Roy Exum: I Stand For Gen. Forrest

Tuesday, August 29, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

There is a famous quote, or maybe it is a poem that I have carried in my heart since high school. These are the words of Martin Niemöller, a German Anti-Nazi theologian and Lutheran minister. “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out -- because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out -- because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out -- because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

So you’ll know, Martin Niemöller had been awarded a coveted Iron Cross as a U-boat skipper in World War I but, after he said what he did, he was placed under “protective custody” from 1938 to 1945 in Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps. Again, just so you’ll know.

This Friday the Tennessee State Capitol Commission will consider the removal of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s bust from its grounds. We are told it represents slavery, for he once traded and owned slaves. Governor Bill Haslam and Senator Lamar Alexander say it must go. Senator Bob Corker says so, too, because it should not be in a place “our ideals” are debated. "I would support removing those type of historic symbols that are contentious to our people and putting them in museums, not in places where our ideals are lifted up," explained my City High schoolmate.

I dare say that if the truth could ever be told, Nathan Bedford Forrest had as high ideals as any politician now in office and, I hasten to add, much higher than a majority of them. He was a gallant warrior, a heralded leader who went from private to General in the Civil War, and a fearless advocate of blacks before his death. He famously has 32 dedicated historical markers across the state, more than Presidents Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and Andrew Johnson combined, as well as any other man or woman in state history.

Our state has never had a greater hero than Nathan Bedford Forrest and his bust in the State Capitol has not uttered a word on any vexing matters or any whatsoever in over 150 years. But I suppose the State Capitol Commission and the Tennessee Historical Commission are about to fall prey to a continuing mob scene ever since havoc was unveiled as hate in Charlottesville, Va., earlier this month.

I wish to speak on General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s behalf. As another famed voice once said, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”

Confederate statues – which honor human beings rather than ideals – have become political chess pieces instead of the deserved tributes for which they were intended. It is debatable if Forrest was ever in the KKK but what is clearly on the record were his remarks at a gathering of black activists one sunny July the Fourth in Memphis.

To this day, not one General of any army in all of America has come out as strongly for blacks as Forrest did after the Civil War. In 2015, Greg Tucker of the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro wrote a well-documented article that proves through newspaper accounts and proven historical data this hero who died in 1877 had a deep love for all people in the twilight of his life. We should never judge part of anyone’s life – not yours, not mine, nor any one of our nation’s forefathers. Get this right -- the whole is the sum of all the parts.

* * *


By Greg Tucker, Daily News Journal, July 13, 2015

Retired Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest was an outspoken advocate for the civil rights of the freedmen in postwar Tennessee.

This advocacy and his popularity with the Memphis black community were resented by some of his white contemporaries who spread false rumors to discredit the general and further their own political interests.

Shortly after the end of the Civil War and while Memphis was still under U.S. military command, Forrest spoke to the federal authorities regarding the former slaves within their command. He noted that many of the freedmen were skilled artisans and should be employed.

Additionally, he urged the authorities to establish training programs for the younger blacks, so the next generation would not be dependent.

Forrest also approached the Memphis Board of Aldermen, according to newspaper accounts, and argued that the black citizens could be doctors, clerks, bankers or anything else if given the opportunity and education. He believed that the blacks were a part of the community and should be involved and employed like anyone else.

Although his words to the federal authorities and the city aldermen went unheeded, Forrest conducted his own business consistent with what he urged upon others.

As president of the Selma, Marion & Memphis Railroad, he employed former slaves as construction engineers, crew foremen, train engineers and conductors. Blacks were hired as managers, as well as laborers.

In 1875, Forrest was invited to address a meeting of the Independent Order of Pole Bearers, an early black civil rights organization in Memphis, at its Fourth of July barbecue.

Although told by several whites that he should not participate, Forrest accepted the invitation. [See McClarey, “Nathan Bedford Forrest and Racial Reconciliation,” American Catholic (Aug. 6, 2010).]

Just before he spoke, Forrest was presented a bouquet of flowers by the daughter of a Pole Bearers’ officer. The gathering was at the Memphis fairgrounds, and Forrest’s short, extemporaneous speech was reprinted in the Memphis newspaper, as follows:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I accept the flowers as a memento of reconciliation between the white and colored races of the Southern states. I accept it more particularly as it comes from a colored lady, for if there is any one on God’s earth who loves the ladies I believe it is myself. (Immense applause and laughter.)

“I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe I can exert some influence and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations and shall do all in my power to elevate every man, to depress none. (Applause.)

“I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms and wherever you are capable of going. I have not said anything about politics today. I don’t propose to say anything about politics.

“You have a right to elect whom you please, vote for the man you think best, and I think, when that is done, you and I are freemen. Do as you consider right and honest in electing men for office.

“I did not come here to make you a long speech, although invited to do so by you. I am not much of a speaker, and my business prevented me from preparing myself. I came to meet you as friends and welcome you to the white people.

“I want you to come nearer to us. When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment.

“Many things have been said about me which are wrong, and which white and black persons here, who stood by me through the war, can contradict.

“Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I’ll come to your relief. I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for this opportunity you have afforded me to be with you, and to assure you that I am with you in heart and in hand.” (Prolonged applause.)

After the speech Forrest thanked the young black woman for the bouquet and kissed her on the cheek. This public familiarity between the races was unheard of at the time.

