Nathan Bedford Forrest Revisited
August 1, 2023 | View PDF
In the October 2022 Alabama Gazette I covered part of the legacy of Nathan Bedford Forrest (https://www.alabamagazette.com/story/2022/10/01/opinion/the-false-demonization-of-nathan-bedford-forrest/2434.html). If anyone has been a victim of “the winners write the history,” it is Forrest. From his humble Tennessee roots, Forrest was the quintessential self-made man, a masterful military leader, and the antithesis of most of his critics.
After his father died, sixteen-year-old Forrest became the sole supporter of his family. He eventually met Mary Ann Montgomery. Mary Ann had also lost her father and she became a ward of her foster father and uncle, Rev. Samuel N. Cowan, a Cumberland Presbyterian parson. In 1845 Mary Ann married Nathan Bedford Forrest despite Cowan’s disapproval, much of which arose from Forrest’s “cussing and gambling.”
Possessing a great work ethic and sharp mind, Forrest engaging in farming, horse-trading, real estate brokerage, and slave trading. By the war’s outset, he was worth a million and a half dollars. He enlisted as a private in the 7th Tennessee Cavalry, and used his own money to raise and equip a battalion of mounted troops. In a short time, Forrest’s military prowess became obvious—it was admirably recognized by Robert E. Lee and somewhat begrudgingly acknowledged by U.S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and other Union commanders.
Although some modern residents of Selma, Alabama, lack appreciation for Forrest, he deserves credit for doing everything in his power to keep Selma from being totally destroyed by the invaders. Forrest led roughly 4,000 defenders (perhaps half were actually soldiers) as they attempted to stop approximately 9,000 well-armed Union soldiers. The overwhelming odds did not allow for Selma to avoid destruction.
On July 27, 1871, Forrest testified before a Congressional Committee for over four hours. Facing charges of being a founder and early Grand Wizard of the Klan and being part of the Knights of the White Camelia, Forrest vehemently denied the accusations. The Klan was actually started in Pulaski, Tennessee, by six individuals (four were lawyers), with the original intention of being a social club. The term “Klan” was thought to be a variation of “Clan” based on the prevalence of the “founders” Scottish and Scots-Irish lineage. The original Klan also had a social welfare and aid angle to help those who had been harmed by Reconstruction. According to writer Lochlainn Seabrook, the original Klan had Black members and it undoubtedly had Jewish members. The Klan that sprang up in the early 1900s was totally different.
During the Committee’s interrogation, Forrest stated: “I said to 45 colored fellows on my plantation that I was going into the army; and that if they would go with me, if we got whipped they would be free anyhow…Eighteen months before the war closed I was satisfied that we were going to be defeated, and I gave those 45, or 44 of them, their free papers for fear I might be called…It is clear from the end of 1863 to the close of the war these 44 black men served as free men under the flags of the Confederacy.” A few Blacks who served with Forrest included: Thornton Forrest, Ben Davis, Nim Wilkes, Polk Arnold, Jones Greer, Frank Russell, Preston Roberts, Alfred Duke, George Hanna, Ned Gregory, Robert Bruce Patton, Marshall Thompson, Hardin Starnes, John Terrill, Wright Whitlow, Lewis Muzzell, Alex Porter, James Jefferson, and John Sharp. All received Confederate pensions. Wilkes asserted, “I was in every battle General Forrest fought after leaving Columbia…” Duke stated, “At the beginning of the war I was with General Forrest’s regiment…I was in Confederate service almost the entire period of the war.” Nelson Winbush, a descendant of Louis Napoleon Nelson, of Forrest’s 7th Tennessee Cavalry, referenced loyal Black Confederates: “You won’t see this in the history books because the history books are written by Yankees. They aren’t about to put in there that they had some black dudes shooting at their asses for keeps.” Winbush is correct. Modern court historians would never acknowledge such a deviation from the “government-approved” narrative.
Post-war, Forrest was heavily involved with the railroad industry. He felt all Southerners should be given a chance to work and support themselves and their families and he worked tirelessly to achieve that reality. Indeed, after becoming a Christian, many considered Forrest to be a social liberal.
For over twenty years, Butch and Pat Godwin have celebrated the birthday of Nathan Bedford Forrest at Fort Dixie, near Selma. Sadly, due to health concerns, this year’s event had to be canceled. The Godwins are amongst the few who know the true history of Nathan Bedford Forrest and have the temerity to display it. As Pat stated: “Perhaps this year 2023 will be called the HICKUP YEAR and next year will be the 25th Anniversary of Ole Bedford’s Birthday Celebration!”
Sources: “In Defense of General Forrest,” by Nathan Mote, at: https://heritagepost.org/american-civil-war/in-defense-of-general-forrest/; Forrest’s testimony to that 1871 hearing can be found under “The reports of Committees, House of Representatives, second session, forty-second congress,” P. 7-449. Information sourced from Lochlainn Seabrooks’ “Nathan Bedford Forrest and the Battle Of Fort Pillow: The True Story” and “Forrest! 99 Reason To Love Nathan Bedford Forrest”; Sons of the South, by Clayton Rand; “Black Southerners in Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Command,” by Thomas Y. Cartwright (from Black Southerners in Gray); “Nathan Bedford Forrest and the Death of Heroes,” by J.O. Tate (from So Good A Cause); The Coming of the Glory, by John S. Tilley; and “Rebel Yell Puts Multiculturalism to the Test,” by Karl Spence. On July 10, 1905, The Tennessean, Nashville, TN, ran an article about the six individuals who started the Klan.