Nathan Bedford Forrest and Racial Reconciliation

Easily the most controversial figure in the Civil War, probably the most controversial figure in American history, Nathan Bedford Forrest has always been the subject of fierce debate.  Self-made millionaire who rose from poverty with much of his money made as a slaver trader;  a semi-literate whose tactics and strategies as the most successful cavalry commander of the  Civil War are still studied at military academies around the world;  a brilliant general celebrated by the South and condemned by the North as the perpetrator of a massacre at Fort Pillow;  a man who killed in combat 31 Union soldiers in the War but who after the War constantly had former Union soldiers visit him to shake his hand; and  a racist who helped found the Ku Klux Klan after the War, but who also made a remarkable speech near the end of his life.

In 1875 Forrest was invited to address a meeting of the Independent Order of Pole Bearers, an early black civil rights organization in Memphis, at their Fourth of July barbecue on July 5.  Forrest was told by many whites that he should not accept, but Forrest went.  Just before he spoke he was presented a bouquet of flowers by Miss Flora Lewis, a daughter of one of the members of the Pole Bearers.   Here is Forrest’s speech.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I accept the flowers as a memento of reconciliation between the white and colored races of the Southern states. I accept it more particularly as it comes from a colored lady, for if there is any one on God’s earth who loves the ladies I believe it is myself. (Immense applause and laughter.) I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to elevate every man, to depress none.

(Applause.)

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, you and I are freemen. Do as you consider right and honest in electing men for office. I did not come here to make you a long speech, although invited to do so by you. I am not much of a speaker, and my business prevented me from preparing myself. I came to meet you as friends, and welcome you to the white people. I want you to come nearer to us. 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. Many things have been said about me which are wrong, and which white and black persons here, who stood by me through the war, can contradict. 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.” (Prolonged applause.)

After the speech Forrest thanked Miss Lewis for the bouquet and kissed her on the cheek.  This type of familiarity between the races in public was almost unheard of at the time.  Forrest’s speech was probably motivated by his desire to become a Christian.  As his health faltered and his time on Earth grew short, Forrest sought to make amends for some of his deeds, and I think this speech was part of his attempt.  This speech was also the last appearance at a public event by Forrest as a speaker.

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Published in: on May 20, 2010 at 5:36 am  Comments (22)  
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22 Comments

  1. Thank you for posting this story about General Forrest.
    Sadly, the NAACP refuses to acknowledge this speech and still tries to have the name changed of ANYTHING that is names in Forrest’s honor.

  2. OOOP, typo. I meant to type, “NAMED in Forrest’s honor”.

  3. As well they might.
    One little speech at the tail end cannot undo all the evil this man committed. He was a slave-trader, a traitor and a terrorist. If, before he died he was saved and asked God’s mercy, that is reason to rejoice but NOT to forget what 99.9% of his life was about.

  4. Slave trader he clearly was, something he never hid. Traitor he, and all the Confederates who fought in the Civil War, would deny. Terrorist? The events of Fort Pillow are still perplexing as to whether a massacre occurred there and Forrest’s involvement in it. After the Civil War the Ku Klux Klan clearly engaged in terrorist actions. As Forrest was one of the founders, he has to accept a fair amount of responisibility. On the other hand he issued the order disbanding the Klan, whether out of concern that violent elements were taking over the Klan as he claimed, or from fear of Federal retaliation as his critics claimed.

  5. Grant called him a genius, Sherman called him, that Devil Forrest. He grew up hard, swore, but didn’t drink, smoke, cheat on his one wife. He did his duty to protect his state which was under invasion from a government army representing (to the Southrons- including scores of former U.S. Senators, Representative, Army Officers, Cabinet Members and yes, a former President) a foreign invader, which waged all out, total war against civilians (including women and children, black and white. He was feared by his enemies, loved by his troops, and respected by all….even a black population affected by the institution of slavery….still practised in sub-sahara Africa today. If they could accept and forgive him…you can too…deal with it.

  6. I think a great many blacks at the time thought of the term “fear” Bill, rather than the term “respect” in regard to Forrest. The man deserves his historical due, but whitewashing someone is not giving them their historical due.

