In Part 1 of this series we consider the efforts that the veterans of the Civil War made at reconciliation. In the estimation of some, they failed. They did not get over the problem that ultimately caused the Civil War, the racism that made the enslavement of black men and women acceptable.
What some people forget is that we do not go from sinful to perfect all in one fell swoop. We have rather awkward lives. We sin, that is, fall. Then with God’s grace we get up, and we continue on towards our destination until we sin again, that is, fall again. Then with God’s grace we get up, and we continue on towards our destination until we sin again. Until the day of our death, we sin. Today we have something of an illustration of that principle. So let’s set the pretext.
“None of the people who violently demonstrated in Charlottlesville, VA had anything to do with raising the monuments. Neither those who are for or those who are against. If we insist upon using the scum among the demonstrators as an excuse for either keeping the monuments or tearing them down, then the decision we render will be as wicked as their protests.”
I agree that it would be wrong to ignore ALL the intentions, some of which are undoubtedly more noble than others, in the raising of these monuments. However, to completely divorce the white supremacy that was slavery and Jim Crow from the motivations behind the Civil War and the monuments to that war, is to distort history far more. These monuments were erected for a number of reasons, and at varying times. Most of the some 700 plus confederate monuments were erected during times long after the war and during times of incredible racial strife. Some have been erected to a great Confederate tactician, who also was the terrorist founder of the KKK, Nathan Bedford Forrest. Shouldn’t all of this be taken into account?
Ignoring the foundational issues of white supremacy that surrounded the Civil War and these monuments celebrating the rebels in that war is indeed to “white wash” history. Despite the ambiguity of the intentions of folks long dead, one fact simply cannot be denied: absent the white supremacy issue of slavery and that lead to Jim Crow, the Civil War never would have happened and these monuments would never have been erected in the first place. (from here)
Who was General Nathan Bedford Forrest? It just so happens that he is the subject of the following video. Note that the video begins with some film from a Civil War reunion. Then it transitions to tell us something about the black men who served under Forrest during the Civil War.
The video also tells us quite a bit about Forrest. Was he an evil man? Well the video suggests he probably was not a saint, but he was not evil. The problem is the historical record surrounding the man is a mess.
We often forget that very few people live lives that people with video cameras and laptop computers sit around recording every move they make. So even though Forrest rose to the rank of Lieutenant General, the historical record is hazy. Much that people say we know is conjecture, not fact.
Were there black men serving under Forrest? To encourage the Union to accept black soldiers, Fred Douglass wrote these words.
There are at the present moment, many colored men in the Confederate Army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down . . . and do all that soldiers may do to destroy the Federal government. — ex-slave Frederick Douglass (from here)
There were certainly some blacks willing to fight in the Confederate Army, and apparently some did serve under Forrest.
The raid into Murfreesboro, which was undertaken to rescue civilians taken hostage and scheduled to be executed in retaliation for Union military casualties, included some of the armed Black Southerners who rode with Forrest. This was documented in the official report of the Union commander:
The forces attacking my camp were the First Regiment Texas Rangers [8th Texas Cavalry, Terry’s Texas Rangers, ed.], Colonel Wharton, and a battalion of the First Georgia Rangers, Colonel Morrison, and a large number of citizens of Rutherford County, many of whom had recently taken the oath of allegiance to the United States Government. There were also quite a number of negroes attached to the Texas and Georgia troops, who were armed and equipped, and took part in the several engagements with my forces during the day. (from here)
Did Forrest establish the KKK? Does not seem likely. It is not especially clear how the KKK got started. Different references tell differing stories. If Forrest joined the KKK and became the head of it, he decided to disband it. He testified to an 1871 Congressional Committee he was not a member. If he had been, and they could have proved it, they would have jailed him. Yet we have all these historians convicting the man of being elected Grand Wizard. Maybe, but did he want the job?
This reference, Ku Klux Klan – History (adl.org), which the Wikipedia article, Ku Klux Klan, uses as a reference, is worthy of a special laugh. That article never bothers to mention that Forrest supposedly disbanded the KKK in 1868 (Author’s correction (8/24/2017): The adl.org article states Forrest disbanded the KKK in 1869, which seems to be the most common date. The adl.org gives Forrest’s loss of control over the KKK as the unequivocal reason.). All KKK did at first was scare blacks. When the killing started, Forrest, if he ever was a member, apparently wanted no part of it.
