Did “that Devil Forrest” Go to Heaven? Does it Matter?
Nathan Bedford Forrest may not be “more popular than Jesus” (you know, like the Beatles), but he’s a damn sight more popular these days than James Longstreet, John Bell Hood or Joe Johnston, officers who all commanded larger units in the field and who, by most standards, played a more important role in the Confederacy’s conduct of the war. There’s no question that, in the eyes of today’s True Southrons™, Nathan Bedford Forrest is a favorite. He’s frequently featured in the secular trinity of Confederate heroes, alongside Lee and Jackson. And like those two, in the ultimate present-day apotheosis of Confederate fame, Forrest now rates his own page of t-shirts at Dixie Outfitters.
It’s a good time to be Nathan Bedford Forrest.
I was thinking about this surge of interest in the old cavalryman recently while reading the recent Pelican Press volume, Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Redemption, by Shane E. Kastler. The concept of this book intrigued me immediately for a couple of reasons. First, I’m a fan of anyone who, with solid research and compelling narrative, can overturn the conventional interpretation of the subject, to counter what “everyone knows” about that person or event. There are few characters in the Civil War whose reputations could better use a reexamination than Nathan Bedford Forrest’s. His prewar activities as a slave trader, his military reputation scarred by the massacre of black troops at Fort Pillow, his postwar involvement in the Klan, all combine to present a picture of a man who, despite his acknowledged brilliance as a cavalry officer, sums up to be a pretty
odious excuse for a complicated human being. Civil War blogger Harry Smeltzer had a thumbnail review in of the book in a recent issue of America’s Civil War, and his summary of the book is concise:
Kastler is dealing with matters of faith here — consequently, there are more “must have beens” and “probablys” than students of history are used to. For instance, the author states that “so many near death experiences had to have had a spiritual effect upon him.” Such a claim is difficult to substantiate with a standard documentary citation, but I suppose it takes a little faith on the reader’s part. How well the author argues the case for Forrest’s forgiveness in the final chapter will no doubt depend on one’s interpretation.
Harry’s correct, but he’s being too nice by half. The documentation in Kastler’s work is sparse. In the last four historical chapters — the last chapter is Kastler’s own rumination on Forrest and the nature of redemption — the author provides a total of 28 citations over 48 pages. Almost all of these are to well-known secondary works on Forrest, not primary sources, and most of them are only offered when Kastler includes a direct quote.
The other appeal to me of this book is the very personal reason that, as a lapsed Baptist myself, I like the concept of redemption. There’s no sin, and no sinner, who is beyond redemption and salvation, if his repentance is sincere. Although I no longer think of myself as an especially religious person, it’s a little piece I still carry with me from that little country church I was baptized in almost forty years ago.
I suspect that similar notions were part of Kastler’s decision to tackle this particular subject. Kastler clearly writes to specific audience, and recognizes that his thesis will not be universally accepted. In the final chapter of the book, a musing on Forrest’s later years in the context of the Baptist doctrine of redemption, Kastler (an ordained Baptist preacher himself) takes a preemptive swipe at his critics, asserting that “the only thing more disturbing than an unrepentant sinner is the pompous rejection of one who does repent.” But Kastler does not, can not, make a definitive case for Forrest’s true repentance and redemption. No one can; the only mortal who truly knew died in 1877. Kastler’s theology is spot-on, as it should be, but no one can know another’s heart.
More broadly, this focus on Forrest’s (and other Confederates’) religiosity strikes me as unseemly, something akin to a spiritual voyeurism. Religious belief is a hugely personal thing, and should be. After all, the core tenet of Protestantism holds that the individual makes his or her own compact with the Lord, and Jesus himself expressed disdain for the “hypocrites” who make a big show of their piety for others’ consumption. It seems in keeping with that principle that Christians are well-advised not to scrutinize too closely — to judge, to use a Biblical term — the depths or sincerity of others’ beliefs.
At the end of the day, though, whether or not Forrest, in his heart of hearts, really got himself right with God doesn’t much change historians’ understanding of him. We know his words and his actions. We know the line of business Forrest & Maples engaged in on Adams Street in Memphis before the war; we know what happened (or didn’t happen) at Fort Pillow, and we know the words Forrest spoke to the Pole-Bearers Association Jubilee in 1875. There is ample grist here for the student of history; trying to peer into Forrest’s soul to read what was written on his heart must forever be a futile exercise.
Kastler’s volume certainly has a market; it will be a popular work for that subset of Civil War readers who view the Confederate cause as a fundamentally Christian one, and who seek evidence of great religious conviction in the South’s heroes — even if that conviction came to the fore long after the guns fell silent. Such readers will find great comfort in Kastler’s book, but the reader looking for a detailed and fully-documented account of Forrest’s later years might need to keep looking.
Added: As this was originally written, I “buried the lede” on this piece. My intent was to say that Forrest’s alleged late-in-life conversion doesn’t change the historical record. I’m certain that the “redemption” meme is popular specifically because it allows Forrest’s admirers to set aside much of his long and ugly history when it comes to race and slavery, and feel good about him. Even when it tiptoes into Forrest’s pre-war history, the Southron Heritage machine completely avoids the subject of his slave-trading, opting instead for picturing Forrest in a romantic idyll — literally. It’s a highly-selective appreciation of his history, and it’s wrong.