Monday, February 11, 2013

In Defense of General Forrest

Gen. Forrest is the subject of a very old hoax that has been around since the 1860s. There is no truth to the rumor that he was ever a 'leader of the kkk' or that he was a racist.  

When he was called to appear at the 1871 US Congressional Committee that investigated the charges of his rumored involvement with that group, he was building a railroad with most of his workers being blacks, whom he paid better wages than other companies were paying whites.  He worked to promote civil rights for blacks, and for all men; his speech to the Pole Bearers is proof of that. 
 In 1871, Gen. Forrest was called before a congressional Committee.  Forrest testified before Congress personally over four hours .

Here's part of the transcript of Forrest's testimony to that 1871 hearing: 

"The reports of Committees, House of Representatives, second session, forty-second congress," P. 7-449.  (see link
here )

"The primary accusation before this board is that Gen. Forrest was a founder of The Klan, and its first Grand Wizard, So it shall address those accusations first."

Forrest took the witness stand June 27th,1871. Building a railroad in Tennessee at the time, Gen Forrest stated he 'had done more , probably than any other man, to suppress these violence and difficulties and keep them down, had been vilified and abused in the (news) papers, and accused of things I never did while in the army and since.  He had nothing to hide, wanted to see this matter settled, our country quiet once more, and our people united and working together harmoniously.'

Asked if he knew of any men or combination of men violating the law or preventing the execution of the law: Gen Forest answered emphatically, 'No.' (A Committee member brought up a 'document' suggesting otherwise, the 1868 newspaper article from the "Cincinnati Commercial". That was their "evidence", a news article.)

Forrest stated ...any information he had on the Klan was information given to him by others.

Sen. Scott asked, 'Did you take any steps in organizing an association or society under that prescript (Klan constitution)?'

Forrest: 'I DID NOT'  Forrest further stated that '..he thought the Organization (Klan) started in middle Tennessee, although he did not know where. It is said I started it.'

Asked by Sen. Scott, 'Did you start it, Is that true?'

Forrest: 'No Sir, it is not.'

Asked if he had heard of the Knights of the white Camellia, a Klan-like organization in Louisiana,

Forrest: 'Yes, they were reported to be there.'

Senator: 'Were you a member of the order of the white Camellia?'

Forrest: 'No Sir, I never was a member of the Knights of the white Camellia.'

Asked about the Klan :

Forrest: 'It was a matter I knew very little about. All my efforts were addressed to stop it, disband it, and prevent it....I was trying to keep it down as much as possible.'

Forrest: 'I talked with different people that I believed were connected to it, and urged the disbandment of it, that it should be broken up.'"

The following article appeared in the New York times June 27th, "Washington, 1871. Gen Forrest was before the Klu Klux Committee today, and his examination lasted four hours.  After the examination, he remarked than the committee treated him with much courtesy and respect."

Gen. Forrest was NOT the 'first Grand Wizard of the KKK'. For the correct information on that, here are the actual documented facts : 

Actually, the "kuklos" was started in Pulaski, Tennessee, just before Christmas 1865, by six ex-Confederate officers, and was a sort of social club for Confederate officers. 

Nathan Bedford Forrest had absolutely nothing to do with the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. 

And even within the history of the Klan, differences must be noted between the Klan of the 1860s and the Klan of today. 

The KKK that was reorganized in 1915 had a  reputation as a bigoted and sometimes violent organization, fueled by hate and ignorance and thriving on fear and intimidation.  But that wasn't always the case. The original KKK of the 1860s was organized as a fun club, or social club, for Confederate veterans.  Many historians agree that if a YMCA had been available in the town of Pulaski, Tenn., the KKK might never have existed.

On Dec. 24, 1865, six young Confederate veterans met in the law office of Judge Thomas M. Jones, near the courthouse square in Pulaski.  Their names were James R. Crowe, Calvin E. Jones, John B. Kennedy, John C. Lester, Frank O. McCord, and Richard B. Reed.  All had been CSA officers and were lawyers, except Kennedy and McCord, who had each served as a private in the Confederate army.  The meeting resulted in the idea of forming a social club, an 1860s version of the VFW or American Legion. 

