In South Rome, next to a monument for our city’s veterans, is another monument, to Nathan Bedford Forrest. A man who committed such human atrocities as Forrest deserves no monument. Nonetheless, this monument must not be destroyed. The lessons of history that this testament to hate can teach are too important to be lost.
The monument in its current position, one glorifying Forrest, must be moved and transformed into a nonbiased document that we can use to remember darker moments of our past as we strive to achieve brighter days. This is the very purpose of such institutions as the Rome Area History Museum and a charge of our academic establishments, like Berry College.
Forrest was a general in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Prior to his enlistment as a private, Forrest amassed great wealth as a cotton plantation owner and slave trader in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1864, Forrest ordered the execution of helpless Black Union POWs at the Fort Pillow Massacre. Personal accounts report the brutality of the massacre, stating that men were subjected to such brutal means of execution as being burned alive and crucifixion. Such an act cannot be committed except out of conscious hatred.
After the war, Forrest was an active member of the Ku Klux Klan and was its first Grand Wizard. The group actively sought to oppose Reconstruction efforts by Northerners and kept newly freed slaves subjugated economically to whites through voter suppression and denying education, often via employing fear tactics. He was called the “Lost Cause’s avenging angel, galvanizing a loose collection of boyish secret social clubs into a reactionary instrument of terror still feared today,” by his biographer, Jack Hurst.
No man whose actions of hatred still echo strongly to the present day deserves glory. However, Rome did not erect a monument to Forrest to celebrate his effective setbacks of progress for generations.
Before Rome burned in May of 1864 — as Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman began his scorched-earth campaign, the March to the Sea, on our own Fourth Avenue — Rome was vulnerable to siege by Union Col. Abel Streight in April 1863. Forrest tricked Streight into surrendering, sparing Rome from near total ruin and allowing the vulnerable city to build three fortifications that would allow it to have more resilience as it rebuilt in Reconstruction. Thus, Rome built a monument to remember Forrest’s military actions.
It is for all of these reasons that the monument to Forrest must be removed and repurposed, but not destroyed.
More than the pure facts of Roman history that this monument encodes, it embodies multiple themes and lessons we must not forget from the darkest points in our history. We should not be quietly ashamed of our history but openly acknowledge our darkest moments and pledge that future generations will have pride as they recognize the role Rome will play in addressing inequality.
As we build a more perfect Union and eliminate systemic racism, we must have concrete reminders of the past from which we came or else all progress is subjected to fragility. So many have not fought so hard, sacrificed so much, to have a fragile progress. We have come this far. We are marching onward. We cannot turn back.
Remove this monument. It cannot be a thing of honor. Repurpose it as an educational tool. If not, all progress made in the shadow of this monument will be but a moot point.