fort. “Blood and brains were everywhere”. What, he had nothing else to do? It’s war time! And isn’t it amazing that the back half of the letter is missing, including the signature page. Oh, too bad. Now we will never know who wrote the letter. Of the maybe 15 or 20 letters written by “real” Confederate soldiers that I have read, they wrote to their wives, sweethearts or their Mothers. Not their sisters! In this thing you present, as a letter, their isn’t a single “I love you, “I miss you”, “I wish I were home”, “I hope the war will be over soon”. None of that is in this “letter”. It reads like a report, and that’s what I think it is, probably written sometime long after the battle. And I don’t think the Sgt. had a typewriter, do you. This isn’t an inconvenient truth, it’s a convenient LIE! Where’s the letter?

                    • Kevin Levin Mar 21, 2021 @ 7:18

                      There are lots of questions one can ask about the veracity of this letter in comparison with others written by Confederate soldiers who were present at Fort Pillow. What I love about your comment is that it lays bare your complete inability to properly analyze a primary source. All you can do is dismiss it as “propaganda” for its supposed failure to reinforce your own assumptions about what took place at Fort Pillow. That makes for a pretty bad historian in my opinion.

                      I think we’ve run the course with this thread. This will be your final comment. I suggest you go find yourself a friendly neo-Confederate website where you will be welcomed with open arms and won’t have to think critically about anything having to do with the Civil War.

  • Anne Stanton Mar 10, 2021 @ 5:37

    Perhaps this can be replaced with a bust of Rev. John Rankin, a white native of Tennessee who was an ardent abolitionist. He moved to Ripley, Ohio and helped hundreds, more likely thousands, of people escape slavery. He risked his own life and the lives of his family doing so.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 10, 2021 @ 5:50

      Good choice.

  • George A. Brown Mar 10, 2021 @ 4:23

    This is good history to know.

Now that you've read the post, share your thoughts.