Since Jan 7, 2002
First, Forrest was not my first choice, I wanted Stonewall Jackson but he was fairly taken in every conceivable permutation. Jackson, to my knowledge owned no slaves. Inspired by his devout Christian piety, he incurred a good deal of social opprobrium before the war by conducting Sunday school for local "Negro" children. Despite Stonewall Jackson's humble Christian outreach on behalf of African-Americans, I have no doubt that I would receive some degree of criticism from those who are ignorant of his piety if I were to use his name and image-he was after all a Confederate. When I was a child he was revered in Virginia, and rightly so, but today the PC crowd, relentless in their self-righteousness, are inclined to electronic lynchings.
Second, choosing a name does not necessarily imply that one endorses every aspect of its owner's character or biography. Instead of talking about Forest for a moment, let us consider a man against whom nobody on this board would conceivably raise objection about the use of his name or image: Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was no slave trader but he was a slave owner and he never manumitted his slaves but rather quite consciously held them and worked them to provide himself, by his own admission, with the finer things in life such as imported wines and books. By modern standards, Jefferson committed statutory rape against Sally Hemming [Since writing the above, a FREEPER has kindly brought to my attention that the matter remains unsettled]. By any modern standard, he committed egregious sexual-harassment by abusing his master servant relationship. She and their children were the only slaves Jefferson permitted to be freed and then only after his death because she had undoubtedly negotiated her freedom and her children's freedom in exchange for her favors. The rest of Jefferson's slaves were sold off to pay debts incurred to sustain his rich and indulgent personal life style. In the process, many slave families were broken up. When Jefferson had a chance to decline to extend slavery into the Louisiana Purchase and into what was then known as the American South West, he shrank from the attempt. In the vacuum, the very worst of the plantation system was established in Alabama and Louisiana. Jefferson's record in this regard is at best mixed. His views about the allegedly inferior character of the Negro race are documented in his own handwriting. Did you know that Blacks smell different?
But you say, "Jefferson was a very great man" and so he was; but he was not a perfect man and some aspects of his character must regrettably be judged heinous by 21st-century PC standards. But you say, "you have selected negative facets from Jefferson's life" and so I have. Indeed, I have failed to note the sublime side of his character, the part that hated slavery and feared God's wrath for it, and who articulated the transcendent vision of individual rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence. So what are we to do with Jefferson? Are we to shun him and his name and image because he was not wholly perfect?
Please note carefully, I do not attempt to justify the character of Nathan Bedford Forrest by way of argument grounded in relativism. I do not say that it is okay to condone one bad man because we also condone some other bad man. The good must start somewhere. How then should we judge the historical Nathan Bedford Forrest? I think the same principles should apply in judging him that we applied to Thomas Jefferson. We judge Jefferson's character selectively and we weigh some parts more heavily than others. A fair historian also seeks to judge a historical character in the context of his times. So we do not see the founding Virginia dynasty of American presidents as slavers and misogynists who denied women the vote, we see them as founding fathers who gave birth to the greatest country on earth grounded in the principle of individual rights. However, a Marxist or a feminist historian would judge these men quite differently, applying 21st-century standards of political correctness. What were the times in which Nathan Bedford Forrest lived?
He was born on the wild frontier, and it really was a frontier and it really was wild. Dueling and grudge gun battles were part of the culture. So was slavery. In fact, because of the cotton gin and the vast sums to be made within only three years by clearing land and planting cotton, the demand and price for slaves skyrocketed. Land was abundant and cheap and labor was scarce and expensive so, contrary to the history of Europe where the economics of labor were reversed, men counted their wealth in the humans they owned even more than by the acres they possessed. By 1861, the value of the slaves in America had reached such stunning heights that to end slavery by compensating the slaveholder for the loss of his property would have simply emptied the American treasury. Enter Nathan Bedford Forrest, born of low estate, actually dirt poor, but of high intelligence and ambition. He dueled, he brawled, and he became a dealer in slaves because that was a viable way to wealth. He became wealthy and respected and a minor politician. Apart from the role played in his advancement by his unwilling captives, one can credit Nathan Bedford Forrest with being a self-made man.
