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What Ted Cruz Got Wrong About Nathan Bedford Forrest Day

Nathan Bedford Forrest
A report from The Hill’s Justin Wise alerted us that over the weekend Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) fired-off a tweet denouncing Tennessee Governor Bill Lee (R) for signing a proclamation honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader.

"This is WRONG," Cruz tweeted on Friday.

"Nathan Bedford Forrest was a Confederate general & a delegate to the 1868 Democratic Convention. He was also a slave trader & the 1st Grand Wizard of the KKK." he added. "Tennessee should not have an official day (tomorrow) honoring him. Change the law."

Sen. Cruz is right, Nathan Bedford Forrest was all of that, and likely responsible for war crimes against Union soldiers in what was known as the Fort Pillow Massacre, where 300 mostly African American Union troops were killed after surrendering.

But Forrest isn’t the only Confederate to receive official recognition by the state of Tennessee. According to Mr. Wise’s reporting Tennessee state legislative librarian Eddie Weeks noted to The Tennessean that Forrest Day has been a holiday in the state since 1921. The same law that enshrines Saturday as "Nathan Bedford Forrest Day" also calls for observing January 19 as "Robert E. Lee Day" and June 3 as "Confederate Decoration Day."

Governor Lee’s office noted to reporters covering the story that the Governor was merely following the law (a novel idea in 21st century America) and Lee has previously said he doesn't support removing a bust of Forrest from the Tennessee State capitol because he doesn't want to "whitewash history," according to reporting by The Washington Post.*

How did these “holidays” recognizing figures on the side that lost the American Civil War defending slavery come to be?

Many of them, and their attendant monuments, were created in the early part of the 20th century, the 1920s being a particularly fertile time for such recognition as the last of the veterans of both sides of the Civil War died, prompting a period of national retrospection into the war that rent the country asunder for four long years.

And few men on either side would – strictly from the perspective of military history – be more deserving of a monument than Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Forrest was arguably the most consequential Confederate commander in the Tennessee – Mississippi theater, rising from Lt. Colonel to Lt. General and in the process becoming the most feared cavalry commander of the war; he had 29 horses shot from under him, killed or seriously wounded at least thirty enemy soldiers in hand-to-hand combat, and had been himself wounded four times.

When Robert E. Lee surrendered, Forrest, to his great credit also surrendered. Refusing to continue the war as a guerrilla commander he said, “any man who is in favor of a further prosecution of this war is a fit subject for a lunatic asylum.”

So, the opprobrium heaped on Nathan Bedford Forrest rests, not on his military tactics and prowess, which are still studied and quoted, but on his association with slavery and with his role in founding the Ku Klux Klan.

Yet, Forrest’s role in Reconstruction politics was complex and not as simple as his detractors would like the public to believe.

It is true he was prominent figure in the foundation of the Ku Klux Klan, a group composed of mostly Confederate veterans committed to violent intimidation of blacks, northerners and Republicans.

Two years after the founding of the first iteration of the Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest was elected its first “Grand Wizard” and he presided over the organization until he ordered its dissolution in 1869.

However, in the last years of his life, Forrest publicly denounced the violence and racism of the Klan and made at least one public speech (to a black audience) in favor of racial harmony.

Forrest’s brief 1875 speech to the Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association (a forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) contemporaneously recorded for posterity by the Memphis Appeal newspaper is worth reading to gain insight into the complexity of the challenge of putting the country back together after the Civil War, it is reprinted here from the archives of the Sons of Confederate Veterans:

A convention and BBQ was held by the Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association at the fairgrounds of Memphis, five miles east of the city. An invitation to speak was conveyed to General Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the city's most prominent citizens, and one of the foremost cavalry commanders in the late War Between the States. This was the first invitation granted to a white man to speak at this gathering. The invitation's purpose, one of the leaders said, was to extend peace, joy, and union, and following a brief welcoming address a Miss Lou Lewis, daughter of an officer of the Pole-Bearers, brought forward flowers and assurances that she conveyed them as a token of good will. After Miss Lewis handed him the flowers, General Forrest responded with a short speech that, in the contemporary pages of the Memphis Appeal, evinces Forrest's racial open-mindedness that seemed to have been growing in him.

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.)

Whereupon N. B. Forrest again thanked Miss Lewis for the bouquet and then gave her a kiss on the cheek. Such a kiss was unheard of in the society of those days, in 1875, but it showed a token of respect and friendship between the general and the black community and did much to promote harmony among the citizens of Memphis.

Wouldn’t the country be better served by a lesson on this speech and racial harmony than by erasing Nathan Bedford Forrest from history?

Scrubbing Nathan Bedford Forrest from official history is a grave error; not only does it distort history by celebrating him as a symbol of “white nationalism” – it gives elements in society that Forrest rejected and came to abhor a grievance to rally around, and it deprives the rest of us of what could be one of the greatest symbols of the social compact that reunited the country after four years of brother against brother bloodshed and hatred.

*Since the law was enacted in 1961 the proclamations have been signed by every Governor of Tennessee, most of them Democrats, including the most recent Democrat Governor, Phil Bredesen. 

George Rasley, Editor of served on the Indiana – Tennessee Civil War Commission. His ancestor Rep. Joseph H. DeFreese sponsored the post-Civil War legislation to readmit Tennessee to the Union and many in his family fought with distinction on the Union side in the Civil War. As Assistant Director of the National Park Service Rasley was instrumental in the preservation of a number of Civil War sites.

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