I watched with interest the Rome Development Authority’s recent meeting held to allow the community to speak on the merits of keeping or moving the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest at Myrtle Hill Cemetery.
The people against keeping the statue said that it is honoring a Confederate general (therefore a traitor to the USA) who is remembered as not only a slave owner and slave trader, but also the officer in charge of the Fort Pillow massacre in Tennessee. For those who are unaware, the rebel forces subjected the captured Union soldiers to extreme brutality with allegations of shooting the Union soldiers in the back as they fled to the river, burning men alive and nailing men to barrels to light them on fire as well as the horrific death by crucifixion. A Confederate soldier described the scene immediately after the battle in a letter to his sisters:
“The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor deluded negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. The white men fared but little better. Their fort turned out to be a great slaughter pen. Blood, human blood stood about in pools and brains could have been gathered up in any quantity.”
While there are records of what happened to the 226 white captured Union soldiers (out of 295 stationed there), historian Richard L. Fuchs noted records of the surviving 14 black soldiers (out of 262) were “non-existent or unreliable.”
As if this didn’t speak enough to why he should not be honored in Rome (or anywhere in the USA), within two years of the Civil War ending, “Forrest was reincarnated as grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan,” according to biographer Jack Hurst. This in spite of his seemingly well intentioned farewell address to his soldiers exhorting them to “submit to the powers to be, and to aid in restoring peace and establishing law and order throughout the land.”
Those in favor spoke of three reasons why his statue should not be removed. First is the old “You can’t erase history, this is our heritage,” with many seeming to think the statue itself is “history.” But history is not erased merely by removing a statue. History is preserved in books and artifacts of history remain in our museums.
As for “our heritage,” I don’t see how a man who lived in Tennessee and fought against the United States of America provides a heritage we want to not just memorialize, but honor with a gallant statue on our city’s public grounds. The Daughters of the Confederacy, who paid for the memorial in 1908, were in the process of trying to rewrite Southern history so that our rebellious ancestors would be looked upon in a more favorable light.
Admitting defeat is hard and humiliating — it’s much more pleasant to think of our ancestors as heroes. But enough time has passed that the wounds are no longer raw, and for us to grow towards a true reunification with “the Northern aggressors” as well as apologize to our black neighbors — not so much for our ancestors’ acts as for our stubbornness to admit that our ancestors were very wrong. In the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program, the one step that leads to true healing is to make amends for your wrongs. Confession (and repentance) is good for the soul. We’re long overdue.
The second part of this three-part series looks at the debate over whether Gen. N.B. Forrest saved Rome and his purported post-war reformation. It is scheduled to run in Wednesday’s paper.