Nathan Bedford Forrest and Racial Reconciliation


Easily the most controversial figure in the Civil War, probably the most controversial figure in American history, Nathan Bedford Forrest has always been the subject of fierce debate.  Self-made millionaire who rose from poverty with much of his money made as a slaver trader;  a semi-literate whose tactics and strategies as the most successful cavalry commander of the  Civil War are still studied at military academies around the world;  a brilliant general celebrated by the South and condemned by the North as the perpetrator of a massacre at Fort Pillow;  a man who killed in combat 31 Union soldiers in the War but who after the War constantly had former Union soldiers visit him to shake his hand; and  a racist who helped found the Ku Klux Klan after the War, but who also made a remarkable speech near the end of the life.

In 1875 Forrest was invited to address a meeting of the Independent Order of Pole Bearers, an early black civil rights organization in Memphis, at their Fourth of July barbecue on July 5.  Forrest was told by many whites that he should not accept, but Forrest went.  Just before he spoke he was presented a bouquet of flowers by Miss Flora Lewis, a daughter of one of the members of the Pole Bearers.   Here is Forrest’s speech.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I accept the flowers as a memento of reconciliation between the white and colored races of the Southern states. I accept it more particularly as it comes from a colored lady, for if there is any one on God’s earth who loves the ladies I believe it is myself. (Immense applause and laughter.) I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to elevate every man, to depress none.


I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going. I have not said anything about politics today. I don’t propose to say anything about politics. You have a right to elect whom you please; vote for the man you think best, and I think, when that is done, you and I are freemen. Do as you consider right and honest in electing men for office. I did not come here to make you a long speech, although invited to do so by you. I am not much of a speaker, and my business prevented me from preparing myself. I came to meet you as friends, and welcome you to the white people. I want you to come nearer to us. When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment. Many things have been said about me which are wrong, and which white and black persons here, who stood by me through the war, can contradict. Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I’ll come to your relief. I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for this opportunity you have afforded me to be with you, and to assure you that I am with you in heart and in hand.” (Prolonged applause.)

After the speech Forrest thanked Miss Lewis for the bouquet and kissed her on the cheek.  This type of familiarity between the races in public was almost unheard of at the time.  Forrest’s speech was probably motivated by his desire to become a Christian.  As his health faltered and his time on Earth grew short, Forrest sought to make amends for some of his deeds, and I think this speech was part of his attempt.  This speech was also the last appearance at a public event by Forrest as a speaker.

17 Responses to Nathan Bedford Forrest and Racial Reconciliation

  1. T. Shaw says:

    A highly successful cavalry general. “Get there first with the most.” True cavalryman, he understood cavalry tactics: audacity, economy of force, military intelligence/recon and mobility. General Custer’s Civil War record was also stellar.

    Praise the Lord! Apparently, he came to repent of his sins and sought to amend his life.

  2. Blackadder says:

    Very interesting.

  3. Mack Hall says:

    Thank you for another excellent piece. AMERICAN CATHOLIC never fails to entertain and enlighten.

  4. Dale Price says:

    Fascinating, and as always, excellent work. I never knew Forrest had a change of heart. Good.

    Forrest had one of the great slap-down rants of all time, directed at Braxton Bragg (whom I heartily thank God wore the gray) after Bragg’s jealous mistreatment of him following the battle of Chickamauga:

    “I have stood your meanness as long as I intend to. You have played the part of a damned scoundrel, and are a coward, and if you were any part of a man I would slap your jaws and force you to resent it. You may as well not issue any more orders to me, for I will not obey them, and I will hold you personally responsible for any further indignities you endeavor to inflict upon me. You have threatened to arrest me for not obeying your orders promptly. I dare you to do it, and I say to you that if you ever again try to interfere with me or cross my path it will be at the peril of your life.”

  5. Bret Ramsey says:

    Hey Donald,

    May I put this article up on my facebook page?

  6. Richard Buxbaum says:

    I have read that Forrest left the KKK when he felt it was going in a directrion he didn’t approve, and that he was recruited into it as a reconstructionist organization after Robt. E Lee recommended him instead of himself. Further that he also left the KKK to solidify his business interests. So I think there continue to be two sides to the NBForrest story

  7. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Go ahead Bret.

  8. Karl says:

    Another Gem from the McClarey mine.

    Thank you for the education.

