As a student of history I have studied many lives from the American Civil War. The one that intrigued me most was the notorious Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was a tremendous cavalry officer for the Confederacy; yet also had a reputation for racism on a massive scale. The marks against Forrest are that he was a slave-trader prior to the war and an early leader in the Ku Klux Klan afterward. The first statement is a fact, the second statement is debated. But there are other facts about Forrest that remain largely unknown today. Would you believe that by the end of his life, Forrest was maligned by many, including the Federal government, for being too benevolent toward the blacks of the South?
In my book Nathan Bedford Forrest's Redemption (Pelican Publishing, 2010), I recount some radical changes that took place in Forrest after the war, culminating in his conversion to Christianity in 1875. After the war ended in 1865, Forrest worked with many former Union soldiers and employed former slaves in his various business ventures. At one point he was investigated by the Federal government's “Freedman's Bureau” to make sure he was complying with the law regarding his black employees. The only complaint the Bureau had of Forrest was that he paid the former slaves higher wages than the government thought they should receive and that Forrest allowed the former slaves to own guns. Forrest, it seems, was far more respectful of the black man's rights than the Federal government was. The Bureau's chief investigator of Forrest referred to the former general as “too liberal” toward his black employees. (Nathan Bedford Forrest's Redemption, pg. 117) I wonder if any of the current vitriolic opponents of Forrest know that he was branded as a “liberal” for his kindness toward the black people of his day? Would this change their desire to dig up his body and tear down his statue? What about his public statements in defense of the southern blacks?
It's frightening how quickly the “group-think” mob takes over. In a few short weeks we went from, perhaps, removing a flag in South Carolina to digging up the graves of a man and his wife who have been dead for 140 years. Blacks (and liberal whites) want him gone for being a racist, yet history shows he was far, far more benevolent toward the blacks of his day then Abraham Lincoln was. Yet Lincoln is hailed while Forrest is reviled. Most don't even know the truth about Forrest and if they did, sadly, it wouldn't matter. Blind hatred will not listen to rational truth and proven historical facts. It's awfully hard to talk sense into someone after Al Sharpton has whipped them into a frenzy with a plethora of lies. In all honesty, rather than dig up Forrest and tear down his statue, the blacks of Memphis should be leading the charge to build a few more statues in his honor and clean up the park where his body resides. His ties to the Klan are very loose, with his main link to them being his public call for them to disband in 1868. He spoke publicly in support of the black former slaves and helped them find work in a Southern world largely destroyed by Northern aggression, ignorance, and greed. Forrest should be the black man's hero today. Instead they want him dead. But he's already dead. So they want to dig him up and kick him out of town. I'm sure once their ghoulish deed is done Memphis will immediately see its rampant crime rate plummet. Racial harmony will congeal. Butterflies will hold hands and play ring around the rosy, while rainbow colored unicorns skip through the streets.... Or maybe not. Here's more on Forrest and his “racist” past.
After being invited to speak at the Independent Order of Pole-bearers, a group of black former slaves devoted to racial reconciliation, Forrest gave a speech encouraging them and telling them he was with them “in heart and in hand” saying “if you are oppressed I will come to your defense.” Forrest publicly called for the KKK to disband and was ridiculed by many for his defense of blacks. One has to wonder if people today knew these historical truths that I cite with sources in my book, would they still hate him so? God's grace changed Forrest and that change was evidenced by actions. If God could forgive him, who are we to withhold forgiveness?
Forrest was ahead of his time regarding race relations. Rather than a villain, he should be held up as an example of what the black community should desire a “racist” to become. America needs to heal and the South has many problems. But Forrest isn't one of them. Let us commit to letting historical facts speak for themselves and show the same grace toward others (including Forrest) that we want shown toward ourselves. Jesus said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Put down your rocks America; and bend your knee to the God of all mercy. Forrest found grace. And so can you.
I recently corresponded with Dr. Walter E. Williams via e-mail, about the current flap over the Confederate flag. In case you don't know, Dr. Williams is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and has been a frequent guest host for Rush Limbaugh. In my opinion, he is one of the greatest minds America has produced. I have learned much over the years from his economic writings, but even more, his cultural and political commentary. He has been a staunch defender of liberty and has boldly called out the political left for their hypocrisy and deeply flawed policies. He has also defended “State's rights” and even the Confederacy. Did I mention Dr. Williams is black?
In a recent article, Dr. Williams wrote of the lunacy taking place in Memphis where Mayor A.C. Wharton and the city council have voted to dig up the bodies of Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife and move them out of the city. I wrote a biography of Forrest in 2010 and know from historical fact that by the end of his life he was a Christian and an outspoken advocate of black civil rights. But these truths are disallowed in the vitriolic debate over how bad we should hate Forrest. Dr. Williams shared with me another inconvenient truth for those who hate the Confederacy.
Back in 2000, he wrote an article entitled “Black Confederates” in which he recounts some of the heroic deeds of black men (both free and slave) who fought for the South. Theses soldiers were incensed at the idea of a Northern invasion of their home and fought bravely to defend it. Here are some excerpts from Dr. Williams article:
“Erwin L. Jordan cites one case where a captured group of white slave owners and blacks were offered freedom if they would take an oath of allegiance to the United States. One free black indignantly replied, "I can't take no such oaf as dat.”
“One of the slave owners took the oath but his slave, who didn't take the oath, returning to Virginia under a flag of truce, expressed disgust at his master's disloyalty saying, "Massa had no principles."
“General Nathan Bedford Forrest had both slaves and freemen serving in units under his command. After the war, General Forrest said of the black men who served under him "These boys stayed with me . . . and better Confederates did not live." Southern generals owned slaves but northern generals owned them as well. General Ulysses Grant's slaves had to await for the Thirteenth Amendment for freedom. When asked why he didn't free his slaves earlier, General Grant said,"Good help is so hard to come by these days."
Dr. Williams concludes with these words: “The flap over the Confederate Flag is not quite as simple as the nation's race experts make it. They want us to believe the flag is a symbol of racism. Yes, racists have used the Confederate Flag, but racists have also used the Bible and the U.S. Flag. Should we get rid of the Bible and lower the U.S. Flag? Black civil rights activists and their white liberal supporters who're attacking the Confederate Flag have committed a deep, despicable dishonor to our patriotic black ancestors who marched, fought and died to protect their homeland from what they saw as Northern aggression. They don't deserve the dishonor.”
Indeed history is not quite as polished as many Confederate detractors would like to see it. Republicans and Democrats alike have rallied to rail against all things Southern. They do this either out of ignorance or intimidation, since being branded a “racist” is often career ending in our hyper-sensitive, politically correct world of today.
I thank God that there are still a few sane voices out there like Dr. Walter Williams. But I fear he is a dying breed. Common sense is held in disdain today and hysterical over reactions are the best way to advance one's career. After all, it is much easier to scapegoat the Confederacy than it is to hold demented individuals responsible for their evil deeds.
(Note: In light of recent attempts to remove Confederate symbols from the public square some have also sought to tear down monuments to Nathan Bedford Forrest. An effort is under way in Memphis to actually dig up the bodies of he and his wife and move them. The following is an Op-Ed piece that I submitted to newspapers in Memphis and across the South. Most of them chose not to run it, for obvious reasons. I encourage people to read my book Nathan Bedford Forrest's Redemption to get the whole story on this man).
