Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Return Forrest to Elmwood Cemetery

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on July 2, 2015

Forrest Last week Memphis Mayor A. C. Wharton called for the remains of Nathan Bedford Forrest, his wife, and the monument that stands above them, to be returned to the city’s Elmwood  Cemetery. This move is not unexpected, as monument and the park surrounding it — renamed Health Sciences Park in 2013 — have been contentious in the city of Memphis for a long time now.

This call for Forrest’s return to Elmwood comes, of course, in the wake of several states taking action to remove or end official display of Confederate iconography, from flags to specialty license plates to statues. While I think we, as southerners, need to catch our breath and think a little more deliberately when it comes to monuments of long-standing, there is actually a strong and affirmative case — a pro-Forrest case, if you will — when it comes to the site in Memphis. I’ve communicated with several people who have been interested in Forrest for a long time, and know his story well. They point out that he and his wife, Mary Ann Montgomery Forrest, were originally interred at Elmwood, and it was not until the early 20th century, three decades after the general’s death, that their remains were moved to a central park downtown. It’s a case, in many respects, like that of Robert E. Lee at Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, where a later generation decided they knew better than the general himself what he wanted.

At Elmwood, he and Mary Ann would lie again among twelve hundred other Confederate soldiers. (Perhaps it’s not mere coincidence that the statue’s bronze gaze has been fixed on Elmwood all these years.) Besides which, a transfer of Forrest’s remains and re-interment a mile away at Elmwood would give the heritage folks the opportunity for a procession and pageantry the likes of which haven’t been seen since the burial of the H. L. Hunley crew at Charleston in 2004. Lord knows, to so many of Forrest’s fans practicing history consists mainly of dressing up and solemnly parading with Confederate flags. It’s a win for all concerned — for the Forrests, who apparently preferred being at Elmwood; for the city of Memphis that, rightly or wrongly, wants to be done with what used to be known as Forrest Park; and for the heritage crowd that, with a little nudging, can undoubtedly be convinced that a move is actually the right and proper thing to do. A recent Tennessee law would seem to prohibit moving Forrest and the monument, but with everyone on board with it, I’m sure enabling legislation in Nashville is a forgone conclusion. Blank Confederate graves at Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis. Forrest should be here, too. Blank The specific circumstances of the Forrest case make that call easy; the case for moving, or removing, other Confederate monuments is more difficult, and requires more deliberation. Speaking for myself, I’m ambivalent about it. While I adamantly support the authority of local governments to make these decisions, I’m not sure that a reflexive decision to remove them is always the best way of addressing the problems we all face together. Monuments are not “history,” as some folks seem to believe, but they are are historic artifacts in their own right, and like a regimental flag or a dress or a letter, they can tell us a great deal about the people who created them, and the efforts they went to to craft and tell a particular story. In 2015 it would be hard to find someone who would unequivocally embrace the message of the “faithful slaves” monument in South Carolina, but it can’t be beat as documentation of the way some white South Carolinians saw the conflict thirty years after its end, and wanted others to, as well. (Maybe York County could put a sign next to it with an arrow saying, “no, they really believed this sh1t!”)

I’ve written before about the Dick Dowling monument in Houston (right). It honors Dowling for his command of Confederate artillerymen at the Battle of Sabine Pass in 1863, but from its dedication in 1905, it was a rallying point for Houston’s Irish community, many of whom came after the war. (It was sponsored, in large part, by the Ancient Order of Hibernians.) Certainly today, as I learned firsthand, the emphasis at the annual ceremony there is much more Irish in character than Confederate. It means a great deal to those folks, many of whose Irish ancestors’ arrival in this country postdates the Civil War by decades. They have no personal connection to the war or to the Confederacy, yet the Dowling monument nonetheless serves as a common bond among them irrespective of the uniform worn by the marble figure at the top. It really would be a shame to lose that.

I think we need to be done, done, with governmental sanction of the Confederacy, and particularly public-property displays that look suspiciously like pronouncements of Confederate sovereignty. The time for that ended approximately 150 years ago. But wholesale scrubbing of the landscape doesn’t really help, either, if the goal is to have a more honest discussion about race and the history of this country. I’m all for having that discussion, but experience tells me that it probably won’t happen. It’s much easier to score points by railing against easy and inanimate targets.

