Nathan Bedford Forrest Joins the Klan
Nathan Bedford Forrest is always a popular subject in Confederate heritage, but that’s never been more true than it is today. He’s frequently featured in the secular trinity of Confederate heroes, alongside Lee and Jackson. And like those two – and only those two – Forrest has achieved the modern apotheosis of Confederate fame, having his own page of t-shirts at Dixie Outfitters.
But Forrest’s defenders often hold the line at one claim, that he was a prominent figure in the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan. Even as they struggle to rationalize the Klan of that period as a necessary counter against the supposed excesses of the Union League and other northern influences, they usually deny any involvement of Forrest in the Klan’s organizing or activities, except for the odd claim that Forrest, despite having no authority or connection to the group, successfully ordered them to stand down in 1869.
So did Forrest really join the Ku Klux Klan? Yes, he did. Was he really Grand Wizard of the group? Yes, he was. How do we know this? Because the old klansmen who were there tell us so.
Forrest’s order to disband the group is something that Forrest’s supporters generally agree upon — they’ll credit him with stopping the Klan’s violence, though never supporting it, or being involved with it — but that order makes little sense when coupled with the assertion that the former general had no other connection to the group. Why would such an order come from Forrest, exactly? Sure, he was a well-known and popular figure after the war, but there were other former Confederate leaders who ranked him, both in actual seniority and in the public’s mind. Why not Robert E. Lee, or Jefferson Davis? (Or Johnston, or. . . ?) Are we to supposed to assume these men would have no influence, no moral authority with the klansmen? No, Forrest’s order — and the assertion that it was accepted and followed — only makes sense if those men understood Forrest to have been a leader within the organization, with the authority to issue such a directive.
Forrest’s defenders often point to his testimony before a congressional investigation in June 1871, in which he denied personal involvement with the Klan, but seemed to nonetheless know quite a bit about it generally. That he denied involvement in the group is taken at face value, ignoring the fact that we can all name a long list of folks who’ve routinely lied to Congress about issues serious and silly, when they’re liable to incriminate themselves. Forrest’s fans will sometimes say he was “acquitted” by the investigation, but that’s inaccurate, because he was never tried as a criminal matter. Moreover, the committee was not charged with investigating Forrest’s personal involvement in their first place, and acknowledged the difficulty they had in getting anyone to testify about the group at all, given the secret nature of the organization and the retribution likely waiting for any member who spoke about it publicly.
To the Klan and its supporters, though, Forrest’s denials under oath were simply part of his role:
When before the Ku Klux Committee of Congress, in 1871, the General would make only general statements and he evaded some of the interrogatories. To the committee he appeared to be wonderfully familiar with the principles of the order, but very ignorant as to details. The average member of Congress, ignorant of Southern conditions, did not understand that the members of the order considered themselves bound by the supreme oath of the Klan and that other oaths, if in conflict with it, were not binding. That is, the ex-Confederates under the command of Forrest, Grand Wizard of the Invisible Empire, were obeying the first law of nature and were bound to reveal nothing to injure the cause, just as when Confederates under Forrest, Lieutenant-General of the Confederate Army, they were bound not to reveal military information to the hostile forces. The government, in their view, had not only failed to protect them, but was being used to oppress them. Consequently they were disregarding its claim to obedience.
In short, Forrest played them.
Forrest’s supporters will also cite a short address he gave in 1875 to a black Memphis civic group, the Pole Bearers’ Association, as evidence that he bore no ill will toward African Americans in general. Referring to hopes for a “reconciliation between the white and colored races of the southern states,” Forrest urged his audience to exercise their right of suffrage, and closed with the lines,
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.
To be sure, these are not the words one would expect to hear from a leader of the Klan. But neither are they the words one would expect from a man who, not a great many years before, had made a sizable fortune as a slave trader.
Engraving after a sketch by Alfred R. Waud in Harper’s Weekly, depicting some of the violence during rioting in Memphis in early May 1866. At the end of three days of violence, forty-eight people were dead — forty-six black, and two white. (One of the latter was killed by the accidental discharge of his own weapon.) Via Tennessee State Library and Archives.
