Nathan Bedford Forrest and Civil War Memory
The tumultuous battles over who controls Civil War memory are still alive and well – especially if you are thinking about the new monument to Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest – soon to be installed in Selma, Alabama.
Naturally, protestors and detractors from around the country have weighed in against the monument. Noting a couple of glaring facts such as Forrest’s prewar occupation trading slaves, his implication in the Fort Pillow Massacre, and his tenure as the first Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, many have been moved to simply wonder why anyone would want to honor such a man with a monument.
Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans see Forrest in a different light. Their Forrest is a man of resolute loyalty to the cause, a man with no military experience who rose to a level of skill and competence matching some of the greatest military heroes of the Confederacy. Novelist Shelby Foote once referred to him as a “genius” comparable to Abraham Lincoln.
Some call him a murderer – others call him a hero. There is no gray area (so to speak). Some Forrest apologists applaud his involvement with a “kinder and gentler” version of Klan as part of an effort to bring law and order to a disrupted South. Hmmmmm. And the monument, say members of the SCV, will go in as planned despite detractors’ vows to stop it.
How people remember the Civil War has certainly changed in the last several decades. Not long ago, protests against installing a Forrest monument would have been much less virulent – if they occurred at all. Today’s reflections on the war – during the sesquicentennial – are tending to lean in many ways away from the “white only” ceremonies of the early to mid-twentieth century. Slavery, emancipation, race, and racism are deeply embedded in the twenty-first century commemorative ethos and it seems like Confederate heritage groups are losing their grip on commemoration broadly defined. While these groups have never dominated northern Civil War memory (despite what you might read) it now seems that they are losing control in the South as well.
Groups such as the SCV have barricaded themselves against attacks behind the “heritage not hate” motto. But a new monument to Forrest suggests a symbolic middle finger gestured in the direction of those who are not only surprised by such an effort, but offended as well.
What do you think? Should there be a new monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest?