Forrest – the most controversial man in Tennessee history

Published 4:13 pm Monday, June 12, 2023

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Editor’s note: This column is the fifth in a series of topics slated to be deleted from the eighth-grade Tennessee social studies standards.

Nathan Bedford Forrest is by far the most controversial figure in Tennessee history. That’s why a statue of him was removed from the hallway of the Tennessee State Capitol, and why his remains were recently moved.

Why is he so controversial?

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Forrest was born in 1821 in a log cabin in what is now Marshall County. He and his twin sister were the oldest of 12 children of a poor blacksmith. In 1834, the family moved to Mississippi. Three years later, Forrest’s father died, and Nathan had to work to support the family.

In 1841, Nathan worked for his uncle, Jonathan Forrest, a mule trader in Hernando, Miss. Four years later, Jonathan was killed in an argument with a group of brothers. In retaliation, Nathan shot and killed two of them.

Nathan expanded the mule trading business to include slave trading, and he moved to Memphis. By 1857 Forrest was one of the best-known slave traders in the mid-South. With branch offices all over the Mississippi River Valley, Forrest made a lot of money buying enslaved people in places such as West Tennessee and Kentucky and selling them in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. Advertisements for “N.B. Forrest–Dealer in Slaves” ran in newspapers as far away as Charleston, S.C.

Forrest was so prominent that he became a Memphis city alderman. In 1859, by which time he owned two plantations and several hundred slaves, he retired from slave trading.

When the Civil War broke out, Forrest enlisted in the army. Only a few months later, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and given the command of the 3rd Tennessee Confederate Cavalry.

During the Civil War, Forrest’s men fought at just about every major Tennessee battle. The actions of its leader, meanwhile, became the subject of amazing stories. At Fort Donelson, Forrest refused to surrender and led thousands of men out of the fort into safety. At Shiloh, he picked up a Union soldier and used him as a human shield to keep from being killed. At Parker’s Crossroads, his men were surrounded by enemy troops when he gave them the command to “Charge ’em both ways!” They did, successfully.

Written accounts claim that Forrest killed 31 men during the war, mostly in saber duels or pistol shootings, and that he had about 30 horses shot out from under him.

In April 1864, Forrest’s cavalry attacked Fort Pillow – a Union fortress on the Mississippi River in Tennessee that was guarded by hundreds of African-American Union soldiers. According to Northern newspapers, Confederate troops continued to kill Union soldiers as they attempted to surrender. “The blacks and their officers were shot down, bayoneted and put to the sword in cold blood – the helpless victims of the perfidy by which they were overpowered,” the New York Times reported.

Forrest’s men later maintained that the Union troops kept their weapons and continued to fire as they fled in the direction of the Mississippi River and a Union gunboat there. This refusal to surrender, they insisted, is why so many of them were killed.

The incident became known as the Fort Pillow Massacre, and in the minds of many Americans, Forrest was responsible.

Forrest’s postwar career is remembered for his leadership in the Ku Klux Klan from about 1867 until 1869 – a time when it frequently resorted to violence to intimidate former enslaved men from voting or running for public office. However, by 1869, Forrest reportedly believed that the Klan was ungovernable and that its methods were doing damage to the South. He withdrew from the Klan and even ordered it to be disbanded. (Many members of the Klan ignored his orders.)

Career wise, Forrest tried to get into the railroad business as an executive with two different railroads, but was unsuccessful in these ventures. He spent his declining years in charge of a prison camp on an island in the Mississippi River.

On July 4, 1875, Forrest made a speech to a large audience of African Americans in Memphis. The conciliatory nature of his remarks shocked many Southerners. “We were born of the same soil, breathe the same air, and live in the same land,” he said. “Why, then, can we not live as brothers.” He went on to say that “we have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment.” Many newspapers across the South criticized Forrest for the way in which he reached out to African Americans in the speech. “The speech of General Forrest is positively disgusting,” said the Shreveport Times.

Nathan Bedford Forrest died of natural causes in October 1877. He was buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis. In 1904, his remains (and that of his wife Mary) were disinterred and moved to a small park in downtown Memphis named Forrest Park.

That park, and the large statue of him which towered over it, eventually became the center of controversy. The park has since been renamed Health Sciences Park, the statue taken down, and his remains moved to the National Confederate Museum in Maury County.