“Well, at least we’re not Mississippi!” That’s a phrase I’ve used many times throughout my life. Normally when talking about the latest embarrassment from the State of Georgia. Embarrassments that generally stifle any progress the State makes. Everything ranging from Honey Boo Boo to voter suppression; snowpocalypse to a school hosting its first integrated prom in 2014; epic sports losses to the world’s largest Confederate monument. So that was always my excuse for monuments like the one on Stone Mountain. “Well, Mississippi has a statue of KKK Grand Wizard, Nathan Bedford Forrest on their highway, so at least we’re not Mississippi!” But, my self-righteous need to condemn someone else’s shortcomings kept me from looking right here at home. And for the record, I love Georgia. And Atlanta. Probably more than most things. Hearing people from the outside belittle this state, even if they have a good point, is painful and a sore spot for many of us. So, I wrote this with the intention to lay out sourced facts, as well as my opinions and a couple possible solutions. I did a piece about my personal thoughts on monuments and flags a few weeks ago, the link is below.
It was April of 2016. I was in attendance of a counter-protest for what the Ku-Klux Klan dubbed “Rock Stone Mountain.” They had been boasting that thousands of Klansmen would be there in full regalia. This was a confrontation I had been itching for my whole life. When I was a boy, I had witnessed a Klan rally at Stone Mountain. It would fuel a paranoia within me for years. It didn’t help much that some kids had put on a Klan ritual during show and tell in elementary school. Also, my middle schools mascot was originally called the Phantoms. The mural in the gymnasium had a group of kids in “ghost” costumes around a bonfire in front of Stone Mountain. You can imply whatever you want. I certainly did. So, the Klans purpose had worked on my young mind. I guess I was afraid of ghosts. But I’m white. So, I can’t begin to speak about what it’s like for Black people to be reminded of this ugly history. Especially when the truth has been so drastically suppressed.
Much to my disappointment on that day, the Klan did not show. Only a handful of the “heritage not hate” types had. People were super stoked, they thought they had won a victory over the Klan. I was not. I didn’t expect them to show in the first place, but was disappointed nonetheless. I wanted vindication. When I got home, I saw that a handful of robed klansmen and neo-nazis had been in Rome, Ga instead. This were amusing to me at first, but quickly lead me into a little research about Rome and one thing really jumped out at me…
“Wait, there’s a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in Georgia?!”
All I had known of Rome, Ga before this was that they were home to our single-A baseball team and they play in a small replica version of Turner Field. I plan on seeing a game there once that’s a thing again. I feel a big issue in our society is lack of communication and not allowing everyone to tell their stories and truths. The main purpose of my blog has been to try and relate my experience to others in hopes they will allow for others to do the same. And I have nothing but respect for how the community of Rome, GA has been handling this. I think it’s an absolute gold standard of how these issues can be handled in a community. I’m bringing light to this as a whole because the things I heard in their meeting hit home with what I keep hearing and feeling from people everywhere, myself included. These monuments don’t tell the whole story and they often misrepresent the truth. Which is the problem. The complaints of bringing them down are always about changing history. But, history was changed when they put them up. This is about truth and equality. Generations have been miseducated and we have a chance to set a standard for how to reconcile these things right now. It starts with the whole truth and context.
In 1902, on 5th Avenue and Broad Street, in downtown Rome, Georgia, a Black man was lynched in front of a crowd of 4,000 people. At least 4 in total were lynched in that spot throughout the years. In 1906, the statute of Nathan Bedford Forrest was erected on Broad Street by the Daughters of the Confederacy. One of many dedicated to telling their story of the “lost cause.” In 1952 it was moved to Myrtle Hill Cemetery. I’m happy that when I visited, I drove to the very top of the cemetery first. It allowed me to take in the panoramic view of this beautiful downtown nestled into the mountains first. When I turned around and looked all the way down, I could see that statue was positioned to face towards the opposite side of town. I don’t think that was a mistake. It’s certainly how the people of the community describe the placement of the monument. And those sentiments are echoed in the recent community meeting.
I really want the people of Rome to speak about how this monument impacts their lives, so I put the link to the entire video of the Rome Community Services Committee meeting from 06/12/2020 below. It is absolutely worth your time. I’m genuinely inspired by how the community supports each other on this, regardless of their stances. But, I really want to draw attention to a young woman around the 1:47:30 mark. After giving her families and her own history in the community, she summed it up with “I can’t understand why the hurt it causes doesn’t matter? Why doesn’t it matter?” She was one of the last to speak and I won’t call out anyone, but many, I felt, missed her point completely. The Council concluded this meeting with two real points.