  7. Even the most ardent supporter of Southern Independence, and the justification of sovereign states then (or now) following the advise of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, would advocate a return to slavery. But considering slavery’s place/attitude throughout world history, NB Forrest should not denied his due merely for his involvement in a practice that was perfectly legal.
    BTW Southern culture was heavily influenced by Christian thought, even those who were not actual believers were still affected….Consider the fact that no where in the Old or New Testament is slavery ever called a sin, or was it forbidden. Although there were numerous admonitions regarding treatment of slaves. Southern ministers would not preach against, nor southern culture reject outright a practice which was not thus condemned. Although feelings and attitudes did change throughout the south, as they evidently did with Forrest. BTW, free blacks rode with the klan as well as whites. Initially a fraternal/vigilanty group to suppress government abuse of southerners during reconstruction.
    Forrest, to his credit disbanded the organization, when it took a turn toward racial prejudice.

    Did you know-
    a confederate flag never flew over a slave ship, (although yankee traders from Boston and Philadelphia assuredly flew the stars and stripes.)

    The U.S. capital was built by slave labor.

    At the beginning of the War for Secession, there were more slave states in the union, than in the south.

    Lincoln’s father-in-law, and Gen. U.S. Grant were BOTH slaveholders.

    The CSA constitution forbid the importation of slaves…the U.S. constitution did not.

    FREE state meant FREE FROM blacks, not FREE FOR BLACKSsuch as Kansas, Indiana, and Lincoln’s Illinois did not allow blacks until after 1865. “Send them back to Africa,” is a quote from Abraham Lincoln. While Jefferson Davis, President of the CSA, and his wife, adopted a black orphan, Jim Limber, whose dead parents they had known. The boy dissappeared when taken from the family home by Federal troops.

    Guess history just ain’t what it used to be.

  8. Should Say. “would NOT endorse a return to slavery.”

  9. “a confederate flag never flew over a slave ship, (although yankee traders from Boston and Philadelphia assuredly flew the stars and stripes.)”

    The slave trade was banned in 1808 by federal statute which was the first year it could be banned under the Constitution. Northern delegates to the Constitutional Covention wanted the slave trade banned sooner, and southern delegates wanted it banned later and the 1808 date was a compromise. The Confederate Constitution continued the ban on the external slave trade. It also banned the Confederate Congress from passing any law abolishing slavery.

    “The U.S. capital was built by slave labor.”

    Considering that Maryland was a slave state that does not come as any surprise. Free labor was also used. Attempts by anti-slavery forces to ban slavery in the District of Columbia prior to the Civil War were stymied by pro-slavery forces in Congress.

    “At the beginning of the War for Secession, there were more slave states in the union, than in the south.”

    The Union view of course was that none of the slave states were ever out of the Union. Eventually all slave states joined the Confederacy except Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware and Maryland. The Confederacy regarded Missouri and Kentucky as being members of the Confederacy.

    “Lincoln’s father-in-law, and Gen. U.S. Grant were BOTH slaveholders.”

    Considering that their wives both came from slave-owning families this is not surprising. Grant had one slave, William Jones, that he purchased from his father-in-law. He freed Jones in 1859.

    “The CSA constitution forbid the importation of slaves…the U.S. constitution did not.”

    See earlier comment on this point.

    “FREE state meant FREE FROM blacks, not FREE FOR BLACKSsuch as Kansas, Indiana, and Lincoln’s Illinois did not allow blacks until after 1865.”

    I am not familiar with Kansas or Indiana, but in Illinois the law against blacks settling there was ignored.

    “Send them back to Africa,” is a quote from Abraham Lincoln.”

    Lincoln hoped that colonization could solve the problem of race in America. A free black colony in Liberia had existed decades before the war. When free black leaders informed him during the war that there was no interest in colonization among American blacks, he dropped the idea.

    “While Jefferson Davis, President of the CSA, and his wife, adopted a black orphan, Jim Limber, whose dead parents they had known. The boy disappeared when taken from the family home by Federal troops.”

