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Nathan Bedford Forrest Wins A Rare Victory Over Cancel Culture. Here's Why That's A Good Thing

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Adrian Sainz, File

In 2020’s version of the Bolshevik Revolution, almost any statue or monument that predates or doesn’t explicitly honor the Civil Rights era is a potential target for being defaced, damaged, or toppled entirely, Taliban-style. The woke social justice warriors who have somehow managed to seize the culture don’t seem to concern themselves much with whether these monuments honor Jefferson Davis, George Washington, Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, Christopher Columbus, or even famous abolitionist Matthias Baldwin. To them, these are just dead old white dudes who belong in the dustbin of history because, well, they were probably evil, engaged in hate-think, and participated in and benefited from the structural systemic institutional racism of their era, or something.


However, while most conservatives will balk when leftists try to cancel Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and famous abolitionists, they have generally been pressured into ceding ground on anything relating to the Confederacy. Nobody is defending slavery today, but even those who have argued for these monuments’ retention based on historical reasons have mostly given up. Granted, there is certainly room to discuss, in a non-mob-like way, the peaceful, orderly removal - to museums or private property - of certain statues put on government property by segregationists or KKK members for the express purpose of intimidating minorities. Most reasonable people understand this.

But other statues and monuments are simply there to acknowledge that, right or wrong, the person being remembered did something impressive, something noteworthy, something that history remembers because he did it here during a unique moment during his sliver of time on earth. After all, if all of us had to be perfect to be great, none of us would ever be great. 

Take the Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, for example. A debate comes up every year over the bust that sits in the Tennessee Capitol building in Nashville. It wasn’t placed there by segregationists, but rather by a Democratic member of the Tennessee State Senate in 1973 - not to praise the bad things he did, but rather to acknowledge Forrest’s many accomplishments and prominent role in Tennessee history.

In a rare break from the acquiescence to the left we’ve been seeing all over the U.S. of late, the latest attempt to have the bust removed failed in the Tennessee State House last week by a whopping 61-25 margin. Tennessee Rep. Micah Van Huss was defiant in a statement written during the brouhaha: “Leftists are free to choose not to look at these glorious monuments,” he wrote. “You want to blind yourself to history? Go ahead and live in your politically correct fantasy world. I live in the real world and will represent my constituents from that viewpoint. I won’t be bullied into pandering to your fragile feelings. I will stand by my heritage and the history of the greatest nation the world has ever seen.”


While General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s life certainly had its blemishes, it’s also remembered for some of the most extraordinary accomplishments, like being widely acknowledged as one of the greatest tactical generals of all time in ANY era. It also ended with an attempt at racial reconciliation that almost nobody knows about, probably because the left doesn’t believe in redemption for its chosen “sin unto death,” only condemnation and forever banishment from the annals of history.

They say you can learn a lot about a man from what his enemies say about him. Union General William T. Sherman, who called Forrest “the very devil” for his success against Union troops during the war, also referred to his former enemy as “the most remarkable man our Civil War produced on either side,” a man who “had a genius of strategy which was original, and to me incomprehensible."

Forrest was a millionaire when the war started, but chose to enlist as a private in the Tennessee Mounted Rifles, using his own money to equip the group. He quickly rose to lieutenant colonel and, after a series of unparalleled military successes, was eventually elevated to lieutenant general before disbanding his forces in May 1865. Known as the “Wizard of the Saddle” for his brilliant cavalry maneuvers, the Tennessee general’s tactics are still studied by military students today. Space obviously doesn’t exist here to go into too much detail about his life and military career, but to anyone interested I highly recommend reading virtually any fair Forrest biography, particularly the older ones. No joke, it’s literally like something out of a Greek epic.


Now, despite the fact that every historian acknowledges Forrest’s military genius, there are generally three main knocks against the general - the Fort Pillow massacre, slavery, and the KKK. But like almost anything else in history, it’s much more complicated than the picture Puritanical leftists want to paint.