_________

Forrest monument image via PorterBriggs.com. Elmwood Cemetery image via ElmwoodCemetery.org.

GeneralStarsGray

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14 Responses

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  1. Craig L. said, on July 3, 2015 at 1:19 am

    I was reading online today that Derek Jeter and Vanessa Williams have had sessions with Henry Louis Gates on that Ancestry.com program called Who Do You Think You Are and have learned through DNA samples that their eye colors are the product of recessive genes derived from slave ancestors who became pregnant by white plantation owners. They’re both prominent public figures by dint of their own acheivements and I think it does matter what they think about what it means to be descended from both slaves and slave owners. The First Lady of the United States shares something in common with these celebrities according to a journalist acting as both her biographer and genealogist.

    My Civil War ancestor participated in the siege of Spanish Fort and Fort Blakeley in Mobile during the week that Lee surrendered to Grant. Many of the defenders of those forts escaped death, combat injury or capture by fleeing up the Alabama River in small boats. The unit to which my ancestor belonged spent much of the following month pursuing the escaped rebels up the river on foot until they reached the fork where the Tombigbee flows into the Alabama and they continued their pursuit up the Tombigbee. I’ve since learned that if they had continued that march another forty miles they would have come to the town where Forrest had taken refuge. Forrest’s surrender speech to his troops coincided with the day my ancestor’s regiment was given leave to halt their pursuit. A few days later they returned to Mobile on boats transporting a substantial portion of the troops Forrest had directed to surrender. They were joined by an even larger flotilla when they again reached the junction of the Tombigbee and Alabama rivers. I can’t help but wonder if perhaps their real mission hiking up the Tombigbee was to pursue and apprehend Nathan Bedford Forrest or to at least persuade him to surrender.

    My Civil War ancestor was exposed to yellow fever in that swamp, was first hospitalized in Brazos Santiago about three weeks later and died of pneumonia secondary to yellow fever at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis during the last week of July that year. About ten years ago my wife and I threw a party. One of the guests was a writer I had known about for close to twenty years, but had never met. He’s married to one of my wife’s former work colleagues. During the party I introduced myself to him and inquired about what he had in mind for his next book, as he had written a number of them, including one I had recently read concerning the Cawnpoore Massacre in India which took place shortly before the American Civil War, an historical event modern Indians regard as their declaration of independence from Britain. He told me he was researching a book about another massacre, this time closer to home at Fort Pillow. I asked him if he’d ever heard of Poison Spring. I told him my Civil War ancestor’s regiment apparently took part in that battle, only a week or two after Fort Pillow. I understand this writer is coming back to Seattle for a visit later this summer. I’m looking forward to an opportunity to continue our dialogue.

  2. Leo said, on July 3, 2015 at 4:10 pm

    Forrest wanted to be with his men when he died. It’s best and right to return him to his orgional resting place and stop using him as a tourist attraction and neoconfederate religious relic.

  3. Jimmy Dick said, on July 8, 2015 at 9:27 pm

    Based on the news today, this is looking like the ball is rolling strongly to make it happen. The SCV is now playing defense and calling up favors. I saw them post this on Facebook earlier today:

    Sons of Confederate Veterans (Official)

    The city of Memphis has placed a proposal before the City Council of Memphis to remove the Forrest statue and exhume the bodies of the General and his wife Mary. There was a resolution presented today and then the first of three ordinance readings will be held in 2 weeks, the third reading could be in September. We have some protection at the state level but they are not without loopholes. We need all the help we can get. Citizens to Save our Parks and the Sons of Confederate Veterans have been at the spear point of this fight to preserve these Historical Parks since 2000. We weathered the attacks in 2005 and again we’ve held them off for the last two and a half years. This Battle of Memphis is crucial to the success of preserving our American history. Please support this epic fight!

    Financial donations can be sent to:
    citizenstosaveourparks.org and click on the Paypal link or you can mail donations tocitizens to save our parks at
    PO BOX 241875
    Memphis, Tennessee 38124.