    Largely correct:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Limber

  10. Missouri’s duly elected governor and legislature voted for secession at Carthage, Mo. October 30-31, 1861. The state had effectively been under martial law since early that year. A federally appoint “RUMP”
    state administrator was appointed. Mi ssouri’s Clayburne Jackson is the only state governor to ever lead a confederate army in the field. (along with former Mo. gov. Sterling Price.) So if the confederacy considered Missouri a part of the confederacy, and Missouri considered themselves part of the CSA….who cares what Lincoln thought. BTW there were many counties in Mo. where Lincoln received 0 votes in the 1860 election. In the cotton states…his name was not even on the ballot.

    You skirt around Lincoln’s many comments on the record regarding his views of blacks, as being less than equal to whites. Africans then were thought of like illegal immigrants today, a source of cheap labor to compete with whites, and ultimately were used as a political pawn. Slaves were purchased by landowners who took on responsibility for their food, shelter and well-being. Today, employers entice them to immigrate, pay them below par wages, and assume no responsibility for their well-being….that is on the backs of the rest of society. Contraband negroes were not exactly property, but not full constitutionally protected citizens in the pre-1865 south. Yes it was a peculiar instituion…like illegal immigration. Good ridance to them both.

    BTW….how many battles were fought, how many towns and farms burned, how many men, women and children where killed or wounded in Great Britain’s war to free the slaves? This is the same lie the Federal govt. is trying to sell today….we are spending a trillion dollars a year with troops now in 140 other countries, to make non-citizens free. Free for what? for global corporations, part of the grand military industrial complex to safely harness their cheap labor in the extraction of their nation’s wealth? Note* Afghanastan has trillions of dollars worth of untapped gold, cobalt, iron ore, paladium, and lithium reserves.

  11. “Missouri’s duly elected governor and legislature voted for secession at Carthage, Mo. October 30-31, 1861. The state had effectively been under martial law since early that year. A federally appoint “RUMP”
    state administrator was appointed. Mi ssouri’s Clayburne Jackson is the only state governor to ever lead a confederate army in the field. (along with former Mo. gov. Sterling Price.) So if the confederacy considered Missouri a part of the confederacy, and Missouri considered themselves part of the CSA….who cares what Lincoln thought. BTW there were many counties in Mo. where Lincoln received 0 votes in the 1860 election. In the cotton states…his name was not even on the ballot.”

    The fact that Lincoln’s name was not present on the ballot in the cotton states speaks very ill for the tolerance of the South for dissenting points of view at that time.

    In regard to Missouri, it was a bitterly divided state with strong pro-Unionist and pro-Confederate factions. A good article on the attempt by Governor Jackson to take Missouri out of the Union is here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Missouri_secession

    “You skirt around Lincoln’s many comments on the record regarding his views of blacks, as being less than equal to whites.”

    Actually I’ve addressed the subject many times on various blogs. Here is one of my posts on this blog regarding this issue:

    http://almostchosenpeople.wordpress.com/2010/02/03/lincoln-and-race/

    “BTW….how many battles were fought, how many towns and farms burned, how many men, women and children where killed or wounded in Great Britain’s war to free the slaves?”

    You mean the slave states would have simply given up slavery on the passage of a law in Washington to that effect? Nah, you can’t mean that. Well maybe the Confederate Congress would have freed the slaves? According to the Confederate Constitution they were forbidden to do so. Britain abolished slavery in the British Empire by the passage of a law. The historical record in this country amply demonstrates that slavery here was not going to be ended by the passage of a law, unless the law was backed up by a million bayonets. I will let the isolationist paleocon screed pass by without comment, since this blog is not for the debating of contemporary issues.

  12. Re: The Union view of course was that none of the slave states were ever out of the Union.

    If this were the case, we were the states that made up the confederacy “RE-ADMITTED” to the union, (ie. Alabama 1868) if they were viewed as never having left the union. A state’s sovereignty, was never viewed by the founders as an issue that would, could, or should be determined by a consolidated, national government. Unless of course you believe that the founders fought a war to leave one oppressive central government, only so they could create a new one.