The recent despicable act of Dylann Roof in South Carolina has caused a stinging pain, that has reverberated from Charleston, across the South, and indeed the entire country. While our nation has been largely divided about certain aspects of the tragedy, there is unanimous assent that Roof's act was wicked and justice should be served. I echo this sentiment whole-heartedly and pray for the brave families and friends, who are also victims, of this senseless tragedy.
Pain is not the only thing that has reverberated across the South as a result of this act. What to do about the pain is also being fiercely debated. Calls to lower the Confederate flag in South Carolina have led to a full scale protest of any and all vestige of Confederate history. Including the destruction of monuments, the removal of busts, and the relocation of bodies long since laid to rest. Such calls have certainly been the case for Nathan Bedford Forrest. The Confederate general and presumed early leader of the Ku Klux Klan is, not surprisingly, maligned by many who see him as an icon of a tainted age in American history. But I wonder how many know of Forrest's latter years? When the war was over and his fortune was gone. When he was no longer selling slaves, but rather trying to eek out a living for himself and his wife. The once hardened soldier became a born-again Christian; and the ferocity which had previously marked his personality was transformed into a mild-mannered, kindly, meekness as he called for the KKK to disband, and spoke out in favor of black civil rights.
For several years I researched the spiritual aspect of Forrest's life, eventually writing a book entitled, Nathan Bedford Forrest's Redemption. While I admired his battlefield exploits, I had no intention of writing a “puff piece.” I had read in several places of a conversion to Christianity he experienced and, as a Christian myself, I was curious. What I found was that Forrest was married to a godly woman who prayed for his salvation; and in 1875 it seemed to happen. Forrest was a broken man who turned to Christ for redemption and found it. People don't always forgive, but the Lord does. And aren't we all the better for it? Perhaps the most poignant aspect of Forrest's transformation occurred when he was invited by the Independent Order of Pole-Bearers (an organization of black freedmen) to give a speech. Forrest encouraged them and promised to be with them in “heart and hand.” He told them to pursue careers, even politics, and use their new found freedom to make a solid life for themselves. Forrest, dare I say it, became the black man's friend and defender.
Rather than maligning him, I wonder if people should instead marvel at the grace of God in his life and point to Forrest as what they wish every racist would become. How much different would the Charleston story be if the shooter had experienced a Christian transformation? If his blind hatred had been turned to blessed love because of an encounter with God? I would encourage temperance as it pertains to the removal of statues and bodies. I would encourage a serious “cooling off” period to avoid rash decisions. And I would encourage an examination of the complete picture of Nathan Bedford Forrest, rather than just a snapshot of his earlier days. People can change and deep down we all know that we need a touch of grace. We also need to show grace, even to those whom we don't think deserve it. Jesus calls us to “love our enemies” and when we do this we sometimes find that our enemy isn't really our enemy at all. Forrest was once the black man's enemy, but God's grace changed him and his views. Maybe God's grace will change you and yours as well. Maybe our verbal swords can be beaten into plowshares and we can get to work changing our nation and our world for the better.
Liberty in America isn't dead yet, but rest assured she's on life support. She has been for awhile, but now she's near the end. And if you think a little you can see how it's happening. There is a gargantuan link between the recent vitriolic witch hunt conducted across the South to find people possessing or selling Confederate flags; and the Supreme Court ruling which takes the debate out of the hands of the people and forces “gay marriage” on the nation carte blanche. What do gays and rednecks have in common you ask? They are opposite sides of a raging cultural war that will soon explode out of control. First the flag.
I've written repeatedly about the tragic events in Charleston earlier this month. Dylann Roof is a first rate devil who should pay severely for his senseless, thoughtless, brainless, spineless, and heartless crime. I might say he is an embarrassment to the white race, but it goes much deeper. He's an embarrassment to the human race. Of course the same is true of Barack Hussein Obama. A shameless political huckster has never slithered through the American electorate like this creature from the Hawaiian lagoon. He issues orders like he's Caesar himself, then gets ticked off when the country doesn't jump at his command. Obama, as politicians are want to do, attended the funeral service for Clementa Pinckney and promptly made himself the star of the show. So much for Rev. Pinckney. But of course, he probably would have wanted it that way, as he was a loyal supporter of the Egomaniac-in-Chief.
The Charleston tragedy quickly became a Confederate witch hunt for no good reason whatsoever. Roof owned a flag. Big whoop. I own one too. It is a piece of history. America did split up at one time and fight a war when the North unconstitutionally invaded the free and sovereign states of the South. What would you expect the Southerners to do? Run and hide or stand and fight? They fought valiantly against superior arms and outnumbered armies. They fought for four years when most thought it wouldn't last four weeks. They fought, NOT for slavery primarily; but for their own freedom. Roughly 95 percent of Southerners did not own slaves. Many were dirt poor farmers and sharecroppers. Eking out a living off the land in a place far less industrialized than the North. The late historian Shelby Foote once told the story of an arrogant Yankee soldier who mocked a poor Confederate by pointing out that he obviously wasn't rich enough to own slaves or even land; he asked him, “Why are you out here fighting this war anyway?” The Confederate replied, “I'm OUT here, because you are DOWN here.” His home had been invaded by a hostile army. What else was a brave man to do?
After all those years of brutal heartache and war, the North's numbers were eventually too much. The South fought bravely for a culture they loved and for the freedom that they didn't have from Washington D.C. As much as this irks most Americans, slavery wasn't really the major point. State's rights, Federal overreaching, an unfair tariff system against the South, and other economic measures led to secession. (I suggest reading Thomas DiLorenzo's "The Real Lincoln" for more on this). Today even the word “secession” is considered racist for reasons I am apparently still too blind to see. America exists because the colonies seceded from Britain. It wasn't a Civil War because they didn't try to seize an existing government. Likewise the War Between the States. The South seceded, they didn't try to take over Washington. Basic historical facts about the war. Almost no on in America today knows them. That's why most people think the Civil War (which wasn't really a Civil War) was about slavery. Ask the average "Joe" on the street, he'll tell you Lincoln invaded the South to free the slaves. But Lincoln would have told you otherwise. In his first inaugural address Lincoln said he had “no desire” to free the slaves and no constitutional right to do so. The second part of that might be debated; but it is refreshing to hear a President actually reference Constitutional restraint once in a while. Even though he routinely ignored the Constitution. Lincoln issued his famous Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.....TWO YEARS AFTER THE WAR STARTED! What took him so long, you ask? The answer is quite easy. He thought he could win the war without freeing slaves. And if he had, bondage would have remained. The “Great Emancipator” didn't give two hoots about freeing the blacks. But he was hell bent on winning the war. “Preserving the Union” was his mantra, which translated to lining the government's pockets with continued Southern tax revenues. History is never as squeaky clean as most American robots think it is.
So it turns out that evil, wicked, racist Confederate flag wasn't so evil, wicked and racist after all. Poor men fought to defend their homes. Most didn't own slaves. Many of them, in fact, opposed slavery. These were my ancestors and I'm proud of their bravery and service. But I'm banned from doing so. I'm the only ethnic group in America that would be charged with a hate crime, or sent to mandatory sensitivity training if I sought a “Heritage Month” for my people group. Even though every other group gets one. But that's OK, I don't want one. But I would like the chance to at least speak of my Confederate ancestors and go visit their graves and maybe place a flag they fought for on it; without it becoming a national news story.
The government hasn't “banned” the symbol.....yet. But they will. And even if they don't a bully White House and a blathering lap dog media have done the “banning” for them. Businesses, who cowardly fear bad press have pulled anything remotely Confederate from the shelves. Not just flags either. Chess sets. Civil War artifacts. Handkerchiefs. You name it. If it's Southern....its gone. Even NASCAR is checking with their legal team to see how far they can go in banning the flag at races. NASCAR president, Brian Whats-His-Name, sounded like he would gladly have public crucifixions if he could get away with it. And he might. That's how insane the witch hunt has gotten. What is happening to Southern culture would rival any third world attempt at “ethnic cleansing.” It's not enough to win the war. They want utter subjugation and the erasure of all proof that a certain group of people ever existed. Now THAT should fit the Feds definition of a “hate crime.” Except for, it's the only group you can legally hate. White men.
Like most things in the Totalitarian States of America, this isn't really about a flag. It's about control. Its about the right to re-write history and ignore any aspects we don't like. And ignore the aspects that we would like, but we're just too stubborn to admit were true. For example, Nathan Bedford Forrest, the hated Confederate slave-owner, KKK leader, and general eventually became a Christian after the war, and (are you ready for this....) He SPOKE OUT IN FAVOR of Black Civil Rights!!!! Right after he called for the KKK to disband! Those are historical facts that you can read about in my book “Nathan Bedford Forrest's Redemption.” Far from seeking to tear down statues of him, the civil rights community should be raising money to build more of them. What greater poster child could they have than a former slave-owning Klansman who renounced his views and defended the freed slaves publicly? But don't bother 21st century race baiters with 19th century facts. If the truth got out the financial contributions to the NAACP might plummet. And we wouldn't want to see that would we?
The South is imploding. Not because of itself but because of attacks that began in 1861 and never really stopped. It wasn't enough to win the war, the South had to be destroyed. William Sherman's army promised to “make Georgia howl” and THE YANKEES did more damage to South Carolina than anyone else could have ever conceived of. Raping and pillaging was commonplace. And the blacks meant nothing to the Northern Army. Sherman despised them. Many freed slaves chose to voluntarily stay in the South with their masters rather than suffer at the hands of the heartless Yankees. Again, history is a little more nuanced than the Yankee-written drivel textbooks will tell you.
Reconstruction was nothing more than a fleecing and humiliation of the South. Yankees got rich. While Southerners struggled to make ends meet. Eventually some economic progress was made, but it took forever. Both blacks and whites suffered financially in the South; as many still do to this day. Is it because of racism? No, it really has more to do with the Federal government keeping them poor and in their place. According to Thomas Sowell, a systematic attack on the black family has done what slavery and Jim Crow laws never could. Welfare destroyed the black family; and many white ones as well. The Feds solution killed the family. But the Feds aren't done yet. They have another trick up their sleeve, which is to destroy marriage altogether.
Why would two gays want a government marriage anyway? For that matter why would two heterosexuals want one? I got married in a church with the blessing of a pastor. What does that have to do with the government? Or rather, what SHOULD it have to do with the government? Answer nothing. Marriage isn't the government's business. Did you know that marriage licenses were first issued in the late 1800s to keep inter racial marriages from occurring? Sounds like a good reason for the government to get involved in marriage, don't you think? Sounds like an even better reason for governments to get out of it.
The goal of the gays is not to be included in marriage, but rather to destroy it all together. In most cases, its not really an institution they seek. But all the sudden, they want to live “happily ever after” with government sanction. The Supreme Court has determined this to be a Constitutional right they have. Again, its a power play. The government wants to play God and define marriage. They want to tell you who can and cannot get married. They want to force you to accept a marriage that you consider a depraved joke. And eventually, they'll seek to punish you if you don't toe the line.
Most “Confederate flag” types are straight. And most gays hate their guts. Perhaps the feeling is often mutual. Southern Heritage went down in smoke this month. The witch hunt is almost complete. And homosexuals are giddy over a right that they shouldn't even really care about. But both groups, the anti-flag group and the pro-gay group want control. They want their enemies squelched. They want all dissension silenced and even outlawed. And the courts, the press, and the President are on their side. Dixie's burning once again, while rainbow clad sodomites are dancing in the streets. Whatever vestiges of honor that remained in America are soon to be no more. The rabid dogs of society are now calling the shots and they'll continue to chip away at every other issue they want. Health care, gun control, environmental extremism, you name it. They'll get it. And we'll suffer. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to sit in my easy chair and whistle Dixie while I read what the Bible says about homosexuality. Today I can still do that. Tomorrow it might be outlawed. “Oh I wish I were in the land of cotton......”
My speech at the 2012 Sons of Confederate Veterans National Convention was not recorded to my knowledge. However, 2 days prior to the event I gave a very similar message on the Christian salvation of Nathan Bedford Forrest. The message was given at Kinsey Drive Baptist Church in Dalton, Georgia. The link is below:
(Note: For a more in depth study of Forrest's spiritual life read my book "Nathan Bedford Forrest's Redemption" (Pelican Publishing Co, 2010)
By Shane E. Kastler (Author of the book, Nathan Bedford Forrest's Redemption)
Recently, Glenn Beck and David Barton made statements on Beck’s program about Nathan Bedford Forrest that were completely inaccurate. Beck held up a sword that belonged to Forrest, that Barton claims was used at Fort Pillow to skin black Union soldiers alive. This is nothing more than false propaganda that has ballooned to asinine levels over the course of time. Fort Pillow was a vicious battle, but the truth was clearly not presented by Beck and Barton.
Glenn Beck has done much good in making modern Americans aware of what our founding fathers believed and taught. But like most Americans, he is ignorant of many of the facts surrounding the Civil War South. This is most clearly seen in the modern day deification of Abraham Lincoln as the supposed greatest President in American history. Even a cursory look at the facts would show that Lincoln was exactly the type of Federal dictator that Beck claims to rail against today in the form of Barack Obama. But the history books are written by the victors; and because of this a completely distorted view of the Civil War has been taught to American schoolchildren for the past 150 years. Beck is a product of this brain washing; as are most Americans who never bother to question what they are taught in school.
Ironically, much of David Barton’s work is meant to undo this lack of education. His organization “Wall Builders” seeks to educate people about the Christian roots that exist in our country. I would commend Barton for some of his work and have benefitted and recommended him to others myself on occasion. But he, like Beck, appears to be woefully ignorant when it comes to knowledge of many aspects of the Civil War. I would invite both men to devote some of the same time and energy they have spent studying the founding fathers to the Civil War era; especially to the men of the Confederacy that they so quickly dismiss as barbaric racists. What they would find, from the historical record, is that Forrest was much more noble than they imagine, and Lincoln was much, much worse.