  9. M.Z. says:

    Most of this is sourced indirectly via Hurst’s biography. The KKK in its original form was to fight reconstruction. While there was somewhat of a centralized organization, a lot of Klan folks weren’t organized. NB Forrest got threatened by Congress. The organization pretty much ceased to exist after that. It was reconstituted around the 1920s and took the character with which it is most often identified.

    Fort Pillow was mainly propaganda to help Lincoln’s re-election. After the election, the matter was basically dropped. The Union apparatus showed no interest in making Forrest pay for his alleged massacre at Ft. Pillow.

    Forrest did indeed convert to Christianity. I wish I had the quote handy, but he said during the war that he couldn’t convert yet because he had un-Christian things to do.

    Forrest had amassed a small fortune before the war, but the money was in slave trading, so he wasn’t respected by the landed aristocracy of the time. He was broke after the war and a railroad venture ensured he remained that way. During his last years, he did a lot of work on racial reconciliation. He thought it would be better for blacks and whites to be in solidarity in attacking reconstruction and the mismanagement that went along with it.

  10. Trevor Byrd says:

    NB Forrest is no hero to Catholics. He is one of American history’s most dispicable personages. The Ku Klux Klan is a domestic terrorist organization founded by former members of the Confederate Army of Tenn. with the specific goal of denying the civil rights of black people. The Army of Tennesee battle flag is a KKK symbol.

    Catholic immigrants to the United States have long been subject to intimidation by the KKK, both North and South. NB Forrest was a slave trader, war criminal, and domestic terrorist. How bizarrre it is to see an attempt to celebrate his life here at American Catholic.

  11. Donald R. McClarey says:

    What is bizarre Trevor is your unwillingness to even consider an event in Forrest’s life that indicates that he was trying to make amends for the racism of his life. Redemption is one of the key elements of the Catholic faith, and this story demonstrates that as long as there is life there is an opportunity for it.

  12. Trevor Byrd says:

    There is nothing fascinatng or ‘redemptive’ about NB Forrest’s life Donald. The man was a slave trader, a civil war criminal, and a domestic terrorst. No amount of rhetoric on his part is going to change those facts.

    Put in its proper context, the speech which this story alludes to was part of an attempt by the Ku Klux Klan to get nacent black political organizations like the Tennesee Independent Order of Pole Bearers to stop supporting black/Republican candidates and support the white Democrat candidates instead. The Klan was ultimately sucessful in that endevour as the black Republican political ascendency in Tennesee ended the following year in 1876. Thus ended black Tenneseean’s best chance for stopping the imposition of Jim Crow laws over their lives.

    From a religious perspective the Forrest speech would be better viewed as a story about Satan’s temptation. By appearing in the flesh amongst the black audience, smiling, acting friendly, and saying the right words, the worldly white supremicist Klan leader was able to convince his less sophisticated opponents to drop their own poliitical cause and join his. To their everlasting detriment.

  13. Donald R. McClarey says:

    As I said Trevor at the beginning of my post, Forrest is probably the most controversial figure in American history. On my blog Almost Chosen People, when I posted this, I received flak from a neo-Confederate named Bill. A debate between you and Bill would be amusing if not edifying.

    In regard to Forrest, you are quite incorrect as to whether he is fascinating. He obviously is, judging from the number of recent biographies and the fact that whenever his name appears in anything I write for a blog, the comments roll in.

    As for his speech, Forrest was invited to give it. He specifically indicates in it that he is not going to attempt to tell his listeners how to vote. I might also note that it would be a peculiar election strategy to think that sending Forrest of Fort Pillow and the Klan to a black group would be an effective form of political persuasion. By 1875 Forrest by all indications was no longer involved with the Klan and was not involved in politics. Forrest in his speech was not speaking for any party, but for himself. You are of course free to interpret his speech as arising from ulterior motives, but I do not think that the facts support such an interpretation.

  14. Paul Wangsvick says:

    I can’t help but chime in:

    Often Forrest’s reputation comes down to the controversies surrounding three specific parts of his life:

    1) His role as a slave-trader.
    2) His role in the Battle (Massacre) of Fort Pillow.
    3) His role in the Klan.

