About the June 15 Op-Ed, “Gov. Lee, tear down this bust,” I would like to comment on certain historical claims Jason Emert addresses.
Let me say first that this Op-Ed is not focused on the fate of the Republican Party in Tennessee. Using the bust of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest to demagogue the Republican House Caucus is not productive in promoting your argument.
Looking beyond politics, I would like to take issue with several of Emert’s arguments regarding the causes of the costliest war in American history. Let us begin with a fundamental historical inaccuracy. To quote Emert, “But, let’s be clear: The Civil War was about slavery, period.” Scholars agree that the Civil War or War for Southern Independence had multiple causes. Among the reasons were 1) economics and tariffs; 2) the cultural divergence between North and South 3) states’ rights; and 4) Westward expansion (Woodrow Wilson, writing in “History of the American People,” proposed that, “It was necessary to put the South at a moral disadvantage by transforming the contest from a war waged against states fighting for their independence into a war waged against states fighting for the maintenance and extension of slavery.”
As part of his slavery-was-the-cause-of-the-war argument, Emert states that “The protection of slavery, specifically those of the “African race,” is enshrined in its founding document,” referring to the constitution of the Confederate States of America. The U.S. and CSA constitutions were very similar. The Confederate framers sought to reform the U.S. Constitution. Both constitutions recognized African servitude. The difference in the documents was the Confederate constitution called a slave a slave. The U.S. Constitution referred to slaves as “others” or “such persons” and counted them as three-fifths of a person in the census.
Based on Emert’s article, why on Earth would the General Assembly of Tennessee place a bust of Gen. Forrest in the state Capitol building? After all, to quote, “His memory should be kept alive in a museum, much like Stalin, Mao or Hitler.” Is Gen. Forrest on the same level as men who have killed millions of people? I do not believe that the majority of Tennesseans believe this.
Nathan Bedford Forrest was a wealthy businessman in Memphis. Forrest owned slaves, a legal practice in many states and the District of Columbia. Yes, he traded slaves. It also should be noted that other historical people such as Ulysses S. Grant had slaves. Slavery was an institution that had been addressed early on by the Founders and had some degree of legal cover by the U.S. government. Slave ships bore the U.S. flag, and slave traders lived in the North and South.
On June 8, 1861, Tennessee voted to secede from the Union after a statewide vote with a landslide majority.
Following his conscience and desiring to support his state, Forrest enlisted as a private in the Confederate Army. He quickly rose in rank and became a leading figure in the cause for Southern independence. Known as the “Wizard of the Saddle,” Forrest’s greatest victory occurred on June 10, 1864, when his forces engaged a Union force of more than twice his unit’s strength and prevailed at the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads (studied by military historians today). Historian Bruce Catton called the Union defeat “one of the most startling defeats of the war.” Historian Shelby Foote described Brice’s Cross Road as a “famous victory, which would be studied down the years, in war colleges here and abroad.”
Throughout the war, Forrest consistently outwitted the enemy and was relentless in arriving on the battlefield using the maxim “get there first with the most men.” His cavalry units so outwitted Union Gen. Grant that he called him “that devil Forrest.” Union Gen. William T. Sherman, called him “the most remarkable man our civil war produced on either side.” Forrest was a tactical genius; he had no military training or education but singlehandedly raised a cavalry unit and became the nemesis of the North.
Was Forrest perfect? Absolutely not. Like all of us he was flawed. His time as a klansman is a stain on his life. Towards the end of his life, Forrest understood that the war was behind him and that the future was different. He left the KuKlux Klan and said, “Abolish the Loyal League and the Ku Klux Klan; let us come together and stand together.” He went on to say, “We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment.”
When we examine all men and women that we elevate to the pedestal of honor, we find blemishes and imperfections — some greater than others. We must look at the whole person and his or her life’s work using 21st century moral contexts to apply a final judgment to a 19th-century person. Forrest’s devotion to duty, his unselfish defense of his native state, and his tactical and technical genius as a commander in combat represent a towering figure of history. Despite his blemishes, he still deserves the honor and recognition of the people of Tennessee.
History cannot be erased or changed. I hope we can remember the words of President Wilson during the peace jubilee at Gettysburg when he was speaking to veterans of both sides of the war: “We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten — except that we shall not forget the splendid valor, the manly devotion of the men then arrayed against one another, now grasping hands and smiling into each other’s eyes.”
Keep the bust on the pedestal of honor in our state Capitol building.