In conclusion, I have included an excerpt from my book “Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Redemption” below. It is from chapter 5 of the book, which deals with the events of Fort Pillow. It must also be said that I do not pretend that Forrest was a perfect man. My book speaks of his sins, but it also speaks of his “redemption” when he became a devout Christian later in life. But an examination of his entire life would clearly show that he was not the “devil” he has been made out to be. His reputation deserves to be honored more than what it has been. And these slanderous attacks on him will forever continue as long as men like Glenn Beck and David Barton are allowed to boldly proclaim gross untruths. While I respect both men and believe their statements to be genuinely rooted in ignorance of Forrest; I humbly submit that it is incumbent upon them to check the facts before blurting the lies.
[UPDATE: 8/9/10 - Thomas Nelson Publishers has stopped publication of one of David Barton's books because of it being riddled with historical errors. Glenn Beck wrote the forward to that particular book. Click here for more details.)
An Excerpt from “Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Redemption” By Shane E. Kastler. Published by Pelican Publishing Company, Gretna, LA. Taken from chapter 5 entitled: “Fort Pillow: Forrest’s Notorious Legacy” pages 81-95)
By March of 1864 the atmosphere in Western Tennessee had become poisonous. Forrest and his men had liberated the town of Jackson from Yankee rule, and set up their temporary headquarters in the city. From the citizens they heard numerous accounts of atrocities committed under the leadership of Union Cavalry Colonel Fielding Hurst, head of the 6th Tennessee Cavalry (U.S.A.). Hurst had a reputation of extorting money from Southerners by threatening to torch their towns if they didn’t comply with his wishes. It was determined that he had taken over $5,000 from the citizens of Jackson by such dishonest means, and Forrest vowed to do something about it. Writing letters to his commanding officer Leonidas Polk, as well as the Federal government, Forrest demanded that the citizens of Jackson be given restitution. The Federal government eventually agreed, though Hurst later reappeared in Jackson and got the money back again.
Ironically, Forrest would graciously take extraordinary steps to prevent Hurst’s home from being destroyed by angry Confederates. Being near Hurst’s hometown of Purdy, Forrest dispatched his Chief of Staff Charles Anderson, along with five men, telling them to find Hurst’s home and guard it against vandalism. When they came to the door, a terrified Mrs. Hurst answered, fully expecting to suffer for the wrongs of her husband. “Are you the wife of Colonel Hurst?” Anderson asked. “Yes sir,” she replied. What Anderson said next, stunned her:
“We are not here to harm you, but have been sent for your protection. Although General Forrest has not reached Purdy, he is aware of the ruin and devastation caused by your husband's regiment, and has sent me in advance of his troops to place a guard around your house. This guard is from his own escort, and will remain with you until all of our command has passed, and I assure you that neither your family or anything about your premises will be disturbed or molested.”
A grateful Mrs. Hurst responded,
“Please, sir, say to General Forrest, for me, that this is more than I had any right to expect of him, and that I thank him from my heart for this unexpected kindness. I shall gratefully remember it and shall always believe him to be as generous as he is brave.”[i]
Mrs. Hurst may have been appreciative, but Colonel Hurst was unaffected by the kindness. In addition to extortion, he was accused of holding citizens as prisoners without cause, a common occurrence during the Civil War. Forrest took particular offense to a minister named G.W.D. Harris of Dyer County, Tennessee who was being held at Fort Pillow. In correspondence to Federal General Ralph Buckland, Forrest demanded:
“Mr. Harris be granted a fair trail before a competent tribunal, or else unconditionally and promptly released, or otherwise I shall place in close confinement 5 Federal soldiers, now in my hands, as hostages for his protection, and in case he should die in your hands from ill treatment these men shall be duly executed in retaliation.”[ii]
While these accusations against Hurst were bad, the alleged atrocities got much worse. Forrest cited seven murders Hurst’s men had committed against Tennesseans, including a case of torture and execution committed against Willis Dodds, a young soldier from Forrest’s cavalry. Dodds was captured in Henderson County at the home of his father and was subsequently found hanging in a tree with his hands and feet bound, and his face and genitals cut off. For all these crimes, Forrest demanded Hurst and any accomplices be handed over as prisoners to be duly tried by the Confederate States of America. Not surprisingly, the Federal government refused to comply.
By April of 1864, the Fort Pillow housed close to 600 Union soldiers, 253 of which were black men, many of whom were escaped slaves. Of the white men serving the fort, several were former Confederate soldiers who had deserted to the North, while others were the much maligned “Tennessee Yankees” also known as “Tennessee Tories” – local men whose loyalties were with the North rather than the South. Needless to say, Fort Pillow was made up of men who didn’t have the respect of the Southern army, nor its citizenry.
The commander in charge was Major Lionel Booth, with the second in command being a notorious and hated “Tennessee Yankee” by the name of Major William Bradford. Booth was sent to Fort Pillow by his commanding officer, General Stephen A. Hurlbut, headquartered at Memphis, because of concerns over Bradford’s youth and inexperience. Time would prove that Hurlbut’s fears were well founded.
The Civil War saw many political hacks who sought war heroism as a way of career advancement. By gaining an officer’s commission they could perhaps get their names in the newspapers and gain fame because of the valor of the armies that served under them. The problem, in many cases, was that they had no military training or acumen to speak of. Sometimes a lack of training caused little if any problem, as evidenced by Forrest himself who had almost no education, yet possessed the natural instincts of a warrior. Other times, the lack of military training, or perhaps the simple lack of a military mind, proved catastrophic. Such would be the case with Bradford.
A lawyer who hailed from the same Bedford County, Tennessee of Forrest’s birth; Bradford had made a name for himself through litigation; and in the eyes of many Tennesseans, treachery. Fiercely loyal to the Union, he had attained a Major’s commission from the Federal government, but gained nothing short of outright hatred from many of his fellow Tennesseans.
Fort Pillow, at least originally, wasn’t very high on Forrest’s priority list. Indeed, some said that it was a fairly harmless and worthless fort that he shouldn’t even concern himself with, but some other factors convinced him otherwise.
One factor was supplies. By this point, Forrest and his men were again in need of more horses, saddles, guns, food, or anything else they could gain from victories over the Federals. No doubt, by conquering Pillow, he would be able to add more provisions to his fledgling cavalry.
Another factor was the men who occupied Fort Pillow. The white, Union troops under Bradford garnered a reputation for pillaging the Southern citizens of the area. Indeed such civilian plundering was not uncommon by Union armies that deemed disloyalty to the Federal government as treason, and therefore felt justified in “confiscating” whatever personal property they chose to help themselves to. Reportedly, Forrest was “distressed by well-authenticated instances, repeatedly brought to his notice of rapine and atrocious outrages upon non-combatants of the country, by the garrison at Fort Pillow.”[iii] The Federals were also accused of “venting upon the wives and daughters of Southern soldiers the most opprobrious and obscene epithets, with more than one extreme outrage upon the persons of these victims of their hate and lust.”[iv] Clarke Barteau, who served as a Colonel under Forrest stated that:
“For days before the capture of Fort Pillow, citizens fleeing to us from its vicinity brought doleful tales of outrages committed by the Federal forces in that stronghold. The helpless families of some of our soldiers had been victims of their raiding parties. A strong feeling prevailed in favor of capturing the fort, but it was not expected to be done without fighting and loss of life.”[v]
While the civilized “rules of war” dictated that non-combatants were not to be molested, this seldom held true in the Civil War South. Suspicions ran high, and loyalty was constantly questioned. Oaths were required, and high taxes levied against Southern citizens who were deemed to be “sympathizers” with the “rebellion.” In such an atmosphere, it’s not hard to see how many in the South would view men like Nathan Bedford Forrest as their knight in shining armor. And its not hard to see how Forrest, his men, and the citizens of West Tennessee would view Bradford’s “Tennessee Yankees” as villainous miscreants who were traitors to their own people, and terrorists of the innocent. Such was the mindset of the times, and the bad blood between the “Tennessee Yankees” and the “Wizard of the Saddle” would soon come to a head.
