If there is a Confederate symbol even more controversial in Tennessee than the battle flag, it’s Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Many idealize the Confederate general as a brilliant tactician and clever underdog who tricked Union troops — more than once — into defeat.
Others see nothing to redeem the slave trader-turned-rebel commander. Forrest led the Confederate forces at Fort Pillow, where some 300 surrendering Union soldiers were killed, most of whom were black. He was also an early member of the Ku Klux Klan, and may have been the first Grand Wizard.
WPLN’s Nina Cardona summarized the controversy surrounding Forrest in this article published last summer. Debate has intensified since the June 17th Charleston shooting, imbued with white supremacy and Confederate symbolism.
But no matter how hard some try, it is proving difficult to erase Forrest from history. In fact, today is Nathan Bedford Forrest Day in Tennessee.
Here are several of the present and past tussles over Nathan Bedford Forrest and his legacy.
Many have called for the covering of a 25-foot tall statue on I-65 that has been on private property there since 1998. The Washington Post labels the statue as terrifying. Tennessee Democrats also want to remove Forrest’s bust in the state capitol building. A movement known as #bustthebust is gaining momentum – t-shirts included.
State Representative Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga), called for the replacement of Forrest’s bust in the capital with one of Davy Crockett. He more recently re-stated his views and said that the removal process should ‘slow down.’ The bust has also been mentioned by Tennessee Republicans when accusing Tennessee Democrats of trying to profit from the Charleston shooting.
The hub of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s slave trade business was in Memphis, and some people want his statue there removed, even though his name has already been removed from the park where the statue is located. However, according to the peculiar wording of the state law, Memphis might not even need approval from the Tennessee Historical Commission. On July 7th, the city’s Metro Council unanimously voted to exhume Forrest and his wife’s remains, which have been buried under this statue for 110 years. Yet others say dont remove the statue at all, noting that Forrest changed his views later in life.
In a letter to the Memphis Flyer, the great-great grandson of one of Forrest’s Civil War cavalrymen made an intriguing offer. Aaron James recalls how his distant relative met Forrest in Greenville – and later saved his life – in 1861. In light of Memphis’ proposal to remove the remains of Forrest, James says that the remains are welcome in his family plot.
At the Battle of Murfreesboro (first battle of the city, later to be followed by the Stone’s River battle), Forrest rescued confederate prisoners from a Union holdout. The city is host to a re-enactment as seen here. Many in this town continue to celebrate Forrest, opposing the removal of monuments dedicated to him. But students at Middle Tennessee State University want to re-name the building housing their ROTC program, which is currently known as Forrest Hall.
Eva (Benton County):
Just north of this small West Tennessee town is Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park. Forrest fought the Battle of Johnsonville in this area, and there is a large commemorative obelisk to him at the park’s highest point. But Tennessee Democratic leaders are asking to get the park’s name changed. There are counter rallies in Jackson by groups such as the Confederate Warriors to protest the name change.
In 2004, the Office of the County Executive in Putnam County proclaimed every July 13 moving forward would be ‘Nathan Bedford Forrest Day.’ But this holiday didn’t originate in Cookeville. It’s celebration is a state law. Since 1971, the governor has to re-sign this day into effect each year. Governor Haslam’s recent signing of this proclamation has caused some consternation. State representative Mike Stewart (D-Nashville) has just filed a bill to end Nathan Bedford Forrest Day.
Camp Forrest, located here, was named after Nathan Bedford Forrest and was one of the largest U.S. Army training centers during World War II. The name of the camp was changed from Camp Peay in 1941. Even then, Forrest’s name sparked debate.
Here are some of NBF’s connections to other places around Tennessee:
The Battle of Franklin ended in defeat for the confederacy, despite Forrest’s cavalry east and west flanking of Union troops.
Here, Forrest and his cavalrymen attacked Union forces as a distraction, while others destroyed railroad tracks and ultimately hindered supplies from arriving to Union-controlled parts of the South.
Jack Hurst, born in Maryville and a Vanderbilt graduate, is the author of Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography as well as Men of Fire: Grant, Forrest, and the Campaign That Decided the Civil War.
In Maury County there is a tour of Antebellum houses based on Nathan Bedford Forrest’s life in Tennessee. He fought in the Battle of Columbia in 1864, driving Union forces northward toward Spring Hill without a casualty on either side. June 20th of this year marked the 13th annual Nathan Bedford Forrest Fundraiser, hosted by the Sons of Confederate Veterans at their international headquarters in Columbia. The fundraiser ended with a toast to Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Forrest was born here, and you can still take a tour of his childhood home.
In 1862 Forrest successfully defended this city from Union troops.
In 1864, Forrest captured four Union gunboats, almost $7,000 worth of property and 150 prisoners along the Tennessee River.
Just outside of Nashville, Brentwood honors the Confederate general annually. The Battle of Brentwood, which Forrest fought in, celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2013.
This is one of the most contested moments of Forrest’s career. It is considered to be one of the “most controversial events of the American Civil War.” Forrest marched on Fort Pillow, TN in 1864. The Union soldiers holding out there surrendered, but 300 were killed.