Mark Aarons, eminence grise of the self-disenfranchised Croton Republican Party, wasn’t content with printing scurrilous lies to discredit Crotonblog in The Gazette’s issue of March 15. He wasted space by repeating the identical canards in the March 22 issue. Crotonblog wonders whether Mr. Aarons, a local attorney, missed some lectures at law school when rules of evidence were discussed.
The object of his false accusations was our occasional feature, “The Nathan Bedford Forrest Awards,” in which we point out the frequent instances when Crotonblog has beat the Journal News to a story. Our choice of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest was calculated. He was the Civil War’s most successful general and created tactics of mobile warfare still studied in military staff schools. Our reason for choosing him? His philosophy was to get to the battlefield first. A quick study in military science and tactics, Forrest had enlisted as a private and, without formal military training, rose to the rank of lieutenant general. It is interesting to note that Gen. Forrest’s personal bodyguard consisted of eight black former slaves who accompanied him into the army of the Confederate States. The Union Army was a segregated army—in fact, unlike the Confederate Army, segregation continued in the U.S. Army until President Harry Truman abolished it in 1945.
So, here’s our response to Mr. Aarons: He twice claimed that Nathan Bedford Forrest was one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan. Forrest was not. He was never even a member of that organization. Although he supported the Klan’s resistance to Republican carpetbaggers who poured into the South to profit from reconstruction, he quickly condemned acts of violence in a South that had descended into lawlessness and advised the organization to disband.
In 1871 a Congressional committee investigated the same charges Mr. Aarons has repeated, namely Forrest’s alleged involvement with the Klan and also revisited the Fort Pillow “massacre.” Forrest’s archenemy, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who set the tone of the investigation, told the press, “We are here to investigate Forrest, charge Forrest, try Forrest, convict Forrest, and hang Forrest.”
As it turned out, the congressional committee’s final report exonerated Forrest of any complicity in the founding and operation of the Klan and in the so-called Fort Pillow “massacre.” Mr. Aarons can find this information in Reports of Committees, House of Representatives, 2nd Session, 42nd Congress.
The first accusation before the committee was that Forrest was a founder of the Klan, and its first Grand Wizard. Let us examine that charge. General Forrest was called before the committee along with 21 other former Confederate officers, including Admiral Raphael Semmes, and Generals Wade Hampton, John B. Gordon, and Braxton Bragg.
Forrest took the witness stand on June 27th, 1871, and testified that he was building a railroad in Tennessee at the time the Klan had been formed, but he “had done more, probably than any other man, to suppress the violence and difficulties and keep them down, had been vilified and abused in the newspapers, and accused of things I never did while in the army and since. He had nothing to hide, wanted to see this matter settled, our country quiet once more, and our people united and working together harmoniously.”
Asked if he knew of any men or combination of men violating the law or preventing the execution of the law, testifying under oath General Forest answered emphatically, “No.” Forrest stated “any information he had on the Klan was information given to him by others.”
Republican Sen. John Scott of Pennsylvania asked, “Did you take any steps in organizing an association or society under that prescript (Klan constitution)?” Forrest: “I did not.” He also testified that he “thought the organization (the Klan) started in middle Tennessee, although he did not know where. It is said I started it.” Asked by Sen. Scott, “Did you start it? Is that true?” Forrest replied, “No, sir, it is not.”
Asked if he had heard of the Knights of the White Camellia, a Klan-like organization in Louisiana, Forrest replied, “Yes, they were reported to be there.” Senator: “Were you a member of the order of the White Camellia?” Forrest: “No, sir. I never was a member of the Knights of the White Camellia.”
Asked about the Klan, Forrest responded, “It was a matter I knew very little about. All my efforts were addressed to stop it, disband it, and prevent it… . I was trying to keep it down as much as possible.” Forrest added, “I talked with different people that I believed were connected to it, and urged the disbandment of it, that it should be broken up.”
The committee had solid evidence and living witnesses available to it. Yet the committee’s reports absolved General Forrest of complicity in the founding or operation of the Ku Klux Klan, and conceded that he was certainly never a “Grand Wizard.” They found no evidence that Forrest had participated in the formation of the Klan and even the use of his name had been without his permission. They also found that there was no credible evidence that Forrest had ever participated in or directed any actions of the Klan. The findings in the final report of this committee of Congress concluded, “The statements of these gentlemen (Generals Nathan Bedford Forrest and John B. Gordon) are full and explicit … the evidence fully sustains them.”