Notice, Gen. Forrest was not present at the founding meeting.

Their number quickly grew, and in meetings that followed, the men selected a name based on the Greek word "kuklos" meaning circle, from which they derived the name Ku Klux.  

Perhaps bowing to their Scotch-Irish ancestry, and to add alliteration to the name, they included "clan," spelled with a K.  And so, quite innocently, a new social club called the Ku Klux Klan was created to provide recreation for Confederate veterans.

McCord, whose family owned the town's weekly newspaper, the Pulaski Citizen, printed mysterious-sounding notices of meetings and club activities.  As other newspapers picked up his stories about the Klan, word spread and the organization grew.

When the war ended, Forrest was virtually broke, having spent most of his estimated pre-war fortune of $1.5 million outfitting his troops.  He was spending his time between business ventures in Memphis and his farm in Mississippi. Organizations such as the Klan were farthest from his mind.   
After the War, General Forrest made a speech to the Memphis City Council (then called the Board of Aldermen). In this speech he said that there was no reason that the black man could not be doctors, store clerks, bankers, or any other job equal to whites. They were part of our community and should be involved and employed as such just like anyone else. In another speech to Federal authorities, Forrest said that many of the ex-slaves were skilled artisans and needed to be employed and that those skills needed to be taught to the younger workers. If not, then the next generation of blacks would have no skills and could not succeed and would become dependent on the welfare of society.

Forrest's words went unheeded. The Memphis & Selma Railroad was organized by Forrest after the war to help rebuild the South's transportation and to build the 'new South'. Forrest took it upon himself to hire blacks as architects, construction engineers and foremen, train engineers and conductors, and other high level jobs. In the North, blacks were prohibited from holding such jobs.

When Forrest was 'elected' Grand Wizard of the Klan in mid-1867 at the Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville, he wasn't even in town.  He was 'elected' in absentia.   The best scholarly research shows that Forrest never "led the Klan," he never "rode with" the Klan, nor did he ever own any Klan paraphernalia. It has been speculated by many that the reason for his name being submitted for the election was partly a prank, and mostly to discredit him for his work toward black equality such as his hiring practices for his railroad company.  Forrest was a civil rights pioneer.

The only known order that Forrest issued using his famous name and perceived authority was for the KKK to disband in 1869, which it finally did in 1871.  And even that order was written by his longtime friend and former chief artillery officer, Capt. John Watson Morton.

So there you have it.  There is no reason to think of Gen. Forrest with anything but admiration and respect.  If anyone still thinks badly of Gen. Forrest, that is a reflection of their own bad character, and does not take away from Gen. Forrest's outstanding contributions to humanity. 

Always remember, the "kuklos" of the late 1860s wasn't even remotely like the US-flag-waving racist mob of the early 20th century.

Forrest's Speech to the Pole Bearers

Forrest (1821-1877) was a famous Southern military leader, a brilliant strategist and a gentleman who made his mark in what Southerners call the War of Northern Aggression.
To paint every general on the losing side as a racist simply because you don't like the South is a travesty that the facts of history will knock down time and time again. 
Yes, Forrest was a great general in an unpopular war, but when the war ended, Forrest accepted the outcome and then sought reconciliation with those around him. 
He worked diligently to rebuild the New South and earnestly to generate employment for black Southerners.
His leadership and character did not fade because the South had been defeated. Instead he used who he was, accepted the outcome, and used his fame and talents for others' good.
At an early convention of the Pole-Bearers, whose beginnings prefaced the NAACP, it was Forrest who was invited to speak.  History records no disrespect at the meeting; instead both the Pole-Bearers and Forrest behaved with mutual respect and decorum.  

