Forrest's Remains, the National Confederate Museum and Racist Hate

A crowd gathers around the Nathan Bedford Forrest monument in Memphis' Forrest Park, 1906

So, they’re digging up old Nathan Bedford Forrest over in Memphis. The disinterment is going like hell. Confederates yelled at Tami Sawyer. They damaged a Black Lives Matter display. A righteous man burned a Confederate flag and now the spokesperson for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Lee Millar, is begging people to just stay away. He told WREG: “We don’t want anyone to come down. We don’t want anything stirred up. Just leave things alone and don’t come bother the construction workers or anybody else in the park.”

The most curious thing to me about the Forrest removal is that the Forrests still have their plot in the Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis. That’s right. When Forrest died, he was placed in a cemetery, like a regular person. It was only in the early 1900s that Forrest was dug up the first time and moved to a park named in his honor. People have written whole books about the ways Confederate monuments sprang up in periods in our country when Black people were making real gains, so I won’t rehash that here. Suffice to say that, much like how the Confederate flag started appearing on state flags in the South in the 1950s — during school desegregation — it’s not surprising that a Confederate general would be dug up and redisplayed in 1904.

But the Forrests could go back to Elmwood. The Sons of Confederate Veterans could just put them back where they found them. Instead, the Forrests are being moved to National Confederate Museum at Elm Springs in Columbia, Tenn.

Did you even know we had a National Confederate Museum in Columbia? Me neither. But they have a website. It is hilarious. Maybe they should have been up recruiting from the young racists marching in Nashville this weekend to get some basic social media help. They have a blog, but there’s no blogging taking place. Their page about the plantation that houses the museum contains one whole bit of lorem ipsum, where they’ve just not bothered to put any real content. I assume this is where the Nathan Bedford Forrest stuff will go.

Why here though? Forrest’s family is all buried either in Mississippi, where his family lived when he was growing up, or Elmwood, where Forrest had been. If they wanted to move him closer to his birthplace, well, there’s literally the Nathan Bedford Forrest Boyhood Home in Chapel Hill, Tenn.

I was ready to dismiss this as the SCV wanting some “saint’s” relics to bring crowds to their new museum. But I was struck by the presence of Gen./Gov. John C. Brown on their website. In their little description of him, they say, “Following the Battle of Franklin where he had been wounded, General John C. Brown, C.S.A., was brought here and remained here for several weeks until the Federal troops came back into the county.”

I’m no Civil War historian, but this makes no sense. Though we now see the Battle of Franklin as an enormous loss for the Confederacy — six Confederate generals were killed, seven were wounded, and one was captured — at the time it happened, it was viewed as a great victory. A costly victory, but a great victory. The Confederates pushed the Union out of Franklin. Why would you send a general two days south when the rest of your army is about to march north? If he’s not going to recuperate in time to be a part of the Battle of Nashville, it’s probably not a good idea to move him. If he’s well enough to be moved that far, wouldn’t they send him toward Nashville? And if he was severely injured but well enough to travel, why would he only go as far as Columbia instead of going home to his family in Pulaski? I don’t know what the deal is here, but this story strikes me as hinky.

There is, however, another thing that Brown and Forrest have in common, aside from being Confederate generals. They were both early members of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Ku Klux Klan was started in Pulaski, Tenn., just south of Columbia, at the tail end of 1865. The original founders were Calvin E. Jones, John B. Kennedy, Frank O. McCord, John C. Lester, Richard P. Reed and James R. Crowe. Jones, Lester and Reed were all lawyers. Jones’ father, Judge Thomas Jones, was a mentor to and neighbor of John C. Brown. Frank McCord was the publisher of the Pulaski Citizen, meaning that every fawning story about the mysterious Klan member who kept popping in the editorial offices to place cryptic messages in the paper was actually McCord talking about himself.

In the March 26, 1869, edition of the Pulaski Citizen, there are two stories on page 2 concerning John C. Brown. One is about the founding of the Pulaski Library Association — John C. Brown (president), Thomas Jones (father of KKK founder Calvin Jones and a trustee) and L.W. McCord (brother of Klan-founding newspaper publisher Frank, another trustee). The next column contains a story subtitled “Interview between a Militia Colonel and a ‘Ku-Klux' Editor.” The story claims that this "Ku-Klux" editor was from the Knoxville Press and Herald. But one wonders, considering the Citizen had itself a Ku Klux editor. Anyway, this editor and the militia colonel have a little talk, and the colonel reveals that he can go a few places and still “reach my command at Pulaski.” The people he works with? “General Brown, Maj. Ewing, Squire McCallum, Mr. Cox, the Chancery clerk, Mayor Ballentine, Sheriff Parsons, Major Jones.” At the least, the Citizen is numbering Brown among vigilantes.

In the introduction to the book Ku Klux Klan: Its Origin, Growth, and Disbandment, Walter Fleming — who was editing this book by John C. Lester with input from James R. Crowe — writes: “Some well-known members of the Klan were General John C. Brown, of Pulaski, Tennessee; Captain John W. Morton, now Secretary of State of Tennessee; Ryland Randolf, of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, editor of the Independent Monitor, the official organ of the Klan in Alabama; General N.B. Forrest and General George W. Gordon, of Memphis, Tennessee.” In another spot, he identifies J.L. Pearcy, James McCallum, Robert Mitchell, Thomas McCoy, Dr. M.S. Waters, Dr. James Bowers, Milton Voorheis, Charles P. Jones (Calvin’s brother), Robert Martin, C.C. Abernathy, I.L. Shappard, Robert Shappard, J.L. Nelson, John Moor, F.M. Crawford, Alexander McKissick and W.H. Rose as members.

I didn’t find Abram Looney, the man who lived in the house during the Civil War, mentioned in conjunction with the Klan. But he ran in the right circles — state legislator, Democrat, racist. The Pulaski Citizen reported on Oct. 8, 1874, that there was going to be “an old-fashioned mass-meeting” of Democrats to discuss “the odious civil rights bill, with its mixed school clause.” Speakers included Looney and previously mentioned Judge Thomas Jones.

If you think of all the prominent people in Maury County — home of the Polk family, as in James K. Polk and his kin — and the people who must have visited that house because of the prominence of Looney (who served in the state legislature) and of the prominence of his wife’s family, and all of the Confederates in their extended families and in Maury County in general, it is somewhat bizarre that the SCV would give such a special place of prominence to John C. Brown — a man from the next county over, who may or may not have stayed on that property during the Civil War — on their website.

It is as bizarre that they would take the remains of Nathan Bedford Forrest out of the city where he himself intended to be buried instead of returning him to the cemetery he assumed he’d stay buried in, with his family, and move him to a county he never lived in to rest in a family cemetery he has no blood ties to.

Unless there’s something else about Brown and Forrest that the SCV is gesturing toward. Some shared set of goals, some shared agenda, that the SCV doesn’t want to address clearly, but that they hope their in-the-know visitors will pick up on — perhaps that this little ol' Confederate museum has baked right into its origins admiration for the Ku Klux Klan.

Here’s the problem with that, though. You can argue all you want about whether the Civil War was about slavery or not (it was). You can claim your Confederate flag is about heritage rather than hate (it’s not). But when you’re elevating Confederates who were early Klan leaders and ignoring Confederates who weren’t, that is just about racist hate. The Klan was always about being a bunch of racist terrorist sore losers in fancy pajamas.

And a museum that celebrates them is a Klan museum, no matter what it calls itself. And if you go there and give them money, you are giving them money to advance the legacy of the Klan. That’s just the truth of the matter.

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