In that culture one either dueled or one was bullied and Forrest was not a man to be bullied. In this respect he is reminiscent of President Jackson who suffered until his death from balls lodged in his body as a result of duels. He was not called "Old Hickory" for nothing but for his inflexible will and his utter commitment to his vision of the right. In the 20th century we have the example of G. Gordon Liddy whose autobiography was simply titled, "Will" and who, rightly or wrongly, lived strictly according to his lights. In anecdote after anecdote we see the character of Nathan Bedford Forrest emerging as not only a man of inflexible will but of principled and uncompromising commitment to his vision of the right. Casting about for a historical parallel that he could use to buttress the New Deal, liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger wrote, "THE AGE OF JACKSON" in which he created a hero who turned America away from the Virginia dynasty to the frontier, from oligarchy to democracy. It is fair to say that Schlesinger de-emphasized the real atrocities which Old Hickory committed against the Indians. Today, no historian would dare write such a history without the full PC treatment for the "Native Americans." But after the Roosevelt administration, liberals needed a hero for the new deal. G. Gordon Liddy was not so lucky; Liberals needed only villains for Watergate. What do historians and liberals need from Nathan Bedford Forrest today?
The last refuge for scoundrels of the left is to play the race card.
We all know, or should know, that Forrest entered the Confederate service as a private and emerged as a lieutenant general, the only man on either side to have achieved this feat. We all know as well that he was " the most extraordinary man" to emerge during the war on either side. We know that Yankee General Sherman raged that he must be hunted down, "if it cost 10,000 men and broke the treasury." We know that he was utterly fearless in battle and intimidated his enemies into defeat. For example, surrounded by Yankees he seized one and pulled him up on his horse behind him and made good his escape. He had 30 horses shot from under him. He despised static defense-his favorite tactic for defense was the charge. He was niggardly with the lives of his men yet relentless in pursuit of the enemy, often chasing them for days and days until the enemy was exhausted and desperate and so surrendered. Uneducated, he was a thinking man's general who had unconcealed contempt for the conventional wisdom of academy graduates. He openly threatened to kill a superior officer whom he considered incompetent if their paths ever crossed again. His powers of concentration were astonishing. One anecdote distills the essence of the man: Deep in concentration, Forrest was pacing in circles planning his next attack when he was approached by an officer who interrupted his absorption. Forest ignored repeated interruptions, saying not a word while pacing his circles. Finally, the officer interrupted him one time too many and Forrest felled him with a single blow and continued his circular pacing, stepping over the officer's unconscious body as he circled. Forrest was unencumbered with formal training in the military arts so he was innovative. A cavalryman, he preferred to fight his men dismounted. Wounded several times and sick, he gave his fortune, his health, and very nearly his life to the cause.
His conception was that the battlefield was a ghastly place and that the enemy must be intimidated and broken in will by the very ghastliness of the field. He had his priorities straight, "war means fightin' and fightin' means killin'." This is not the expression of a bloody-minded Neanderthal but the syllogism of a man with unflinching fortitude to behold, accept, and deal with reality no matter how unpleasant the prospect. There was not an ounce of self-deception in the man. This character trait alone should make every poster on FreeRepublic long to share the avatar and name of Nathan Bedford Forrest especially those Posters who evade unpalatable reality by resort to name-calling, ad hominem attacks, zotting, and just plain old-fashioned hardheadedness.
By any reckoning, his wartime exploits were legendary and make him an extraordinary man worthy of being cited by name and avatar. As a warrior he was a living exemplar of raw physical courage. As a tactician he knew no peer. As a strategist he rivaled the mighty Stonewall. As a leader of men, he inspired the kind of loyalty normally reserved for Robert E. Lee. His self-sacrifice was inspirational. His remorseless dedication to victory was phenomenal. There was simply no one like him.
During the war he commanded Confederate forces at the "massacre" of Fort Pillow. In April 1864, Forrest had surrounded a mixed Yankee garrison of black and white troops and demanded their surrender or they would "be put to the sword." What followed has been the subject of acrimonious controversy ever since. As usual, Forrest inflicted terrible defeat on his foes and about 60% of the "colored" troops were killed and nearly as high a percentage of the white Yankees, at least some of whom were Confederate deserters. The allegations are that these men were murdered after they were taken prisoner. There have been hearings which have concluded for and against the Confederates on this issue. I believe the weight of evidence is that there was some cold-blooded murder of defenseless prisoners, and very likely the bulk of them were black. It does not appear that Forrest himself personally participated in the murders nor is it clear that he ordered any of the murders but it does seem, again by the weight of the evidence, that he was derelict in his duty to control his men who clearly went into a frenzy at the apparition of colored troops. Incidentally, this phenomenon is not new and goes back to the American Revolution when colonials in the Carolinas furiously fought against former slaves who had responded to British overtures to fight on their behalf and secure their freedom. About a year later, at the Battle of the Crater in the Eastern theater at Petersburg, a similar event occurred in which the Confederates, obviously enraged by the sight of colored troops in Yankee uniforms, slaughtered many of them.
