The Contested Image of Nathan Bedford Forrest

By Carney, | The Journal of Southern History, August 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Contested Image of Nathan Bedford Forrest


Carney,, The Journal of Southern History


OVER ONE HUNDRED AND THIRTY YEARS AFTER HIS DEATH, CONFEDERATE general Nathan Bedford Forrest continues to haunt America. The general's exploits in the Civil War and his attitude towards African Americans throughout his life have combined to form a malleable and controversial image that underscores contrasting aspects of southern history. During the Civil War, the uneducated general directed a number of limited victories over superior, if poorly led, Union forces. Although he may not have lost a major battle, most historians agree that his handful of successes failed to have any real impact on the future of the Confederacy. "He was," as Charles Royster has noted, "a minor player in some major battles and a major player in minor battles."(1) Nevertheless, after the war Forrest's exploits soon attained mythic stature, and admirers of the general proclaimed him one of the primary heroes of the Confederate military effort. After his death in 1877, issues of race and racism tended to frame conflicting interpretations of Forrest's image in popular historical memory. A notorious slave trader and an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest became an obvious target for African American anger and contempt, especially in the late twentieth century. White Americans, however, have not always conformed to any one particular view.

In the 1870s many white northerners, appalled by the general's involvement in the massacre of black troops at Fort Pillow during the Civil War, viewed Forrest as the most reprehensible former Confederate. But white southerners were also divided in their attitudes toward the general. To many, he was the quintessential Confederate hero, whose rough-hewn, unschooled martial style reflected the virtues of the southern "plain folk"; others, in contrast, found him an ambiguous figure at best, preferring instead the stoicism of Robert E. Lee over the more unruly Forrest. Around the turn of the twentieth century, a trend toward national reconciliation began to modify Forrest's image: even as he gained more widespread legitimacy as an honorable soldier in service to his nation, his image became increasingly polarized in racial terms. In 1905 Memphis--the city most associated with Forrest--honored the general with a bronze equestrian statue in his memory. The celebration surrounding the monument's dedication revealed that most white Americans accepted some version of the iconic image of Forrest as heroic warrior. By the 1980s, however, the statue became a focal point for attacks by African Americans incensed by a public memorial to a notorious Klansman. The ensuing debate, fueled in part by the general's prominent role in Ken Burns's widely watched documentary on the Civil War, made Forrest a highly visible figure in popular historical culture. At the end of the twentieth century, as in the 1870s, the struggle over Forrest's image took place on a national scale, but the debate in Memphis, with its large black population, provides a useful case study of the ways that Americans have continued to redefine the popular memory of one of its most infamous Civil War commanders. The image of Nathan Bedford Forrest still touches upon concerns vital to Americans, both black and white, while the transformations in public perceptions of the general reflect larger shifts in southern views on history, identity, masculinity, and race.

Forrest had been born into poverty in rural Tennessee in 1821, and after establishing himself as a successful planter in Mississippi, he moved to Memphis and eventually became one of the largest slave traders on the Mississippi River. With its direct river route into the slave markets of the deep South, Memphis was perfectly situated for the commerce in slaves, and by the late 1850s Forrest claimed to be worth over a million dollars. The slave trade, with its attendant wealth and business connections, also afforded Forrest a great deal of influence in Memphis, where he was elected a town alderman in 1858.

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