On Dec. 20, the infamous statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest was removed from Memphis’s Health Science Park (formerly known as Nathan Bedford Forrest Park). On the night of Dec. 26, the Forrest statue off I-65 was vandalized.
Tennessee is confronting its Confederate past from many angles and to many different ends. We struggle with how to interpret our past as we struggle with how to treat one another in uncertain times. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s centrality to this discourse about identity should not be surprising. There are few figures whose historical memories have benefited more from Lost Cause revisionist history than Forrest.
There are also few men who relished as greatly in violence and despotism as him. Forrest would say “war means fighting and fighting means killing” and killing was Forrest’s greatest talent.
The work of remembering our history can be to determine how the actions and the values of past Tennesseans resonate with us, Tennesseans of the present. After all, we say we celebrate our heritage. We say that old times here are not forgotten.
I think Thomas Latham, the Memphis coal-mining baron, knew this when he paid for the construction of the Memphis statue in 1904. I think Jack Kershaw, famed white nationalist attorney of Dr. Martin Luther King’s murderer, knew this when he designed the I-65 statue in 1998.
What values do we see in Nathan Bedford Forrest that we allow these statues to stand?
Much has been written about Nathan Bedford Forrest as a slaver. He was one of the wealthiest men in Tennessee because he traded black Southerners as chattel. Much has been written about Nathan Bedford Forrest as Klan Grand Wizard. We have the words of Ku Klux co-founders and Forrest’s own coy interviews with journalists in 1868 for those arguments. There are other, less discussed moments in Forrest’s life. He murdered two men in an extrajudicial assassination in 1841. In 1871, Forrest reopened one of his plantations as a convict-lease farm, a system that would be abolished for its brutality in 1893.
But when I think of the man, I remember his killing. What values do we see in the man who oversaw the murder of surrendering United States soldiers at Fort Pillow? In April of 1864, black and white Tennesseans, men who had chosen to fight for their liberty, lay dead along a Mississippi River “dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for 200 yards”. The massacre of 6th U.S. Artillery (Colored), Bradford’s Battalion, Tennessee Cavalry, and the 2nd U.S. Artillery (Colored) is recounted in the testimonies of Tennessee soldiers at the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War and in the words of Forrest’s own soldiers.
In a personal letter to his sister, Sgt. Achilles V. Clark of the Confederate 20th Tennessee recounts that “The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor, deluded Negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees , and uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and shot down… I with several others tried to stop the butchery… but Gen. Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued.”
The violence was motivated by race. A reporter from a Confederate newspaper recounted that “the whites received quarter, but the Negroes were shown no mercy”.
Private George Shaw, one of the black Tennesseans who survived the massacre, testified “I said. ‘Don’t shoot me.’ One of them said, ‘Go out and hold my horse.’ I made a step or two and he said ‘Turn around: I will hold my horse, and shoot you, too’… than he shot me in the face. I feel down as if I was dead. He shot me again, and hit my arm, not my head.”
Forrest later said, “It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that Negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.”
Few Forrest apologists would rationalize the slaughter of U.S. soldiers in any other context. Why, then, is Forrest an exception? Why does he deserve to be memorialized in our cities and in our State Capitol when he murdered Tennessee men who were fighting for their own liberty?
The massacre at Fort Pillow is a moment for which Forrest was never repentant. Even in his famous Pole-Bearers speech in 1875, Forrest never repents his slaving, his crimes, or his reopening of plantations in the form of convict-leasing. He simply accepted the new reality and hoped that his crimes would be ignored.
Thomas Latham and Jack Kershaw ignored the crimes, depicting a gallant Forrest on horseback and ready for war and for killing. The killing that happened at Fort Pillow was criminal. What values do we hold that we ignore that too?