Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Did “that Devil Forrest” Go to Heaven? Does it Matter?

Posted in African Americans, Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on February 14, 2011

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.


19 Responses

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  1. Harry Smeltzer said, on February 14, 2011 at 8:56 pm

    “Smeltzer’s correct…”

    Andy, you can call me Harry.

    • Andy Hall said, on February 14, 2011 at 9:07 pm

      Fixt. Thanks.

      • Harry Smeltzer said, on February 14, 2011 at 9:27 pm

        For what it’s worth, the review was something fo a “sticky wicket”. My reviews for ACW are very brief, informational reviews. I try to give folks an idea of whether or not they’ll be interested in the book. So I focus on what I’d normally look at if I was considering a book for purchase – sources, notes, premise, conclusion. It’s hard to be too critical in 150 words.

  2. amhendrick said, on February 14, 2011 at 9:06 pm

    Even if you take Forrest’s repentance as genuine, it doesn’t make sense to honor him specifically with respect to the things from which he supposedly repented. If you buy a T-shirt of Forrest the “Confederate Legend” it seems that you are promoting the unrepentant Forrest.

    • Andy Hall said, on February 14, 2011 at 9:48 pm

      I’m pretty sure that “unrepentant” is a big part of his appeal. At the same time, I suspect that the folks buying the shirts are highly selective in what they choose to remember (and honor) Forrest for.

  3. Mark said, on February 14, 2011 at 10:08 pm

    There is no question the guy was a great soldier. At the time, anyone willing to go fast, be daring, and hit hard, were going to do well or die. He was very very good at it.

    But his actions before the war show what he was really about, as a man.

    Jeff Davis said all cruel men are cowards. I believe that. And Forrest was a very cruel man.

  4. corkingiron said, on February 14, 2011 at 11:00 pm

    Can you think of another conflict so wrapped up in Christian mysticism? Do the dead of Paschaendale or the Somme – Belleau Wood or Vimy Ridge – merit entrance to Heaven? Will future generations debate whether or not the men who massacred civilians at My Lai be “redeemable”? This is such a curious phenomenon to me – are Americans still – after all this time – seeking absolution (with apologies for the creeping Catholicism of that last remark….)

  5. Mark said, on February 14, 2011 at 11:01 pm

    As to your statement that the Southern “cause was a Christian one” that is profoundly interesting! In fact, you are right. The religious statements by nearly everyone — Lee, Davis, Jackson, Stephens, Toombs, — are just ubiquitous, unending.

    See the sermons about the time of secession — by Reverend Palmer,widely considered the most able Southern preacher . He declared that the purpose of the war about to start was God’s will ” to conserve and perpetuate slavery”.

    Davis, for example, said slavery was “a divine gift”. I could list 50 quotes by Southern leaders to that effect.

    What is telling, however, is after Appomattox, not a single solitary one of these men, ever said such a thing again. Not one. Not in public, not in private. It was as if a light switch had been thrown — and together, collectively, they simply never mentioned that aspect of their faith again.

    As one genius said “The God of slavery died at Appomattox”. All the other beliefs continued — unabated, unaffected. Whites were superior, blacks were inferior, that was a given. Whites should rule — blacks should be the lowest rung — that belief continued. Every belief they had before the war, they had after – except the one about slavery being ordained by God.

    Where did that go? No one told them they could not believe that. No one said a word about it. No one required them to even tone down that believe that God told them to enslave.

    Were they afraid that if they continued to boast, as they had before, that God ordained slavery, they would have no choice but to back up their actions with violence to defend God’s plan to enslave blacks. Probably.

    The only logical answer to why they suddenly and absolutely dropped this tenet of God ordaining slavery, is that they never believed in the first place. Not really. They said it, they used it as the excuse, they wrote it, they acted on it, but clearly, they knew it was nonsense. Because if they really believed it, if they really thought God told them to enslave, they would have said so even after Appomatix.

