Nathan Bedford Forrest is a symbol of Southern pride to many.
He was a rugged, strong-willed individualist from Memphis, Tenn., who fought his way out of extreme poverty and become a self-made millionaire. He had a reputation for defending a woman’s honor. He was a man’s man who held his whiskey down and never shied from a fight.
There’s only one problem with that image, said John Fowler, executive director of the Bandy Heritage Center for Northwest Georgia. Forrest was also a “hotheaded and fierce” racist who thought it was OK to own another human being based on the color of the person’s skin and who was the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
Fowler spent Tuesday night discussing Forrest, a Confederate general during the Civil War who quickly rose up the ranks due to his aggressive military tactics, during a public lecture at Dalton State College. The lecture explored why such a violent and racist individual, who died from dysentery in 1877, is still revered by many in the South.
Fowler presented several pieces of art, still well-known today, that depict Forrest in heroic poses, some even bordering on “Harlequin romance,” Fowler joked.
“Why is he so popular?” Fowler asked. “What’s going on? He is despised by some, beloved by others. I do not believe there is a more controversial figure in the Civil War. You’re just not going to find one.”
Fowler said that while he’s personally “disgusted” by Forrest’s white supremacy views and violence — including Forrest allowing his soldiers to massacre African-American Unionists who were surrendering during the Fort Pillow Massacre on April 12, 1864 — Forrest still appeals to many due to his larger-than-life image.
“It is important to say that Confederate symbols are not altogether about the Civil War,” Fowler said. “In many cases, it’s a regional pride. It’s this idea that America should be this way, filled with rugged individualists who have a fighting spirit, who fought for their homeland. That’s awesome and sounds great. But I think you have to take that and say, ‘Isn’t this the same individual who owned other people?’”
One example of Forrest’s independence is in historic accounts of his interaction with Braxton Bragg, a Confederate general who Forrest publicly criticized even though Bragg was his superior.
“I have stood your meanness as long as I intend to,” Forrest is recorded as telling Bragg. “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.”
Rather than being dismissed from the army for insubordination, Forrest was transferred. That’s because people feared him, Fowler said, and because he was “very good” at successfully leading small units against tough odds and bigger forces, typically fighting alongside his soldiers.
“Most military leaders, they would say, ‘There’s the enemy, shoot at them,’” Fowler said. “Forrest sent his men at the enemy to meet them and was with his men. That’s kind of awesome. His military strategy is still studied to this day.”
Forrest became a “spirit of standing up and being defiant, he emerged as a hero who fit an ideal of Southern masculinity,” Fowler said.
For almost a century after the Civil War, Southerners turned to figures like Robert E. Lee as heroes, creating prints and statues of the well-known generals who they believed fought valiantly to defend states’ rights, Fowler said, adding that Forrest didn’t become well-known until the 1960s and 1970s when much of the South was in racially-charged turmoil during the civil rights movement.
“Even today, what many white Southerners see is that they’re losing control,” Fowler said. “The federal government is telling them how to live. Maybe not the government, but people are telling them how they should remember the Civil War. So they think, ‘I should be proud of that. I need a symbol like Forrest.’
“But how do you divorce the man from what he did? You can’t. That’s why the white South is struggling with how you remember the Civil War. The South, as a whole, how do you recall it? Is it about heritage, hate? Both, neither? What does this man represent? How do you make sense of it all? And my answer is — I have no idea.”
Nathan Bedford Forrest is a symbol of Southern pride to many.
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