- What’s the truth about Nathan Bedford Forrest?
- We need to build monuments to the civil rights heroes of Rome.
I could not agree more with the need to build monuments to their civil rights heroes and it was an honor to hear some of that history during the meeting (it’s really worth your time). I want to say that I personally love to visit somewhere and learn history like that. When it’s told truthfully and representative. There was also a lot of talk about what to do with this monument and I have ideas about that I will get to. As for the truth about Forrest, I’ve been researching a lot about this for a while for a larger project that I’m working on. I’m going to lay out information on Nathan Bedford Forrest with context on the issues that are excluded from these monuments and memorials. I have cited all my sources below for reference. I’m not a professional. I am just someone who likes to write, history and is passionate about these things. Please feel free to contact me if you want more information or clarity on the sources.
root; noun, often attributive
- the basic cause, source, or origin of something.
- the essential substance or nature of something.
- family, ethnic, or cultural origins, especially as the reasons for one’s long-standing emotional attachment to a place or community.
Nathan Bedford Forrest (July 13, 1821 – October 29, 1877) was born in Chapel Hill, Tennessee and died in Memphis, Tennessee where he is buried. Forrest had settled in Memphis in 1852 and had done so well as a slave trader that he had 2 plantations and a reported $1.5 million at the time. Many books talk of Forrest being a self-made man. The embodiment of someone who had come up from nothing and a narrative that would be used for years. Forrest was described as a dashing figure at 6’1’’ with broad shoulders, a full chest, and 185 pounds. He was the epitome of what Southern manhood was known for in his day. I will let Forrest’s own congressional testimony from June 27th, 1871 speak for him regarding what he saw as the cause of the war:
Question. You were opposed to negro suffrage then, were you not?
Answer. No, sir. My view in regard to this war are probably different from those of most men. I looked upon it as a war upon slavery when it broke out; I so considered it. I said to forty-five colored fellows on my plantation that it was a war upon slavery, and that I was going into the army; that if they would go with me, if we got whipped they would be free anyhow, and that if we succeeded and slavery perpetuated, if they would act faithfully with me to the end of the war, I would set them free. Eighteen months before the war closed I was satisfied that we were going to be defeated, and I gave these forty-five men, or forty-four men of them, their free papers, for fear I might be killed.
• As for Forrest being a war hero.
In June of 1861, Forrest was authorized to recruit a regiment of cavalry for the war as a lieutenant colonel. Later becoming a general. He was known for being an aggressive commander and was thought to be the finest cavalry leader on either side of the war. His aggressive and controversial tactics are best known for The Battle of Fort Pillow. Also know as The Massacre at Fort Pillow.
Fort Pillow was positioned in Henning, Tennessee about 65 miles above Memphis along the Mississippi River. The date was April 12, 1864 and up to this point the garrison consisted of 19 officers and 538 men. 262 of them were noted as Negroes. The Tennessee-native White men at this fort were known as “homemade Yankees” by the Confederates. The attack from Southern forces was sudden and fierce. The fort was commanded by Major L.F. Booth who was killed early in the engagement and was succeeded by Major W.F. Bradford. Bradford quickly withdrew his troops from the trenches, bringing them into the fort. A flag of truce was sent out by Forrest asking for unconditional surrender. Bradford asked for 1-hour to consider the surrender. Forrest responded that he had 20 minutes. Bradford would not surrender under those terms. During those brief negotiations the Confederate forces had surrounded the fort, taking the strategic advantage at all angles. As soon as Bradford’s reply to Forrest was received, it is said a bugle sounded and a cry for “no quarter” went out. Black and White Union troops alike were said to have thrown down their arms in retreat, but were slaughtered nonetheless. There’s much debate on the details, but little debate to be had about the dead. Forrest’s report was that he lost 20 killed and 60 wounded and they had buried 228 Federals in the first evening alone. He had called it a “fair fight.” Many firsthand accounts from soldiers on both sides do not reflect that statement.
One of Forrest’s Sergeants, Achilles V. Clark, wrote to his sisters on April 14th, 1864:
Our men were so exasperated by the Yankee’s threats of no quarter that they gave but little. The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor deluded negros would run up to our men fall on their knees and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. The whitte [sic] men fared but little better. The fort turned out to be a great slaughter pen. Blood, human blood stood about in pools and brains could have been gathered up in any quantity. I with several others tried to stop the butchery and at one time had partially succeeded but Gen. Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased.
