Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Nathan Bedford Forrest and Civil War Memory

The tumultuous battles over who controls Civil War memory are still alive and well - especially if you are thinking about the new monument to Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest - soon to be installed in Selma, Alabama.

Naturally, protestors and detractors from around the country have weighed in against the monument. Noting a couple of glaring facts such as Forrest's prewar occupation trading slaves, his implication in the Fort Pillow Massacre, and his tenure as the first Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, many have been moved to simply wonder why anyone would want to honor such a man with a monument.

Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans see Forrest in a different light. Their Forrest is a man of resolute loyalty to the cause, a man with no military experience who rose to a level of skill and competence matching some of the greatest military heroes of the Confederacy. Novelist Shelby Foote once referred to him as a "genius" comparable to Abraham Lincoln.

Some call him a murderer - others call him a hero. There is no gray area (so to speak). Some Forrest apologists applaud his involvement with a "kinder and gentler" version of Klan as part of an effort to bring law and order to a disrupted South. Hmmmmm. And the monument, say members of the SCV, will go in as planned despite detractors' vows to stop it.

How people remember the Civil War has certainly changed in the last several decades. Not long ago, protests against installing a Forrest monument would have been much less virulent - if they occurred at all. Today's reflections on the war - during the sesquicentennial - are tending to lean in many ways away from the "white only" ceremonies of the early to mid-twentieth century. Slavery, emancipation, race, and racism are deeply embedded in the twenty-first century commemorative ethos and it seems like Confederate heritage groups are losing their grip on commemoration broadly defined. While these groups have never dominated northern Civil War memory (despite what you might read) it now seems that they are losing control in the South as well.

Groups such as the SCV have barricaded themselves against attacks behind the "heritage not hate" motto. But a new monument to Forrest suggests a symbolic middle finger gestured in the direction of those who are not only surprised by such an effort, but offended as well.

What do you think? Should there be a new monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest?



  1. None of my ancestors, as far as I know, were slaves. In the past, the voices of the descendants of the victims of slavery were suppressed. Now that they can freely be heard, the distortion of history through monumentation is on the run. Even if the monument is erected, it will be seen in the future as a tribute to one of America's paramount racists by people who shared his vision of society.

  2. Ah, another Forrest memorial controversy, and in Selma at that. In current memory Selma is infamous for Bloody Sunday far more than for its role as a Civil War arsenal during the Civil War, which Forrest tried to defend as the war wound down.

    Recently I was trying to locate the site of Forrest's birth in Tennessee online, and it took some real digging: apparently a former point of pride has been largely digitally expunged. Forrest indeed is a difficult character.

    "Slavery, emancipation, race, and racism," you mentioned. We must always try to remember that the connotations, and even the denotations, of these words are not what they were 150 years ago. I suspect many broken confederates limping home after the war did not want to talk about their experiences for years afterward. We must bear in mind that primary sources, especially contemporaneous, are always best for trying to penetrate into history. Later myth becomes entwined with truth like a kudzu infestation. When it comes to Forrest, the primary sources are not very useful. He will always remain more a mythic phantom, I think, than a concrete historic personage. And so, although it may not be fair to untouchable man-who-lived-and-breathed, my thoughts about Forrest cluster around a single question I pose: What kind of human being thinks it's okay to buy and sell other human beings?