Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Confederate Veterans on Forrest: “Unworthy of a Southern gentleman”

Posted in African Americans, Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on August 20, 2013

OldForrestI was looking around recently for some background to the famous Pole-Bearers address given by Nathan Bedford Forrest in July 1875 at Memphis. In his speech to the Freedmen’s group, Forrest emphasized the importance of African Americans building their community, participating in elections, and both races moving forward in peace. Just prior to making his remarks, Forrest was presented a bouquet of flowers by an African American girl, and responded by giving the girl a kiss on the cheek. This single event is sometimes cited as proof that the former slave dealer and Klan leader “wasn’t a racist” or some similar nonsense, as if that modern term had much import in mid-19th century America.

I’ll have more to say about the Pole Bearers speech another time, but if you ever wondered how Forrest’s actions that day were perceived by at least some of his former comrades in gray, now we know. They weren’t happy about it, and went to considerable efforts to say so – publicly. From the Augusta, Georgia Chronicle, July 31, 1875, p. 4:

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EX-CONFEDERATES
—–
Meeting of Cavalry Survivor’s Association.
—–
A called meeting of the Cavalry Survivor’s Association was held at the Irish Volunteers’ Hall last evening. The amended constitution as reported by the committee, was unanimously adopted.
 
Captain E. Eve said: “Comrades, we are ordered to meet to revise out constitution and by-laws; it is in the hands of an able committee ably, I trust, they have perfected their labors, but while here assembled there is one incident that has transpired upon which I wish to throw your disapproval and have recorded in our archives, although performed by as gallant a cavalryman as ever used sabre over an enemy’s brain; yet let us prove that the old esprit du corps still lives, and that we endorse no action unworthy of a Southern gentleman. I speak of the address delivered before a black and tan audience by Gen. N. B. Forrest. With what a glow of enthusiasm and thrill of pride have I not perued the campaigns of Gen. Forrest’s cavalry, their heroic deeds, their sufferings and their successes under the leadership of one whom I always considered (in my poor judgment) second only to out immortal Hampton? And now to mar all the lustre attached to his name, his brain is turned by the civilities of a mulatto wench who presented him with a bouquet of roses. We would rather have sent him a car filled with the rarest exotics plucked from the dizziest peaks of the Himalayas or the perilous fastness of the Andes than he should have thus befouled the fair home of one of the Confederacy’s most daring general officers. What can his object be? Ah! General Forrest!
 
[snip]
 
Wherefore be it
Resolved, that we, the Survivor’s Association of the Cavalry of the Confederate States, in meeting assembled at Augusta, Ga., do hereby express our unmitigated disapproval of any such sentiments as those expressed by Gen. N. B. Forrest at a meeting of the Pole Bearers Society of Memphis, Tennessee, and that we allow no man to advocate, or even hint to the world, before any public assemblage, that he dare associate our mother’s, wives’ daughters’ or sisters’ names in the same category that he classes the females of the negro [sic.] race, without, at least, expressing out disapprobation.
 
The resolution was unanimously adopted and ordered spread on the minutes.

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Geez. Sounds like they were mad, huh?

________

GeneralStarsGray

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22 Responses

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  1. Sam Collins III said, on August 20, 2013 at 2:40 am

    Andy,

    You are good. Keep up the great work of finding these things.

    Sam

    Sent from Windows Mail

  2. Foxessa said, on August 20, 2013 at 11:12 am

    In the light of South Carolina’s disappointment with the CSA constitution — it was too weak, and didn’t go far enough — that such an action would be so viewed is to be expected. I guess.

  3. terry said, on August 20, 2013 at 2:44 pm

    You call this evidence of hatred and racism? Fake is what I call it. Where is your references? This is not even good forgery work.

    And surely does not portray Gen. Forrest’s attitude. You accept one single incident of a fake newspaper article purporting to be from the Survivor’s Association of the Cavalry of the Confederate States as absolute proof of racism, or that someone is mad, but refuse to consider the one single incident of Forrest’s behavior.

    Go ahead and show your hypocrisy.

    • Andy Hall said, on August 20, 2013 at 2:59 pm

      Thanks for taking time to comment. You wrote:

      You call this evidence of hatred and racism?

      No, I didn’t call it that.

      I offer it as evidence that at least some Confederate veterans were quite upset with Forrest’s actions at the Pole-Bearers meeting. I’d never come across that before, and it seemed worth mentioning. One often reads about Forrest’s address, but not much about other Confederates’ reaction to it.

      Fake is what I call it. Where is your references? This is not even good forgery work.

      It’s real, Terry. I provided a reference and a link to a digitized copy of the article. Look it up yourself.

      You have a nice day, Terry.

  4. Bob Nelson said, on August 20, 2013 at 8:49 pm

    It’s certainly understandable that former Confederates would be angry given Forrest’s prior profession as a slave trader, his role as an icon of the Confederacy and his position in the KKK. Still, it’s not that far out of whack. Remember his farewell speech to his men. “You have been good soldiers,” he said (or something to that effect), “you can be good citizens.” Falls into the realm of John Gordon and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain trying to bind up the nation’s wounds. And I think that’s a noble sentiment.

  5. Eric A. Jacobson said, on August 21, 2013 at 7:20 am

    Good work Andy. This is a great find, but as has already been displayed by Terry, facts don’t matter at all to folks who have their minds made up. I wonder if Capt. Eve had black Confederates in his unit? Also, I had to chuckle when Eve said Forrest was second to Hampton. Now that’s rich. Here in Tennessee I hear about Forrest all the time (he was the best, etc, etc), and I often respond that as a pure cavalryman I could rattle off two or three who were better, and Hampton is a name I always mention. So far (at least among the Forrest fans), I’ve only had about three or four who had even heard of Wade Hampton. How sad. Anyway, great find!!!

