“No man kills me and lives to tell about it.”
–Nathan Bedford Forrest
Nathan Bedford Forrest is among the most controversial figures in American History. Few if any men in American history have been more praised and pilloried, more defended and demeaned, more magnified and mocked than the general, but none of that stopped me from idolizing him as a little boy.
Growing up in the most unreconstructed, most defiant Deep South State of Mississippi, I, like little boys everywhere, had my heroes. There was no shortage of heroes for me and my buddies here in rural Mississippi, and their selection was no trifling matter. Careful thought was given to whom we wished to emulate. In our ever growing and expanding horizons, our choice of heroes was a direct reflection of our own developing personality, our own instilled family values and biases, and the carefully honed images we wished to portray to each other. We were all BOY, and each of us wanted to be the biggest, the baddest bull in the woods. Our choice of heroes reflected that headstrong bravado.
When we gathered to play, our chosen heroes suited whatever the day’s activities demanded. We had heroes for every occasion. If we were playing baseball, our heroes were baseball players. If we were playing war games, we picked military leaders. And on those rare occasions when we were simply “hanging out,“and the talk turned a tad serious, our hero was usually a family member, a pastor, a teacher or a coach we all knew very well. In each instance, we, of course, were required to justify and defend our choice of heroes.
Most of our baseball heroes were the obvious choices: Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Willie Mayes, or “Hammering“ Hank Aaron. My hero, however, was the older, and lesser-known Braves pitcher Warren Spahn. He was a pitcher; so was I. He was left-handed; so was I. He threw hard; so did I. He had an extremely high kick; so did I. He had great control; I did not. He was an award-winning baseball player; I was far from it. I was no Warren Spahn, although I dreamed of being like him. We all had baseball heroes, and we were certain our guy was the very best ever. We could even quote statistics to prove it.
When we played “war,”usually by throwing corn cobs or shooting chinaberries with slingshots at each other in the barn, we were obliged to declare the military leader we wanted to depict. Being good little southern white boys, most of us chose confederate generals although a scant few might choose General George Patton or General Douglas McArthur because their fathers had fought under their command in World War Two. Generals Robert E Lee,Thomas “Stonewall “Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart and “Fighting” Joe Wheeler were among the most popular choices. However, I chose the “Wizard of the Saddle, “Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Really, I had little choice but to choose General Forrest. Among my earliest memories are my paternal grandmother’s unyielding romanticized notion of General Forrest and the “Lost Cause“he so gallantly fought to defend. She regaled me with endless stories of the General’s heroism, chivalry, and equestrian skills. Matters of race, of course, were never mentioned as having any role in her revisionist view of history. The very first lesson my grandmother, who was also my real life hero, taught me about how to achieve success was General Forrest’s dictum to “get there first with the most,” or, as she would say with a sweet little twinkle in her eyes,“firstest with the mostest.” I must admit I have found that formula to be a sure-fire prescription for success in most any endeavor. (Had public policy reflected this simple formulation in our battle with COVID 19, we would be much better off!) Hard to argue with that sage wisdom!
My grandmother’s idealized and sentimental view of the large-than-life General Forrest was founded with reasonable justification. You see, one of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s most heralded and ingenious battles, the Battle of Brice’s Cross Roads, was fought on grounds owned and farmed by her family. In fact, according to her and various family histories, her ancestral home had been commandeered by General Forrest and used as a hospital for both union and confederate soldiers at the conclusion of the battle. Family oral testimony even recounts the courtliness and extreme politeness of the manly General Forrest.
In addition to that more personal connection and our family’s oral history passed down through generations, Grandmother was steeped in the romanticized “Lost Cause” biographies, written by southerners glorifying Confederate leaders and “The Old South.” Perhaps most prominent among those influential books was Andrew Lytle’s “Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company,“ published in 1931. Lytle was one of the noted writers known as “the Southern Agrarians”or sometimes as “the Vanderbilt Agrarians“ who had a completely nostalgic view of the pre-Civil War South, but Grandmother didn’t know any of that. All she knew was that Mr. Lytle thought General Forrest was a chivalrous gentleman and unrivaled military commander, and so did she.
General Forrest’s victory on Grandmother’s family land near Brice’s Cross Roads has been declared the most spectacular display of tactical genius of the entire war by the Institute of Military Studies and the General’s tactics are studied even today in war colleges the world over.
Nathan Bedford Forrest’s battle record cannot be denied or downplayed. Of the 54 engagements he was in, he decisively won 53. He was wounded in battle at least 8 times and had 29 horses shot out from under him.