  13. (typo) WHY were the states…

  14. BTW…you rationalized the need for the necessity of “millions of bayonets” while completely ignoring the inhuman Federal strategy of Total War waged against the Southern civilian population; by your argument, who were STILL U.S. citizens. Makes perfect sense, kill American citizens to free aliens were were not. Sounds like today’s federal stance toward aliens. To hell with the interests of U.S. citizens. I guess the end justified the means in your illogical view of things.

  15. “If this were the case, we were the states that made up the confederacy “RE-ADMITTED” to the union, (ie. Alabama 1868) if they were viewed as never having left the union.”

    Because Lincoln was murdered by John Wilkes Booth. He had a completely different vision for Reconstruction than what occurred and that sadly he did not live to implement.

    “BTW…you rationalized the need for the necessity of “millions of bayonets” while completely ignoring the inhuman Federal strategy of Total War waged against the Southern civilian population; by your argument, who were STILL U.S. citizens. Makes perfect sense, kill American citizens to free aliens were were not.”

    Black slaves were not aliens, but Americans who had been treated as property for more than two centuries. It was worth the Civil War to see them free. As for total war, considering the fact that the same people who led the South in 1861, were basically leading the South in 1877, I’d say the war was far from total. Perhaps if more strenuous measures had been used, blacks in the South wouldn’t have been treated as helots in their own country for another century.

  16. You do alot of rationalizing in your answers….because Lincoln was murdered by JW Booth, who shouted “sic semper tyrannus” the latin inscription on the Virginia state flag. Booth, a Marylander was more likely an agent of the radical republicans or the european Rothchild banking empire…but Lincoln’s death, does not have any bearing on the legal status. Southern states were not seeking to overthrow the U.S. government, merely declaring their independence from it. In Lincoln’s 1860 inaugural address he announced that he did not have the authority to prevent states from seceeding. Like our current federal govt., they say one think, and do another.

    I’m tired of this string….you will not cede any historical fact, because you suppose that you stand on moral high ground. Nothing about total war is moral. Lincoln’s Emmancipation Proclamation freed no one. Your logic says better secessionist dead, than africans without voting rights.

    It’s all quite academic for you, your state and county was not decimated by an out of control, power-mad, constitution desecrating tyranical despot….and we haven’t forgot….btw….what if the government wanted to liberate your house or automobile from you.
    But that’s property….blacks were people. Yes, they are…and many blacks were free, but the ones who were slaves were both people and property. It doesn’t sound pretty, but that’s the way it was. The south offered to end slavery in exchange for peaceful secession. In Lincoln’s original 13th ammendment, he offered slavery for ever in exchange for union. Why would the south have fought a war to keep an institution that was already legal….legal?

    In addition, southern society, which was steeped in fundamental christianity, would have not tolerated slavery had one verse in scripture prohibited it. Can you locate one? Oh, the bible is probably irrelevant to you, since it is the opiate of the people, right?

    Reasoning with a pseudo-intellectual is much like trying to each a pig to sing. it’s a waste of my time, and it annoys the pig.

  17. In closing, I would take the testimony of one lowly infantry, freezing and starving in the winter campaigns, or bravely facing almost certain, brutal death on the line of battle, as to why HE fought,
    than the reasonings and philosophising of 100 politicians on why they fought. For in the final analysist, politicians don’t fight wars, soldiers fight wars, and the reasons they fight, and re-enlist to fight again besides their brothers has very little to do with the pretext used by politicians who send them to war.

  18. “Booth, a Marylander was more likely an agent of the radical republicans or the european Rothchild banking empire”

    Complete and utter rubbish with not a scintilla of historical evidence to support it.

    “Southern states were not seeking to overthrow the U.S. government, merely declaring their independence from it.”

    It was all one country. The leaders of the Confederacy were willing to destroy that nation simply because they lost one Presidential election. If they had actually listened to what Lincoln said during the campaign, they would have realized that Lincoln was no threat to their Peculiar Institution in their states. The entire secession movement was based upon the fraudulent idea that Lincoln was going to act to abolish slavery in the South.

    “you will not cede any historical fact”

    Actually any unbiased reader perusing this thread will note that I have carefully pointed out where you have been right and where you have been wrong in regard to the historical record. In secular terms History has for me the status of sacred writ.