Another survivor of Fort Pillow wrote to Senator Benjamin Wade after President Johnson fully pardoned General Forrest. He detested the thought that “a foul fiend in human shape” like Forrest who was known for “butchery and barbarity,” had received a swift, unconditional pardon instead of “the punishment which his atrocious crimes so richly deserve.”
• As for Forrest being the savior of Rome, GA
In April of 1863 Forrest was dispatched to defend the back country of Northern Alabama and Western Georgia. Union Colonel A.D. Streight had been given command of about 1800 men with orders to proceed to Northern Georgia, cut the railroads in Bragg’s rear, destroy all depots of supplies, manufactories of arms, clothing, etc. His orders intended to capture Rome and Atlanta as well, but he was harassed by Forrest, who had less men, but a superior cavalry force. Forrest chased Streight for 16 days catching up to him on May 3rd, 1863 in Cedar Bluff, AL. Streight surrender 1365 men to Forrest from what’s reported as general exhaustion. Rome would later be captured, as would Atlanta. Forrest only delayed the inevitable. Sherman would burn Atlanta and the Union would win the war. Slavery was supposed to be abolished in the South and the region entered into an era of turmoil known as reconstruction. The thing with rebuilding is, whoever ends up in charge gets to tell how it was done.
The Civil Rights Act of 1866 overturned The Black Codes and stated that Blacks had the right to make contracts, to sue, and give evidence, to own and dispose of property and were entitled to equal protection under the law. President Johnson was not a fan of this and vetoed it immediately. However, Congress overrode the veto a month later and The Civil Rights Act went into effect. Shortly after that was The May Day riot of 1866 in Memphis, Tennessee that resulted in at least 46 Blacks being killed. In response Congress would pass the 14th amendment to strengthen the Civil Rights Act. Johnson was also not a fan of this one. He would advise all Southern states not to ratify the amendment. Some would hold out for quite a while.
The new laws of reconstruction and equal rights did not sit so well in the South. Former Confederate Leaders were barred from holding office due to the fourteenth amendment. So, reconstruction meant that the South’s most revered men would no longer be able to hold a public office. Also, the men they had once owned were now allowed to vote and had equal protections under the law. A counter-response to reconstruction was needed to restore the Southern way of life that they had gone to war for in the first place. Many of those who had fought in the war were poor farmers and laborers, not left with much. Newly freed Blacks, as well as carpetbaggers and federalists were seen as a very large threat to the economic opportunities of these men. So, fears were very easy to be exploited on, as always.
. . . Total depravity, human hate . . . do not explain fully the mob spirit in America. Before the wide eyes of the mob is ever the Shape of Fear. Back of the writhing, yelling, cruel-eyed demons who break, destroy, maim and lynch and burn at the stake, is a knot, large or small, of normal human beings, and these human beings at heart are desperately afraid of something. Of what? Of many things, but usually of losing their jobs, being declassed, degraded, or actually disgraced; of losing their hopes, their savings, their plans for their children; of the actual pangs of hunger, of dirt, of crime. And of all this, most ubiquitous in modern industrial society is that fear of unemployment.” – W. E. B. Du Bois
•As for Forrest being the first Grand Wizard of the Ku-Klux Klan.
- the side or part of an object that presents itself to view or that is normally seen or used first; the most forward part of something.
- the foremost part or part of an armed force; the furthest position that an army has reached and where the enemy is or may be engage
The Ku-Klux Klan was started in Pulaski, Tennessee in late 1865 by 6 friends who were bored in life and looking to start a secret society. They’d go on night rides throughout the town in costumes, causing mischief. It quickly grew into more. It’s unlikely they knew at the time what the Klan would really become, but it was welcomed nevertheless. Reports of numerous bands of ruffians committing “the most fiendish and diabolical outrages” on freed Blacks were being reported by the Freedman’s Bureau from all around the South. All these hoodlums lacked was real leadership to deal with the threats of Radical Reconstruction. The Klan would claim to be the ghosts of dead Confederate soldiers, returned for revenge, while they were out terrorizing in the night. So, who better to lead these ghouls than the infamous, General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Confederate Captain John W. Morton set out in 1867 to recruit his former Cavalry Commander. Forrest described his return home from the war as “A beggar when I came out of the army I was completely used up – shot all to pieces, crippled up and found myself and family entirely dependent.” His later congressional testimony would contradict this statement, as do his financial holdings at the time. Forrest had been known to his men during the war as “The Wizard of the Saddle” for his mastery of cavalry. His controversial war reputation only helped the Klans cause. Forrest found himself charmed and obligated by the call to duty from the KKK and would take up the mantle as the Klans first “Grand Wizard.” One Klansman had stated that “Forrest commanded more brave men in the invisible army than he did while in the Confederate army.” In 1974, during another revival of the Klan, new Grand Wizard, David Duke, stated that he was moving the Klan to return to the examples of Wizard Forrest and the reconstruction era legends.