The story told in this article, The Real Ku Klux Klan (The San Francisco call., October 28, 1906), is instructive. Here is a pertinent excerpt.
This much, nevertheless is assured: The Ku Klux Klan came into being in the year 1867, for a definite purpose. It passed out of actual organization in the year 1869, dying as soon as its purpose had been achieved.
That purpose was the restraining of the mistaken and misdirected enthusiasm of the Negroes at the time when, shortly after the close of the Civil War, the white men of the South were practically disfranchised. (from here)
Because they had been disenfranchised, Southern whites suddenly found themselves put at the mercy of their former slaves. To see what happens when a bunch of poorly educated people form the electorate, look at the intercity in almost any large American city. Since our inter-cities have notoriously poor schools, that is not a good situation. Since many of the white slave owners had deliberately made it so, the former slaves were uneducated. Ironic justice? Perhaps, but the situation was not good for either the blacks or the whites. So some white men formed an organization designed to gently intimidate certain blacks. How gently? Well, some may have had better intentions, but the situation eventually got out of hand.
Another article, Members of Ku Klux Klan in Capital (Albuquerque citizen., January 09, 1908), states the KKK came into existence in 1865. In 1869, some people decided to take vengeance using the name of the KKK.
Then some unrepresentative member of the Klan started to take revenge in the name of the Klan upon persons against whom they had a personal grievance. The stain of the pernicious activity was heightened by acts of lawlessness on the part of outsiders who cloaked their depredations under the name of the Klan. (from here)
So what is the point? Well, there are three points.
- The KKK that Forrest may or may not have led came into being because whites, not blacks, were disenfranchised.
- The KKK that Forrest may or may not have led is not the same one everyone got mad at. If he ever led it, he disbanded it.
- Because they won’t take the time to investigate the poppycock spread by certain Democrat Liberal advocacy groups for fundraising purposes and newspapers for profit, we have people repeating with certainty things they don’t actually know to be true.
Did Forrest lead the KKK? Was he responsible for the violence? I don’t know. He testified in an 1871 Congressional hearing (from here). He denied membership. When being asked about the membership, consider his response to the following question:
Understanding it, then do you still wish time to consider whether you could give them or not?
I cannot give you one of them correctly now to save my life; I have no idea I could. It was a matter I knew very little about; I had very little to do with it. All my efforts were addressed to stop it, disband it, and prevent it.
What is obvious from his testimony is that Forrest knew about the organization, and he probably knew people who were members. So people assume his denial of membership is a lie, but the fact is we don’t know.
Forrest had a very famous name. So whether he was involved or not, the KKK has gotten a lot of mileage out of using his name. What is also apparent is that even if Forrest had been involved, he would have had relatively little control. The KKK was a secret organization run primarily at the local level. Once the violence started, and the government started trying to suppress the KKK, if he had tried to exercise any control over the organization he would have gone to jail. All he could do is disband it.
What is probably the most serious charge against Forrest is the massacre at Fort Pillow. Allegedly, Forrest ordered the slaughter of black troops when they refused to surrender. African American Military Records (familysearch.org) provides a point-blank refutation of that charge.
African American soldiers participated in every major campaign of 1864–65 except Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign in Georgia. The year 1864 was especially eventful for African American troops. On April 12, 1864, at Battle of Fort Pillow, Tennessee, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest led his 2,500 men against the Union-held fortification, occupied by 292 black and 285 white soldiers. After driving in the Union pickets and giving the garrison an opportunity to surrender, Forrest’s men swarmed into the fort with little difficulty and drove the Federals down the river’s bluff into a deadly crossfire. Casualties were high and only sixty-two of the U.S. Colored Troops survived the fight. Many accused the Confederates of perpetrating a massacre of black troops, and the controversy continues today. The battle cry for the Negro soldier east of the Mississippi River became “Remember Fort Pillow!”
The propaganda which sprang from the allegations of a “massacre” at Fort Pillow was useful in convincing United States Colored Troops to become suicide forces which entered battle shouting “No quarter! No quarter!,” never surrendered and who themselves perpetrated murders of surrendered Confederate forces in Florida and at Fort Blakley, Alabama, on April 9, 1865, at which battle they also shot two white Union officers who tried to stop them, killing one.
