Nathan Bedford Forrest: War Hero or War Criminal?

17 Feb 2011
Les Smith

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – 2011 is the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War. Along with being the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest has become one of the most controversial characters in American history and it may surprise you to learn some of the things he did, right here in Memphis.

More than 150 years ago, Nathan Bedford Forrest was plying his trade as the owner of the city’s most successful slave trading centers. It was his desire to protect the southern culture and its ways of life that propelled him into the history books as one of the most skilled and demonized generals in the civil war.

It is the curse of all men to possess traits that can make one both naturally gifted and equally flawed. No milieu more grotesquely exploits, exaggerates and emboldens those traits more than the chaos of war. As the late Southern historian, Shelby Foote, once romanticized by saying iconic Civil War Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s greatest contribution to the ages was the art of war.

Yet, 134 years after his death arguments persist over whether Forrest’s legacy should be one to be rejoiced and glorified as a military genius and hero steeped in battlefield honor or as a sadistic war criminal whose infamy is etched in rivers of blood, dead bodies and as a symbol of devote racism?

“On the one hand he’s looked upon as someone who is rightfully defending his home. On the other hand you have the viewpoint that in doing so he’s defending slavery,” said Ed Williams, a Shelby County historian.

“Slave trader. First Grand Dragon of the KKK. A person who we have yet to fully hold to account, when it comes to, when it comes to his actions on and off the battlefield,” said Charles McKinney, a Rhodes College history professor.

Public debate over Forrest intensifies in the wake of efforts by the Mississippi Division of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans to obtain legislative approval for the printing of 2014 commemorative license plates bearing the mercurial general’s image, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

In 2005 efforts by black Memphians to have Forrest’s statue removed from a downtown park led to heated racial tensions which subsided only when then Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton ruled the statue would stay. It is not the intention of this story to reignite or denounce the true passions felt by opponents or proponents in either case.

Instead we decided to search through volumes, literally thousands of pages in books and newspaper accounts of the times pertaining to some of the specific aspects of General Forrest’s life and career that have spawned differing opinions on his rightful place in history.

There is no argument where Forrest’s pre-war wealth stemmed from. This 1857 advertisement in the then Memphis Appeal newspaper boasts of the vastness, quality, efficiency and cleanliness of Forrest’s owned "slave mart" formerly on Adams Street in what is now downtown Memphis.

“Forrest is a slave trader. He is not somebody who is sort of peripheral to the central question regarding human bondage. The central issue of the Civil War.”

Though known only to have had two years of formal school training, by the age of 40, Forrest joined the Confederate Army as a private in June 1861. From the start, his rise through the ranks was meteoric, thanks in large part to a seemingly innate sense of military science. In one article the swash-buckling, fearless and ruthless Forrest was dubbed the "Robin Hood of the Confederacy adding he was a "splendid man of violence who found his true calling in the curve of a cavalry saber."

Forrest’s assessment of his own battlefield skills was far less profound. He was quoted as saying, "war means fightin’ and fightin’ means killin."

This brings us to what most consider Forrest’s personal Waterloo- Fort Pillow Tennessee in April 1864.

“The Butcher of Fort Pillow, an inordinate number of African American soldiers are killed on this raid of Fort Pillow,” said McKinney. “The majority of the people that you speak with, do think it was a massacre and a lot of them that you ask their response was it was war.”

To no surprise accounts vary on how massive the slaughter was. A congressional investigating committee, who historian Williams notes had been looking for an atrocity to galvanize sagging support for the war in the North, jumped on the Pillow incident. A widely circulated report alleged 300 were murdered- shot, burned, buried alive and nailed to logs.

Two thirds of the 262 black troops defending the fort were slain. The report also alleged some black women and children were among the victims. 58 survived the attack and were taken prisoner.

“The defenders of Fort Pillow who attempted to surrender were indeed shot by individual Confederate soldiers who were part of the attacking force,” said Williams. “Not due to some organized effort commanded by Forrest.”

But an attempt to indict Forrest as a war criminal was eventually squashed in 1869. Basically, no one in Memphis, where Forrest made his home, wanted to follow through with a prosecution. It was his name recognition which was used in the formation of the fledgling Klu Klux Klan in April 1867. Another newspaper story attributes Forrest with laying out a plan, as Grand Wizard, designed to reduce Negroes’ political power by intimidation, assassinations, maimings and by the rope. But, after two years Forrest broke formal ties with the Klan. Not all of it was about philosophical differences.

“He became dissatisfied with the way it was operating and the way it was being used and quite frankly, some voting rights were being bestowed on some former Confederates by then including himself,” said Williams.

Forrest also apparently had a late in life catharsis about his personal views on Negroes- brought on in great part when he was put in charge of a stalled railroad project in Arkansas.

“That was his first real experience with a very large number of African American men working on a project,” said Williams.

In a speech delivered years before his death in 1877 the former General praised black farmers and predicted "prejudice will be over soon."

But, did Forrest’s change of heart make up for his slave-trading and wartime atrocities? In an era where reconciliation both racial and regional has tended to mutually whitewash history- Nathan Bedford Forrest’s chameleon image appears to have been among those who have benefited.

Either that or just lost in the translation of standards for a modern society.

“Everybody waits to be seen as virtuous. Everybody wants to be seen as strong. Men want to be seen as virile and so by investing Forrest with those universal themes- it makes him more accessible to more and more people in the South as well as in the North,” said McKinney.

On The Web:


By |2011-02-23T16:00:18+00:00February 23rd, 2011|News|Comments Off on News 2029