In a comment on my previous post, I was taken to task for pointing out the simple fact that Nathan Bedford Forrest, former Confederate General and first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, disbanded the Klan a couple of years after its founding, when it proved itself to be a terrorist organization. In no way was I defending the Klan; far from it. I was simply pointing out an inconvenient truth that most historians would rather ignore.
Forrest was clearly no angel, but he did in fact disband the Klan, when it got out of hand, and a fair rendering of history should make that clear, which is all I was trying to do. If Forrest is to be reviled as the first Grand Wizard of the Klan, then he should be respected for disbanding it two years later.
If Forrest is rightly reviled for the massacre at Fort Pillow, he should also be respected as perhaps the greatest general and tactician either side produced in that bloody war. That was certainly Grant's opinion of him. Forrest may also have been the bravest, since he often fought at the head of his cavalry.
Yes, Forrest was a slave owner, but so were the majority of the Founders. That is no defense of Forrest, and it certainly is no defense of slavery, it is simply a fact. We need to try to understand by what twisted logic Thomas Jefferson could declare “all men are created equal”, and yet continue to enslave 200 human beings. This is the best I could come up with on that account in my book The Disappearing Cemetery:
Virginia beckons, even now
Dark earth upturned to heaving plow
A reverence for the land, I vow
To this I did my life endow
I gave my all to one true cause
To free this land from tyrant’s claws
But now am fallen for my flaws –
How swiftly dies polite applause
My enemies exaggerate
And draw dark marks upon my slate
So I am come to expiate
These charges laid on me of late
Indulge my pen, Good Sir, I pray
For speaking fills my mouth with clay
A man of parts in disarray
But once a god – or say they say
Yes, once a god – with lower “g”
The author of Our Liberty
But fallen now in history
For having failed to set slaves free
Or else for that on which fools dwell
Concerning love – how gossip sells!
No gentleman would kiss and tell
May gossips die and rot in Hell!
Forgive me this intemperate plea
But that has been my curse, you see
A man of Reason – nth degree
Yet Passion made a slave of me
Ill-chosen word, I must admit
And yet, that is the heart of it
For master must himself submit
To that which he would sooner quit
So of two minds, where should be one
How else explain the deeds I’ve done?
By my own hand I am undone
My shining star a sinking sun
I claim my sins, I’ll not deny
Nor Reason ever answer ‘why?’
But Phoenix rose, and so shall I
To shine again in starry sky
But let the sinless cast first stone
And judge me not on sins alone
Pray, let my greater deeds atone
Let not good be interred with bones
For I have learned this much, my Friend
That marble statues are not men
Though Good and Evil both portend
'Tis Good that triumphs in the end
When we turn historical figures into saints or satans, we cheat ourselves and posterity. In doing so, we turn them into caricatures and cartoons, rather than view them as men and women, with all their human foibles and flaws. We would do well to follow the example of Andrew Jackson's first biogrpaher, who called him an “atrocious saint”.
The same could be said of Forrest, as I tried to make clear with this poem in the same book:
Nathan Bedford Forrest
So you come to seek me out to learn what makes me tick
So you think a man who kills and likes it is plain sick
So what of you who comes to poke inside another’s head
And picks the flesh from off his bones and desecrates the dead?
First of all, I will admit, I did enjoy the fight
Particularly because the side I chose was in the right
You Yankee boys were quick to give the South all of the blame
But yo’r the ones who changed the rules when you tired of the game
I was not born of time and place to get to make the rules
I grew up poor and put upon by wealthy, privileged fools
But I was hard and held my ground and figured out a way
To play somebody else’s game and, by God, make it pay!
Then came some gentleman to say, “The game is over now;
You can no longer earn your bread upon some black man’s brow.”
While he sat idle at his desk and rode some poor man’s back
I saw no diff’rence save that one was white and one was black
I took to arms to keep my place, as any man would do
If being robbed of all his wealth and all his children’s, too
All that I earned through my device they wished to take away–
Damned right, I fought! And so would you, no matter what you say
By grace of God, I fought and lived, and not with timid heart
I grabbed the battle by the throat and tore their troops apart
I fought the war as I had fought to make my place in life
My saber running red with blood and plunging deep my knife
So now you come to seek me out and think you’re justified
In painting me maniacal and filled with foolish pride
But I did as all others did in that unholy Hell
And I submit my only sin was doing it too well
I confess, that after writing that, I looked up from the page and thought, "Where the hell did that come from?" I can't help but wonder if I was putting words in someone else's mouth, or they were putting words in mine. Be that as it may, I am not an apologist for Forrest, and certainly not for slavery. Evil is evil period, and it's hard to think of an evil worse than slavery, though extermination of a people may qualify.
Be that as it may, if we are to understand why there is still so much resentment over that war in the South a century and a half later, we would do well to acquaint ourselves with what the other side believes about those terrible times.
What went on before, during and after the Civil War was awful, but the history of that time is skewed. Like they say, history is written by the winners. If we are to learn from history, it must be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.