He was the guest speaker, and historically the first white invited to be the keynote speaker.
Forrest was asked because the group was said to have wanted to extend union and peace to others, but what happened in further actions was even more important. 
On July 4, 1875 the event began with a young black woman, the daughter of a leader of the Pole-Bearers, offering him a small bouquet of flowers signifying the peace intended.
Forrest received the flowers and then spoke from his heart to the gathering. His actions and recorded words testify that this gentleman was in truth a civil rights advocate, a believer in the rights of all people. 
Among the statements he made that day:  "I came here with jeers of some white people who think what I am doing is wrong.  We were born on the same soil, breathe the same air, live in the same land, and why should we not be brothers and sisters.  I believe I can exert some influence ... and shall do all in my power 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." 
He apologized for having no formal speech, but continued, " Many things have been said about me that are wrong, and which black and white persons here who stood by me through the war can contradict." 

"I feel that you are free men, I am a free man, and we can do as we please. I came here as a friend and whenever I can serve any of you I will do so.  We have one union, one flag, one country; therefore, let us stand together. Although we differ in color, we should not differ in sentiment."

"Do your duty as citizens, and if any are oppressed, I will be your friend.  I thank you for the flowers, and assure you that I am with you in heart and hand."
It should be noted that both black and white soldiers fought under Forrest against the North.  Many were in attendance at this Memphis address.  When Forrest's cavalry abdicated in May of 1865, the muster included 65 black soldiers.  Forrest described those gentlemen as soldiers amid his finest. 
Yes, Forrest was a Southern general whose war strategies were unmatched.  Yes, the war that began over states rights brought forth a welcome transition to the civil rights we are so thankful for today.
For more info on Gen. Forrest, see  Memphis' first White Civil Rights Advocate
The transcript of the 1871 Congressional Committee can be found here.
Pages 3 to 41 contain Gen. Forrest's testimony.

This link connects to the record of Gen. Forrest's testimony concerning the 'ku klux' and the state of affairs in portions of Georgia and Tennessee in which Gen. Forrest had traveled.  There are only two mentions of Fort Pillow in this link, each time it is mentioned only in passing, not in depth.  

We are still looking for the rumored transcript of the committee in which Gen. Sherman supposedly questions Gen. Forrest; it is probably an urban legend.  Sherman was not a member of congress in 1871.

Many thanks to the Library of Congress for providing this link.

As for Fort Pillow, Gen. Forrest received many requests from residents around the fort asking him to come stop the Union soldiers from looting and pillaging the area and from committing atrocities (murders, rapes, random shootings, etc.) upon the people.  When the battle started, many of the Union troops were drunk and refused to surrender when the battle was clearly lost.  Afterward, Gen. Forrest had the most severely wounded Union soldiers transferred to a Union gunboat.

 The Yankee newspapers created all sorts of lies to cover up the atrocities committed by the Union troops and their refusal to abide by the terms of surrender, so they invented tales of butchery by Forrest's troops.  After learning all the facts of the battle and the Union atrocities committed in the weeks before the battle, one has to admire the restraint of the Confederates.  The Union Congressional "investigation" of 1864 was a smear job.

  For a full accounting of the Fort Pillow battle, read "Confederate Victories At Fort Pillow" by Edward F. Williams III, published 1973 by Historic Trails, Inc., Memphis, TN and "The Campaigns of General Nathan Bedford Forrest and of Forrest's Cavalry", originally published in 1868 and reprinted in 1996.  Both books can probably be found at Abes Books.

Another interesting read:  "Truth Of The War Conspiracy"


  1. The supposed ' Victor ' writes history. Bedford Forrest developed tactic's for small unit's facing overwhelming odd's , and at times behind enemy lines that are still in use today. I can't even remember who his opposites were. However I do remember clearly , one of the first lines in FM 31-21 " Resistance is the cornerstone of Guerrilla Warfare ".

  2. I always appreciate your posts that put under the microscope the true facts of the events of that time. As history is written by the victors, the truth is also a victim!

    1. As history is written by the victors, the truth is also a victim!

      & we shall never stop fighting the good fight.:)

  3. A nice bit of facts amongst the garbage.