Category Archives: Memory

A Positive Sign: USCTs in the Public Mind

Yesterday I was perusing through the newspaper, Virginia’s Civil War, which is published by Civil War Traveler’s Don Pierce.  On p. 15 there is a short article about United States Colored Troops and the service of black Americans in the Civil War.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that the author made the correct distinction between black service in the Union as opposed to Confederate Army.  The author notes that both the Richmond and Petersburg National Battlefield Parks include exhibits that highlight the service of USCTs and it lists other sites where black Union soldiers saw action.  Here is how the author characterizes the service of blacks in the Army of Northern Virginia:

Thousands of blacks certainly traveled with the Confederate armies as well–as cooks, teamsters and personal servants.  For most of the war, it was the official policy of the Confederate government not to enlist blacks as combat soldiers, although, a handful may have served in that role.  However, blacks were preparing for entry into the Confederate army in March 1865.  Witnesses saw black Confederate recruits on Richmond’s Capitol Square

Those black Confederates may have been the ones captured during Lee’s Retreat to Appomattox.  A total of 36 blacks were surrendered with the Confederate army at Appomattox.  All were listed as cooks, teamsters, musicians and other non-soldier roles.

The passage reflects speculation more than conviction, which is both accurate and honest given how little we know about the ways in which Confederates and slaves/free blacks operated in the army.  It is encouraging to see such an important distinction being made in a popular publication. 

Some Questions About the Forrest Speech

The last two post have been about Nathan B. Forrest’s claims to civil rights advocate.  Much of this discussion hinges on a speech that Forrest gave in Memphis to the Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association in 1875.  First, here is the text of the speech:

Ladies and Gentlemen, I accept the flowers as a memento of reconciliation between the white and colored races of the Southern states. I accept it more particularly as it comes from a colored lady, for if there is any one on God’s earth who loves the ladies I believe it is myself. (Immense applause and laughter.) 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. (Applause.) I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going. I have not said anything about politics today. I don’t propose to say anything about politics. You have a right to elect whom you please; vote for the man you think best, and I think, when that is done, you and I are freemen. Do as you consider right and honest in electing men for office. I did not come here to make you a long speech, although invited to do so by you. I am not much of a speaker, and my business prevented me from preparing myself. 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." (Prolonged applause.) End of speech.

If you do a Google search for "Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association" you will get a short list of sites that include the above-cited speech.  The sites include an SCV Camp, Dixie Outfitters, the History Channel, and an array of politically-inspired websites.  I would like to know where I can find the original speech.  Perhaps the Memphis Daily Appeal or another local paper printed it following the speech, but it would be interesting to see the original hand-written copy by Forrest.  Given his limited education I find it difficult to attribute the content to Forrest.  Of course, he could have spoken without a speech, but then a comparison of transcriptions would be absolutely essential. 

I spent a little time today reading through a section of Brian Steel Wills’s The Confederacy’s Greatest Cavalryman: Nathan Bedford Forrest (University of Kansas Press, 1992) and in my mind the best of the recent Forrest studies.  What I find so interesting is that Wills does not cite this speech at all.  Given the notoriety of the speech I find it difficult to consider that he was unaware of it.  There is an extensive manuscripts list in the bibliography section, which lists Forrest papers at the Chicago Historical Society, University of Georgia, Memphis Public Library, Huntington Library, and the U.S. Army Military Institute at Carlisle.  In addition three Memphis newspapers are listed.  Perhaps a copy of his speech or an early transcription is contained in one of these collections or on microfilm.

I’m sure I’ve overlooked something obvious and I probably run the risk of looking like a fool.  Still, I would like for someone to identify the source for this particular speech. 

Another Take on the Forrest Debate

This is an op-ed piece written by my friend and fellow Civil War historian Aaron Sheehan-Dean.  The piece appeared in the Florida Times Union on March 13, 2007 during the height of the debate surrounding the changing of the school named after Forrest.  Click here for the latest.

"Forrest: Wrong Man for School"

The current debate over renaming Nathan Bedford Forrest High School has generated some unusually inaccurate representations of the past. Two issues have been singled out: the actions of Forrest’s troops at Fort Pillow, Tennessee in 1864 and Forrest’s involvement with the Ku Klux Klan.

The most authoritative assessment by a professional historian, John Cimprich’s Fort Pillow, A Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory concludes that Confederate troops did massacre black Union troops at Fort Pillow in 1864. Black soldiers died at rates twice as high as that of the white soldiers inside the fort. Anecdotal evidence from Confederates and surviving Union soldiers also demonstrates that Confederates killed black soldiers before they surrendered. Nothing suggests that this was a premeditated act but that hardly lessons its shame. This was not an isolated incident, as recent books on Civil War atrocities make plain. The North’s decision to enlist and arm black men to fight against the South enraged white southerners and Confederates responded with acts of personal violence at Fort Pillow, Saltville, the Crater, and numerous other engagements.

Forrest was the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. It has been noted that he resigned from the Klan after it became more violent. This action suggests that there was some acceptable or benign KKK. Such an institution never existed. From the moment of the war’s end, if not before, white southerners began organizing to narrow the meaning of emancipation for African Americans. The KKK, and other groups like it, sought to deny blacks the right to participate in the civic life of the South. Like modern terrorist groups, they used both premeditated and random violence to terrify and isolate a subject population. They were widely supported by white southerners, and even after their ostensible destruction by federal legal efforts in the 1870s, Klan cells continued to target black leaders through their home in the Democratic Party.

The most important date in this controversy is 1958, the year that the School Board commemorated Forrest by naming a school after him. That act came in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which required the desegregation of school facilities across the country. Naming a school after Forrest added insult to the injury already done to black Jacksonville residents by the fact of segregated schools. It stands as a parting shot in the debate over access to public education and should be repudiated today.

In recent weeks, writers in the Times-Union have referred to Forrest as a "civil rights advocate" (3/6/07) and a "humane" slave trader (12/29/06). These descriptions are historical absurdities. Slave traders made their living literally off of the flesh of others; there was nothing humane in the practice, as scholarship over the past forty years has amply demonstrated. After the Civil War, few white northerners and even fewer white southerners worked to protect the rights of black Americans. The federal government abandoned blacks to the violence and ostracism of the Jim Crow South. The above statements reflect a desperate attempt to remake Forrest in our values. This is not just an impossibility but intellectually and morally dishonest. As our society changes, so do our values. Nathan Bedford Forrest does not represent the values of our day. Does this mean that we should forget him? No, but neither should we commemorate him.

A Short Passage

As a historian, I have learned that, in fact, not everyone who reaches back into history can survive it.  And it is not only reaching back that endangers us; sometimes history itself reaches inexorably forward for us with its shadowy claw.

From The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova