Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Forrest on Decoration Day, 1875

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on May 24, 2015

Today, Nathan Bedford Forrest is more popular than ever among the fans of the Confederacy. No doubt that’s because he’s come to represent unyielding defiance, whether in victory or defeat, in the face of the Yankee enemy. More than any other Confederate officer — certainly more than someone like Lee — Forrest is the modern face of the unreconstructed rebel, the pit bull of the Lost Cause.

Unfortunately, that image doesn’t entirely square with reality — at least near the end of the general’s life. From the Galveston Daily News, June 3, 1875:

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In Memphis, last week, a number of Federal officers and soldiers participated at the decoration of Confederate graves. As a result, Generals [Gideon Johnston] Pillow and Forrest addressed a letter through the Memphis papers to surviving Confederate soldiers and veterans of 1812, Florida and Mexico, requesting them to participate in the Federal ceremonies on Sunday last [i.e., on Memorial Day]. From this letter the subjoined is extracted:

“However much we differed with them while public enemies, and were at war, we must admit that they fought gallantly for the preservation of the government which we fought to destroy, which is now ours, was that of our fathers, and must be that of our children. Though our love for that government was for a while supplanted by the exasperation springing out of a sense of violated rights and the conflict of battle, yet our love for free government, justly administered, has not perished, and must grow strong in the hearts of brave men who have learned to appreciate the noble qualities of the true soldier.

“Let us all, then, join their comrades who live, in spreading flowers over the graves of these dead Federal soldiers, before the whole American people, as a peace offering to the nation, as a testimonial of our respect for their devotion to duty, and as a tribute from patriots, as we have ever been, to the great Republic, and in honor of the flag against which we fought, and under which they fell, nobly maintaining the honor of that flag. It is our duty to honor the government for which they died, and if called upon, to fight for the flag we could not conquer.”

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Forrest offers a lesson that some of his most ardent, present-day fans seem determined to ignore

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This post originally appeared at on the Civil War Monitor‘s Front Line blog, May 27, 2012.

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9 Responses

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  1. Jimmy Dick said, on May 24, 2015 at 11:07 am

    One of the themes I associate with Nathan Bedford Forrest is that of redemption. He was a very good leader of men no matter what the cause was he was fighting for. Yet, in the end it seems that Forrest rejected that cause and even began to advocate equality of races. Had he not died when he did who knows what good he might have accomplished.

    The heritage types avoid any mention of what Forrest said after 1871. They need an image of somebody who embodied the myth, not the reality. The fact that they do this shows they’re not interested in history. They just want the myth. The ironic part of that is in choosing to only remember the negative qualities of Forrest, those are the ones that people associate with him, not the part where he would reject inequality. As a result, due to the way the heritage types have constructed the partial memory of Forrest, his statues, his pictures, his name is being removed from locations across the US.

    They might remain if Forrest were to be remembered for everything he did and the memory show that Forrest embodied a man who was capable of change, who was capable of repenting his mistakes, who was able to reject white supremacy, and was able to embrace black men and women as his equals. However, if the heritage types were to do that, it would mean they would have to reject the myth they cherish.

    • Andy Hall said, on May 24, 2015 at 11:13 am

      “. . . who was able to reject white supremacy, and was able to embrace black men and women as his equals.”

      The heritage folks frequently mention his appearance before the Pole Bearers as evidence of his feelings about equality and racial harmony, but it was a one-off, and calculated to address a situation very specific to that time and place. Don’t read too much into it.

      • Jimmy Dick said, on May 24, 2015 at 6:06 pm

        I would be interested to learn more about this. What was the situation? Granted, I do not know a whole lot about Forrest after the war, but a lot of that has to do with the way he has been remembered by a lot of people. I may just be seeing the surface of something that is a lot more complicated. Considering the time period, everything was a lot more complicated.

  2. Ken Parsons said, on May 24, 2015 at 1:30 pm

    So, What’s wrong with him making that statement in this situation?

    • Andy Hall said, on May 24, 2015 at 1:35 pm

      His address to the Pole-Beaers? Not that it’s “wrong,” but it should be understood in the context it was given — it’s not a speech Forrest likely would have made a few months before or after, or to a different group. As I said, it was very specific to the circumstances of Memphis in the summer of 1875.

      • Foxessa said, on June 2, 2015 at 10:21 am

        Forrest made his fortune via slave trading. He oversaw and encouraged the massacre of surrendered black Union troops, and even black civilians, as well as black women and children. He was called on the carpet by President Grant for KKK activities, during which testimony he insisted he was no longer a member of the KKK. In 1875 he was trying — and not doing so well — to re-establish his fortune, in a city that had been, like the state, under Union military governance from early in the war. Even after the war, unless you’d been a slave trader on the scale of Isaac Franklin and married into a socially prominent Nashville family, overt slave traders didn’t get to mix much with the movers and shakers of Tennessee society. There was a lot going on everywhere in the south in 1875, and Tennessee and Memphis were a part of that re-establishment of the old powers. For Memphis this particularly meant the Mississippi Yazoo Delta aristocratic planters, who were well on their way re-establishing their political and financial control over their kingdoms. Memphis was always truly a Mississippi city, not a Tennessee one. The Delta planters were working assiduoulsy to get their labor force back. At this particular period, the Delta was seen as a land of opportunity for black agriculture labor — a false dream, of course, as it turned out, and was entirely clear to everyone by 1890 at the latest.

        So yah, it’s too easy to read that newspaper story as indicating more than it actually does.

        • Ken Parsons said, on June 3, 2015 at 5:48 pm

          And people like you should not be making false statements about Forrest.

          The Federal Government held a martial law trial of General Forrest at the request of General Sherman in his attempt to hang Forrest and the results was General Forrest was found NOT GUILTY of the false accusation that you and Sherman have made.

          This lie ruins your entire article, you should know your history better.

          • Andy Hall said, on June 3, 2015 at 6:59 pm

            If you’re referring to the 1871 congressional hearings. . . .

            1. They were hearings on Reconstruction in the South, not a criminal trial, martial or otherwise. The formal title of the hearings was, “Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States.”
            2. W. T. Sherman was not involved.
            3. Forrest was called as a witness and asked to testify on what he knew about the Ku Klux Klan. The committee took testimony for months, and there were hundreds of witnesses.
            4. Forrest was not on trial. He was not charged with anything, so could not be found “not guilty.’

            Please refrain in the future from criticizing others for their alleged “false claims,” when you yourself seem to be lacking in accurate knowledge of the events in question.


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