Grand Wizard Forrest’s Klan spread like wildfire throughout the South. They drew members from all classes of White men – Poor and rich; small farmers, poor labors and rich planters; lawyers and doctor; judges and sheriffs; clergy and churchgoers; educated and unlettered. Following the war, Forrest had made a career as an insurance salesman as well as being President of two railroads. This gave him frequent travels throughout the south. Everywhere Forrest would travel, Klan activities and new dens would soon follow. Between January and May of 1868 he would use his travels to recruit esteemed leaders for his Invisible Army. He met with former Confederate John B. Gordon in Atlanta in March and days later the first Klan notices appeared in the state. Gordon would become Georgia’s first Grand Dragon of the Ku-Klux Klan. Gordon was also a U.S. Senator and 53rd Governor of the State of Georgia. His statue is located outside the State Capitol in Atlanta. Also, Klan notices are making a comeback again, FYI.
Following radical victory in 1867, the Tennessee Klan got busy. Between June and October 1867, it was reported that 25 murders, 83 assault and batteries, 4 rapes and 4 arson’s had victimized innocent citizens of Tennessee. Governor Brownlow called for the Tennessee Militia to put down the rebellion of Klan that had been causing murder and violence throughout middle and western Tennessee.
On August 18th, 1868 Forrest interviewed with a reporter from the Cincinnati Commercial. Forrest boasted to the reporter that should he use this militia, he has an army called the Ku-Klux Klan of 40,000 men in Tennessee alone. About 550,000 throughout the South. Forrest would later go onto make corrections about his involvement with the Klan and his intentions of this statement during his congressional testimony. He did confirm those numbers with his corrections though. If those numbers are true that would mean that half of Southern White men were members of the Ku-Klux Klan at the time. The levels of involvement is of course unknown and disputed. It is a secret society, y’all.
Defenders of Forrest often dispute his intentions of what he wanted for the Klan or his level of involvement. Most of what’s written shows that he did intend for them to be more gentlemen like in their business. And that’s where himself and the other confederate leaders he had recruited came in. John B. Gordon, John T. Morgan, Albert Pike, Zebulon Vance, to name a few. He amassed the most influential Confederate leaders and statesmen he could, all would later become political leaders around the South. While he may have publicly denounced violence, the Klans savage methods of intimidation won back the government throughout the South and ended reconstruction. This is where the beginning of the revisionists history really started. That’s a different story I’m writing.
For what it’s worth, Forrest did issue “General Order Number One” in late January, 1869. It was the only directive to ever come out of the Imperial Headquarters in Tennessee. It essentially ordered every Klansman to destroy their robes and costumes. It did no good whatsoever. Klan activity was still increasing at the time. This was likely just Imperial Headquarters washing their hands. They had a very structured organization and the front- men needed to be squeaky clean to shake hands and kiss babies after all.
On June 27, 1871, Forrest would testify before Congress in Washington D.C. He mostly spends time going back and forth about his recanting statements from his Cincinnati Commercial interview. He states that he thinks he was suffering from a headache that day, which he often had. He contradicts himself multiple times throughout the hearing. He also confirms that he was a member of The Knights of White Camellia in Louisiana. They have been reported to be Klan by multiple sources. He boasted about stopping a potential Negro uprising almost single-handed by just talking to these men, a tale that gets spun in his defense a lot. He also repeats the classic rhetoric of the day about insolent Negroes having night meetings, flagrancy, ravaging women, etc. There’s 40 pages there and the link is in the references, knock yourself out. Forrest was said to have told friends later that he “lied like a gentleman” while under oath. I do see where many of his defenders draw their talking points from this congressional testimony. Whether they know it or not. They also admit his Klan participation, but give him praise for wanting the Klan to be less violent and issuing general order one.
