A Modest Proposal 

How to get rid of Nathan Bedford Forrest, yet still please the Confederates

How to get rid of Nathan Bedford Forrest, yet still please the Confederates

During all of July’s sturm und drang about the Nathan Bedford Forrest erection, Gov. Don Sundquist quietly proclaimed July 13 as “Nathan Bedford Forrest Day” as he has done in each of the three previous years of his governorship.

The proclamation was not a manifestation of his confederate consciousness. Rather, Sundquist was merely doing his esoteric duty under the state code, which requires the governor to issue such a proclamation every year as a “day of special observance.” Other legally required proclamations honor Robert E. Lee and Confederate Memorial Day.

If Sundquist seems punctilious, but unenthusiastic, in doing his chores, it is easy to understand. On the simple level, he is, after all, from Illinois. A more sophisticated observer might also note that he is a smart enough politician to stay out of no-win squabbles. And, indeed, Forrest is a no-win situation for anyone who comes near him.

A dozen years ago, when I was working on an article on the declining cult of Robert E. Lee, I spoke with Charles Wilson, a professor of history and Southern culture at the University of Mississippi and scholar of the mythology of the Lost Cause. Wilson noted that, in spite of Lee’s preeminent place as the greatest hero of the confederacy (his picture still hangs over the mantel at the Belle Meade Country Club), Lee’s virtues of perseverance, dignity, grace, and forbearance were not necessarily qualities that held a strong appeal to people in the modern age.

A figure with more natural appeal to modern audiences, Wilson said, would be Nathan Bedford Forrest, a self-made man who cared less about form and dignity and more about getting results. Wilson’s observation was prescient.

In the intervening years, reverence for the Lost Cause seems to have lost much of its general currency. Southerners are as likely as anyone else to make reference to “The Civil War” these days instead of “The War Between the States,” as Southerners insisted it be called for the first century after the event. Some of the change reflects the pervasiveness of mass media that is national in scope; another part reflects the changes in textbooks put out by publishers more concerned with issues of contemporary political correctness than those of a bygone Southern correctness.

Indeed, in a city like Nashville with its relatively open social structure, you just don’t hear much casual talk about Southern distinctiveness at all. (When was the last time you heard anyone make a feeble joke about “our Yankee mayor” or “our Yankee governor” talking funny?)

On the other hand, while general, low-level Confederate nostalgia may be declining, the intense-level kind seems to be gaining even more momentum as a niche fixation. While most of us go on about our lives, a small corps of people around the South are ever ready to continue the struggle on at least some abstract level. On a fairly benign level are the Confederate reenactors who like to dress up and “experience” history; on a darker level are the crypto-racists posturing about possible secession as a means of protecting “individual rights.”

The common thread in all this is the assertion that the prime interest lies in honoring a noble Southern past. There is also a corollary insistence that the war was not about slavery. Advocates claim they are supportive of contemporary civil rights. The more generous of them contend they are merely trying to reclaim “Dixie” and the Confederate battle flag from the racists who put them to indecent uses during the 1950s and 1960s.

Seeing the Forrest

That is why it is interesting that Forrest has surfaced as a focus of such contemporary enthusiasms. Forrest was always a troublesome figure in any discussion of the Lost Cause—troublesome because he was much more honestly a true man of the South than some of the other Confederate heroes.

More Rhett Butler than Ashley Wilkes, Forrest came from humble origins, made his own fortune, and made himself one of the foremost commanders of the war without any formal military training. In contrast to the patrician Lee, he was the common Southern man writ great. And as the common man, he had the same skeletons in his closet—his fortune was built in part on trading slaves. After the war, he was a leader of the Ku Klux Klan opposing Northern reconstruction policies, most notably black suffrage. While somebody like Lee or Stonewall Jackson might be helpful to those arguing that the Civil War really wasn’t about slavery, Forrest was the devastating rebuttal.

Thus, too, it has always been Tennessee’s misfortune to claim Forrest as a native son. The state that left the Union most reluctantly, and which has a far better history of racial moderation than its deep-South neighbors, also possesses the most raw of Confederate heroes. He is the one who leaves the least room for denial. It may be true that the Civil War was not totally about slavery. But it is false to say that the war was not about slavery altogether.

To be sure, Forrest and the Lost Cause are fringe enthusiasms these days. Indeed, survey data over the last 50 years have consistently shown the South to be the most patriotic of regions. Regardless of their occasional romantic stirrings, I haven’t met too many Southerners who aren’t glad to be part of the United States or who, from their contemporary vantage point, now wish the country’s history had taken a different fork around 1863.

So, for those who would like to put the whole Nathan Bedford Forrest fuss behind them, sparing the city further division and embarrassment while still seeking to reclaim the noble and admirable parts of their Southern heritage, I offer a modest proposal.

Instead of a statue of Forrest, why not a statue of General James Longstreet?

The symbolism would be much better, and such a statue would have the added virtue of being fairly rare.

Of all the important Confederate generals, none was treated with less regard after the war than Longstreet. His primary sin—although there were others—lay in concluding that, with the war lost, it was time to get on with the business of rebuilding the South. To that end, he joined the Republican Party. In so doing, he implicitly aligned himself with Reconstruction policies, including full voting rights for freed slaves, although there is no basis to suggest that the latter consideration was the reason for his choice of party.

The reason why a Longstreet statue makes sense is that he is the perfect figure for reverence for contemporary Confederate enthusiasts—assuming they really mean what they say.

On the one hand, Longstreet fought with distinction through the entire war as one of Lee’s key lieutenants in the Army of Northern Virginia. Although undistinguished in independent command, Longstreet played a key role in the victories at Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Chickamauga.

Grievously wounded during the Wilderness campaign, Longstreet returned to service to see the surrender at Appomattox. After the war, he made a mature choice in seeking reconciliation and reconstruction, instead of clinging to destructive fantasies about a second coming of the Confederacy.

As such, Longstreet meets the twin test of contemporary Confederate enthusiasm: He was a gallant soldier who fought well for the cause, and he was a man who embraced the United States after the war as it helped the South move painfully into the sunlight of civil rights. Confederate revanchists who say they both deplore the wrongs of slavery and segregation, yet honor the past to celebrate their noble heritage, could find in Longstreet a man to admire.

Skipping past some other controversies—like just how good a general he really was, not to mention his post-war criticism of Lee—I merely offer Longstreet here as the chance for latter-day Confederates to put up or shut up.

Of course there is an irony here. Longstreet’s main sin was joining the Republican Party, which, in recent years, has become the dominant party among white, Southern voters. I guess his problem is that he was just a premature Republican.


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