Capitol Hill Update from State Representative David Byrd: Nathan Bedford Forrest…The Rest of the Story

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   The last few years, there have been a lot of controversies over General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Civil War hero for the South. Most Southerners view him as a hero, but there are several that view him as a racist and murderer. The latter has been protesting the last few weeks at the Capitol in Nashville, and they are demanding that his bust be removed from the second floor of the Capitol. In fact, Governor Lee has requested the Capitol Commission Board to meet this Thursday to discuss the fate of the bust.

   To be honest, I knew very little about Nathan Bedford Forrest until this controversial issue arrived, and in my curiosity, I started reading about his life. What I found out was very impressive and interesting. I can’t help but believe that these people that have issues with Nathan Bedford Forrest have not read the “Rest of the Story.”

   His father had died when Nathan was 16, thus making him the “man of the house” with a mother and ten younger siblings to care for. But Nathan arose to the challenge. He ran the family with a keen eye, a firm hand, and protected his family honorably.

   Later on in life, Forrest met Mary Ann Montgomery, an angelic, devout Christian young lady.  Although raised by a Christian mother, Nathan was anything but a Christian himself. In fact, he loved to gamble, cuss, fight and by the age of 24, he had killed 3 men in a fight. As the saying goes, “love is blind,” and they were married six weeks after they met.

   Nathan went on to become a very successful and wealthy businessman. Though uneducated and “backwoods” by nature, he was a skilled entrepreneur, albeit in an immortal trade. He made his fortune as a slave trader and as a plantation owner. By the time the Civil War began in 1861, he was worth $1.5 million, an astronomical figure, when considered by today’s standards. When his home state of Tennessee and his adopted home state of Mississippi both seceded from the Union, Nathan understandably sided with them. He enlisted along with his younger brother and his 15-year-old son Willie; and was made a Private in the Cavalry. By war’s end, he would become a Lieutenant General, the only man to go from Private to Lieutenant General during the Civil War. He garnered a reputation as the most skilled Cavalryman the Civil War would produce. Though completely untrained in military tactics, his natural instincts were uncanny, and he was an absolute nightmare to the Union destroying railroads, communications lines, and supply lines. William Tecumseh Sherman declared that Tennessee would never be safe as long as that devil Forrest was alive, and they had to kill him even if it takes 10,000 men and bankrupts the Federal treasury.

   Forrest’s post-war life further soiled his reputation. As Reconstruction commenced in the South, many Southerners resentfully fought against the Northern “carpetbaggers” who came down, collected government contracts worth millions, and then did little to fulfill obligations. Tensions were high between Northerners, Southerners, and many freed slaves. In 1867, a group of white men in Pulaski, TN formed a group that was meant to be a protective squad for Southerners that they dubbed the Ku Klux Klan. A year and a half later, Forrest became a member and was promptly elected as their first “Grand Wizard” thus forever cementing his reputation as the epitome of Southern racism. 

   In 1868, after Tennessee’s pro-Union Governor William Brownlow was defeated at the polls, Forrest resigned from the Klan and urged their disbanding saying their purpose had been fulfilled. His urgings were ignored, and the Klan set off on a violent streak of atrocities that would cause them to live forever in infamy. They would eventually disband, only to be re-chartered in 1915 with an even more violent and racist agenda.

   Though Forrest was only in his 50’s a lifetime of hard living and battle were beginning to take their toll on him. He began attending church with his beloved wife at the Court Avenue Presbyterian Church in Memphis where Rev. George Stainback preached the gospel faithfully.  With the Holy Spirit convicting his heart, Nathan Bedford Forrest the fierce fighter, gambler, racist, and sinner… was a changed man.

   In 1875, Forrest was invited to speak to a black civil rights group called the “Pole-Bearers” Association, a forerunner for today’s NAACP. Though mocked by some white people for appearing, Forrest addressed the black people in love saying, “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. I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going. 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.”

   At the end of his speech, a young, black girl named Lou Lewis presented General Forrest with a bouquet of flowers as a sign of reconciliation between the two races. Forrest accepted the flowers, then leaned down and gently kissed the girl on the cheek, a public act of reverence and respect that was absolutely unheard of for a white man to do in that time. Indeed, Nathan Bedford Forrest, former Grand Wizard of the KKK, was a new creature in Christ.

   Forrest died from complications from diabetes on October 21, 1877, he was 56 years old. He said on his deathbed that there was “not a cloud that separated him from his beloved Heavenly Father.” The lessons from the life of Nathan Bedford Forrest are legion. His battlefield tactics have been studied by military men the world over, and he has been called by many a strategic genius in the art of war. But his personal and spiritual life gives us far greater lessons. He is a clear testimonial example of God’s overwhelming power to change even the hardest of sinners.  Though sadly, Forrest today is mostly remembered for his sins. It is noteworthy when he died; his funeral procession in Memphis was over two miles long and was attended by over 10,000 area residents, including 3000 black citizens paying their respects.

   To learn more, read the article – When the Devil Got Saved: The Christian Conversion of Nathan Bedford Forrest by Shane E. Kastle.

   As always, I am truly humbled and honored to be your voice in Nashville. If there is ever any issue I can assist you with, please contact my office by calling 615-741-2190 or emailing me at: rep.david.byrd@capitol.tn.gov. I look forward to hearing your thoughts, ideas, concerns, and suggestions as we continue to protect Tennessee’s conservative values throughout the remainder

of the 111th General Assembly.