T

he 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.

He saved Rome?

The second reason given for honoring Forrest was the fact that his forces saved Rome in 1863 by fooling a Union general into thinking the Confederate forces were much larger in number than they were, causing the Union general to surrender his forces and thus averting the Union forces from coming to Rome and disrupting the manufacture of cannons and other goods the Confederacy relied on.

This is true. The capture of Rome was delayed for about a year (and as some noted in the meeting comments, this saved the white population, not the black).

However, during that year Romans responded to future threats by building what is known as Fort Norton, a system of dirt embankments and trenches on the Northwest side of the city near Jackson Hill.

When Union forces did capture the city in May 1864, Union Gen. Jefferson C. Davis reported to Gen. William T. Sherman that Rome was “the strongest fortified place I have seen in Dixie.”

This fortification was the basis of Sherman using Rome as his headquarters in October and November of 1864, from whence he telegraphed Gen. U.S. Grant his plans for the march to the sea. Once those plans were approved, he burned Rome on Nov. 10-11, 1864, as his forces left, and four days later burned the city of Atlanta on his way to the Atlantic.

It seems to me that Forrest’s and the Romans’ actions led to a more severe scenario than what might have occurred had Forrest not prevailed. Rome provided essentially a safe haven for the Union troops as Sherman made plans to bring the remainder of Georgia down. In the long run, he did not save Rome.

Within two years of the South’s surrender and his “protect the law and order” address to his troops, he, as Grand Wizard of the KKK, was backing the Democratic candidates for president and vice-president, whose slogan was, “Our ticket, our motto. This is white man’s country, let white men rule.” Note: The South was predominantly Democratic after the Civil War up until the 1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Suddenly, most people in the South decided they liked Republican values better.

Forrest is credited with the spread of the Klan in the South, and was active in the recruitment of members in 1867 and 1868. He became “the Lost Cause’s avenging angel, galvanizing a loose collection of boyish secret social clubs into a reactionary instrument of terror still feared today,” as biographer Jack Hurst notes.

A reformation?

Then the final arguments were made. Forrest died a “reformed man,” even giving a “friendly speech” to a Southern Black organization devoted to the improvement of the economic condition of Blacks and the civil rights of all in 1875, after which he is said to have kissed a black woman on the cheek as she presented him with a bouquet.

And after the lynch mob murder of four black people, Forrest wrote to Tennessee Gov. John C. Brown in August 1874 and “volunteered to help ‘exterminate’ those men responsible for the continued violence against the blacks,” offering “to exterminate the white marauders who disgrace their race by this cowardly murder of Negroes.’”

I admit, this is quite an about face for a man who, a decade before, had overseen the massacre at Fort Pillow.

So what led this zealot of the CSA and Grand Wizard to have such a miraculous transformation? I strongly suspect the outcome of the general elections of 1868.

Prewar, Forrest was a wealthy multi-plantation owner and profitable slave-trader.

After the war, his wealth was lost. He needed to rebuild both his wealth and his reputation, and he knew he needed to present his actions in the most favorable light.

During the war, immediately after the Fort Pillow massacre, we see the signs of him trying to spin the narrative. He claimed he begged the Union forces to surrender before the massacre, and that his soldiers killed all these men in self-defense (sound familiar?), which many Southern newspapers bought into.

This account was contradicted by the Union survivors and that graphic account the Confederate soldier wrote to his sisters immediately following the massacre. President Abraham Lincoln asked his cabinet for advice on how the Union should respond to the massacre — which is not what he did for other bloody battles.

The third and final installment looks closer at N.B. Forrest’s motives to reform. It is scheduled to run in Thursday’s paper.

Amy Knowles is the former night editor and editorial page content manager for Rome News-Tribune.

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