In his speech Forrest referred to “black persons here who stood by me through the war.” Apparently in the crowd were some of the cavalrymen who served in his command.

When Forrest’s cavalry surrendered in May 1865, sixty-five blacks were on Forrest’s muster role, including eight in Forrest’s Escort, the general’s handpicked elite inner circle. Commenting on the performance of his black soldiers, Forrest said: “Finer Confederates never fought.”

Forrest detractors allege that the Confederate general was the “founder of the KKK.” This is factually incorrect. The 19th century Ku Klos was founded as a fraternal organization on Dec. 24, 1865, in Pulaski by Thomas M. Jones, a Giles County judge; Frank O. McCord, publisher of the Pulaski newspaper; and four other Confederate veterans. Though not present at a Ku Klos meeting in Nashville in 1867, Forrest was elected as grand wizard of the organization.

There is no evidence that Forrest ever wore any Klan costume or ever “rode” on any Klan activity. He did, however, on Oct. 20, 1869, order that all costumes and other regalia be destroyed and that Klan activity be ended.

This was confirmed by the U. S. Congress in 1871: “The natural tendency of all such organizations is to violence and crime, hence it was that Gen. Forrest and other men of influence by the exercise of their moral power, induced them to disband.” See U. S. Congressional Committee Report (June 27, 1871).

When Forrest died in 1877, Memphis newspapers reported that his funeral procession was over two miles long. The throng of mourners was estimated to include over 3,000 black citizens of Memphis.

A special thanks for research assistance to Billy Miller (Murfreesboro) and Dan McGuire and Lee Millar (Memphis).

* * *

As accounts of Forrest’s speech dashed across the telegraph lines in the South, allow me to give a few examples of reaction:

* -- THE CAVALRY SURVIVORS ASS’N OF AUGUSTA – “the first Confederate organization formed after the war, called a meeting in which Captain F. Edgeworth Eve gave a speech expressing unmitigated disapproval of Forrest's remarks promoting inter-ethnic harmony, by ridiculing his faculties and judgment and berating the woman who gifted Forrest flowers as "a mulatto wench". The association voted unanimously to amend its constitution to expressly forbid publicly advocating for or hinting at any association of white women and girls as being in the same classes as "females of the negro race". (Source: Wikipedia)

* -- THE MACON WEEKLY TELEGRAPH -- condemned Forrest for his speech, describing the event as "the recent disgusting exhibition of himself at the negro jamboree.”

* -- THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER -- "We have infinitely more respect for Longstreet, who fraternizes with negro men on public occasions, with the pay for the treason to his race in his pocket, than with Forrest and Pillow, who equalize with the negro women, with only 'futures' in payment".

* * *

In April of 1863, Chattanooga was occupied by the Union army and Col. Abel Streight was sent with 3,000 cavalrymen to destroy the Confederate railroad in north Alabama and west Georgia. This would cut Gen. Braxton Bragg’s supply line and force him to retreat into Georgia.

Soon Forrest was sent with 1,500 riders to see those support lines stayed open. Col. Streight got word Forrest and his men were on the way and the Colonel, a book seller from Boston, retreated on the run. Forrest chased him for 16 days. At one point Streight ordered a bridge burned over a swollen river and the exasperated Forrest stopped at a nearby house to ask where the nearest bridge was.  

Told it was two miles upstream, a 14-year-old girl – Emma Sansom – stepped into history when she told the general she knew a spot in the river where the cows would cross and he wouldn’t need a bridge. So Forrest threw the girl on the back of his horse so she could guide him to the ford.

The Union’s rear guard fired on the man and girl on the galloping horse, a musket ball piercing Emma’s dress, but she fanned her sunbonnet at the shooters. In the next year the Confederacy honored “The Sunbonnet Heroine.”

His men easily crossed the river, soon Forrest caught up with the Yankees and a battle was quickly brewing. Forrest – heavily out-numbered – had his men continuously parade in a circle high upon a hill near Sand Mountain and Col. Streight – who could only see the front side of the hill – soon thought he was the one who was horribly out-numbered. He immediately surrendered!

When Streight found out he had been tricked, he furiously demanded his men have their weapons and horses returned, asking for a proper fight. Forrest  laughed long and loud, and declined the request.

* * *

Forrest fought at Chickamauga (Sept. 18-20, 1863) under Braxton Bragg. Forrest took hundreds of the retreating Yankees prisoners and was one of the generals who urged Bragg to re-take Chattanooga. Bragg wouldn’t do it, causing Forrest to go off in a tirade asking, “What does he fight battles for!” It is believed by some that Forrest confronted Bragg as “a chicken” and said he would kill Bragg later that fall. Forrest was quickly transferred to Mississippi … where he was promptly promoted to Major General.

* * *

It is well documented that “Union general William Tecumseh Sherman called him "that devil Forrest" during wartime communications with Ulysses S. Grant and considered him "the most remarkable man our civil war produced on either side."

* * *

"Before and during the War Between the States I was a Virginian," Robert E. Lee once said. "After the war I became an American." (Forrest showed by his actions he felt the same way.)

* * *

I fully suspect the Tennessee Capitol Commission and the Tennessee Historical Commission to recommend Nathan Bedford Forrest’s bust to be removed from its perch between the House and Senate chambers in the weeks ahead at the behest of far lesser men.

But I will forever view General Forrest as Tennessee’s noblest knight, our state’s greatest hero. To toss him away from our view is a mistake future generations will never erase.

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