Forrest’s ties to KKK a trumped-up myth

For The Times

I’ve grown to become amused at things that are based on bad history,
especially when they are written with such obvious political intent. Such
was the recent Times article by Rick Lavender, “Portrait of Forrest sparks
campaign spat.”

The misinformation in the article, which appears to have been fed to
The Times by Greg Bautista, began with the statement referring to “a
portrait of Civil War general and Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford

Certainly Forrest was a general in the Confederate Army, and according
to his old nemesis, Union Gen. William T. Sherman, possibly the best cavalry
officer produced by the Civil War. His prowess as a cavalry leader and
battlefield general earned him the envy of even his adversaries and the
title, “Wizard of the Saddle,” early on in the war.

But there the truth ends and Hollywood legend begins. Bedford Forrest
had absolutely nothing to do with the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. And even
within the history of the Klan, differences must be noted between the Klan
of the 1860s and the Klan of today.

The KKK that was reorganized in 1915 enjoyed a well-deserved
reputation as a bigoted and sometimes violent organization, fueled by hate
and ignorance and thriving on fear and intimidation. But that wasn’t always
the case. The original KKK of the 1860s was organized as a fun club, or
social club, for Confederate veterans. Many historians agree that if a YMCA
had been available in the town of Pulaski, Tenn., the KKK might never have

On Dec. 24, 1865, six young Confederate veterans met in the law office
of Judge Thomas M. Jones, near the courthouse square in Pulaski. Their names
were James R. Crowe, Calvin E. Jones, John B. Kennedy, John C. Lester, Frank
O. McCord, and Richard B. Reed. All had been CSA officers and were lawyers,
except Kennedy and McCord, who had served as a private in the Confederate
army. The meeting resulted in the idea of forming a social club, an 1860s
version of the VFW or American Legion.

Their number quickly grew, and in meetings that followed, the men
selected a name based on the Greek word “kuklos” meaning circle, from which
they derived the name Ku Klux. Perhaps bowing to their Scotch-Irish
ancestry, and to add alliteration to the name, they included “clan,” spelled
with a K. And so, quite innocently, a new social club called the Ku Klux
Klan was created to provide recreation for Confederate veterans.

McCord, whose family owned the town’s weekly newspaper, the Pulaski
Citizen, printed mysterious-sounding notices of meetings and club
activities. As other newspapers picked up his stories about the Klan, word
spread and the organization grew.

When the war ended, Forrest was virtually broke, having spent most of
his estimated pre-war fortune of $1.5 million outfitting his troops. He was
spending his time between business ventures in Memphis and his farm in
Mississippi. Organizations such as the Klan were farthest from his mind.

When Forrest was elected Grand Wizard of the Klan in mid-1867 at the
Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville, he wasn’t even in town. He was elected in
absentia. The best scholarly research shows that Forrest never “led the
Klan,” he never “rode with” the Klan, nor did he ever own any Klan

The only known order that Forrest issued using his famous name and
perceived authority was for the KKK to disband in 1869, which it finally did
in 1871. And even that order was written by his longtime friend and former
chief artillery officer, Capt. John Watson Morton.

As to the battle of Fort Pillow, few men within the fort needed to
have died on that fateful day. From Jack Hurst’s Nathan Bedford Forrest, A
Biography: “Captain W. A. Goodman, Chalmers’ adjutant general and bearer of
the (surrender) note, said later he clearly remembered the offer to treat
the entire garrison as prisoners of war ‘because when the note was handed to
me, there was discussion about it among the officers present, and it was
asked whether it was intended to include Negro soldiers as well as the
white; to which both General Forrest and General Chalmers (one of Forrest’s
brigade commanders) replied that it was so intended.'”

A U.S. Congressional investigation exonerated Forrest of any
wrongdoing at Fort Pillow, although the incident became the stuff of
northern newspaper propaganda. Sherman later noted that the disproportionate
casualties at the fort were the result of incompetent Union command.

Forrest’s involvement with the Klan was far less than Michael Jordan’s
was with Nike athletic shoes. It might be wise before anyone drags portions
of the history of this country through the mud in a political fray that they
bother to sit down and study that history more carefully.

Bill Ward, a former Hall County resident, is a writer and historical
researcher living in Salisbury, N.C. He is currently working on a book about
Nathan Bedford Forrest. E-mail:

Originally published Thursday, November 11, 2004

Forrest’s ties to KKK a trumped-up myth
Wizard of the Saddle
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