  6. Jim Schmidt said, on August 21, 2013 at 10:55 am

    Great post, Andy…the Klan connection of Forrest came at an intersting time as I had just this week finished reading the short Sherlock Holmes tale “The Five Orange Pips” in which the KKK and a barque named the “Lone Star” are featured…keep up the great work. Jim

  7. Allie said, on March 23, 2015 at 11:36 pm

    Wow, they called a little girl a “wench” and accused the General of lusting after little girls. Someone dig these guys up and wash their mouths out with soap!

  8. Paul Beatty said, on May 16, 2016 at 10:11 am

    Is this really that shocking? We can’t judge those from the past by our contemporary values. I’m sure our descendents will think us just as backward.

    • Andy Hall said, on May 16, 2016 at 10:26 am

      No, it’s not shocking. Not at all.

      But, it’s common among the present-day heritage folks to cite this event as evidence that Forrest was some sort of early advocate for civil rights of African Americans. One thing they never mention is how Forrest’s actions in this case “played” among other Confederate veterans and southerners generally.

  9. gothamette said, on May 19, 2017 at 10:17 am

    Sorry, put a comment on another, earlier thread before I discovered this one.

    What on earth do you make of that Pole Bearers address? What this a true change of heart? Did he have a religious conversion or something? I have the Hurst book on order from the library.

    To me it sounds like a leader of an SS corps giving a speech to a group of Israelis in 1949. I’m shocked.

    • Andy Hall said, on May 19, 2017 at 10:25 am

      The Hurst book is the one I always recommend as a starting point on Forrest.

      I replied on the other thread, but I’ll repeat it here:

      _______________

      I will eventually write on this in more detail, but the gist of it is this — Forrest gave his speech at the end of Reconstruction in Tennessee, when the Democrats had regained the reins of political power. They (and Forrest) understood that they weren’t going to roll back things like the 14th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, so they were adjusting to the new political and cultural reality as it was in Tennessee in the mid 1870s. Very specifically, the Pole Bearers had recently been implicated in some killings, and Memphis was at that moment ripe for another flash of large-scale racial violence like it had seen several years before. (The Pole Bearers are sometimes described as a “civil rights” organization, but that’s not correct in the modern sense; they were a mutual aid and self-defense group.) Forrest’s speech was an effort, an outreach, to tamp that down, to pour oil on troubled waters. You know the phrase, “only Nixon could go to China?” That’s because Nixon have a reputation from the 1950s of being a hard-line anticommunist, so it had to be Nixon who broke the barrier and extended a hand to Red China. Same deal with Forrest and Pole Bearers.

      Forrest’s message to the African American community of Memphis was, in essence, be good citizens, work hard, and don’t get uppity.

      It’s true that Forrest mellowed some in his later years, as his health began to fail and he began to feel his own mortality. I do believe he began to be more pragmatic in his views and his approach. He was absolutely tired — tired of war, tired of conflict, tired of violence. But the idea that Forrest was some sort of civil rights visionary, or that he had some epiphany about the greater brotherhood of men of all races is ludicrous. His Pole Bearers speech is one that was unique to that specific time (July 1875) and that specific place (Memphis). Change either of those variables, and it never would’ve happened.

      • gothamette said, on May 25, 2017 at 11:11 am

        ” Very specifically, the Pole Bearers had recently been implicated in some killings, ”

        Of whom?

        • Andy Hall said, on May 25, 2017 at 11:33 am

          I’ll get to it eventually. The Pole Bearers turn up frequently in the local newspapers in the months leading up to Forrest’s speech. Memphis was a tinderbox, and (correctly or not) the Pole Bearers were perceived by many white Memphians as being dangerous agitators.

          • gothamette said, on May 26, 2017 at 12:33 pm

            Thanks. I’ll look around as well….buy if the Pole Bearers were perceived as dangerous, then that, to me, speaks well of NBF’s remarks to them. I really don’t see it as him telling them to not be “uppity.” But people’s mileage does vary. That is only my interpretation. It does strike me as being an olive branch.

            • Andy Hall said, on May 26, 2017 at 12:37 pm

              “olive branch” is not wrong, as Maher would say.

              • gothamette said, on May 26, 2017 at 5:10 pm

                I looked up stuff about the Pole-Bearers in the Library of Congress database. Interesting stuff.

    • Andy Hall said, on May 19, 2017 at 10:31 am

      As to Forrest’s religious conversion, I don’t know. No one really can know another’s soul. As I mentioned in my earlier response, there are other, temporal factors that sufficiently explain Forrest’s Pole Bearer’s speech. One should also keep in mind that that event is a single datum point, rather than one in a series of statements and actions one might expect to see from a former slave trader who’d had a religious conversion. (See also, John Newton.)

      • gothamette said, on May 20, 2017 at 11:37 am

        Thanks for the quick reply.

        Well, you know more than I do about these issues, but I don’t see the “don’t get uppity” tone that you do. I do however agree that the speech was probably opportunism. He really knew how to sail with the winds.

        As I said, I have the Hurst book on order.

        • Andy Hall said, on May 20, 2017 at 12:21 pm

          Opportunism is not really the word I’d use so much as pragmatism.

  10. Michael Lucas said, on June 10, 2017 at 12:13 pm

    What is most bothersome to me is how your blog and other writings have contributed to the movement of fallacy contextualizing against anything Confederate as if all of a sudden Americans became ideal humanitarians unified by one great hypocrisy.


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