An 1864 investigation of Fort Pillow engaged in wholesale fabrication of “evidence” and included assertions that Black women and children had been murdered by Forrest’s forces when there were no women or children present at Fort Pillow. A later 1871 Congressional investigation conducted during Reconstruction by Radical Republicans concluded that there was no evidence of a “massacre” and stated that there were “isolated incidents along the riverbank” which Forrest stopped immediately upon his arrival.
The barracks Forrest’s men were accused of burning were actually burned under orders by a Union officer. Lieutenant Daniel Van Horn, Sixth U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery, whose report is contained in the Federal Official Records, documented that Lieutenant John D. Hill, U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery, set fire to the barracks under orders of the Union commanding officer.
Forrest took 39 United States Colored Troops (USCT) as POWs and sent them up the chain of command. Forrest even transferred the 14 most seriously wounded USCT to the U.S. Steamer Silver Cloud where they could get better care than that which he could provide.
Allegations of a “massacre” continue to be controversial because historians remain either willfully or blissfully unaware of the Federal Official Records and the 1871 Congressional investigation conclusion. (from here)
Did I look up the record of the Fort Pillow investigation? No. There are only so many hours in the day, and I think it is reasonable to assume Forrest’s reputation would not have survived had the charge been true. The reason I bring it up is to point out the difficulty of combating lies. We do dearly love to believe the worse about each other.
According to this article, Nathan Bedford Forrest and Racial Reconciliation the-american-catholic.com), in 1875, Forrest spoke to the Independent Order of Pole-Bearers, an early black civil rights organization. Here is what he said.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, I accept the flowers as a memento of reconciliation between the white and colored races of the Southern states. I accept it more particularly as it comes from a colored lady, for if there is any one on God’s earth who loves the ladies I believe it is myself. (Immense applause and laughter.) I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to elevate every man, to depress none.
I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going. I have not said anything about politics today. I don’t propose to say anything about politics. You have a right to elect whom you please; vote for the man you think best, and I think, when that is done, you and I are freemen. Do as you consider right and honest in electing men for office. I did not come here to make you a long speech, although invited to do so by you. I am not much of a speaker, and my business prevented me from preparing myself. I came to meet you as friends, and welcome you to the white people. I want you to come nearer to us. When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment. Many things have been said about me which are wrong, and which white and black persons here, who stood by me through the war, can contradict. Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I’ll come to your relief. I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for this opportunity you have afforded me to be with you, and to assure you that I am with you in heart and in hand.” (Prolonged applause.) (from here)
Frankly, I don’t know what to make of the man. How did a slave trader become such a fabulous cavalryman? I don’t know. The slave trade strikes me as a despicable way to make a living. Yet there is no doubt Forrest demonstrated he knew how to lead soldiers, and that required him to earn the trust of his men.
- Topics in Chronicling America – Confederate Prodigy; Nathan Bedford Forrest (loc.gov)
- Lieut.-General N. B. Forrest and His Campaigns (Clarksville weekly chronicle., August 23, 1879)
- KU KLUX KLAN A REPORT TO THE ILLINOIS GENERAL ASSEMBLY (OCTOBER 1976) (ncjrs.gov)
- Report of the Joint Select Committee to Inquire Into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States, So Far as Regards the Execution of the Laws, and Safety of the Lives and Property of the Citizens of the United States and Testimony Taken: Report of the Joint committee, Views of the minority and Journal of the Select committee, April 20, 1871-Feb. 19, 1872
- Nathan Bedford Forrest (newworldencyclopedia.org)
- General Nathan Bedford Forrest CSA (americancivilwar.com)
- Black Confederates (econfaculty.gmu.edul)
- Redstone instructor: History of black Confederate soldiers unpopular but must be told (blog.al.com)
- Forrest and the Slave Trade (tennessee-scv.org)
- Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and the KKK (pbs.org)
- For the Sake of Nathan Bedford Forrest, Let’s Stop Worshipping Him (nashvillescene.com)
- Nathan Bedford Forrest (en.wikipedia.org)
- Nathan Bedford Forrest (historynet.com)