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We Don’t Have Enough Contempt for Nathan Bedford Forrest

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tags: Civil War, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate flag, Confederate Memorials



Elaine Frantz Parsons is an associate professor of History at Duquesne University. Her book, The Ku-Klux Klan and the Reconstruction of American Culture (Forthcoming UNC Press, 2015) explores the rise and fall of the reconstruction-era Klan.

As Confederate flags come down across the South, some are revisiting monuments to Confederate leaders. Much of this conversation has focused on one of the most controversial of Confederate generals, Nathan Bedford Forrest. Recently, some memorials to Forrest have been renamed or removed. Two years ago, Nathan B. Forrest High School in Jacksonville, Florida (mascot: Colonel Reb), was renamed. Unknown parties stole a bust of Forrest in Selma, Alabama in 2012, though Forrest admirers replaced it this March in time for the commemoration marking the 50th anniversary of the March 25, 1965 Selma march. Memphis is even now moving forward in its plans to remove a statue of Forrest, along with his and his wife’s remains, from Health Sciences Park to the local graveyard where they had originally been interred. The park itself had been called “Forrest Park” until the city renamed it two years ago. 

Though the removal of monuments to Forrest is a great step forward, the arguments given for removing them have been far too narrow, focusing too much on his role as a leader of the Ku Klux Klan. We should think more broadly about what we are rejecting when we take Forrest from his pedestal.

White racists have long honored Nathan Bedford Forrest as a symbol of white supremacy. A broader swath of Americans, less comfortable with his racism, have admired Forrest as a model of American manhood. Forrest stands in American lore as a fantasy of omnipotence in the face of adversity. As his first full-length military biography, written in 1868 and approved by Forrest himself, first sketched, Forrest, left fatherless, made his way to personal, financial and political success as a slave trader. When the war came, he rose from simple soldier to storied general. “Clear in his comprehension of the possible, untiring in his activity and personal energy, ready and affluent in resources to remove or surmount obstacles that would paralyze most men,” Forrest’s superior officers, hard men, deferred to his superior courage and instinct. His tired and hungry soldiers, odds always against them, rallied to his banner and routed their less-determined enemy. 

Forrest was easy on the eyes, too, as his admirers then and since have routinely emphasized. The 1868 biography lovingly described his “six feet one and a half inch of height”, ”broad shoulders”, “full chest” and “symmetrical, muscular limbs”, noting also his “dark gray eyes, singularly bright and searching” his “regular white teeth” and his “clearly cut, sun-embrowned features.” ...

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