Not only had Forrest and his men heard second hand reports of Yankees plundering, many of his troops had experienced it first hand as their families reported some of the atrocities taking place while the men were off fighting the war. Several times, citizens near Fort Pillow specifically requested that Forrest do something about the Union garrison there; and at least on one occasion, a delegation of citizens from Jackson, Tennessee pleaded with Forrest to keep a detachment stationed in the area for protection. Initially, Forrest didn’t believe that he had enough men to deal with the problem, but the tearful pleas by some of the ladies apparently changed his mind. According to Ted Brewer of the 20th Tennessee,
“General Forrest was a man of great sympathy and when he heard the pathetic stories told by the ladies he changed his plans and decided to attack Fort Pillow….Forrest felt that if he ignored the citizens’ complaints he would lose many new recruits to desertion before he could reach northern Mississippi.”[vi]
This account seems plausible for at least two reasons. First, Forrest was always known to be sympathetic where ladies were concerned. He revered his mother and was close to his twin sister growing up. He also deeply respected his wife and was always careful to watch his language and mind his manners when she was present. Additionally, he wrote in his official record that the young girl who assisted him at the Battle of Sacramento had “infused him with knightly chivalry.” Right or wrong, Forrest saw himself as a protector of Southern women, and when these tearful pleas came, he no doubt succumbed to their requests.
The second reason Brewer cited was more practical. If Forrest ignored the plight of these Tennesseans, he was sure to lose a certain amount of public support. Always in desperate need of new recruits, he knew he was more likely to get them by faithfully defending the citizens against Northern atrocities. Because of these factors, Forrest decided to move on Fort Pillow. Yet even then he didn’t seem to regard the matter as a major battle concern. In a letter to commanding General Joseph Johnston, he mentioned, almost in passing, of a Union presence at Fort Pillow that he would “deal with in a couple of days.” Indeed he would “deal with them” and what took place would dog him to his dying day.
On the morning of April 12, two Southern brigades under the command of General James R. Chalmers had surrounded the fort and Confederate sharpshooters were picking off any Federal who dared raise his head above the parapets. Chalmers and his men made short order of the first two lines of earthwork pickets and were simply awaiting further instructions when Forrest came upon the scene at 10:00 a.m. that morning. Under heavy fire from the Federals, Forrest had two horses shot out from under him that morning, leaving him slightly injured. He dispatched 1600 men, under Colonels Robert McCulloch and Tyree Bell to storm the final earthwork where Federal sharpshooters were firing, and thus overwhelm them. While this was going on, Forrest rode to the rear to be treated for his injury. Once the final level of earthworks were taken, the only thing left to do was to obtain a surrender from the Yankees…or storm the fort and overwhelm the outnumbered Federals by force. The final hope that the Federals had was the New Era, a Union gunboat that had been firing at Forrest’s men from the river; but eventually seeing that they were having no affect, the vessel ceased fire and moved on.
The New Era’s departure was a massive blow to the Federals’ already fading chance of survival. The other massive blow came that morning when Booth, the commanding officer in charge, was killed by a sharpshooter. This put the young and skittish Bradford in command, and in his inexperience, or perhaps arrogance, he failed to see that surrender was really his only option. And surrender was requested by General Forrest…three times.
In typical fashion, Forrest sent a message to Booth (not knowing he was already dead), under a flag of truce that stated:
Major: your gallant defense of Fort Pillow has entitled you to the treatment of brave men. I now demand the unconditional surrender of your forces, at the same time assuring you that you will be treated as prisoners of war. I have received a new supply of ammunition and can take your works by assault, and if compelled to do so you must take the consequences.
N.B. Forrest, Major General
Commanding Confederate Cavalry[vii]
Bradford wrote back requesting an hour to receive counsel from his officers, as well as the officers manning the gunboats in the river. The problem was that Forrest’s surrender request had nothing to do with the boats. So he wrote back saying the surrender of the gunboats was not required. As for the fort, he would give them twenty minutes, rather than an hour to decide their fate.
Mention of the gunboats also apparently raised Forrest’s suspicions. They knew there were more boats in the area, so while the ceasefire was under affect, Forrest sent some men to monitor the river in case Federal reinforcements were coming. Forrest suspected that Bradford’s request of “one hour” was a stalling tactic to allow time for boatloads of new forces to arrive; and he certainly wasn’t in the mood to allow that to happen. Bradford finally sent his final message to Forrest, written in the name of the deceased Major Booth, that he would not surrender the fort. Now, the scene was set for catastrophe and fuel was being added to the fire in mass quantities.
While the flag of truce was waving, the men inside of Fort Pillow began to rise up over the fortifications and taunt the Confederate army. As historian Jay Winik writes: “Not only did the fort commander refuse, but the cocky Federals openly taunted Forrest, daring him to try to take the garrison. It was the mistake of their lives.”[viii] This seems to be rather bizarre behavior for a troop of outnumbered men facing a general known to be one of the most skilled warriors on either side of the conflict. Where could such false bravado possibly come from? Were they unaware of the overwhelming numbers they faced? That would be hard to imagine, since they had witnessed a hail of bullets raining down upon them every time they looked over the walls. Did they not realize that it was Nathan Bedford Forrest and his fierce and famous fighters that were assailing them? Again this seems unlikely since everyone knew Forrest was in the area and the communications coming from the Confederates had been written in his name. Such foolish taunting in the midst of overwhelming odds had to have a natural explanation; and indeed it did. The men of Fort Pillow had become, as the saying goes, “ten foot tall and bullet-proof” at least in their own minds; the result of numerous whiskey barrels that had been stationed at various spots around the fort to induce artificial courage. Alcohol was the last bit of kindling to be added to this tumultuous situation; and the subsequent taunts had further angered the Southern men, who really needed nothing else to inspire them to destroy the place. The results were devastating, controversial, and tragic on several levels.
Forrest ordered 1200 men to charge the fort, while Confederate sharpshooters laid down a galling cover fire to the parapets. Once inside the fort, a chaotic melee ensued with point blank shots being fired and hand-to-hand combat engaged on mass levels. The Federals were completely outmanned, outgunned, and overpowered. Some retreated towards the Mississippi River where they wrongly assumed Union boats would come to their aid. Others fought gallantly. Still others laid down arms offering to surrender. Of these, some were taken prisoner, while others were reportedly shot being shown “no quarter.” In the midst of the chaos, according to the Confederates, some Federals would lay down their arms and surrender, only to run again, pick up a weapon and fire. It was difficult to tell who had genuinely surrendered and who had not. All the while, the Union flag continued to wave over the fort, advertising to all who could see that the Federals had not surrendered and the fight was still on. As for Forrest, he was still outside the fort, until twenty minutes after the assault began.
