Collateral damage: Will Admiral Farragut be banished from Capitol?

Betty BeanKnox Scene

So, what do those Nashville guys on the State Capitol Commission have against David Farragut? Unlike Nathan Bedford Forrest, Taylor Swift never demanded that he be kicked out of the capitol – nor did anyone else.


That’s what people in the west Knox County town that bears his name started asking after hearing that the State Capitol Commission had voted 9-2 to remove his bust from its prominent niche on the second floor of the state capitol, the floor where both houses of the legislature meet – along with the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, something that Tay-Tay and a bunch of other people had been demanding without success for years.

Admiral David Glasgow Farragut in the Tennessee Capitol

The marble bust of the Union admiral (Farragut) and the bronze likeness of the Confederate general (Forrest) have glowered silently at each other for years.

You can’t blame the Farragutians for being ticked off by the news that the commission approved moving the busts of Admirals David Glasgow Farragut and Albert Gleaves (who served during the Spanish-American War and World War I), since there’d never been the least bit of controversy about their busts being displayed.

Farragut had a spectacular career. He was the first-ever American admiral (the Navy had theretofore resisted the hoity-toity British-sounding title) and served an astounding 60 years, capped by decisive, Civil War momentum-changing victories in New Orleans and Mobile Bay.

He probably didn’t say, “Damn the torpedoes and full-steam ahead!” after the Rebs sank one of his ships and then took aim at the one he was on, but he said something very like it, and was a key figure in the ultimate Union victory. He had become a sailor when he was 9 years old (his parents died when he was small, and his foster father was a Navy man).

Farragut was born at Lowe’s Ferry on what was then called the Holston River near what is now the town of Farragut, but was carried off to New Orleans by his foster family when he was a toddler, so the truth of the matter is he never spent much time in the town that bears his name. He served with his stepfather in the War of 1812, received his first command when he was 23, and served in the Mexican-American War under Commander Matthew Perry. He was a Southern Unionist, and was living in Norfolk, Virginia, when the Civil War became a reality. His loyalties were somewhat suspect to some, given his Southern roots, but he put those doubts to rest by moving his wife to New York and going to work.

He was a bona fide American Civil War hero.

Admiral Albert Gleaves was a Nashvillian and Naval Academy graduate who served from 1877-1921. He, too, had a distinguished career, serving in the Spanish-American War and World War I, while finding time to become a recognized Naval historian. Nobody ever heard a whisper of protest about placing his bust in the capitol. And speaking of forgetting history, nobody’s ever heard much of anything about him.

Forrest is a whole other story. The celebrated Confederate general, nicknamed “The Wizard of the Saddle” for his cavalry command, grew up poor and made a pre-war fortune as a slave trader in Memphis. His troops disgraced him by slaughtering black Union soldiers and white Tennessee Unionists as they tried to surrender after the fall of Fort Pillow. He topped off this vita by becoming the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan after the war, so it’s disingenuous to pretend to “wonder” why so many find the bust objectionable.

Granted, it’s not like the statuary’s going to be melted down or reduced to rubble. Comptroller Justin Wilson’s motion, which passed 9-2, was to place them in the state museum in some kind of “hall of heroes.” The two legislator-members, Rep. Matthew Hill and Sen. Jack Johnson, both Republicans, voted no. Johnson said his vote represents the will of his colleagues, whom he polled. They should be embarrassed. But they’re not.

Committee member Howard Gentry, Nashville’s Criminal Court Clerk, immediately pointed out the obvious. Heroes are to be emulated. Forrest was not a hero. I expect the protestors will agree with him.

If I were a betting woman, I’d say that this decision is a face-saving move for legislators and committee members who do not wish to appear to have caved to the Black Lives Matter demonstrators who had haunted them for months (and years, really) to get Forrest out of the People’s House. Those demonstrators were celebrating right outside the door when the vote was taken.

The motion that nobody asked for will go to the Tennessee Historical Commission, which will make the final decision on a yet-to-be-determined date.

I suspect there will be some Admirals there.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.

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