Turning its attention to the capture of Fort Pillow, the committee found that although there may have been individual acts by Confederate soldiers there was no ordered or organized “massacre,” and that Forrest had taken immediate action to stop such individual misdeeds as soon as he arrived on the scene. His horse had fallen and rolled on him the day before, causing him to be delayed by injuries suffered in that accident.
They also found that two of the accusations of the cruel and inhuman behavior on the part of Confederate forces were also untrue. They were accused of burning Union barracks with wounded Union soldiers inside. Lt. Daniel Van Horn, Sixth U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery, whose report is contained in the Federal Official Records, documented that Lt. John D. Hill fired the barracks under orders of the Union commanding officer. Lieutenant Van Horn also reported, “There never was a surrender of the fort, both officers and men declaring they never would surrender or ask for quarter.”
Accusations that Confederates buried wounded U.S. Colored Troops alive were also found to be false. This was shown by the testimony of Union officers who had been put in charge of the burial of their dead that no live burials of any kind occurred.
After the Civil War, General Forrest made a speech to the Memphis Board of Aldermen in which he said that there was no reason why the black men could not be doctors, store clerks, bankers, or hold any other job held by whites. They were “part of our community and should be involved and employed as such just like anyone else.” In another speech to Federal authorities, Forrest said that many ex-slaves were skilled artisans and needed to be employed and those skills needed to be taught to the younger workers. If not, he pointed out presciently that the next generation of blacks would have no skills and could not succeed, becoming dependent on the welfare of society.
Forrest’s advice long went unheeded. When he organized the Memphis & Selma Railroad after the war to help rebuild the South’s transportation network, Forrest hired blacks as architects, construction engineers and foremen, train engineers and conductors, and other skilled jobs. In the North, blacks were not allowed to hold these jobs.
Ten years after the war, Forrest was invited to speak to a meeting of the Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association (a forerunner of the NAACP), organized by Southern blacks after the war to promote black voting rights. At this convention, held in Memphis on July 5, 1875, General Forrest was the first white man ever invited to address the Association. His speech was so warm and sincere, it puts to shame the vocal efforts of civil rights activists a century later.
Following a brief welcoming address, Miss Lou Lewis, daughter of an officer of the Pole Bearers, came forward with flowers and assured him that they were a token of good will. After Miss Lewis handed him the flowers, General Forrest responded with a short speech. Transcribed by a reporter from a Memphis newspaper, it reveals Forrest’s racial open-mindedness.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I accept the flowers as a memento of reconciliation between the white and colored races of the southern states. I accept it more particularly as it comes from a colored lady, for if there is any one on God’s earth who loves the ladies I believe it is myself. (Loud and prolonged applause and laughter)
“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. (Applause)
“I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going. I have not said anything about politics today. I don’t propose to say anything about politics. You have a right to elect whom you please; vote for the man you think best, and I think, when that is done, you and I are freemen. Do as you consider right and honest in electing men for office. I did not come here to make you a long speech, although invited to do so by you. I am not much of a speaker, and my business prevented me from preparing myself. 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.” (Prolonged applause)
With this, General Forrest again thanked Miss Lewis for the bouquet and then gave her a kiss on the cheek. Such a kiss was unheard of in the postbellum South of 1875, but it showed a token of respect and friendship between the general and the black community.
Mr. Aarons also twice claimed that Forrest mercilessly killed 182 0f 260 black soldiers trying to surrender at the battle of Fort Pillow. As to whether there was a “massacre” there, much depends on the sources consulted. The fort, located on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi and garrisoned by 262 Negro artillerymen never before under fire and 295 white cavalry recruits, was virtually indefensible. The fort’s guns could not be depressed to fire at attackers because of the high earthworks thrown up outside the perimeter of the fort. Moreover, Forrest’s force was more than twice the size of the defending force. It was an unequal battle in every respect. To complicate the encounter and discourage surrender, many of the fort’s black soldiers were escaped slaves, and many of its white troops were Confederate deserters who had switched sides in a border state torn by divided loyalties. Nevertheless, given the imbalance in the two forces, Fort Pillow should have surrendered. On two previous occasions, Union garrisons in Tennessee had surrendered to Forrest’s superior force and had received fair treatment as prisoners of war.
