Who was Nathan Bedford Forrest?

Posted: Feb 11, 2011

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) – The Mississippi division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans recently proposed a new state license plate commemorating the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War.

One design features Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, and the decision to include him has been widely criticized.
Why? Who was Nathan Bedford Forrest?

Not only was Forrest the mascot of The University of Southern Mississippi up until the 1970s, Forrest County was also named after him. He was featured in "Forrest Gump" as the man the titular character was named for. For years in the state, he was considered a hero despite the fact he may have been the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Born in 1821 in Tennessee, he moved to Mississippi in 1841 following his father’s death. He eventually planted cotton, owned and sold slaves and was elected as a Memphis city alderman. Newspapers of the period reported he personally whipped his slaves, going so far as to strip women and punish them with leather thongs dipped in salt. He became a wealthy man by the time the war between the states began. At the beginning of the Civil War he enlisted as a millionaire and began service in the Confederate States Army in 1861.

Forrest rose through the ranks quickly. Throughout the war, he showed great tactical and combat skill, impressing other commanders until he became a brigadier general in 1862 and was promoted to major general in 1863. Forrest was also known for shooting suspected deserters without trial.

In 1864, Forrest attacked and captured Fort Pillow in Henning Tennessee. Afterward, his troops slaughtered around 300 black Union troops who had surrendered. It is still unclear whether the attacks on these prisoners were justified. Union survivors claimed at the time it was an unprovoked bloodbath, calling it "carnage." Forrest and other Confederate officials denied the massacre was unprovoked saying the prisoners continued to attack and refused to surrender completely. The official investigation concluded the men were killed in cold blood.
Forrest continued to win major battles and suffer few losses until the end of the war in 1865.

After the war, Forrest went into the railroad business but was largely unsuccessful. He left the business and ran a prison work farm until his death.

Forrest was an active member of the Ku Klux Klan after the war, and some historians say he helped command their growing number during the time period. Some accounts also say he eventually rose to be the first grand wizard of the KKK. He routinely denied his involvement, but spoke openly about the KKK and defended them in newspaper interviews. He testified before Congress in 1871 during their investigation into the group. By 1875, he had called for the Klan to disband and began to separate himself from the organization. He is said to have promoted reconciliation and more progressive race relations in his final years, although this too is contested.

He died in 1877 from complications associated with diabetes. After his death, he became a folk hero of the American South with monuments, counties parks and military bases named after him.

Today, Forrest is both lauded and reviled by history. Some see him as a brilliant military commander who helped form and later disband the KKK, while others see him as a murderous racist bully. He continues to be a polarizing figure throughout the South.
Copyright 2011 WDAM.

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