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.

15 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Aug 13, 2007 @ 16:58

    That is clearly part of the story and this would fit Forrest into a much larger group of white southerners who were learning to adjust to a postemancipation world. The same can be said for William Mahone here in Virginia. To say that he was “reaching out” to the black community would be to miss the point that he clearly understood that to carry out his political agenda he would need the assistance of potential black voters. That doesn’t make him good or evil; what it makes him is someone who is thinking critically about how to maneuver in the political world.

    But in the case of Forrest, Aubrecht and others would have us see him as a newly-risen soul who now understood the errors of his ways. If only life were this simple. Actually, if it were this simple you wouldn’t need biographers to interpret.

  • Cash Aug 13, 2007 @ 16:53


    I think we need to take into account the fact that Forrest was a pragmatic man, and blacks were going to be voters. As Jakc Hurst pointed out in his biography, Forrest looked on blacks as commodities to be controlled. And when they became voting commodities, their votes needed to be controlled, and it was far easier to control their votes if they were willing for them to be controlled than if they were unwilling.

    I don’t see a sudden conversion on Forrest’s part. I see a cold calculation.


  • Kevin Levin Aug 13, 2007 @ 16:51

    You still haven’t said one word as to why that document should be taken as primarily an attempt at reaching out to the black community. You may in fact be right, but until you offer something along the lines of an interpretation you are simply barking at the moon.

    I don’t know where to begin in responding to your methodology of biography. Is an assesment of Forrest really to be done by drawing the kinds of distinction as you’ve done? I guess we should call this the “slice and dice method”.

  • Michael Aubrecht Aug 13, 2007 @ 16:03

    Kevin and Hank you both make good points. In fact you make some VERY good points. But MY point was simply that Forrest (in the end) was a very different person from the Forrest (of the beginning and/or middle), and that his later years open him up to different interpretations. Would the ‘slave trading, KKK wizard Forrest, be worthy of having a school named after him? Probably not. But would the man who became a born again Christian and extended his hand in friendship across the race line worthy of such an accolade? Perhaps. Unfortunately, most people tend to pas judgment on Forrest the warrior instead of peeling back the gruff exterior to see Forrest the man. I’ve read a lot of material on him and his is a complex and at time contradicting story of anger, hatred, humility, and honor.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 13, 2007 @ 15:45

    Hank, — I think the popularity of Forrest, Jackson, and others transcends state boundaries. As to why their names would be used in the 1950s as a form of “massive resistance” speaks for itself.

    As to your point about Forrest’s moment of rebirth I will leave it to others to judge. It would be an oversight for a historian not to reference such a moment, but something else entirely to necessarily allow it to transcend a careful evaluation of one’s entire life. As I’ve stated before it is not my job as a historian to judge the state/content of one’s soul. After all we get into major trouble from certain quarters when delving into psycho-history.

  • Michael Aubrecht Aug 13, 2007 @ 15:34

    Excellent point Hank. Thanks.

  • HankC Aug 13, 2007 @ 15:26

    Thanks for the nice response.

    I for one, am perplexed that southern states name schools, et al, after confederate leaders from *other* states. It does seem, for lack of a better phrase, intended as a poke in the eye (especially those named since, say, 1954).

    To be precise, why would Florida name a school after a Tennessean/Mississippian? and I also wonder about naming Virginia schools after Stonewall Jackson who, after all, is from *West* Virginia.

    Michael can certainly speak for himself,
    but a profession of ‘coming to Christ’ is a major moment in their life. Scriptually, the old self is dead and a new is born. Whether the person’s thoughts, words and deeds then show a change is in itself revealing…


  • Kevin Levin Aug 13, 2007 @ 11:35

    Thanks for the question Hank and if I have time I will write something up tonight. In the meantime let me just restate that I am drawing a distinction between how we assess Forrest in the context of civil rights and Aubrecht’s referencing of “coming to Christ.” Again, I am not interested in the latter because I have no clue as to how to assess the claim.

    For now I would keep in mind that Memphis witnessed serious racial upheaval in the 1870s. In addition, by 1875 Forrest had seen a number of business ventures fail; during that year he succeeded in contracting with the state of Tennessee to lease convicts for a business venture on an island in the Mississippi. Let’s see that was the same year as his speech cited above. I am not suggesting that anything I cite here (or even tonight) should be taken at face value and accepted, but one at least has to attempt to understand such a speech as a historical moment.

    Finally, it is interesting to me that someone like Forrest gets the nod here as a civil rights leader and William Mahone is all but forgotten. Mahone did lead a successful bi-racial coalition here in Virginia and black Virginians benefited from increased access to schools and positions on local government. Still, I am wary of describing Mahone as a civil rights leader as he had multiple goals in forming such a coalition.