    There is no denying Forrest was a slave trader. However, the practice was perfectly legal at the time (Constitutionally protected even as evidenced by the Dred Scott decision) and he wasn’t the only person partaking in said practice. Of course this does not exonerate his participation therein from a moral standpoint, but this detail placed in it’s proper historical context is, as Michael Bradley (Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Escort and Staff, 2006, pg 215-6) passionately argues, an example of presentism; “Presentism would have us use our knowledge and values to judge the actions of the past, even though our knowledge and values were not accessible to the people of the past.” If the matter is argued even further, 13 out of 39 signing members of the Constitution were slave-traders/slave-owners themselves and during the 1858 debates with Douglas, Lincoln even remarked (a position he publicly held on numerous occasions following his election) that he did not think that the black man is “my equal in many respects, certainly not in color—perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowments…” (Shane Kastler, Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Redemption, 2010, 37-9). One thus wonders if the onslaught of criticism of Forrest’s slave-trading activities are as merited when so many prominent historical figures in US history are given passes for their words/actions in comparison.

    The Battle (Massacre) of Fort Pillow is a wonderful example of propaganda. There are numerous points of contention worth noting, but among the more noteworthy:

    A) Forrest’s official report for his activities was not offered or considered as evidence in his defense for 4 months; his report was submitted to his Commanding Officer, General Polk, who subsequently died during the Atlanta Campaign against General Sherman and the report was lost until later found by Polk’s replacement. Consequently, the Northern Congress wrote of the event as a “massacre” while distributing 40,000 copies decrying Forrest’s action as murder; oh yes, it was also 1864 and Lincoln was convinced he wouldn’t win re-election unless desperate measures were taken (Robert Selph Henry, First with the Most; Forrest, 1944, 248-9). Interestingly, too, that same Congress also exonerated Forrest but the Northern Press did not emphasize that detail with the same vigor it had in efforts of condemning him.

    B) Equally interesting, Fort Pillow was given 3 (count them, three) chances to surrender. The Fort was surrounded. The Federals were outnumbered. The main commanders of the Fort, Bradford and Booth, had zero combat experience. I could go on (Hell, just read Maness, Jordan & Pryor, Wyeth, Hurst, Wills, or anyone else that documents the event) and the outcome is pretty predictable.

    C) Did I also forget to mention that more than half the combatants were taken prisoner, given quarter, medical treatment and all prisoners of war were eventually exchanged to the federals? (Jordan & Pryor, 1899, reprinted 1996, 704).

    D) Oh, and did I also forget to mention that many of the Federal combatants did surrender, only to re-pick up their arms and start shooting again? (See Jordan & Pryor, Wyeth, Wills, Hurst, etc.) Interesting how the Congressional report condemning Forrest includes testimony by Federal soldiers saying that they never officially surrendered as well as re-fought after individual members surrendered, but the Northern Press, again, did not emphasize these points with the same vigor it had in condemning him. Here is where it might be reasonable to believe a conspiracy of sorts was taking place.

    E) More people died at the The Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) in one day than virtually all of Forrest’s war campaigns put together. You might be thinking, “So what difference does that make?” Well, there is only one real obvious difference, minus the commanders involved with each conflict: white people were killing white people instead of white people killing black people. Could it really be this simple? Maybe not. But when numerous colored regiments under the regional direction of Federal General Sturgis, among numerous others assigned by General Sherman to annihilate Forrest, fail miserably and repeatedly, it’s a tough recruiting tool to win public support, increase black enlistment, not appear incompetent, etc., when Forrest is consistently destroying those in his path. Plus how else can the Federals justify their losses beyond conceding that they did not adequately train members of their command? Cognitive dissonance and propaganda work miracles.

    A lot of ink has also been spilled about Forrest having a role in the Klan. Was he in the group or wasn’t he? According to Morton (1909), Forrest’s former artillery officer, he initiated Forrest as a member and as eventual Grand Dragon. According to Stanley Horn (1939), Forrest was probably a member but there is no conclusive evidence he ever held a leadership role. Pick and choose whatever you want to believe, but a few things are clear:

    A) Forrest wasn’t a founding member of the organization; it already existed for a year to 18 months before his alleged involvement.

