Controversial Commemoration: Remembering the Varied Legacies of Nathan Bedford Forrest

By Logan Tapscott ’14

Over the winter break, I participated in an immersion trip to Alabama to learn about the Civil Rights Movement and visited cities like Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma that played an important part in the movement. Despite the past, I did not expect to encounter such a racially charged atmosphere fifty years after the push for desegregation and equality in the South. I also did not anticipate a controversy over a statue dedicated to Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest was born in 1821 in Tennessee and, with no military education, was later promoted Lieutenant General and became a controversial figure in the American Civil War. Historians and Civil War scholars continue to debate Forrest’s complex legacy. While famous for sending a Confederate division to what is referred to as the Fort Pillow Massacre in 1864, Forrest was regarded as an important commander for his guerilla warfare-style tactics and for creating and practicing the doctrine and tactics of mobile warfare. Throughout the former states of the Confederacy, mostly throughout Tennessee, people have erected statues of him and named public spaces after him. In the past ten years, people have debated about Forrest’s legacy and whether a commemoration is suitable, especially in Southern cities with a predominately black population, including Selma, Alabama.

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Because it contained the second largest arsenal for the Confederacy during the Civil War, Selma was instrumental to the South’s war effort. However, people today associate Selma’s place in history with the Civil Right Movement and the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965. In contemporary society, the legacies of the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement conflict with each other, especially regarding the controversy over the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue in the Old Live Oak Cemetery. The controversy began in 2000 when a bust of Forrest was unveiled on public property located near a predominately black neighborhood and during the same year in which the city elected its first black mayor. After being subjected to years of vandalism, the bust disappeared in March 2012. The local historical society, Friends of Forrest, which is associated with the United Daughters of the Confederacy, offered a reward for its return and vowed to construct a statue of Forrest with an iron fence and a surveillance camera to replace the bust. Protester pressure on the city’s mayor and the city’s attorney halted the statue’s construction. After reviewing the plans, on January 15, 2014, the city council ruled in favor of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and allowed the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue to be built on a one-acre parcel of land on public property.

The ruling demonstrates the Lost Cause nostalgia in the city. Even though Forrest is a symbol of the Confederacy and by association, slavery, the local chapter and other whites “honor” Forrest for his actions as the defender of Selma. Despite his battle against Union Brigadier General James Harrison Wilson, Forrest and his troops were defeated and failed to stop Wilson’s men from demolishing the arsenal and burning many local businesses and private residences, causing Forrest, now wounded, and his remaining men to retreat. While Forrest failed to defend Selma, the whites presented Forrest as a military hero who defended the South against the “Northern invaders” which is the main concept of the Lost Cause. The protesters, especially the African-Americans, argued that Forrest’s legacy should not be commemorated because of his business ventures as a slave trader, his leadership at the Fort Pillow Massacre, and his alleged role as Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan after the war. The protesters viewed the statue as a symbol of hate due to Forrest’s involvement with the KKK and Selma’s ugly white history. Now, advocating for peace and equality, they considered the erection of the statue as validation of the city’s discriminatory ways. Despite the ruling, the Forrest statue controversy shows that the Selma of the Civil War Era continues to haunt the Selma of 2014.


Sources:

Ashdown, Paul and Edward Caudill. The Myth of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005.

Axelrod, Alan. “Nathan Bedford Forrest.” In Generals South, General North: the Commanders of the Civil War Reconsidered, 82-91. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2011.

Bergeron, Josh. “Monument Fight Ends with Split Vote.” Selma Times-Journal. January 15, 2014. Accessed February 5, 2014.

Brown, Robbie. “Bust of Civil War General Stirs Anger in Alabama.” New York Times. August 24, 2012. Accessed February 5, 2014. Conrad, James L. “Forrest’s Great Gamble.” Civil War Times Illustrated 20, no.1 (January 1981): 30-39.

Dwyer, Owen J. “Symbolic, Accretion, and Commemoration.” Social & Cultural Geography 5, no.3 (September 2004): 419-435.

Levin, Kevin M. “Alabama.” Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social and Military History. Edited by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, 20-21. New York: W.W. Norton Company, 2002.

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