More important, much had changed in the decade between 1866, when Forrest reportedly joined the Klan, and 1875, when Forrest addressed the Pole Bearers. Memphis had been the scene of violent recriminations against both newly-freed African Americans and military and civilian personnel involved in Reconstruction. By the mid-1970s, though, much had changed. The Democrats had won control of the state’s General Assembly in 1869, and withdrew state funding from public schools established by the previous, Republican assembly for both poor white and black students. Tennesseee’s Reconstruction governor William G. Brownlow, the Klan’s primary enemy in the state government, had resigned that same year to accept a seat in the U.S. Senate. A new state constitution had been adopted in 1870 that gave the right to vote to African Americans, but made suffrage contingent upon payment of a poll tax, a tactic that effectively disenfranchised most African Americans for decades to come. In short, by 1875 Tennessee was well on its way to re-establishing the antebellum social and racial order, and groups like the Pole Bearers posed little real challenge to the re-assertion of white power in the state. Men like Forrest could afford to be magnanimous with their words.
But by 1875, two years before his death, Forrest was a different man, as well. The Pole Bearers’ speech had attracted attention, after all, specifically because it was such an unusual counterpoint to his well-established reputation. It was viewed at the time as a strange event. The Newport, Connecticut Daily News remarked that “lest the colored people forget who Forrest was, the Fates so ordered things that Gen. [Gideon Johnston] Pillow addressed them on the same occasion. There can be nothing in a name, if Forrest accompanied by a Pillow would have been too much for the self-possession of any colored person.” The Chicago Inter-Ocean observed that the event marked a recognition of the rights of African Americans, “even by such bitter opponents of equality and Forrest and Pillow.” The New Orleans Times noted that “of the Southern leaders in the late war, none have been considerated [sic.] as dangerous an enemy as the famous trooper Forrest.” But if Forrest’s appearance before the Pole Bearers was seen as progress and reconciliation by some, others wanted no part of it. Describing the event as “the recent disgusting exhibition of himself at the negro [sic.] jamboree,” the Macon Weekly Telegraph quoted the Charlotte, North Carolina Observer as saying that
we have infinitely more respect for [James] Longstreet, who fraternizes with negro men on public occasions, with the pay for the treason to his race in his pocket, than with Forrest and Pillow, who equalize with the negro women, with only ‘futures’ in payment.
The Nathan Bedford Forrest of 1875 was not the Nathan Bedford Forrest of 1866.
More broadly, this obstinate denial about Forrest’s involvement with the Klan runs counter to generations of Southerners’ understanding about Forrest; it is revisionist white-washing at its most blatant, an open attempt to make the old slave trader conform to a modern, politically-correct standards of racial tolerance. But real Confederates, and real klansmen, had no doubt whatsoever that Forrest was one of them. One of the first attempts at a narrative history of the Reconstruction-era Klan, written by Laura Martin Rose of West Point, Mississippi, former president and historian of the Mississippi UDC, was explicit about Forrests’ involvement, giving him the title of “Grand Wizard of the Invisible Empire.” Rose was a native of Giles County, Tennessee, the birthplace of the Klan. Rose’s booklet, sold to raise funds for a monument to Jefferson Davis at Beauvoir, was both excerpted and advertised for sale (above right) in the Confederate Veteran magazine, a journal written by and for former Confederate soldiers and their families. Confederate Veteran was one of the major voices at the time projecting an explicitly Southern view of the conflict, its causes and consequences. Rose’ account not only made clear Forrest’s role in the Klan, but defended that organization’s reputation on the basis of his involvement, and credits to him what she sees as the group’s success:
His high standing as a Confederate officer, his devotion to his country, his noble principles and sacred honor pledged to protect the South, puts at naught forever any false statements as to the purposes of the Klan, and challenges any stigma or misrepresentations as to the character of its members, for they were in the main Confederate soldiers, and Forrest was its great leader, and under his leadership and with the loyalty of the members, the Mission of the Ku Klux Klan, or Invisible Empire, was successfully accomplished.
Rose’s source on Forrest’s involvement with the Klan is unimpeachable: former Major James R. Crowe (right), one of the original six founders of the Klan at Pulaski, Tennessee. In her booklet, she reprints a letter Crowe wrote her, describing the Klan’s desire to elevate Forrest to the senior leadership:
The younger generation will never fully realize the risk we ran, and the sacrifices we made to free our beloved Southland from the hated rule of the “Carpetbagger,” the worse negro [sic.] and the home Yankee. Thank God, our work was rewarded by complete success. After the order grew to large numbers, we found it was necessary to have someone of large experience to command. We chose General N. B. Forrest, who had joined our number. He was made a member and took the oath in the Room No. 10 of the Maxwell House at Nashville, Tennessee, in the fall of 1866, nearly a year after we organized at Pulaski. The oath was administered to him by Captain John W. Morton, afterwards Secretary of State, Nashville, Tennessee.