    Not one of them ever claimed they had a vision that God changed his mind, or anything like that. They just avoided that whole “GOD ORDAINED” thing, no doubt out of embarrassment more than anything else.

    They were not timid men. The all continued to say what they believed. Yet they never said that again, about God ordaining slavery.

    Draw whatever conclusion you want from that, but I take it that they never believed it in the first place. They knew it was just an excuse to justify it to their wives and to society, but they never believed it.

    You don’t give up a real belief just because your leader surrendered. You continue to believe it, you continue to speak of it at least in private– if you believed it. They always said their cause of secession was right. And they said that, because that is what they believed.

    But they never again said slavery was ordained by God — because they knew that was just an excuse the entire time. And that is a fascinating reality about Southern leaders before the war — they didn’t believe it themselves.

    • Andy Hall said, on February 15, 2011 at 7:40 am

      Just to be clear, I was referring to those today who have utterly conflated the Confederate cause with their Christian beliefs, so that the two are inextricably linked. That’s troublesome for me, particularly since the North was every bit as convinced their cause was righteous and blessed by God.

  6. Dennis said, on February 15, 2011 at 8:43 am

    Lets be clear – anyone who says that vile low life had repented, is making up lies. After the war, what did this repented animal do? The animal got right back into legal slavery of blacks again! He setup a prison farm on an island and won a contract to take black “criminals” (read any black in the south that got on the wrong side of any white) and put them under a classical slave like environment and thru terrible forced labor, made profits off their enslaved labor (that the State enforced.)

    Of course that vile low life quit the KKK, he risked loosing his money making legal slave farm if the North came down on him. Please, this low life was far, far worse than any one you sited and in fact, the animal never was, nor ever really tried to become human. He was the worse that humans have ever offered and only during WWII under Hitler were there as bad and (too often) even worse examples of evil – repented? Please! That is a joke.

    • Andy Hall said, on February 15, 2011 at 9:02 am

      Thanks for taking time to comment. My original post was not clear — I “buried the lede,” as they say — but my intent was to say that Forrest’s 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, opting instead for picturing Forrest in a romantic idyll — literally. It’s a highly-selective appreciation of his history, and it’s wrong.

  7. Corey Meyer said, on February 15, 2011 at 8:54 pm

    I am still trying to square all of this with the Dixie Outfitter shirt of Forrest and the black confederates!

    Holy Bad History Batman!

    Nice article as usual Andy.

  8. Rob Wick said, on February 16, 2011 at 9:10 am

    One thing that interests me in this issue (especially as one who leans toward atheism) is the notion that we can “forgive” Forrest for his actions because of his supposed repentant nature toward the end of his life. I wonder, though, did Forrest try to apologize to the victims of his actions or their families, or was he trying to get general absolution from everyone else? Simon Wiesenthal wrote a book called “The Sunflower” in which a German who is dying asks Wiesenthal to forgive him for actions that had nothing to do with Wiesenthal. Wiesenthal, who is disgusted by the request, is unable to do so, partly because of the belief in Judaism that for true forgiveness, one must sincerely apologize to the person affected. The German soldier wanted to apologize to any Jew as proof of his sincerity, not realizing that by doing so he was insincere because of his view that any Jew would do.

    Christianity holds that if a person sincerely repents in the eyes of God, then he or she can be forgiven. Judaism says that the only path to true forgiveness comes when one atones to the person one harmed. But where does that leave one who is not religious? Must we still accept Forrest’s so-called conversion, when, as you rightly point out, we don’t know what was in his heart? Can we base history, which is rooted in tactile evidence, on faith, which, by it’s very term, isn’t?


    • Andy Hall said, on February 16, 2011 at 9:35 am

      Rob, thanks for a very thoughtful comment. I was aware of that important distinction in Judaism, that an apology has to be made directly to the person who was harmed. One person cannot forgive another for harm inflicted on a third party. Seems like a pretty good policy to me.