Did Forrest order a massacre at Fort Pillow? The answer is, well, it’s complicated - but probably not. Historian Shelby Foote called Forrest "one of the most attractive men who ever walked through the pages of history" and dismissed enemy accounts of his role in the killings as “propaganda.” Nobody knows what happened for sure, but a strong case can be made that General Forrest certainly did not order surrendered troops to be killed and even may have stopped the killings when he rode in after the surrender. Confederate veteran Samuel H. Caldwell, who was with Forrest at Fort Pillow, wrote a letter home not long after the battle, describing what he considered “the most horrible sight that I have ever witnessed.” To Caldwell, the Union forces’ refusal to surrender in the face of overwhelming force “incensed our men & if General Forrest had not run between our men & the Yanks with his pistol and sabre drawn not a man would have been spared.” Far from being as black and white as Forrest’s detractors insist, it’s a complicated debate with lots of minutiae involved, but a debate certainly worthy of exploration for those interested in the truth. And of course, plenty of Northern military generals, notoriously including General Sherman, engaged in documented, provable atrocities, yet received little to no criticism today simply because they fought on the winning side.


Indeed, Forrest was a slave owner, but so was George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and hundreds of other historical figures. In truth, it took the vast majority of human history for people to finally acknowledge en masse that owning other humans was morally wrong. Beliefs about race were also entirely different from today’s standards. For example, Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator himself, expressed views on white supremacy and race relations that would make Richard Spencer blush. Yet there he sits, on a giant seat overlooking the Washington Mall (for now).

Regarding the Ku Klux Klan, I’m not here to defend its first manifestation that Forrest allegedly joined, nor the second, nor the 152nd should that ever come to being. It’s bad, period. However, does Forrest not get an ounce of credit for ordering the group disbanded? He, after all, probably served less time in the KKK than the “honorable” late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, and Byrd was more than forgiven for his past misdeeds, right? He was, after all, a “friend and mentor” to Hillary Clinton, described by the former Democratic presidential nominee as “a man of unsurpassing eloquence and nobility.” And far from ordering an end to the group, as Forrest did, Byrd apparently just “became disinterested” and quit paying his dues, likely quitting because he saw the writing on the wall vis-à-vis his political career.

Yes, Nathan Bedford Forrest was a war hero and yes, he also made tremendous mistakes, especially by 21st century standards. In reading about his life one might even expect, given the societal norms of the 1800s, that a man like this would die without really pursuing a 20th century ideal like racial reconciliation, especially considering that he died in the 19th. However, as in military tactics, Forrest was ahead of his time on this issue as well.


The former Confederate general wrote Tennessee’s governor in 1874 volunteering “to help ‘exterminate’ those men responsible for the continued violence” perpetrated by a lynch mob who had murdered four black people for daring to defend themselves at a barbecue. The perps, to Forrest, were “white marauders who disgrace their race by this cowardly murder of Negroes.”

Further, an 1875 speech to a group of black Southerners got Forrest in trouble with Southern racists at the time, mostly because he dared to kiss a young black woman on the cheek when he accepted a bouquet of flowers from her. 

Some quotes from the speech:

- “This day is a day that is proud to me, having occupied the position that I did for the past twelve years, and been misunderstood by your race. This is the first opportunity I have had during that time to say that I am your friend. I am here a representative of the southern people, one more slandered and maligned than any man in the nation.”

- “I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going.”

- “I am your friend … We were born on the same soil, breathe the same air, and live in the same land. Why, then, can we not live as brothers? I will say that when the war broke out I felt it my duty to stand by my people. When the time came I did the best I could, and I don't believe I flickered. I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe that I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to bring about peace.”


- “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.”

- “Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I'll come to your relief.”

Nathan Bedford Forrest, the former Confederate general and alleged Klan leader, said all that in 1875, not 1964. 18-freaking-75. If that’s not an example of someone who’s willing to learn and grow, I don’t know what is. After that speech, Calvary Survivors Association of Augusta Captain F. Edgeworth Eve questioned Forrest’s sanity for accepting flowers from “a mulatto wench.” The Macon Weekly Telegraph condemned his speech as a “disgusting exhibition of himself at the negro jamboree.” 

No, Nathan Bedford Forrest’s life isn’t honored in Tennessee because he was once a slave owner or once joined the Klan. It’s honored because he was a great general, among the best in all of history. While he deserves his statue based on that alone, as do all imperfect heroes of the past, evidence also suggests Forrest moved to redeem himself from those initial mistakes, taking steps to become a better person even in an era where he really didn’t “have” to do so.

To say the man was ahead of his time is an understatement. But to the leftist mob, one of the greatest generals in American history will forever be the “Klansman” who fought on the wrong side of the Civil War.

And it’s a damn shame, because history is so much more complicated than that.

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