As some people may or may not have heard, the Mississippi branch of the Sons of Confederate War Veterans wants to commemorate Confederate cavalry general Nathan Bedford Forrest with his very own license plate. Alright, so let the losers of the Civil War continue live in some nostalgic past where class lines were distinct, and social position was determined by the number of slaves you owned; it was a time when even if you were dirt poor, as long as you were white you could be secure in the knowledge that someone was worse off than you—and they’d stay that way, or else. Over on CNN, Ali Velshi can’t understand what the big deal is; the Sons say that they also plan to “honor” a black soldier who served in the Confederate army. Isn’t that wonderful? It all evens out. Velshi is foreign-born, and so he should be excused for his ignorance; there were a handful (literally) of blacks serving in the Confederate Army as soldiers, although most of them apparently in Forrest’s “escort company,” and all slaves (despite some discussion late in the war about recruiting slaves to fill the rebels depleting ranks, these discussions fell flat-faced on the issue of whether they should be subsequently freed).
One “Son” claims that Forrest should be forgiven his sins because he “repented” of his sins in his final years. His obituary in the New York Times had this to say:
“Of late years, his views had undergone a considerable change. The guerrilla chieftain had softened down into the retired veteran, anxious, apparently, only for peace with everybody. He was in favor of promoting good feeling between the two sections, and by the terms of his address to his old comrades in arms, asking them to join in decorating the graves of the dead Union soldiers. His last notable public appearance was on the Fourth of July in Memphis, when he appeared before the colored people at their celebration, was publicly presented with a bouquet by them as a mark of peace and reconciliation, and made a friendly speech in reply. In this he once more took occasion to defend himself and his war record, and to declare that he was a hearty friend of the colored race.”
Forrest’s fame in the South is based on his war record, which the Times went on to describe thusly:
“His daring and recklessness gave him more eclat at one period than his military services were really entitled to. Gen. (Joseph) Wheeler's raid around the rear of Sherman's army was the work of the daring man and the scientific soldier; Gen. Forrest's sudden dash through Memphis, with no more result than the killing of a few men on either side, was the recklessness of the mere guerrilla chief-- which Forrest essentially was.”
If Forrest was considered over-rated as a general by at least Northern observers—and beginning in July, 1864 Forrest’s forces suffered one reverse after another—there was the matter of why his reputation prevented him from being “remembered only as a daring and successful guerrilla cavalry leader,” and not by “the one great and indelible stain upon his name.” Forrest’s concern about his long-term reputation was such that “It was evident that he felt this, as his constantly-repeated defenses of himself show.”
Forrest was born poor and uneducated in Tennessee, but seems to have achieved considerable wealth, owning two plantations with hundreds of slaves (a tall and robust man, he was said to lay his hand on more than a few), as well as a dealer in slaves. It has been marvelled that after the war started, Forrest rose rapidly from mere private to general, although the circumstances of this rise are rather exaggerated. Forrest never saw action as a private where his “genius” was exposed; upon viewing the decrepit state of his cavalry outfit, he surprised his officers by offering to buy horses and guns out of his own pocket. After the stunned realization of his actual status as one of the richest men in the South—and such men were automatically entitled to buying their regiments to command—the now Lt. Colonel Forrest was subsequently allowed to recruit his own personal cavalry band. Forrest played good soldier at first, but rebelled from serving under what he saw as incompetent commanders, and often merely struck out his own; unlike General Wheeler, who was a West Point graduate, Forrest was essentially a more “respectable” version of the Southern guerilla chieftain who had a civilian background, and was more noted for their inclinations toward cold-blooded murder performed under the cover of war time—such as that practiced by other Southern glamour boys like “Bloody Bill” Anderson and William Quantrill (although Quantrill was born in Ohio, he was a pro-slavery fanatic and probably didn’t have a full deck).
There are two major stains on Forrest’s record—one during, and one after the war—that disturbs people when any honor is given in Forrest’s name, of which there are a great many, especially in Tennessee where there are 32 publically-displayed statues of him. The first is the Fort Pillow massacre in April, 1864. Naturally, what happened there depends on what side of the Mason-Dixon line you’re on. According to most historians, mostly black Union soldiers who tried to surrender were murdered in cold blood by Forrest’s men, angered that they would be confronted by armed blacks; other more sympathetic historians still insist it was a “battle” from start to finish. But given the fact that at least half the fort’s 574 men were killed compared to just 14 Confederates suggests rather strongly that a deliberate massacre had occurred. Besides the testimony of surviving Union soldiers, one Confederate soldier wrote:
"The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor, deluded negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees, and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. I, with several others, tried to stop the butchery, and at one time had partially succeeded, but General Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased."
The second stain on Forrest’s reputation was his involvement with the Ku Klux Klan in the early days of that organization. Forrest denied participation in the KKK before a congressional hearing, but by then he was trying to rehabilitate his image. The KKK was founded in order to stop the radical changes taking place in Southern society by intimidation and violence, and former slaves and white empathizers were the principle targets; in the first few years after the war, 2,000 people were killed in Louisiana alone. It is said that Forrest had “romantic” notions about the Klan, but it is clear that as its first “grand wizard” he envisioned himself as the “general” of a well-organized, underground “army” to ward-off efforts at radical change. He didn’t want to kill off the former slaves, since he admitted that they must form the core of the Southern laboring demographic, preferably as near to their former condition as possible. Despite what apologists would later claim, Forrest did not object to violence; in fact he probably did personally participate in late-night raids that involved the killings of blacks and their white supporters. What he did object to was his inability to personally control the activities of the KKK in various parts of the South, which was getting bad press in the North; in 1869, the frustrated Forrest, much like the frustrated Forrest serving under commanders he did not respect, decided he didn’t want to play ball anymore and “ordered” the disbandment of the KKK, although a few bands ignored him.
The question now is whether Forrest’s (very) late conversion is at all sufficient to mediate against his record as a dealer and owner of slaves, the Fort Pillow massacre and his involvement with the KKK. Or a better question is for what reason would people actually opt of the Forrest license plate? Because he was a famous Civil War general—or because he was man who provided the “model” of how to put blacks in their place? In the state of Mississippi, it is certainly reasonable to conclude that white “night riders” and “guerillas” trying to stop the march of the civil rights movement imagined themselves as the “heirs” of Forrest.