Just mentioning the name Nathan Bedford Forrest stirs many emotions. As Abe Lincoln has been falsely deified, Forrest has been falsely demonized. Remember, the winner writes the history and they have done a massive disservice to the legacy of Forrest.
Nathan Bedford Forrest was born in Chapel Hill, Tennessee, and moved with his family to Salem, Mississippi, in 1834. Often characterized as “Scots-Irish”, Forrest had a Norman French surname and considerable English lineage (his Mother was a Beck, which could be English or German). Forrest’s lineage, so common in the South, is often linked to fierce individualism. His father died when he was young, making Forrest the family’s chief provider. After his Mother remarried, Forrest ventured into real estate, livestock, planting, and slave trading.
Forrest built a successful personal business, eventually becoming a millionaire. Along the way, he developed a deep appreciation for the skill level of many of his Black workers. His belief in Jeffersonian agrarianism, decentralized government, and State sovereignty made him a natural enemy of many Republicans, the party of strong centralized government since inception. Modern ideological descendants of these Republicans carry on this legacy of hatred for Forrest and other Jeffersonians.
At the outset of the War for Southern Independence, Forrest had forty-four Blacks who served with him. He offered them freedom in return for their loyalty during the war. Many were part of Forrest’s escort and they carried firearms. During four years of war, one left and the other forty-three remained with him until war’s end. Forrest actually freed them midway through the war, realizing the slave labor system was extinct regardless of the war’s outcome. Forrest praised the Blacks who served with him, stating: “Finer Confederates never fought.” (One writer contends Forrest had 65 Blacks with him at war’s end.) Post-war, Forrest understood the original voluntary republic had been destroyed and everyone had to adapt to the new forced union. This required working with all people, regardless of race or ethnicity.
Of the staggering number of false claims about Forrest, perhaps the most ridiculous one is that he started the Klan. It requires little research to find the Klan was started in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1866 as something of a social club, incorporating the term “klan” ostensibly due to the large number of Southerners with Scottish and Scots-Irish ancestry. It morphed into a force to counter the post-war Federally inspired/subsidized radical groups that terrorized and robbed Southerners as “Reconstruction” established DC hegemony. There are many contradictory stories about whether or not Forrest was actually even in the Klan (based on his own 1871 testimony); however, it is beyond dispute that Forrest was instrumental in pushing for the shutdown of the first Klan in 1869.
Modern court historians criticize Forrest’s relationship with Black Southerners. However, reality paints a different picture. Blacks and Whites were both victimized by the similarly hideous carpetbaggers and scalawags during the post-war Soviet-styled military occupation of the South. In reality, Forrest supported the employment and education of Blacks. Not only did he recognize those with excellent work skills and expertise in various trades, he actively lobbied businesses to hire them and pay them fair wages. Going beyond lip service, when Forrest was President of the Selma, Marion, & Memphis Railroad, he hired several ex-slaves as laborers and managers. He later helped a group of Blacks engaged in legal disputes with the railroads.
As part of the reconciliation efforts, the Independent Order of Pole Bearers, an early group advocating for the rights of Black citizens, invited Forrest to speak to their organization on July 5, 1875. Some of his contemporaries urged against it and some of Forrest’s modern detractors insist the meeting has been mythologized. As Forrest was being introduced, Miss Lou Lewis, a Black lady, stated, “Mr. Forrest, allow me to present you this bouquet as a token of reconciliation and an offering of peace and good will.” It is said he kissed her on the cheek. Forrest then delivered a speech offering friendship, cooperation, and unity; the response was overwhelmingly positive. A summary of the event was written in the July 6, 1875, Memphis Daily Appeal. The link is here:
Forrest never denied his early role in the legal institution of slavery. As a fierce individualist and one of the greatest warriors in American history, Forrest will have natural enemies. Some view Forrest negatively because they have been told to and they are unwilling to do their own research. Indeed, a deeper look finds Nathan Bedford Forrest became a Christian man who reached out to everyone in an effort to restore civility to his native Southland. Forrest died in 1877 and it was recorded that approximately 10,000 people were part of his funeral procession, 3,000 of whom were Black.
Sources: “Remembering Rutherford: Forrest was postwar activist for black civil rights,” People Places and Stories, Greg Tucker, Daily News Journal, July 13, 2015; “Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest,” Kathy Weiser-Alexander from Legends of America; “Nathan Bedford Forrest and Racial Reconciliation: Part II,” Donald R. McClarey, The American Catholic, October 11, 2015; The Bright Side of Memphis, Review by Green Polonius Hamilton; “General Nathan Bedford Forrest versus the Ku Klux Klan,” John A. Tures, HuffPost Blog; and the July 6, 1875, Memphis Daily Appeal. NOTE: Forrest was cleared of wrongdoing in the Ft. Pillow incident with notorious South-hater William T. Sherman even acknowledging the fact. Also, Nathan Bedford Forrest III was an American pilot killed in World War II while fighting against the Nazis (National Socialists).