That White Boy Nathan Bedford Forrest Could Jump

One of the more difficult subjects in my Black Confederates book has been trying to understand why some African Americans identify with this myth. There are a range of perspectives from folks like H.K. Edgerton, Karen Cooper, and Nelson Winbush and they cannot be reduced to one simple interpretation.

Then there is Al Arnold, who recently published a personal reflection about his great-great-grandfather, Turner Hall, who he believes worked as a camp slave for both Nathan Bedford Forrest and Robert E. Lee. Robert E. Lee’s Orderly: A Modern Black Man’s Confederate Journey is at times a rambling and at other times insightful account of how Arnold came to embrace Confederate heritage.

The book is very light on history. Other than a couple of newspaper accounts published in the 1930s and 40s Arnold offers no proof that his ancestor was associated with Lee or Jackson. He accepts without question the claims contained in these articles. The more you read, however, the clearer it becomes that Arnold is not really interested in his ancestor or even the history of the Civil War and the Confederacy beyond its instrumental value of encouraging racial reconciliation today.

Here is how he comes to terms with Forrest:

After doing my homework on Forrest, this is what I have concluded, and this is what I have conveyed to my family. General Nathan Bedford Forrest was like the one White boy back in the neighborhood that really could jump. You know, the one we grew up with that ll the brothers were friends with because, at the end of the day, he could whip your butt. The Larry Bird of basketball. All the brothers in my neighborhood loved the Lakers and the 76ers. Magic Johnson and Julius Irving (Dr. J) were doing some new things on the court that young Black boys dreamed of doing. However, there was still one dirty White boy always standing in the way. Larry Bird was that man on the court. [p. 69]

Arnold has something in common with other African Americans who identify and embrace the black Confederate narrative as a tool of reconciliation and as a means to find a common past that transcends the color line. For Arnold every Confederate general, including Forrest, can be redeemed. Arnold learns to respect the man who traded black bodies, murdered them on the battlefield, and lynched them after the war.

And if Hall and Forrest could find common ground then the descendants of slaves and Confederate soldiers can do so today.

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

Purchase your copy today!

11 comments… add one
  • Ken Noe Oct 26, 2017 @ 6:05

    “Larry’s not white. Larry’s clear.” Bill Murray, in Space Jam

  • Joseph Curtis Oct 25, 2017 @ 15:08

    Who did Forrest lynch after the war?

  • lunchcountersitin Oct 23, 2017 @ 15:55

    Sorry if I use this as a chance to link to my own blog, but:

    See this on “Al Arnold’s Black Confederate Journey”

    Also, this on some African Americans’ feelings toward Black Confederates: “Bravery, Not Slavery: Why Some Black Folks Want to Believe in Black Confederate Soldiers”

    a) Arnold exhibits a poor grasp of the issues in involved the Black Confederate controversy, and I don’t see him as being a credible reference on the subject of the Civil War in general.

    b) Some AfricanAmericans embrace the Black Confederate narrative because it transforms the men involved into heroic, brave warriors as opposed to being degraded slaves.

    – Alan Skerrett

    • Kevin Levin Oct 23, 2017 @ 16:08

      Thanks for the link. I don’t see Arnold as a credible source either, but he does offer a window into how he approaches the past as a means to achieve other goals.

  • Brad Oct 21, 2017 @ 13:19

    What does he say, if anything, about Forrest’s role in Fort Pillow?

    • Kevin Levin Oct 21, 2017 @ 13:26

      “The Fort Pillow Massacre has been a blemish on Forrest’s military record since the war and even today is a highly contested issue. It is still an issue of controvery today. I personally think that Forrest was such a great General; he would have accepted full responsibility for any atrocities under his command. He wasn’t a coward and didn’t need defending on the battlefield.”

  • Jeff Abbey Oct 21, 2017 @ 3:50

    With every generation that passes, we that marry gain a whole new family line that has it’s own unique history. As we learn about the history of this vast list of ancestors then consider them through our own beliefs of today, we will find both victims and villains. At times victim and villain are within the same person. The history of no human, no race, no religion, and no culture is free of this human weakness which has included victimizing other humans to promote our own way of life. Those who are part of this victimization of other humans are likely themselves victims of a belief system foisted upon them from their earliest memories within their families, their communities, and even within their churches.

    It is for us to think about and learn what we can from the errors of our past while striving to do better than many of those who have gone before us.

    Those that hold onto the mantle of racial supremacy are holding us back as a country and a world. The society they promote leads to grand inequalities due to discrimination, less personal security, more crime, a weaker economy, less prosperity, vast social problems, and less liberty for all.

    We are human. We will never get it perfect. We just need to do better.

    If a more tranquil, more prosperous, and just society is our goal, knowing and thinking more about our own history is part of the solution.

    Thank you Kevin for keeping the information coming and the thought continuing within us all.

  • Matthew D'Augustine Oct 21, 2017 @ 3:44

    Dude can’t even spell Dr. J’s last name correctly; I’m sure that’s indicative of his rigorous scholarship.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 21, 2017 @ 3:50

      Like I said, the book is not intended in any way as investigative history. It’s about one man trying to make sense of and reconcile the history of race and politics of racial violence today.

    • Andy Hall Oct 21, 2017 @ 5:58

      Frederick Douglass is referred to twice as “Fredrick Douglas.”

  • Andy Hall Oct 21, 2017 @ 3:29

    Yep. Al Arnold’s book is about Al Arnold.

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