Nathan Bedford Forrest, Race, and Memory in Memphis

Over at the Atlantic I share some thoughts about the recent controversy in Memphis surrounding the renaming of Forrest Park.  I hope the essay at least provides a bit of historical context to this issue.  Once again, thanks to Court Carney for making my job much easier.  Tennessee’s state legislature finally passed a measure making it illegal to remove monuments and/or change the names of public places in honor of military figures.  The legislation is not affect recent changes in Memphis.  Here is a short clip from the debate in Nashville between the sponsor of the bill and Representative G.A. Hardaway of Shelby County/Memphis.

The state of Georgia is now considering similar legislation.  There is something ironic about the passage of legislation by state legislatures to protect monuments to people who supposedly fought for nothing more during the Civil War that the right to make decisions through their local governments without outside interference.

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4 comments… add one
  • Boyd Harris Feb 27, 2013 @ 13:24

    The sponsor of the bill, Steve McDaniel, also serves on the Parker’s Crossroads Battlefield Association as a historian. This group was instrumental in memorializing the Parker’s Crossroads Battlefield about twenty miles east of Jackson, TN. I visited it in 2008 on a tour of battlefields in western Tennessee and Mississippi. It is one of the more pristine battlefields I have seen and contains two monuments to General Forest and his artillery chief, a fellow named Morton. Of course the interpretation at the battlefield is a glowing account of the military brilliance of Tennessee’s favorite son, Nathan B. Forrest. One marker even offers an account of how one of the Union brigade commanders, Colonel Cyrus L. Dunham, lived with his lover for over ten years. The marker explicitly informs you that they were not married but did produce children. What any of that has to do with the battle is beyond me, but at least I know what godless heathens the Yankees are after reading it. 🙂

    I hope for a more vigorous debate in the State Senate, which should be coming up in the next month. I applaud Rep. Hardaway for trying to at least get a straight answer out of McDaniel. Perhaps someone ought to let McDaniel know that changing the name of something does not mean it is forgotten. Little Bighorn National Monument did not stop telling the story of Custer when the name was changed in the 1990s, it merely allowed for other unheard sides of the story to get told as well.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 27, 2013 @ 13:31

      Hi Boyd,

      Thanks for the additional information. At some point I need to take a tour of the western battlefields. I am especially interested in the Dunham marker. 🙂

  • Lyle Smith Feb 27, 2013 @ 11:51

    I don’t see the irony if we’re talking about people who say the Civil War was fought over States’ Rights.

    Now for people for who talk about local control of certain things over state control of certain things, then sure, there is some irony there with those peoples’ arguments.

    Lets just hope they decide to keep the park named Forrest or supplement it with Wells or whomever else, cause otherwise these people will have made it more difficult to interpret their city”s history for future generations by destroying a little bit of history.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 27, 2013 @ 12:12

      Now for people for who talk about local control of certain things over state control of certain things, then sure, there is some irony there with those peoples’ arguments.

      Exactly. There is quite a bit of irony in that. 🙂

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