Y’all need to hush about forgiving Nathan Bedford Forrest

Betty BeanOpinion

When the state of Tennessee executes an inmate, it is frequently over the pleas of those who say the condemned man is no longer the same person as the teenager who committed the crimes for which he was sentenced to die.

Some of these redemption stories are striking, like the one that a former corrections officer told about a notorious Death Row dweller who saved him from being taken hostage during a prison riot by inmates who would probably have killed him.

“Inmate Nick Sutton confronted the men and escorted me to safety. He placed my safety and well-being above his own,” said Tony Eden, who worked for the Tennessee Department of Correction for three decades.

“In that time, I never met any inmate more worthy of clemency than Sutton. That’s why I joined six other current and former Tennessee correction professionals in asking Gov. Bill Lee to grant Sutton’s clemency petition.”

The governor disregarded their pleas and allowed Sutton, who killed four people – his first victim was his grandmother; his last a fellow inmate – to die in the electric chair. If any Republicans were troubled by the notion of killing a guy who had found the Lord and become a new man, they didn’t say so. They have been similarly unmoved by pleas on behalf of other condemned inmates as they tap their toes to the executioner’s song.

This double standard is just one of many reasons why I’m calling BS on Lt. Gov. Randy McNally’s claim that removing Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s bust from the capitol is an affront to history and an injustice to the memory of a guy who died a changed man.

Last week, McNally and his House counterpart, Cameron Sexton, protested bitterly when Forrest’s bust was wheeled out of the Capitol, 43 years after having been placed there by the late Doug Henry, the longest-serving state senator in Tennessee history and a courtly representative of Nashville’s monied class. He was also the last of the old-time Dixiecrats (most of them had already turned Republican), and generally took his cues from the Lost Cause myth spinners who erected monuments to Dixie all over the South following the War of Northern Aggression, as The Senatuh would have called it. I can neither confirm nor disprove the rumor that he refused to carry $5 bills because he couldn’t bear to have Lincoln’s likeness riding around in his pocket.

The mantra that Henry and his Republican allies have repeated these many years is that Forrest was a kind master and a brilliant officer who sought racial reconciliation after the war was over. They proudly cite his resignation as Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan as proof that he had also renounced racism. They don’t mention the fact that in the decade before the war he had become one of the richest men in the South by selling kidnapped Africans in his Memphis slave market, nor do they mention the conduct of his troops at Ft. Pillow, where his troops slaughtered black Union soldiers who were trying to surrender.

The most frequently cited piece of evidence of Forrest’s transformation is the flowery speech he made at the 1875 Jubilee of Pole Bearers, a black labor organization that invited him to become the first white man to address their membership:

It started like this:

“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.”

On the other side of the scale are documents like Mack Jeremiah Leaming’s Ft. Pillow memoirs, published in 1892. Leaming, a Union officer and an attorney, served as Andrew Johnson’s personal secretary after the war. He includes direct quotes from Forrest’s first direct report to his superiors after the battle:

[16] “The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for two hundred yards. The approximate loss was upward of 500 killed, but few of the officers [strikeout] escaping. My loss was about 20 killed and 60 wounded. It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the northern people that negro soldiers [strikeout] can not cope with Southerners.”

Leaming also included General Grant’s observation in his Memoirs: “Subsequently Forrest made a report in which he left out the part which shocks humanity to read.”


It is impossible, in a short column, to list all the reasons why Nathan Bedford Forrest’s likeness doesn’t belong in our state capitol, so, I’ll end with this:

While Forrest didn’t limit his appetite for brutality to a single race, he built his antebellum fortune on the backs of African Americans who were kidnapped from their homes and brought here in chains. After the war, he had to find other ways of making a living. Did he sufficiently redeem himself during the last decade of his life to offset his earlier careers as plantation owner, slave trader/enslaver, Confederate soldier/war criminal?

Of course not. It would take a millennium’s worth of good deeds to balance that scale, no matter how many thumbs the revisionists apply. Perhaps the clearest measure of Forrest’s legacy is a historical footnote that has been ignored by his biographers – his grandson, Nathan Bedford Forrest II, was the Grand Dragon of the Klan in Georgia.

The descendants of those upon whose backs Forrest grew rich are quite capable of deciding how they’re going to remember him without being preached at by the lieutenant governor. It is one of American history’s greatest ironies that Republicans are always reminding the rest of us that it was their party that ended slavery.

And it’s not like the move is a tragedy. The bust isn’t being melted down and turned into bongs to sell at Grateful Dead concerts – it was simply moved to the state museum, where it is already on display.

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

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