Testimony of what occurred was multi-varied and conflicting. As Davison and Foxx write:
“The easy question: was there needless killing at Fort Pillow? There was. The difficult questions may never be put to rest. The one constant in such an investigation of controversial behavior on the battlefield is that armed conflict clouds judgment and loosens, even makes useless, the rules of civilized society.”[ix]
For those who have never experienced combat, especially in hand-to-hand, close quartered Civil War style, it is impossible to truly understand what goes on in a soldier’s head, and the actions that ensue. It’s easy for the high-browed, pompous pacifist to kick back in his easy chair, in the safety of his living room and cast judgment upon the man who wages war in the midst of a “kill or be killed” atmosphere. Therefore all civilian commentators, who would offer their “two cents” would be wise to admit their limited perspective as it relates to combat conditions. In the midst of utter chaos, with bullets flying, swords slashing, bayonets being thrust, and punches being thrown – survival instincts kick in. Soldiers aren’t thinking about etiquette…they’re thinking about living to fight another day. It’s kill or be killed. Insanitas belli, “the fury of battle” has caused incidents in every war in history that make people pause and question the rightness or wrongness of such actions. But “insantias belli” doesn’t mean that right and wrong cease to exist. The fury of battle doesn’t justify every act committed by a soldier…but it can certainly explain why it happened. And when we consider the adrenalin that surely flows in the midst of warfare, coupled with the already existent bad blood between the Tennessee Yankees, runaway slaves, Confederate deserters, and Forrest’s men; a slaughter would not be surprising.
Nevertheless, the scope of this book is not to try and explain every possible scenario of what took place at Fort Pillow. Nor is it to defend Forrest as faultless. In all honesty, this book’s thesis would be better served if Forrest were guilty of horrendous atrocities, because it would simply prove in greater fashion that he was an amazingly depraved man, who still found grace through Jesus Christ. I don’t write as a Fort Pillow apologist, nor as a Bedford Forrest ideologue who refuses to see error where error occurs. Forrest certainly had numerous shortcomings, faults, and sins; and some of those were manifested at Fort Pillow; but to suggest that his sole purpose in attacking the fort was to “massacre” everyone housed there is simply inaccurate. As historian Edwin Bearss states: “if Forrest had intended a ‘massacre’ there would have been few, if any survivors.”[x] Couple this with the fact that Forrest had officially asked for their surrender and promised “prisoner of war” status to those who acquiesced, even commending the Federals for their “gallant” defense seems to make it pretty clear that a “massacre” wasn’t Forrest’s intent, at least originally. But what about after the surrender offer was rebuffed?
Undoubtedly, the combination of the fort’s inhabitants, and the taunting that took place prior to the charge, led to some men being vindictively killed. Some were also seem to have been killed after laying down their arms and trying to surrender. While this is inexcusable, the fact that some laid down arms only to take them back up and fire again, would perhaps explain why this occurred. In all honesty, the Confederates hated the men inside Fort Pillow, just as those inside Fort Pillow hated Forrest and his men. And when mutual hatred mixes with weaponry, fueled by alcohol, mass carnage is the result; with one side eventually conquering the other. At Fort Pillow the conquerors were the Confederates, but by war’s end, the conquerors were the Federals and their atrocities were at times just as severe, if not worse. Forrest’s men attacked soldiers. At times, Union commanders ordered the attack, pillage, and execution of unarmed civilians. Several of these acts were committed in Tennessee prior to Fort Pillow, with Forrest’s men having knowledge of them.[xi] Once again, this doesn’t justify Fort Pillow, but it does perhaps explain the vitriol that fueled the battle.
Furthermore, the question must be asked: what role did Forrest play in the attack? As commander in charge he bore the responsibility for his men; and some testified that executions took place because Forrest had called for “no quarter” to be given to the Federals. With this in mind, it seems clear that at the very least, Forrest may have turned a blind eye to what was sure to go on once the fort was seized. Many times he led charges, but at Fort Pillow he stayed back for twenty minutes. While this might seem out of character for him, it must be remembered that he had suffered an injury that could have kept him from being in the midst of the fray. Or perhaps, after being jeered by a drunken enemy, he “cut the dogs loose” for twenty minutes before calling them off.
According to both Forrest and Chalmers, once they came inside the fort they ordered a cease-fire and demanded no more Federals be shot. Forrest made this claim until his dying day, stating that he had actually come between his men and black Union soldiers, not allowing them to be murdered. While many would raise a skeptical eyebrow at such a suggestion, it should be noted that there were many black troops not shot; and one wonders why all of them weren’t executed if a “massacre” was intended.
The overwhelming conclusion was that Forrest had ordered a “massacre” of black men and Tennessee Yankees. But a closer look at the facts leads to a different conclusion. The death rate among the Federals at Fort Pillow was somewhere between 31 and 42 percent, which is hardly a “massacre” by Civil War standards.[xii] Furthermore, Forrest had the chance to kill others, yet didn’t. The Federal surgeon at Fort Pillow, Charles Fitch testified that he surrendered to one of Forrest’s officers and asked to be taken to Forrest so he would be protected as a non-combatant. Fitch reported that Forrest was incensed at him for being the surgeon of a black regiment. Fitch stated that he was not, but this only drew greater ire from Forrest who retorted that he was a “Tennessee Yankee!” Again, Fitch tried to talk his way out, only to dig his hole deeper, when he stated that he was from Iowa. By now Forrest was incredulously asked: “if you’re from Iowa, then what are you doing down here?” He went on to say that Iowans had no business in Tennessee and if they had minded their own business the war would have already been over. Forrest then ordered Fitch to be guarded and protected by his men, for which Fitch offered thanks.
[i] CV, volume 3, page 212.
[ii] O.R., volume 32, part 3, pg. 117., Willis 172.
[iii] Thomas Jordon and J.P. Pryor, The Campaigns of General Nathan Bedford Forrest and of Forrest’s Cavalry, (New York: De Capo Press, 1996, originally published 1868) pg. 422.
[iv] Ibid, 422-423.
[v] Detroit Free Press, December 1, 1884. Quoted in Andrew Ward, River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War (New York: Viking Press, 2005) pg. 141.
[vi] Ward, pg. 142.
[vii] Eddy W. Davison and Daniel Foxx, Nathan Bedford Forrest: In Search of the Enigma, (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Co. 2007), 228.
[viii] Jay Winik, April 1865: The Month That Saved America, (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2001), pg. 281.
[ix] Davison and Foxx, pg. 217.
[x] Davison and Foxx, pg. 11-12.
[xi] For several specific incidents, see Walter Brian Cicso, War Crimes Against Southern Civilians, (Gretna, La: Pelican Publishing Co, 2007).
[xii] Davison and Foxx, pg. 241.
