This third and final installment looks closer at Gen. N.B. Forrest’s motives to reform.
Within two years of the South’s surrender and his “protect the law and order” address to his troops, Nathan Bedford Forrest, 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.
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.
Interestingly, though, after all his prestigious activities with the KKK, in 1869 Forrest had a complete turn-around, ordering the Klan to disband and burn all robes. What happened to invoke this transformation? The Republicans won the 1868 elections, including majority seats in Congress. Forrest knew which way the wind was blowing, and decided to change tack.
In 1871 and 1872, Congress and now President U.S. Grant passed the Enforcement Acts to protect African-Americans while “registering, voting, officeholding or jury service,” among other actions to enable former slaves to fully acclimate to their freedom. There also were investigations into those who attempted to thwart these efforts. As a result, there were over 5,000 indictments and 1,000 convictions of Klan members across the South.
Forrest testified before the Congressional investigation of Klan activities on June 27, 1871, where he denied membership.
George Cantor, a biographer of Confederate generals, wrote, “Forrest ducked and weaved, denying all knowledge, but admitted he knew some of the people involved. He sidestepped some questions and pleaded failure of memory on others. Afterwards, he admitted to ‘gentlemanly lies.’ He wanted nothing more to do with the Klan, but felt honor bound to protect former associates.”
Again, why the turn-about and attempt to appear reformed? Well, money is politics, and vice-versa. Forrest knew that in order to rebuild his wealth (and avoid incarceration) he would have to align with the politics of the day, but even that move failed him.
Forrest struggled as a businessman post-war, the abolition of slavery — slaves were his major asset — set him back to zero financially. He worked for a railroad company, became its president and, under his guidance, the company fell into bankruptcy. Also, as historian Court Carney notes, that (post-war) Forrest was not universally popular in the white Memphis community. Carney writes: “He alienated many of the city’s businessmen in his commercial dealings and he was criticized for questionable business practices that caused him to default on debts.”
He finally found modest success as a farmer on leased land, using over 100 convict (i.e. unpaid) laborers to grow corn, potatoes and cotton profitably before he died in 1877.
One final note that makes me doubt the sincerity of his public reformation. His grandson, Nathan Bedford Forrest III, became commander-in-chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia and the secretary of the national organization. What was this grandson hearing and seeing in his family as he grew up?
I think I’ve responded to the pros of keeping Nathan Bedford Forrest’s statue in a place of honor on Myrtle Hill. I hope those who agree contact their state legislators to ask a repeal of the law Gov. Brian Kemp enacted last year, which prohibits allowing communities to decide for themselves as to what to do with their CSA monuments that honor questionable heroes and extends the pain our neighbors feel as they are reminded of the time their ancestors were brutalized and exploited for profit.