I conclude that Nathan Bedford Forrest was derelict in his duty and did not observe the commonly understood rules of war and this must count a black mark against him. Whatever the real facts, the atrocities occurred on his watch. I come to this conclusion about Forrest's conduct at Fort Pillow by measuring it against the standards of his time and not according to the modern standards of our politically correct era.
What to do about this conclusion? Does it disqualify Nathan Bedford Forrest? If I presented the name and avatar of "Old Hickory" it is unlikely that there would be any furor over their use. But what General Jackson did in the Creek Indian wars was far more atrocious than what occurred at Fort pillow. Jackson murdered noncombatant, defenseless women and children. He actually exterminated whole Indian villages. He made plain his desire as general, and later as President, that all Indians be removed west of the Mississippi and so they were driven along the Trail of Tears. It was genocide and under today's regime Old Hickory would be regarded to be as heinous as Milosovic. The temptation is very great to say that, relative to Old Hickory, Forrest's dereliction at Fort Pillow is far less reprehensible than Jackson's multiple crimes against humanity. Yet I am loath to go down that path of relativism which leads ultimately into swamps of subjectivism. I have concluded that what Forrest did at Fort Pillow was wrong and I am not going to say now that it should be condoned merely because another national hero whose name and image could be used in this forum did far worse. But I do feel entitled to conclude that the proof of guilt is not conclusive. More, the modern politically correct practice of exploiting selective outrage justifies me in using the name and avatar because to do otherwise is to commit unilateral disarmament in the face of the leftist enemy. Our children and grandchildren will know only leftist heroes. Ultimately, if we withhold recognition from a historical character because he is in some respects flawed, we will be unable to find a worthy candidate this side of the cross. Finally, I find there are compensating factors, of which more later.
At war's end, General Robert E. Lee was approached by his subordinates who urged him to break out from Yankee encirclement and take to the western mountains to wage a guerrilla against the enemy. It is a testament to the nobility of Lee's character that he firmly declined their suggestion urging his men instead to lay down their arms and take up their duties as citizens of the Federal Republic. By word and deed until his death, Lee set this example for his countrymen in the difficult reconstruction period. Initially, Forrest followed Lee's lead. But two years after Appomattox, Forrest became the head of the resistance movement-one might say terrorism cult-which sought to defeat the federal occupation of the South and undo reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan.
This, of course, is the gravamen of the case against Forrest. There are several legitimate as well as illegitimate aspects of this: First, the undeniable horror associated with lynchings. Second, the modern tendency to indulge certain taboos such as, Nazism, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust, pedophilia, and, the most incendiary tripwire taboo of all, racism. These taboos have become weapons of the left in the war that is raging in America, a civil war waged against us by the left. I believe that the Democrat party in the extreme elements of it on the left have become increasingly philosophically bankrupt but the main prop of this empty vessel is the unshakable belief that they are superior to the right because we are racists. There are ways to react to this propaganda: the first is to cravenly succumb to it, which is the present practice of the modern Republican Party and it has been exemplified by the pathetic, interminable apologies of Trent Lott and Senator Allen. The second is to brazen a situation out as exemplified by the post gaffe performances of senators Byrd and Dowd. A third way, Nathan Bedford Forrest's way, is to declare, "damn your eyes, here I stand."
It is a common misjudgment to confuse the original Ku Klux Klan with its subsequent and more virulent reincarnations. The original Klan was conceived to restore political power to those who had held it in the antebellum period and so its natural enemies were turncoat Southerners, scallywags, transplanted Northerners, many of whom were there to exploit the power vacuum in the South, and African-Americans who, in moving from slavery to freedom, disrupted the social and political order which the old Confederacy had sacrificed so dearly to preserve. It is undeniable that in its original manifestation, the Ku Klux Klan was racist, but it was also political. Whole swaths of Southern culture were disenfranchised by the blue coats who occupied the states of the Old Confederacy. Scallywags, Carpetbaggers, and - most repugnant of all to former slave masters who were chronically in dread of slave rebellions - blacks were placed in power over the antebellum establishment to whom resort to the polls was denied.