Rose concludes, in laying out the great lessons taught by the Klan:
First, the inevitability of Anglo-Saxon Supremacy; when harassed by bands of outlaws, thugs, carpet-baggers, and guerillas, turned loose on the South and upheld by political machinery, during the Reconstruction period, the sturdy white men of the South, against all odds, maintained white supremacy and secured Caucasian civilization, when its very foundations were threatened within and without. Second, a new revelation of the greatness and genius of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the “Wizard of the Saddle,” the great Confederate cavalry leader. As Grand Wizard of the Invisible Empire, to his splendid leadership was due, more than to any other.
Rose’s volume, with her claim about Forrest, was subsequently endorsed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who pledged “to ‘assist in every way possible to promote its circulation and to cooperate in getting this work in the schools and public libraries’ that the origin and objects of that great order may be more generally known and understood.”
Crowe’s first-hand account of the decision to select Forrest for leadership in the group is compelling, but there’s more. John Watson Morton (1848-1920, right), Forrest’s former artillery commander, remained a friends with Forrest until the latter’s death. He went on to serve as the Tennessee Secretary of State. The Sons of Confederate Veterans dedicated a monument at Prker’s Crossroads to Morton and his battery in 2007. Morton’s 1909 autobiographical account, The Artillery of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Cavalry: The Wizard of the Saddle, focuses on the war years, but includes a detailed essay on the Ku Klux Klan written by Thomas Dixon, Jr. The account is an expanded version of a piece Dixon published a few years previously in the September 1905 issue of The Metropolitan Magazine in a story on the fawning story on the group, written by Thomas Dixon, Jr., the same year as he published the novel, The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, which would in turn become the basis for Griffith’s infamous screen spectacular, Birth of a Nation. Forrest himself gets a passing mention in The Clansman, referred to as “a great Scotch-Irish leader of the South from Memphis.” Few readers could be in doubt, then, as to whom Dixon refers to in his historical precis where he says “society was fused in the white heat of one sublime thought and beat with the pulse of the single will of the Grand Wizard of the Klan at Memphis.”
Getting back to Dixon’s non-fiction, Dixon’s Metropolitan Magazine article is predictably rancid in its inflammatory portrayal of African Americans (“the lowest type of negro, maddened by these wild doctrines, began to grip the throat of the white girl with his black claws. . . “), but it’s also unequivocal on Forrest’s leadership in the Klan. It gives a detailed and specific account of Forrest seeking out Morton, his old comrade, and pressing him to be accepted into the group. Morton was, according to his own autobiography, Grand Cyclops of the Nashville Den of the Klan. Dixon’s account is compelling, in part, because it includes details that must have come from Morton himself, that describe exchanges between the two men that were not witnessed by anyone else, and could only have been related by Morton.
Maxwell House in Nashville, Tennessee, c. 1900. Forrest was sworn into the Ku Klux Klan here in the fall of 1866, and the first national meeting of the group was reportedly held here the following spring. The structure was destroyed in a fire on Christmas night, 1961. Image via Tennessee State Library and Archives.
Morton himself must have been pleased with Dixon’s account in the Metropolitan Magazine, because he used an expanded, more detailed version of it in his own autobiography. It includes much detail, and is worth quoting in full:
One of the most interesting figures in the inner history of the clan is that of Hon. John W. Morton, formerly Secretary of the State of Tennessee, who was General Forrest’s chief of artillery. Pale and boyish in appearance, he was, in fact, but a boy, yet he won the utmost confidence of the General, who relied on him as Stuart did on Pelham and Lee on Jackson. Forrest called him ‘the little bit of a kid with a great big backbone.’ When the rumors of the Kuklux [sic.] Klan first spread over Tennessee, General Forrest was quick to see its possibilities. He went immediately to Nashville to find his young chief of artillery.