    “Nothing about total war is moral. Lincoln’s Emmancipation Proclamation freed no one. Your logic says better secessionist dead, than africans without voting rights.”

    The war was a national calamity which resulted in two events that were morally good: the preservation of the United States of America as one country and the end of slavery in this country. The Emancipation Proclamation was carefully tailored by Lincoln so as to not offend slaveholding border states and as a wartime measure. Everyone, North and South, realized that it was a deathblow to slavery. All you have to do is to read contemporary reaction, especially the reaction of slaves and free blacks. I think it much better that the Confederates were defeated than that they succeeded in breaking away from the United States and preserving slavery.

    “In addition, southern society, which was steeped in fundamental christianity, would have not tolerated slavery had one verse in scripture prohibited it. Can you locate one? Oh, the bible is probably irrelevant to you, since it is the opiate of the people, right?”

    Considering that I help run another blog called the American Catholic, attend Mass every week, and read the Bible every day, I’d say the Bible is rather important to me. The Bible can be used to bring us to God. It can also be misused as a cover for our sins. The Founding Fathers from the South almost uniformly regarded slavery as an evil that would pass away. In the Nineteenth Century slavery became economically a powerhouse with the cotton gin and growing industrial use of cotten. It was only then that most of the Biblical defenses of slavery, most of which of course could be also used as an argument for enslaving whites, were mustered in the South. The Christians I most admire in the South at that time, notably Robert E. Lee, didn’t buy into this and still regarded slavery as an unmitigated evil.

    “Reasoning with a pseudo-intellectual is much like trying to each a pig to sing. it’s a waste of my time, and it annoys the pig.”

    Well, we agree on that point. We would simply disagree on which of us is the pseudo-intellectual.

    “In closing, I would take the testimony of one lowly infantry, freezing and starving in the winter campaigns, or bravely facing almost certain, brutal death on the line of battle, as to why HE fought,”

    A Union soldier could have stated, as some of them did state actually, that they were not fighting to end slavery. That did not alter that this was precisely what they were doing. The converse is also true for every man who took up arms for the Confederacy.

  19. I beg your pardon, but you PRONOUNCING me wrong, does not make me wrong, despite the fact that you “run” this or other blogs. Likewise, PRONOUNCING that you are historically more informed, with the assessment that your opinion carries anymore weight than mine, ie. that prohibiting Southern states from exercising a God-given right of government by consent of the governed was a good thing, neither makes it so. I served my country on 4 continents (25 countries), and swore to uphold and defend the constitution, but NOT a power-mad, centralized, bureucratic despotic regime.

    If states had the fortitude to stand up to Washington today, in an effort to put the brakes on the current wave of insanity, and/or announce their intention to seceed, if constitutionally limited federalism was not swiftly restored, I would stand with them, with my blood. This is what lovers of liberty did in 1776 and 1861.(to quote another Forrest) “that’s all I’ve got to say about that.”

  20. Screaming in all caps and boasting about your military service is hardly an argument. Donald presented a rather thorough refutation of all of your arguments, and all you can muster is some meaningless bluster. I think that does indicate that you are in fact out to lunch.

  21. and who are you? I could footnote every statement….but why bother. history is written by the victors, and you approve. I was certainly not boisting about my military service, merely certifying that i do take liberty and the constitution seriously, as did Lee, Jackson, Cleburne, Forrest, etc. But note, that the winners of Lincoln’s war was centralized, national control, not emancipated slaves, who have used as a sort of permanent victim class…The losers, in my humble opinion, are property owners, tax payers, and the founding principles. E Pluribus Unum, may be on the money, but it’s not in the constitution. And we are clearly not one people, I have little in common with you, nor do I wish to.

  22. Bill, you seem to be much more interested in fighting contemporary political battles than in having a serious discussion about the historical record, which is the purpose of this blog. You also have a tendency to engage in ad hominem attacks when you are unable to defend statements that you have made which are at variance with the historical record. As a result, I do not want you commenting further on this blog. You are banned from this site.


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