Regardless of how much violence Forrest participated in or knew about, he was responsible. This goes for Fort Pillow as well as being Grand Wizard of the Ku-Klux-Klan. He was a general and a leader. These men followed his orders. Surrendered men were butchered. The Klan grew rapidly as a result of his leadership and the seeds planted there still last to this day. Don’t forget that these Klansmen came back in the next century and reached membership in the millions. The tactics used to implant polices of systemic oppression still stain this country. This is Nathan Bedford Forrest’s legacy.
So, if we must leave his statues up for now, then can we add some bed sheets?
Georgia state bill 77, passed in March of 2019. It added additional protections for government statues and monuments. Including Stone Mountain. The difficult obstacle in the bill is the specifics in relocating any removed monuments:
(7) Nothing in this Code section shall prevent an agency from relocating a monument when relocation is necessary for the construction, expansion, or alteration of edifices, buildings, roads, streets, highways, or other transportation construction projects. Any monument relocated for such purposes shall be relocated to a site of similar prominence, honor, visibility, and access within the same county or municipality in which the monument was originally located. A monument shall not be relocated to a museum, cemetery, or mausoleum unless it was originally placed at such location.
That last part would of prevented the Forrest statue from being moved from the spot it was originally in. Which was a spot of multiple lynchings. These bills were passed under Kemp’s administration and are moves in the wrong direction. A couple Georgia cities have recently managed work arounds. And there is certainly ways to immediately add context to them at the very least. The historic Oakland cemetery in Atlanta has done this with their monuments. The Lion of Atlanta and Confederate Obelisk both have signs giving contextual information regarding the lost cause and changing narratives of monuments. Neither of the monuments really fall into that category. These were built right after the war, solely for honoring the dead. They were built long before the Daughters of Confederacy had embarked on their mission. Nevertheless, this added context is a step in the right direction and was nice to see. It still did not prevent recent vandalism to The Lion. And that leads me to my main point.
It’s all or nothing. If all of these monuments, flags and historical markers across the country tell a narrative that is one-sided or untrue, then corrected context of a few may not matter much. Don’t get me wrong, we HAVE to start right now. And that’s a great start. But, years of miseducation and misrepresentation lead us into the situations we are in now. Many are so dead set to defend these monuments – or to tear them down – that they fail to listen to the generations who have been telling of the effects of these statues. It’s imperative that we need to correct the history and tell the truth as it reflects ALL of our population. No more cherry-picking history. The phrase “lest we forget” is often used in memorial, but the design was to make us forget that which they didn’t want to be memorialized.
If Georgia can pass a law to keep a statue of Klansmen in place, then they can pass laws to remove them. Let alone tell the truth. And we have a perfect relocation home for him right here in our home state. General Forrest was revered for his cunning cavalry skills. So may I suggest that he, and all his friends, be moved to one of our beautiful coastal islands inhabited by majestic, wild, Spanish steeds. There he can command his troops once again, as they ride through the sky, whistling Dixie… you know what, y’all use your own imaginations. But I’m actual serious about this. Put them on an island and make it a state park. Charge entrance fees, like a confederacy amusement park, then give the money collected to charities supporting appropriate causes.
I’m putting the link to the petition for removal below. This was organized by a young citizen of Rome. Please sign if you feel the need and share. There’s also a petition to save the statue. I won’t provide the link to that, but if you read this far and want to sign that one, then I sincerely thank you for your time. Love all y’all ❤️
– James C. Marshall, July 4th, 2020
- Guernsey, Alfred H. 1866.Harper’s pictorial history of the Great Rebellion in The United States. Fairfax Press. ISBN: 0517224224. Rpt. in Harper’s Pictorial History of The Civil War 1977. 525, 528-529, 572
- Wade, Wyn Craig. 1987. The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America. Simon and Schuster. ISBN: 9780671414764. 16-17, 24-25, 28, 40-41, 45-46, 50-51, 58, 59, 106, 368
- Sheehan-Dean, Aaron. 2014. The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It. Library of America. Vol. 3.
- Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. 2010. They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing. ISBN: 9780544225824. 47, 49, 57, 75, 137-138.
- Franklin, John Hope. 1961. Reconstruction After the Civil War. The University of Chicago Press. ISBN: 0226260763. 152-173.
- Catton, Bruce. 1965. The Centennial History of The Civil War Volume 3: Never Call Retreat. Doubleday & Company, Inc. ISBN: 9780385026154. 334-335.
- Du Bois, W. E. B. 1935. Black Reconstruction in America. Oxford University Press. ISBN: 0195325818.
- Rable, George C. 1984. But There Was No Peace: The Role of Violence in the Politics of Reconstruction. The University of Georgia Press. ISBN: 0820307106. 94.