A couple weeks back I gave an hour long interview to John Lofton of The American View radio Program about my book Nathan Bedford Forrest's Redemption. Here's the link to it for those interested: https://www.theamericanview.com/index.php?id=1711&PHPSESSID=94585d06bb3d5fe95d718023f61142fa
(Note: The following isn't really a "blog" its more of a "paper" that I wrote on the conversion of Civil War General Nathan Bedford Forrest. For an even longer and more detailed account, get my book "Nathan Bedford Forrest's Redemption" published by Pelican Publishing. --Shane Kastler)
When The Devil Got Saved: The Christian Conversion of Nathan Bedford Forrest
By Shane E. Kastler
Nathan Bedford Forrest was not a man that Samuel Montgomery wanted his niece to marry. In the early 1840’s when this young Tennessean appeared in Hernando, Mississippi to court Mary Ann Montgomery, her Uncle Sam tried to discourage him. Mary Ann’s father had died and Samuel, a Presbyterian minister, was her closest male guardian, and no Christian would have wanted their loved one mixed up with Bedford Forrest. “Nathan, you don’t want to marry Mary Ann. She’s a sweet Christian girl and you curse and gamble.” Nathan replied, “I know she’s a sweet, Christian girl…that’s why I want to marry her.” A “Christian” Forrest was not, but a protective and chivalrous man, he could be.
Mary Ann and her mother were on their way home one day when they got their horse and wagon stuck in a creek. While two young men sat laughing at them on the creek bank, another young man rode up into the creek on his horse, dismounted, carried the ladies to safety, and then pushed their wagon out of the creek. He then walked over to the young “no goods” and told them to stop laughing and move on or he would give them both a thrashing. They fled, and the “good Samaritan” went back and introduced himself to the damsels in distress. His name was Nathan Bedford Forrest, and he desperately wanted to see Mary Ann again.
The next week, Forrest rode out to the Montgomery place and began his quest to win the hand of Mary Ann. He promised her family that they would never have to worry about her safety because he would take good care of her. Six weeks later they were married and living their life in Mississippi.
Forrest must have seemed an odd match for the angelic Mary Ann Montgomery. Though raised by a Christian mother, Nathan was anything but a Christian himself. His father had died when he was 16, thus making him the “man of house” with a mother and ten younger siblings to care for. But Nathan arose to the challenge. He ran the family farm with a keen eye and a firm hand, and protected his family honorably. Life on the Tennessee frontier was rough and dangerous, proven by the fact that one day Nathan’s mother came home covered in blood having been attacked by a cougar. Nathan grabbed his gun and whistled at his two hunting dogs and off they went. He tracked and stalked the cougar until his dogs had it treed…..then waited until morning to get a clean shot. He cut off its ears and gave them to “Momma” as a trophy.
When Nathan was young, he killed his first man. He was staying with his 65-year-old uncle when the four Matlock brothers, who were owed money by the elder Forrest, came calling. When they attacked, so did twenty-four year-old Nathan. He shot two of the brothers with a pistol, and stabbed the other two with a knife that was thrown to him by a witness during the brawl. Four Matlock brothers walked into the room that day to fight it out with “Old Man Forrest.” Three of them never walked back out, and one survived to tell the story. Even back then, Nathan Bedford Forrest was not a man to be trifled with.
Nathan went on to become a very successful and wealthy businessman. Though uneducated and “backwoods” by nature, he was a skilled entrepreneur, albeit in an immoral trade. He made his fortune as a slave trader and as a plantation owner, and by the time the Civil War began in 1861, he was worth 1.5 million dollars, an astronomical figure, when considered by today’s standards. When his home state of Tennessee and his adopted home state of Mississippi both seceded from the Union, Nathan understandably sided with them. He enlisted along with his younger brother and his 15-year-old son Willie; and was made a Private in the Cavalry. By war’s end he would be a Lieutenant General, the only man to go from Private to Lieutenant General during the Civil War.
In 1861, Forrest was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and given the charge to raise a Cavalry regiment. He did so and soon garnered a reputation as the most skilled Cavalry man the Civil War would produce. Though completely untrained in military tactics, his natural instincts were uncanny, and he was an absolute nightmare to the Union destroying railroads, communications lines, and supply lines. William Tecumseh Sherman declared that Tennessee would never be safe as long as “that devil Forrest” was a live and that they had to kill him “even if it takes 10,000 men and bankrupts the Federal treasury.” Fierce in battle, Forrest would kill 31 men in hand to hand combat, and have 30 horses shot out from under him during the course of the war. He rightly joked that he ended up “one horse ahead” by war’s end. It was said that Ulysses S. Grant claimed to fear no man on earth….except Nathan Bedford Forrest. Once in a fierce battle, while encircled by Union troops, Forrest began running straight for a Union supply wagon, which he then jumped and escaped capture. Another time he was personally fighting four Union soldiers at one time, all of them intent on making their name famous for “killing Forest.” He whipped them all, and yet again managed to escape.
Forrest employed many clever tactics throughout the war. When traveling with his Cavalry, he would determine where the Union spies were observing his men, then he would have his men peel off, backtrack, and ride again in circles past the observation point, thus giving the appearance of having thousands of men, when in fact he had mere hundreds. Then he would send a rider under a flag of truce and tell the Union troops that they were hopelessly outnumbered and must surrender or face the sword. By doing so, he captured scores of Union troops without firing a shot. But eventually his bluff was called and the results were dreadful and controversial, both then and now. At a location on the Mississippi River called Fort Pillow, Forrest ordered a Union regiment to surrender with the promise of honorable treatment as prisoners of war, or to be attacked and likely killed. The Union commander at the time was Major William Bradford, who was a “Tennessee Yankee” from Bedford County, ironically the county of Forrest’s birth, and the county from which he got his middle name. Bradford was seen as a traitor to many of his fellow Tennesseans, and was certainly not a man Forrest respected. Undoubtedly Forrest’s legendary temper played a part as he ordered the Fort charged having concluded the bloodshed was to be laid at the feet of Bradford, a traitor who refused to surrender against overwhelming numbers.
What happened next is disputed and fuzzy. Clearly in the heat of battle there were surrendering soldiers wrongly shot on sight. Fort Pillow being made up of white soldiers seen as traitors, along with 300 black soldiers didn’t gain a lot of sympathy from Forrest’s men. It was called a massacre, and in many ways it appeared to be. Forrest arrived in the Fort twenty minutes after it was overtaken by Confederates and immediately rode his horse between the two sides with saber and pistol drawn ordering a cease-fire. But the damage was done. Forrest would forever be remembered as the man who ordered the massacre of Fort Pillow, though a Congressional hearing by the Union army would eventually find him personally innocent of wrong doing. He was hated and feared that much more by the Northern people.
The war would rage on for another year with Forrest’s army trying to distract Sherman in his march to Georgia and the sea. Eventually it became clear that the cause was lost, and after both Robert E. Lee and Joseph Johnston surrendered Forrest saw the handwriting on the wall. Forrest told his men, “any man who is in favor of a further prosecution of this war is a fit subject for a lunatic asylum.” Forrest surrendered, and went to be reunited with his wife in Tennessee.
Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was worth 1.5 million dollars in 1861, was now broke. The only money to be found was $10 that his dutiful wife had saved for a rainy day. Forrest sought to take the money to a poker game and increase it, but his wife begged him not to stating that it would be immoral and a sin against God. He asked his wife if she would consent to pray for him as he played poker, so that their money might increase. She refused, but Forrest went to the poker game anyway. That night he returned with $1500, though his wife was unimpressed.