    We desperately need everyone to email and call and write the the City Council at
    125 North Main Street room 514 Memphis Tennessee 38103
    the phone number is 901-636-6786 and the fax is. 901-636-6796

    We are holding our annual Forrest Birthday Celebration at Forrest Park, July 12 at 2:00 p.m. Be there to support the fight! The Confederate soldier is counting on you!

    Sincerely,
    Mark Buchanan
    President -Citizens To Save Our Parks

    While they were doing that, they also are freaking out over the US House of Representatives vote that if it becomes law which it may not do, that would eliminate the CBF in national parks. Note how they are trying to parse the wording into something it will not be doing at all.

    Sons of Confederate Veterans (Official)

    This is an outrage of the worst type – a bill to ban the Confederate flags on the graves of our soldiers on our own national parks. Call your congressman and senator NOW! This surely sets up a precedent for the banning of US flags in Arlington and all the other cemeteries once these political winds change to anti-American rather than just anti-Confederate.

    They are referring to this: http://www.greenwichtime.com/news/article/House-moves-to-ban-Confederate-flag-in-federal-6372880.php

    Not a good day or week or month or year or sesqui for the heritage folks, is it?

    • Andy Hall said, on July 8, 2015 at 9:48 pm

      Another solicitation for donations. Surprise, surprise, surprise.

      I really don’t like the idea of removing monuments of long-standing; like Michael Lynch, I come to this issue in part from an historic preservation angle. I also don’t like messing with graves, including that Devil Forrest’s. But in this case there are unusual circumstances that make it not only an option, but the best option.

    • Andy Hall said, on July 8, 2015 at 11:12 pm

      Not a good day or week or month or year or sesqui for the heritage folks, is it?

      No. I heard that the mayor of Dogpatch wants to take down the monument of Confederate General Jubilation T. Cornpone, too.

  4. Foxessa said, on July 9, 2015 at 9:29 am

    And the South Carolina House voted to take down that flag from the statehouse grounds. I can hardly believe it.

    Stunned. Way past time, indeed there was never any time it should have been there.

    • Andy Hall said, on July 9, 2015 at 9:55 am

      It was an embarrassment even to mainstream conservatives. Confederate iconography has been for a long time, but it was easier for them to go along than to piss off the crazies who make up a small but highly vocal part of the party. The shooting in Charleston simply made that deliberate avoidance of the issue no longer tenable.

    • Andy Hall said, on July 9, 2015 at 10:24 am

      The Confederate Battle Flag is so far gone, apparently, that it’s being used as a (comically-inept) smear on prominent Democrats:

      http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/dinesh-souza-fake-hillary-clinton-photo

  5. Jimmy Dick said, on July 9, 2015 at 12:41 pm

    The GOP pulled a bill in the US House earlier today because they don’t want to be on record defending the use of the CBF in national parks. Imagine that, the House GOP having to go on record defending the CBF. Some of them have no problem doing that and their speeches have shown a complete and utter lack of historical knowledge.

    The CBF is coming down at 10 AM Friday, July 10th in Charleston. Too bad that it took 150 years to finally take the symbol of treason down. They then used it as a symbol of racism and now that choice is having its consequences. Good riddance to the rag.

    • Andy Hall said, on July 9, 2015 at 1:05 pm

      Some of them have no problem doing that and their speeches have shown a complete and utter lack of historical knowledge.

      Also, water is wet.

      • Jimmy Dick said, on July 9, 2015 at 2:39 pm

        Also, water is wet.

        That might surprise some of them.

    • Michael Rodgers said, on July 10, 2015 at 9:45 am

      Columbia. And now it’s down. Gotta say it: “It’s a great day in South Carolina.”

      • Andy Hall said, on July 10, 2015 at 9:34 pm

        Too busy to pay attention now, Michael. After events today in Columbia, I’m going through my Civil War books now looking for history that’s been erased.

        • Jimmy Dick said, on July 10, 2015 at 9:53 pm

          I found some. It was in some pages written by some guys named Kennedy. Somebody erased the part where they said the Civil War was not caused by slavery. Kind of hard to make out the truth in that mess. It is also missing some pages. I was short of toilet paper.


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