After General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, he was asked by a union officer who, in his estimation, was the war’s greatest general? Without hesitation, General Lee responded “Sir, a gentleman I never had the pleasure to meet, General Nathan Bedford Forrest.” Confederate President Jefferson Davis once said of Forrest, “I learned of his greatness far too late.” In Ken Burns’ award-winning documentary “The Civil War,” Mississippi narrator and scholar Shelby Foote remarked that the war produced two authentic geniuses: Abraham Lincoln and Nathan Bedford Forrest.
I am writing this essay only a few miles from the home site in Tippah County where Nathan Bedford Forrest spent much of his youth. Just yards from where I grew up, runs the “Nathan Bedford Forrest Highway,” So, Ole Bedford was destined to be my boyhood hero.
From earliest childhood, I collected Forrest memorabilia just as other youngsters collected baseball cards or athletes’ autographs. Over the years, I amassed quite a collection of photographs, prints, and statuaries depicting General Forrest’s feats during battle. As I grew into manhood, both my mother and my wife wisely forbade any of my treasures to be displayed. However, when I built my hunting lodge in Panola county, I dusted them off and found a suitable place for them to be on display. These days, I wrestle with that decision.
I have collected and read most of the numerous Forrest biographies and can’t honestly recommend any of them. They all seem to me to fall short in one of two ways. Either they glorify the man’s military genius, leadership skills, and courage while whitewashing his slave trading and racist past, or they depict him as “that devil Forrest“ and stretch historical coincidences to paint him as pure evil incarnate. While these two divergent views of the man can coexist, neither paints a true picture of the man’s character. Forrest was a mightily flawed man who reflected the predominant views of his times and quite likely was simultaneously the most brilliant military commander America has ever produced.
It is only from the perspective of the bright sunshine of today that we come to understand both the richness of his genius and the wealth of the sins of the times in which he lived. He was a gallant, brave, tough SOB who was on the wrong side of history while fighting brilliantly for one of the most unjust causes to ever befall mankind.
My opinion today as a grown man? The South was wrong! Everything Forrest fought for was wrong. Slavery was a sin against both man and God! America is still reaping the just punishment for the savagery of slavery’s sin. The stain of those sins cannot be white-washed and neither can the pain.
These are absolute truths. They are truths that we must embrace. As a southern white man steeped in the lies of the “Lost Cause “mythology, it is difficult even today for me to come to grips with the pain and the stain of my region’s savagery towards our brothers and sisters! I find it gut wrenching to even write about it almost two hundred years later.
Forrest’s most vocal critics and conventional thought fault him for being the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, except it is not true. Forrest joined the Klan a year-and-a-half after it had been founded in Pulaski, Tennessee. For white people, Reconstruction was brutally harsh and corrupt in Tennessee and Mississippi, and the Klan was a vigilante response to that brutality and corruption, levying their own version of the same. Forrest did join their ranks, and, due to his celebrity status, quickly rose to become its leader. It was also General Forrest that ordered the Klan to disband, although that’s rarely noted.
In July 1875, General Forrest was asked to address an association of black southerners who advocated racial reconciliation. The organization, known as the Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association was the forerunner of today’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The New York Times reported at the time that it was a “friendly speech “in which the old Confederate General offered a radically progressive agenda (for those times) of equal opportunity and harmony between black and white Americans. What follows is part of the General’s remarks to the group:
“This day is a day that is proud to me, having occupied the position that I did for the past twelve years, and been misunderstood by your race. This is the first opportunity I have had during that time to say that I am your friend. I am here as a representative of the southern people, one more slandered and maligned than any man in the nation. I will say to you and to the colored race that the men who bore arms and followed the flag of the confederacy are, with very few exceptions, your friends. I have an opportunity to say what I have always felt — that I am your friend, for my interests are your interests, and your interests are my interests. We were born on the same soil, breathe the same air, and live in the same land. Why, then, can we not live as brothers? . . . I came here with the jeers of some white people who think I am doing wrong. I believe that I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to bring about peace. It has always been my motto to elevate every man and to depress none. . . . 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, that you and I are freemen. . . .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.. . . 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.”
As a matter of fact, General Forrest, towards the end of his life, became one of the South’s most respected and loudest voices for racial reconciliation. Nonetheless, it cannot be forgotten that Forrest, while pleading for tolerance and the unity of a divided nation, made his fortune selling enslaved African Americans. I choose to believe in redemption. The African American community in Memphis apparently did, too. When the ole General died, newspaper accounts say that his funeral was the largest one ever held in Memphis. Most estimate that between eight and nine thousand people came to pay their last respects, about one half of whom were African Americans.