Forrest’s post-war life further soiled his reputation. As Reconstruction commenced in the South, many Southerners resentfully fought against the Northern “carpet baggers” who came down, collected government contracts worth millions, then did little to fulfill obligations. Tensions were high between Northerners, Southerners, and many freed slaves. In 1867 a group of white men in Pulaski, Tennessee formed a group that was meant to be a “protective” squad for Southerners that they dubbed the Ku Klux Klan. A year and a half later, Forrest became a member and was promptly elected as their first “Grand Wizard” thus forever cementing his reputation as the epitome of Southern racism. In 1868, after Tennessee’s pro-Union Governor William Brownlow was defeated at the polls, Forrest resigned from the Klan and urged their disbanding saying their purposes had been fulfilled. His urgings were ignored and the Klan set off on a violent streak of atrocities that would cause them to live forever in infamy. They would eventually disband, only to be re-chartered in 1915 with an even more violent and racist agenda. But the story of Nathan Bedford Forrest doesn’t end with the Civil War, Fort Pillow, or the KKK. As Paul Harvey would say…. “Have you heard the REST of the story?”
Nathan Bedford Forrest had been raised by a godly Mother to be a man of hard work and honor. Though he did not adopt his Mother’s faith, he held a reverence for Christians throughout his life. Chapel services were encouraged in his army, and General Forrest frequently attended. And though Forrest was famous for his profanity when in the midst of a tirade, his speech was relatively clean when he was calm, and he abhorred “smutty or vulgar talk” as being disrespectful towards women. Forrest never drank alcohol, nor used tobacco in any form. And he was absolutely devoted to his wife Mary Ann, declaring on many occasions that it was because of the prayers of his wife and mother that he had lived through so many fierce battles. When enraged, it was said that Forrest’s face would glow so bright red that he appeared to be a different person. Yet it was also said that his Godly wife could calm him down with only a word. He forever adored, respected, and revered her.
As Fort Donelson was falling to U.S. Grant in 1864, Forrest called his second in command, a former Methodist minister named Major D.C. Kelly to his side and implored him, “For God’s sake Parson, Pray! Only God Almighty could save that Fort now.” And as the war, and his eventual capture and death seemed likely, Forrest wrote a letter to his only son Willie imploring him to take good care of his mother and to be careful not to emulate his sinful and wicked ways. Forrest was glad to have Christians in his family, but he confessed that he considered Christianity to be “a woman’s religion.” But all of that changed in the mid 1870’s.
Though Forrest was only in his 50’s, a lifetime of hard living and battle were beginning to take their toll on him. He began attending church with his beloved wife at the Court Avenue Presbyterian Church in Memphis where the gospel was preached faithfully by Rev. George Stainback. And he began to feel the Holy Spirit’s conviction for a lifetime of sin. One day he ran into an old army buddy who had been under his command named Raleigh White. Forrest exclaimed, “Why, Raleigh White, its you! I heard you’d gone down to South America or somewhere!” White replied that this was not true, but that he had in fact become a Christian, having been led to Christ by his wife after the war. After trying his hand in business, White succumbed to an overwhelming call to preach the gospel of Christ to sinners; and was now a Southern Baptist Pastor living in Texas. Forrest listened to White’s testimony with obvious excitement, and then asked White if he would pray for him. The two veterans went into a bank lobby and knelt together as White prayed for Forrest. Then they parted ways. Another gospel seed had been planted that would soon take permanent root.
In the Fall of 1875, Forrest found himself setting next to his wife listening to Rev. Stainback preach from Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:
"Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall." (Matthew 7:24-27 NASB)
Forrest’s heart was crushed and his spiritual eyes were opened. After the service he pulled Rev. Stainback aside and as Rev. Stainback later recounted: “Forrest suddenly leaned against the wall and his eyes filled with tears. 'Sir, your sermon has removed the last prop from under me,' he said, 'I am the fool that built on the sand; I am a poor miserable sinner.” Stainback told Forrest to go home and read and meditate on Psalm 51 and see where it led him.
“Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; According to the greatness of Your compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity And cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, And my sin is ever before me.” (Psalms 51:1-3 NASB)
The next night, Rev. Stainback went by to visit with Forrest, and they fell to their knees and prayed together. Forrest said that he had put his trust in the Redeemer, and that his heart was finally at peace. The final two years of his life seemed to bear out the truth of his confession. Nathan Bedford Forrest the fierce fighter, gambler, racist, and sinner….was a changed man.
In 1875, Forrest was invited to speak to a black civil rights group called the “Pole-Bearers” Association, a forerunner for today’s NAACP. Though mocked by some white people for appearing, Forrest addressed the black people in love saying, “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. I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going. 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.”
At the end of his speech a young, black girl named Lou Lewis presented General Forrest with a bouquet of flowers as a sign of reconciliation between the two races. Forrest accepted the flowers, then leaned down and gently kissed the girl on the cheek, a public act of reverence and respect that was absolutely unheard of for a white man to do in that day. Indeed, Nathan Bedford Forrest, former Grand Wizard of the KKK, was a new creature in Christ.
Nathan Bedford Forrest died from complications from Diabetes on October 21, 1877, when he was 56 years old. He said on his deathbed that there was “not a cloud that separated him from his beloved Heavenly Father.” The lessons from the life of Nathan Bedford Forrest are legion. His battlefield tactics have been studied by military men the world over, and he has been called by many a strategic genius in the art of war. But his personal and spiritual life give us far greater lessons. He is a clear testimonial example of God’s overwhelming power to change even the hardest of sinners. Though sadly, Forrest today is mostly remembered for his sin.
Many efforts have been made by civil rights leaders to have his name removed from parks and schools all across the South because of his being the epitome of racism. And yet, when the complete story of Nathan Bedford Forrest is known, we see him as being the very example of what we would hope to see from all racial bigots: a transformed and changed life. Though he was once the black man’s enemy, he became one of their dearest friends and defenders. His desire to see black people serving in politics and professional occupations was a clarion call for equality that was way ahead of its time. In fact, this “Southern racist” called for greater civil rights than most Northern abolitionists would have been comfortable with. Forrest had once owned and sold slaves for his business. Now his business was to see that they were treated fairly. It reminds me of another slave-trader turned Christian by the name of John Newton, who wrote a hymn you might have heard of: “Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”
To hold a grudge against Nathan Bedford Forrest is to deny one of the greatest truths Christ teaches us; that the power of the gospel can change anyone. And that we should ask the Lord to “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” (Matthew 6:12) Nathan Bedford Forrest was a sinner par excellence. So am I. And so are you, if you would be humble enough to admit it. For the Bible teaches us that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Nathan Bedford Forrest was despised in his day, as he is in most circles today, though Christians should forgive him just as Christ has forgiven us. Union General William T. Sherman vowed to catch “that devil Forrest.” But Sherman never was able to do it. In the end, it was Jesus Christ who finally caught up with him. And rather than kill him….Jesus changed him and on a glorious and providential day in 1875, the unthinkable and impossible actually happened: “that devil” got saved. Let us hope and pray that the Lord Jesus Christ would save many more “devils” like Nathan Bedford Forrest and transfer them from “the domain of darkness to the kingdom of His beloved Son.” (Colossians 1:13)
(NOTE: To hear an audio sermon I preached on Forrest's Christian conversion, click here).