Historian Peter Cole calls on America to take down everything named after Nathan Bedford Forrest

Historians in the News
tags: Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate flag, Confederate Memorials

Peter Cole is a Professor of History at Western Illinois University. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia and is currently at work on a book entitled Dockworker Power: Struggles in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. He has published extensively on labor history and politics, and tweets from @ProfPeterCole.

After Dylan Roof’s recent racist massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, the vision of white supremacy that lay at the core of the Confederate flag has been widely discussed, even leading to Gov. Nikki Haley calling for the long-overdue removal of the flag from the South Carolina State Capitol. Black Lives Matter protesters have also defaced monuments to the Confederacy throughout the South. Such shrines to white supremacy are heinous, and activists are right to go after them.

But if those activists want to target a particularly vicious symbol of white supremacy whose name can still be found in public spaces around the South but especially Tennessee, they should go after our country’s many monuments to Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general who committed the single worst atrocity of the Civil War—the Fort Pillow massacre, brutally murdering hundreds of African-American and white Union soldiers who had already surrendered—and then became the first national leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

Now is the time to rename every single park, school and building named after him, and to remove every statue and plaque honoring him from any public venue, in America.

A history of vicious white supremacy

The first park named after Nathan Bedford Forrest I ever encountered was in Memphis, Tennessee. Upon realizing where the park’s name came from, I looked around incredulously, feeling like somehow, someone was playing a joke on me. Surely, this despicable man could not have this incredible public space named after him along with a statue suggesting his nobility?

I’m a professor of American history specializing in race relations. I am under no illusions that racism is dead in America. But I had no idea that there were places named after Nathan Bedford Forrest. No doubt, many Americans today—from across the racial and ethnic spectrum—are unaware of who this person was and why we should no longer honor him.

Before the Civil War, Forrest became fabulously wealthy in the cotton industry: buying and selling black slaves and using them to grow cotton—blood money, plain and simple. When the “War Between the States” broke out, Forrest joined a Confederate outfit as a private and quickly moved up the ranks, eventually becoming a general.

In 1864, Forrest’s soldiers captured Fort Pillow, located beside the Mississippi River in western Tennessee, along with its garrison of former black slaves and white Southern unionists; in fact, many Southern whites, especially from the Appalachian region, were pro-Union and hundreds of thousands fought for the Union. Though these men had surrendered, Lieutenant General Forrest and his troops murdered more than 300 Union soldiers, about half of whom were former slaves and the other half whites from eastern Tennessee.

According to Forrest’s own initial report, the river was “dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for 200 yards.” His field commander bragged that his men had taught “the mongrel garrison” a memorable lesson. Forrest and his staff later denied a massacre had occurred, but their own words suggest otherwise: “ ‘It is hoped,’ the general proclaimed in his post-battle report, ‘that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that Negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.’ ”

After the war ended in 1865, a group of Confederate veteran soldiers formed a social club, the Ku Klux Klan, that almost immediately morphed into a white supremacist group aiming to roll back progressive Reconstruction governments. Southern whites could not prevent the abolition of slavery, enacted in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, in late 1865. However, they created the Klan and many other similar groups in an attempt to prevent African-American advancement. Forrest soon served as the Klan’s first Grand Wizard, the head of the entire group that proclaimed itself “The Invisible Empire of the South.” ...

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