General Forrest said,“We all live under one flag now.” If only we had all heard and heeded the old General’s advice, we here in Mississippi would not be currently embroiled in another fight over the heritage of the Confederacy and its lasting symbolism.
The battle flag of the Confederacy has always been a big part of the lives of most white southerners of my generation. We waved it with pride. We placed it on graves on Confederate Memorial Day. It appeared on our courthouse squares. My family up until the late 1990’s had Christmas trees decorated with little “rebel flags.” Foolishly, we never considered that it might be offensive to our African American brothers and sisters. What were we thinking? Actually, we weren’t thinking at all! Matters of race did not weigh into our thinking in the least!
Even my Scottish Presbyterian church displayed a close resemblance of the flag when it displayed the “Cross of Saint Andrews “or the national flag of Scotland. Substitute the pale blue background with red, add a few stars and you’ve got the battle flag of the Confederacy.
I daresay many Mississippians of my generation fondly remember cheering on our beloved Ole Miss Rebels by waving battle flags distributed in large numbers by the cheerleaders. I remember the emotion I always felt. The stadium would be filled with thousands of like-minded folks all waving the battle flag as the band played Dixie at an ever-increasing tempo. Chills would race up my spine, and my eyes would water as the band reached its crescendo. It was comparable to feelings we get when bagpipes play “Amazing Grace“ at a loved one’s funeral. It was powerful. It was genuine. It was pure emotion. It was everything we could ever want and nothing we could ever have!
Why did all this have such an impact on me and the thousands of others gathered in those cool southern stadiums? Was it wrong to feel that way? Was it wrong to glorify our defeated past? It seemed simple then, but today, it is a conundrum.
I can’t really explain it. Perhaps it tugged on our heartstrings so vigorously simply because we were at home, at home with family and friends who felt like we did. We all understood that the rest of the nation looked down their long noses at us. We were defeated, and our cause had been wrong at every level. Perhaps, the origin of our feelings was simply one last act of defiance, one last demonstration of rebellion. Partly out of fatigue, partly out of frustration, and partly out of guilt, we were crying out to the rest of the nation. We’re still here, and we’re not going anywhere, we shouted! We needed to feel alive and in those defiant moments we had never felt more hopeful, more vibrant, more alive. Strikingly, matters of race were nowhere to be found in this emotional equation. I think we loved it simply because it’s who we believed we were — a people who fought gallantly, sacrificed mightily, and suffered economic loss for an unjust cause, which we thankfully lost!
Today the Confederate battle flag has become synonymous with thugs, racists, misfits, malcontents, and even Nazis! Someone once famously called those folks “a basket of deplorables.” I agree.
Some creditable historians can make compelling cases that it originally was a virtuous symbol other equally serious scholars argue that it was always the emblem of traitors and stood for the oppression of enslaved people. Those are interesting academic debates, but little more. The fact is it has now become a symbol of bigotry, hate, and xenophobia! And God-loving and God-fearing people everywhere should reject its symbolism.
We must now accept that we lost the War Between the States; we must now accept that it was indeed a Civil War! We were on the wrong side of it. We fought for an unjust cause. We lost, my friends and fellow Mississippians. We lost.
Psychologists tell us there are five stage of grief when we suffer loss. The five stages in order are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. The Civil War ended 156 years ago. We lost. Any review of Mississippi history for the last 156 years clearly mirrors each of those stages of grief. We are among the very best people molded by God’s hand, yet we are a defiant and stubborn bunch! Isn’t it time to get to the final stage of grief? Acceptance! We Lost. Remove the Confederate battle flag from our state flag! Let’s start the healing process. Finally.
As for my childhood collection of Nathan Bedford Forrest memorabilia, in the privacy of my lodge, they hang alongside photographs of me leading voter registration marches with the Reverend Jesse Jackson, alongside editorials endorsing my candidacy for public office from Martin Luther King III, and Dr. Aaron Henry, alongside the”Drum-major for Justice” award of Dr King’s Southern Leadership Conference, and alongside the “Medgar Evers Award“ of the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP. I was the first white man to receive that treasured award.
Someday, my children may choose to remove all of the Old Man’s memorabilia, and that will be just fine by me. But for now, they will remain in place. After all, in a very real sense they both represent who I am!
As a final note: Get a new damn flag!
Still wondering how Trump got elected? Steve Patterson has a few ideas: https://www.nemiss.news/letter-to-trump-situation-hopeless-not-impossible/Brice's Cross Roads Battlefield, Confederate flag, Mississippi Flag, MS politics, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Northeast MS news, Warren Spahn