“Captain Morton then had an office diagonally across from the Maxwell House. Looking from his window one day, he saw General Forrest walking impatiently around Calhoun Corner, as it was then called. Hastening down the steps to greet his former chieftain, he encountered a little negro [sic.] boy, who inquired where he could find Captain Morton. He said: ‘There’s a man over yonder on de corner and he wants to see him, and he looks like he wants to see him mighty bad.’ Captain Morton hurried across the street, and, after salutation, the General said: ‘John, I hear this Kuklux Klan is organized in Nashville, and I know you are in it. I want to join.’ The young man avoided the issue and took his Commander for a ride. General Forrest persisted in his questions about the Klan and Morton kept smiling and changing the subject. On reaching a dense woods in a secluded valley outside the city, Morton suddenly turned on his former leader and said: ‘General, do you say you want to join the Kuklux?’
General Forrest was somewhat vexed and swore a little: ‘Didn’t I tell you that’s what I came up here for?’
Smiling at the idea of giving orders to his erstwhile commander, Captain Morton said: ‘Well, get out of the buggy.’ General Forrest stepped out of the buggy, and next received the order: ‘Hold up your right hand.’
General Forrest did as he was ordered, and Captain Morton solemnly administered the preliminary oath of the order.
As he finished taking the oath General Forrest said: ‘John, that’s the worst swearing that I ever did.’
‘That’s all I can give you now. Go to Room 10 at the Maxwell House to-night and you can get all you want. Now you know how to get in,’ said Captain Morton.
After administering the oath to his chieftain, Captain Morton drove him to call on a young lady, and after a short visit in the parlor, Miss H. saw them out to the door. General Forrest led her to the end of the porch, and Captain Morton overheard him saying: ‘Miss Annie, if you can get John Morton, you take him. I know him. He’ll take care of you.’
That night the General was made a full-fledged clansman, and was soon elected Grand Wizard of the Invisible Empire. . . .
None of this will sway the thinking of those who have chosen to believe Forrest had no involvement with the Klan. But for those with an open mind, accounts like Crowe’s and Morton’s are impossible to dismiss. Folks can, and will, believe whatever they want to, but for those who really want to know, the evidence has been there all along.
 Report of the Joint Select Committee Appointed to Inquire Into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1872), 14.
 J. C. Lester and D. L .Wilson, Ku Klux Klan: Its Origin, Growth and Disbandment (New York: Neale Publishing, 1905), 27-28.
 Antoinette G. van Zelm, “Hope Within a Wilderness of Suffering: The Transition from Slavery to Freedom During the Civil War and Reconstruction in Tennessee.” Tennessee State Museum, http://www.tn4me.org/pdf/TransitionfromSlaverytoFreedom.pdf. Retrieved December 10, 2011.
 Newport Daily News, 13 July 1875, 2; Chicago Inter-Ocean, 14 July 1875, 4; New Orleans Times, 7 July 1875, 4.
 Macon Weekly Telegraph, 20 July 1875, 4.
 “Mississippi Division, U.D.C.,” Confederate Veteran magazine, July 1909, 352.
 Laura Martin (Mrs. S. E. F.) Rose, “The Ku-Klux Klan and ‘The Birth of a Nation,” Confederate Veteran magazine, April 1916, 157-59.
 Laura Martin (Mrs. S. E. F.) Rose, The Ku Klux Klan: or Invisible Empire (New Orleans: L. Graham Co., 1914), 78-79.
 Rose, Invisible Empire, 21-22.
 Rose, Invisible Empire, 51-52.
 “Activities in the Association,” Confederate Veteran magazine, October 1914, 445. The magazine frequently mentioned individuals’ involvement with the Reconstruction-era Klan, either explicitly or using euphemism (e.g., “he was familiar with the organization of the Ku Klux Klan in Giles County”); these examples are never depicted as a negative thing; rather they’re something to be applauded. As examples, see “Carson T. Orr,” Confederate Veteran magazine, December 1916, 529; “William Easley Loggins,” Confederate Veteran magazine, July 1916, 321; “John Booker Kennedy,” Confederate Veteran magazine, May 1913, 240; “Col. Asa E. Morgan,” Confederate Veteran magazine, February 1910, 89.
 Thomas Dixon, Jr. The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1905), 296.
 Dixon, 343.
 John Watson Morton, The Artillery of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Cavalry: The Wizard of the Saddle (Nashville: Publishing House of the M. E. Church, South, 1909), 338.
 Morton, 344-45.