    B) During Reconstruction ex-Confederates were denied the right to vote. The fear was that if they could vote, they would vote to maintain the Old South as well as white supremacy; indeed a reasonable fear. Consequently, however, rather than reconciliation or efforts to reconstruct the South for all its members, ex-Confederates were now singled out for discrimination. The Governor of Tennessee, Brownlow, went so far under a Reconstructionalist agenda to attempt to have all ex-Confederates shot by citizen militia groups under the pretense that all KKK members were clearly ex-Confederates fighting for the right to preserve the Old South (and by proxy obvious Klan members and/or sympathizers), while the offenders would never be brought to justice if Brownlow had his way. It should be noted that some might argue that this position taken by Brownlow and Reconstructionalists was justice for the plight of what blacks inhumanely suffered for centuries; others might argue, rightfully, however, that using more discrimination to fight discrimination solves nothing. Notwithstanding, once Brownlow resigned to pursue political aspirations as a Senator, Senter of the Democratic Party became the new Tennessee governor and voting rights were restored for all eligible citizens. In so doing, the KKK was officially disbanded; often attributed as the work of Forrest.

    C) New groups, in the name of the original, popped up. Many allegations have even surfaced that many of the newer groups were actually discontent Union-loyalists attempting to pursue their own agenda (Selph Henry, 450-1). I have even read some critics suggest that some of the “newer” Klan groups were discontent blacks; but you’d have to really buy into conspiracy theories and insane propaganda to believe that any group of people would vote/fight/kill against their own interests… oh, that does happen.

    In sum, Forrest is often judged for isolated incidents before the Civil War (e.g. slave-trading), during the Civil War (e.g. Fort Pillow) and immediately following the Civil War (e.g. KKK activities). Interestingly, however, the last 8 years of Forrest’s life are often ignored altogether. You might be thinking, “Why should anyone care?” Well, for one, Forrest converted to Christianity. Two, Forrest began to publicly preach racial reconciliation (e.g. evidenced by his speech to the Pole Bearers, among other things). Three, Forrest even alienated his traditionally white supporters in efforts to protect newly emancipated slaves (e.g. as a planter following the Civil War he actually paid black laborers more than his competitors/neighbors). Often the “so what?” question from these observations emerge. Detractors of Forrest often like to find instances of controversy while choosing to only provide certain pieces to make their case. Conversely, defenders of Forrest often like to emphasize Forrest’s war achievements in isolation from the rest of his life and not fully consider him as the incomplete, inconsistent, and contradictory person that he was.

    For what my stake in this larger debate entails, I would say this: defenders of Forrest have hurt Forrest’s reputation by refusing to acknowledge the man for all his faults. Instead, Forrest has become a symbol of white masculinity defending a way of life that may never have existed (e.g. read the Agrarian Manifesto by the 12 Southerners or Cash’s The Mind of the South for a better idea of what I’m talking about). Detractors of Forrest have done nothing but focus on the man for his faults, often cherry-picking details out of context or simply ignoring context altogether. Interestingly, neither defenders nor detractors have spoken much about Forrest’s last 8 years in great detail; almost as if to imply that neither is willing to consider Forrest as having developed a progressive attitude towards race late in his life. But what an irony it would be if the NAACP and the KKK have been using the same man to make an argument for their respective positions, when, in fact, Forrest is not the man either have claimed him to be. But it’s a lot easier to blindly accept what we’re told because, after all, history is always inclusive of—and written with—the minority position in mind. Or not.

  15. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Thank you Paul for your well-thought out comment. This is precisely the type of comment I hope to see when I post on historical topics here and at my blog on American history, Almost Chosen People:

    History must be approached on its own terms as you have done here. Establishing the facts of history can be difficult, but until we have established the facts, debate about what the facts mean is meaningless. In regard to Forrest and the Klan, I think he clearly was involved at a high level, and I will probably do a piece on that at Almost Chosen People as the length of the examination would warrant a full blog post.

  16. Donald R. McClarey says:

    In regard to Fort Pillow, another subject worthy of a lengthy blog post on Almost Chosen People, the historical controversy rages from the day of the taking of Fort Pillow to today. My position is as follows.

    Some Confederates did kill black and white Union soldiers, most of whom were Tennessee Unionists, after the fort was taken. Unfortunately this was not an uncommon occurrence after a fort was summoned to surrender and had to be taken by assault. The assaulting troops are usually in that situation highly enraged and it is extremely difficult for commanders to keep them under control in the immediate aftermath. There is little evidence that I can see that Forrest ordered his men to do such killings and a fair amount of evidence that Forrest took steps to end the killings as soon as he learned of them.

    This contemporary letter after the battle discusses what happened:
    “Letter of Surgeon Samuel H. Caldwell, Sixteenth Tennessee Cavalry

    Camp Near Brownsville, April 15, 1864.

