Gov. Bill Lee proclaimed July 13 Nathan Bedford Forrest Day in Tennessee, honoring the former Civil War Confederate general, slave trader and early KKK leader.
Mods: Feel free to move this, if I'm using the wrong forum. I'm not being political and don't want to make any comment on the Tennessee proclamation, but as someone from outside the South I've been interested in Nathan Bedford Forrest since first learning about him during the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
My first reaction was, you've got to be kidding me. This complex character existed back then? And did all that? It's too much like a movie.
After reading the Hurst book, Jordan & Pryor, and of course, Foote and James Macpherson, I had a general idea of what the man might have been like, and my reaction then was that I'd like to have met him, although I honestly don't know how that would have gone, as I would have simultaneously wanted to shake his hand and punch him -- hard.
Bedford Forrest seemed like one of those people who stir very strong feelings. And he still does (which is why this forum seemed the place to put this), but it's complex. That's what I wanted to talk about it.
The news report linked above seems the most even-handed coverage of this latest Bedford Forrest incursion into the headlines, but only as much as one can expect these days. A couple of points I want to make about it:
- If you're going to condemn him, condemn him for Fort Pillow (whatever may have happened there is unclear, from sources I've read, as is Bedford Forrest's precise role in the atrocity, but he was a commander and those badges black US troops who survived it wore into battle, saying "Remember Fort Pillow," and how they fought, speak volumes). And condemn him for being a slave trader before the war; not simply as a Klan founder. Or at least mention that he also ended it. Others revived it after Bedford Forrest passed on, and that's not something I want to get into here.
- Give the man credit for his military genius. From all I've read, Nathan Bedford Forrest haunted the nightmares of both Sherman and Grant for quite a while -- and that's saying something, considering their own military abilities and responsibilities. They had good reason to worry: I understand some of Bedford Forrest's guerrilla tactics are still taught to the military, too.
- The man had, to some extent, the right attitude for the times. He was a natural leader. And everybody (except Bedford Forrest's superior officers) applauded his "no **&^! man kills me and lives" approach to life. If it's okay for General Sherman to say, "War is hell," then it's okay for Forrest to say, "War means fighting and fighting means killing."
Bedford Forrest was a real American -- he had his dark impulsive side as well as a bright one. We're still at the simplistic stage where we want our heros either impossibly all good or totally evil. We're not at a point just now where we can acknowledge that both good and evil exist in everyone and both occasionally show up big time in very strong personalities.
America, I think, is growing diverse and strong enough to objectively look at the life of someone so complicated but so important to our history. We're not quite there yet. I'm not being political about this. I just want to point out, for the unaware, that there's more to Nathan Bedford Forrest than the coverage he gets nowadays from media. Go see for yourself. He'll not fade away any time soon, not until we finally do come to grips with the realities he was so caught up in; only then will we finally be able, as a nation, to bury him once and for all.