  • HankC Aug 13, 2007 @ 10:37


    What is your historical explanation and analysis of Forrest’s pole-bearer speech in regards to Memphis and Tennessee culture of 1875 and in the context of Forrest’s (changging?) views?


  • Kevin Levin Aug 13, 2007 @ 10:07

    Michael, — I am interested in historical explanations and not claims about the souls of those long gone. As I stated in my last comment if you want to speculate about his soul please go right ahead, but leave me out of it. In other words I don’t care whether he ever “came to Christ” beyond a confession on his part or whatever. I simply don’t have that kind of privileged access.

    My objection to your last comment was that you took a speech of his without any attempt at interpreting the discourse. For crying out loud it was a public/poltical speech. When you say “that says it all” it suggests to me – with all due respect – that you would do well to consider what it means to engage in historical analysis.

  • Michael Aubrecht Aug 13, 2007 @ 9:46

    Thanks for the quick reply Kevin. I that think my point was that people can change for the better, sometimes later in life, and that Forrest was one of those people trying to make a change. That to me makes him worthy of our admiration regardless of what sins he committed before he came to Christ. I look forward to see how this discussion progresses. Thanks.

  • Kevin Aug 13, 2007 @ 9:20

    Michael, — That you would describe my reaction as cynical reflects just how far apart we are on this issue. I am not going to get into a debate with you as to whether this speech reflects a “saved soul.” I will leave that to the authorities on such issues.

    That said, please don’t ask me to look at any speech without any attempt at interpretation. I’ve read too much about the political climate in the postwar South to be this simplistic regarding the speech of a former slaveowner and high-ranking Confederate officer in front of a black audience.

  • Michael Aubrecht Aug 13, 2007 @ 9:09

    I wanted to re-post a kind rebuttal to Kevin over at Civil War Memory in regards to his disbelief and cynicism surrounding the notion that Nathan Bedford Forrest was an early advocate of Civil Rights. The terms “Advocate’ or early ‘Civil Rights Leader’ as I’ve seen used in some of these articles are BIG stretch, but I would say that Nathan Bedford Forrest became someone who realized his sins later in life (as many people do) and that his transgressions against African-Americans were not righteous in the eyes of his God. There is no denying that “The Wizard of the Saddle” was successful a slave-trader and therefore a ‘racist’ throughout much of his life, but when examining the general’s twilight years (after he became a born-again Christian in the mid-1870’s), it is entirely acceptable that NBF not only changed his ways, but also made a concerted effort to make amends for his past. Perhaps the best-known instance of this new side of Forrest in his final years was his appearance at a convention in Memphis of a black civic organization, the “Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association” on July 5, 1875. Forrest made a brief, but remarkable and extremely courageous speech (given his reputation), which highlighted his emerging views on the race question. He said:

    “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 have not said anything about politics today … 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 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.”

    That (to me), says it all in regards to judging Forrest. It is possible for even the most ardent of racists to become an advocate for equality after finding religion. My church supports a prison ministry, and the gentleman who runs it has discussed many times when members of the Aryan Brotherhood or black gangs become outspoken preachers themselves. In other words, look at the entire life of the man – not just the ‘popularly unpleasant” parts.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 13, 2007 @ 8:49

    Paul, — Thanks for writing, but please keep in mind that I am not the author of this op-ed. It’s not up to me to decide where it stops. Public commemorations are a function of local governments and their electoral base.

    I think it is important to distinguish between those monuments etc., that were dedicated to the history of the Confederacy and those that were carried out as political statements. The Forrest school debate is a clear case of the latter. I have no problem with the changing of the name and anyone who argues that this is about attacking the history or heritage of the Confederacy is simply not aware of the conditions that gave rise to this name as well as countless other example of flag raisings during the Civil Rights Movement.

    I agree that both sides need to sit down and talk through these issues whenever possible. It is just a bit humorous, however, given that there was no public debate about the original placement of these monuments at the turn of the twentieth century.

  • Paul Aug 13, 2007 @ 8:22


    You raise some very good points and make a strong case against Forrset. It does however, beg the question of where does (and should) it stop? “It” being the slow but sure public dismantling of the “heroic Confederacy” memory in deference to modern sensibilities.

    Confederate flags seem to be coming down from public squares everywhere across the South and perhaps they should. I do not think it will stop there however, once that is completed. What could be next? The removal of all Confederate statues and symbols from public land? Or, as your post discusses, the renaming of public buildings affiliated with the Confederacy?


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