      Protestant theology (and specifically Southern Baptist, as I grew up with and Kastler argues) holds that there’s no sin too great, and no sinner too far gone, to be beyond redemption and salvation in the eyes of the Lord. But that says nothing about the individual’s relationship with his fellow men, and that’s where Forrest falls short, in my view.

      His short 1875 address to a black organization in Memphis, the Order of Pole-Bearers, is usually cited as evidence of Forrest’s conversion and redemption, and “proof” that he “wasn’t a racist.” In my view, that reads far too much into his words. To me, his address comes across as that of an old man, cognizant that his life is nearing an end, trying to make peace with a new order that he neither wanted or supported. It’s very much a we’re-looking-forward-not-back sort of talk. There’s no acknowledgment of his own very serious misdeeds — as they would have been recognized by his African American audience that day — and no expression of regret, much less apology.

      I don’t know if Forrest really repented his actions in his thoughts and prayers; no man knows another man’s heart. But I haven’t seen any real evidence that he did so publicly, either.

      You asked, “Must we still accept Forrest’s so-called conversion, when, as you rightly point out, we don’t know what was in his heart? Can we base history, which is rooted in tactile evidence, on faith, which, by it’s very term, isn’t?” The answers here, in my view, are no, and no. Historians have to base their analysis on words and deeds as reflected in the historical record. Certainly Forrest’s beliefs and attitudes toward religion are of interest to his biographers because those things make up who he was as a human being. But speculating on the fate of his soul and other, intangible matters of his faith is an ultimately useless exercise that gets us no closer to the historical realities of his life.

      Added: You said, “One thing that interests me in this issue (especially as one who leans toward atheism) is the notion that we can “forgive” Forrest for his actions because of his supposed repentant nature toward the end of his life.” Forgiveness is certainly a Christian virtue — perhaps the greatest of them — but I don’t think it’s appropriate for some to argue, as some will, that because Forrest supposedly got himself right with God, he and his legacy don’t have to answer for a lot bad deeds down here. It’s awfully presumptuous of Forrest’s admirers to suggest that others, particularly those descended from people he directly harmed, are somehow obligated overlook a lifetime of bad deeds because supposedly repented for them in his heart.

  9. Foxessa said, on February 18, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    Is this right?

    If Forrest hadn’t repented his actions in his life were, well, wrong, evil perhaps. But if he repents then those actions are praiseworthy and he should be honored for them.

    Is this right?

    • Andy Hall said, on February 18, 2011 at 1:58 pm

      Foxessa, thanks for your comment. That seems to be close to the thinking that some people have — at least that, if he got himself right with God in the end, then perhaps we shouldn’t judge him so harshly.

      It’s really just a rationalization that allows present-day folks to ignore all the odious aspects of Forrest’s long career, and hail him as a hero without having to address directly the ugly stuff. One sees this sort of rationalization used a lot to excuse bad behavior — “he means well,” “she’s a good Christian,” etc. It’s one thing when used to excuse an intemperate remark or having a little too much to drink at a party; it’s entirely another to use that to excuse a lifetime of bad acts.

      I get the theology behind it, but it’s still just making excuses for someone who did a lot of really bad stuff.

  10. Tom Woosley said, on June 25, 2015 at 7:14 pm

    I realize that this is old but the comments regarding Forrest’s repentance got my attention. I don’t think anyone would imply that his Christian conversion erased any of the events from history. Only God knows if he truly repented in his heart of his prior sins and it is God that he will have to answer to on the day of judgement. It would be a very sad day if he died without making that a true conversion in his life. While he may not have publicly acknowledged his sins other that within the walls of a church building, it at least appears that he made a change in his life which is what repentance is. He separated himself from the Klan when they migrated to racism and violence and even tried to disband it in 1869. He also spoke before the group we now know as the NAACP and 3000 blacks attended his funeral. That at least to me indicates that he was a changed man of some sort.
    I have not read this book but the sudden rush to political correctness over a flag and statues of dead soldiers has given me incentive to reread some of my past books and this is one that I might add to the collection.

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