The War Between The States had been seen in the South as "the Second American Revolution." We argue interminably about whether the Civil War was fought over slavery but it is undeniable that the rationalization of the South was that they were fighting for democracy-as they understood it. And they understood it the same way the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence understood it, or least wrote it in that document: with African- Americans disenfranchised. This has been the great cleft in the American soul and in no one is it better personified than in Thomas Jefferson, the author of the document which, with all its soaring rhetoric, papers over America's original sin.
Two generations after General Forrest's death, about the time of the film, Birth of A Nation in 1915, the Klan was resurrected in response to the massive immigration of preceding decades and this version was almost wholly given over to racism, anti-Semitism and Natavism. This reincarnation was not Forrest's Klan.
In short order the original Klans activity spun out of control and became indiscriminate in its violence, pointlessly racist, and ultimately self-defeating. To his very great credit, Forrest soon concluded that the end did not justify the means and directed that the Ku Klux Klan be disbanded which largely occurred in the course of time, no doubt with help from the anti-klan laws. Then Forrest even went further than that. He spoke out time and again against that sort of violence. As his biographer, Jack Hurst put it on page 11 of " Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Biography":
The wrongs committed by great men tend to be as large as the men themselves, and Forrest's were appropriately titanic. Yet even these were carried out with an indomitable, ruthless courage, and when his frenzied life permitted him time to reflect before acting, he usually did the moral thing, at least as he understood it. Although history to date has accorded him scant credit, he not only ordered the dissolution of the Ku Klux Klan but went on to disavow repeatedly its race hatred, to protest and decry racial discrimination, and, during his last two years of life, to publicly call for social as well as political advancement for blacks.
By the lights of his time and place, Nathan Bedford Forrest was a great man; for the modern era, he offers an example even greater. His story not only recounts the implacable struggles of an intelligent man of action against the longest kinds of odds. It traces an exceptional American' s remarkable philosophical journey.
The author is quite correct, history and many FReepers have accorded Nathan Bedford Forrest scant credit for his genuine repentance. Biblically defined, repentance means a change of heart and the turning away from sin. With genuine repentance comes unconditional forgiveness. We know why the left selfishly denies Nathan Bedford Forrest the forgiveness he has earned, but why should we withhold it?
Nathan Bedford Forrest is not a one-dimensional character, not just a mindless warrior breathing murder and fire like Saul of Tarsus, but he is, like the apostle Paul, also a repentant sinner who has accepted the faith of his ancestors, and reconciled himself to his demons and his enemies and, ultimately, his God. His funeral was attended by an extraordinarily large number of African-Americans.
. A few passages from "Nathan Bedford Forrest, a biography" by Jack Hearst at the beginning of the prologue describes the times and the man and context from which "compensating circumstances" can be inferred:
A dozen years after the Civil War, the South overturned its outcome. Representatives of Ohio governor and former Union General Rutherford B. Hayes surrendered to former Confederates who had become United States senators and congressmen, and Hayes emissaries agreed to restore to the south the complete home rule Confederate armies have lost in the rebellion quelled in 1865.
... The 12 year struggle following Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, was in some ways as ugly as the four years of war had been: a guerrilla affair in which bands of unreconstructed rebels made night attacks in ghostly shrouds symbolizing the Confederate dead. Their methods, however, were anything but ghostly. Beating, whipping, and murdering, they drove from ballot boxes blacks and whites seeking-some sincerely, some otherwise-to further the fragile concept of racial equality. Before Hayes surrendered, these night riders already had recaptured most of the old Confederacy piecemeal. The political power in Virginia and Tennessee had been reclaimed in 1869, North Carolina and Alabama the following year, Georgia the year after that, Texas in 1873, Arkansas in 1874, in Mississippi in 1875. The Hayes "bargain," as it became known, returned the final three secession states-Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina-to neo-Confederate control that would last most of another century.
While the ex-Confederates were anointing Hayes in Washington, the brief but pivotal leader of their clandestine war for rebeldom's restoration was dying in Memphis, Tennessee. Impoverished, old before his time, his magnificent frame reduced to a gaunt shell of hardly 100 pounds, fifty-five-year-old Nathan Bedford Forrest-fiercest and arguably most brilliant icon in the Confederate military pantheon-had accepted at last the Christian faith of his family's women and begun to sound repentant. A fellow Confederate general who saw him during this twilight of his strength found the once demonic warrior possessing "the gentleness of expression, the voice and manner of a woman."
"I am not the man you... knew," he told a former military aid who hadn't seen him in years.
We cannot truly say this of Thomas Jefferson but we can say that, rightly understood, the use of the name and avatar of Nathan Bedford Forrest is to invoke not merely a unique historic figure but a living biblical parable.