    My Dear Darling Wife,
    We are just from Fort Pillow which fort we attacked on Tuesday the 13th.
    1864 & carried by storm. It was garrisoned by 400 white men and 400 negroes
    & out of the 800 only 168 are now living So you can guess how terrible was
    the slaughter. It was decidedly the most horrible sight that I have ever
    They refused to surrender—which incensed our men & if General Forrest had
    not run between our men & the Yanks with his pistol and sabre drawn not a
    man would have been spared—We took about a hundred & 25 white men & about 45
    negroes the rest of the 800 are numbered with the dead—They sure [lay]
    heaped upon each other 3 days—…

    Nothing more but remain your devoted husband.
    S. H. Caldwell.”

  17. Paul Wangsvick says:

    Your welcome.

    With regard to Fort Pillow, depending on whose account you read and lend credence towards, the Federal troops were composed mainly of former slaves, Tennessee Unionists and ex-Confederate deserters; all of whom were regarded as traitors in the eyes of Confederates. Throw in the sense of outrage in having to risk your life to fight a battle that could have been avoided and there is a lot of high emotion going on. Once more, there is also a lot of documentation alleging Bradford and his men were robbing, raping and harassing the locals; so goes the story Forrest viewed Fort Pillow as a meaningless strategic position but he was begged by the locals for protection including from his own men who had families in the area.

    One of the reasons why the allegations of “massacre” have gained a lot of traction, however, is that there is considerable speculation that Forrest lost control of his men; that is to say, he didn’t order a massacre but he didn’t prevent one from happening either. Richard Fuchs, at least, attempts to push this argument further by suggesting premeditated murder. Interestingly, however, Forrest ordered General Chalmers to direct the action since he arrived late on the scene and he also had 3 horses shot from under him during the initial fighting before the demand for surrender commenced. But getting into all these details is often ignored by detractors because, after all, by simply acknowledging that they could be wrong or have condemned Forrest irrespective of the facts, this concession opens itself to further attack insofar as what else detractors may have failed to recognize.

    With regard to the Klan, it’s suspicion of guilt versus confirmation thereof. During the Congressional Investigation of the Insurrectory States Forrest’s testimony definitely suggests he knew much more than he was willing to admit. Forrest’s testimony with the Cincinnati reporter that was offered into evidence also suggests Forrest held a high position of leadership, or at least was very influential, but once more there is no evidence to conclusively link Forrest to the Klan. Most historians often nonchalantly say Forrest had a role, but what is often omitted is that this so-called “link” is a suspicion rather than supported in fact. Consequently, the Northern Congress, to their credit, recognized the insufficient evidence and exonerated Forrest.

    Notwithstanding, I find it absolutely fascinating that once certain allegations go unchallenged it almost becomes accepted in lieu of fact. Perhaps the allegation is as good as fact without evidence to support the claim for some folks, but what often seems to happen is that once each allegation becomes accepted without proof, the severity of the charge(s) seems to escalate. For instance, the Memphis chapter of the NAACP has often charged Forrest as being the founder of the Klan; thus, as they have argued, this is grounds alone to remove his equestrian statue in a racially polarized city such as Memphis. Should anyone remind the NAACP that Forrest didn’t create the Klan, however, they often refuse to admit the carelessness in this charge.

    Even more strange is when civil rights groups in general try to argue the reasons surrounding Forrest’s interment locale. It often behooves these groups to recognize that Forrest specifically asked to be buried in Elmwood as opposed to a park dedicated in his honor. Why does this matter? When Forrest Park was built the equestrian statue was the second largest of it’s kind ever constructed, next to Napoleon’s, at a cost almost surpassing all other American monuments at that time; quite the accomplishment considering this money came out of the pockets of Memphis citizens dirt poor from Reconstruction. Moreover, a park built in the memory of a Confederate hero stands when none exists in honor of Martin Luther King in the city of Memphis only seems to further motivate detractors in their efforts to rewrite history to their liking.

    I would absolutely be curious to see new scholarship emerge about Forrest’s controversial roles as they are situated within a greater historical context versus isolated from the world he lived in. Too often scholars and detractors alike have extreme tunnel vision to the point that they appear more concerned with fulfilling political agendas than promoting genuine efforts to seek racial reconciliation. Because once we recognize that people in history are not as one-dimension as often asserted, the sooner we can shift from our inability/unwillingness to come to terms with our undesirable history and actually focus on ways to improve the social ills that plague us.

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