Forrest placed his sharpshooters on high ground on three sides of the fort. From these vantage points, they poured a withering fire into the bastion. Fort Pillow’s second in command, Maj. William F. Bradford, foolishly rejected Forrest’s demand for surrender, signing his refusal with the name of Maj. Lionel F. Booth, the fort’s commander who was among the first to die in initial exchanges. After rejecting two attempts by Forrest to get the fort to surrender, Booth and his men attempted to escape to the river, descending through a withering crossfire. The first to head to the river below the bluff were the white Tennesseans, leaving the black artillery units to bear the brunt of the assault until they too fled. No attempt was made to surrender, which could have been done by merely lowering the flag flying over the fort. When the Confederates captured Fort Pillow, their first act was to lower the Stars and Stripes. Eventually, Forrest entered and ordered subordinates to stop the fighting. A captured Union captain saw Forrest shoot one of his own men who continued to kill. The battle was over in 30 minutes.
Evidence of what could happen when garrison troops who had spent their time foraging in the neighboring countryside for meat and produce and harassing local farmers met battle-hardened veterans can be gleaned from the statistics. Never one to waste men in futile attacks, only 20 of Forrest’s force were killed in the battle. About half of the vastly outnumbered Union force was killed, mostly through inexperience, inept leadership and a vulnerable position. Many patently false charges were spread following the defeat. To this day, Forrest detractors still charge that Confederate soldiers buried wounded Union soldiers alive—but it was common practice after a victory as at Fort Pillow for captured Union soldiers to comprise the burial details and bury their dead.
After surrendering, Maj. Bradford was placed on parole under his own recognizance to bury his brother’s body. He took advantage of this gesture and fled the fort, but was later captured and killed during another escape attempt. Such was the quality of the leadership at Fort Pillow. Anxious to bolster the North’s flagging spirits after three years of bloody and inconclusive warfare, Northern newspaper editors widely spread the “massacre” story.
Some of the evidence accepted by the congressional committee on the conduct of the war immediately after the fight at Fort Pillow was highly questionable. Read the testimony of Jacob Thompson, a witness to the battle, who was asked if he had seen any Rebel officers while the killing was going on:
“Yes, sir, old Forrest was one.”
“Did you know Forrest?”
“Yes, sir, he was a little bit of a man. I had seen him before at Jackson [Tennessee, site of an earlier battle].”
One can only wonder about this witness’s veracity. For the record, Forrest towered over others at 6 feet 2 inches tall. He was broad-shouldered and weighed more than 200 pounds—hardly “a little bit of a man.”
General Grant ordered General Sherman to investigate the capture of Fort Pillow and its supplies to determine whether Forrest’s attack merited retaliation. “If our men have been murdered after capture,” Grant said, “retaliation must be resorted to promptly.” Sherman investigated but did nothing, which says a lot about the “massacre” accusation. Respected historian Shelby Foote later wrote that if Sherman had believed retaliation was warranted, “with Sherman in charge, retaliation would have been as prompt as ever Grant could have desired.”
Of Forrest’s military skill and bravery there can be no doubt. At the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads in Mississippi two months after the victory at Fort Pillow, although badly outnumbered, through superior tactics and aggressive action, he whipped Union Gen. Samuel D. Sturgis so badly that Sturgis, a West Point graduate, was demoted and exiled to an Army post in the West. During Forrest’s 24 major engagements and many skirmishes, he had 29 horses shot from under him. Today there are 32 statues of him in Tennessee, more than the number of statues of George Washington in Virginia or of Abe Lincoln in Illinois. He figures on every military historian’s list of the top generals of the Civil War. Shelby Foote called Forrest one of the two true geniuses to emerge during that war, the other being President Abraham Lincoln. Crotonblog has no intention of changing the name of this feature.
Mr. Aarons seems anxious to fight the Civil War all over again. If that’s his aim, we urge him to get his facts straight. But, in the meantime, how about a retraction of your false charges against Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, Mr. Aarons?
P.S. Readers interested in an impartial account of the Fort Pillow battle are referred to this excerpt from Robert Selph Henry’s definitive biography titled. “First with the Most” Forrest found here. For Forrest’s own report of the battle, click here.
P.P.S. The Gasden flag was first dislpayed by American colonists to warn the British about their harsh repressive measures.