Nathaniel Bedford Forrest (July 13, 1821-October 29, 1877) was a Confederate army general and an instrumental figure in the founding and growth of the Ku Klux Klan. Forrest was perhaps the American Civil War’s most highly regarded cavalry and partisan ranger (guerrilla leader). Forrest is regarded by many military historians as the war’s most innovative and successful general. His tactics of mobile warfare are still studied by modern soldiers. Though born in Chapel Hill, Tenn., Forrest County bears his name to this day.
After the war, Forrest settled in Memphis, Tennessee, building a house on a bank of the Mississippi River. With slavery abolished, the former slave trader suffered a major financial setback. He was eventually employed by the Selma-based Marion & Memphis Railroad and became the company president. He was not as successful in the railroad industry as in war, and under his direction the company went bankrupt.
It was during this time that he became the nexus of the nascent Ku Klux Klan movement. Upon learning of the Klan and its purposes of disenfranchising blacks and reestablishing white conservative rule, Forrest remarked, “That’s a good thing; that’s a damn good thing. We can use that to keep the niggers in their place.” Forrest was later acclaimed at a Nashville, Tennessee, KKK convention (1867) as the first Grand Wizard, or leader-in-chief of that organization. In an 1868 newspaper interview, Forrest boasted that the Klan was a nationwide organization of 550,000 men, and that although he himself was not a member, he was “in sympathy” and would “cooperate” with them, and could himself muster 40,000 Klansmen with only five days’ notice. He stated that the Klan did not see blacks as its enemy so much as “carpetbaggers” (northerners who moved to the South after the war ended) and “scalawags” (white Republican southerners). However, violence against blacks by the organization was pervasive.
Because of Forrest’s prominence, the organization grew rapidly under his leadership. In addition to aiding Confederate widows and orphans of the war, many members of the new group began to use force to oppose the extension of voting rights to blacks and to resist Reconstruction era measures for ending segregation. In 1869, Forrest, disagreeing with its increasingly violent tactics, ordered the Klan to disband, stating that it was “being perverted from its original honorable and patriotic purposes, becoming injurious instead of subservient to the public peace.” Many of its groups in other parts of the country ignored the order and continued to function. Subsequently, Forrest distanced himself from the KKK.
Nearly ruined as the result of the failure of the Marion & Memphis Railroad in the early 1870s, Forrest spent his final days running a prison work farm on President’s Island in the Mississippi River, his health in steady decline. He and his wife lived in a log cabin they had salvaged from his plantation.
On July 5, 1875, Forrest became the first white man to speak to Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association, a civil rights group whose members were former slaves and a precursor to the NAACP. Although his speech was short, he expressed the opinion that blacks had the right to vote for any candidates they wanted and that the role of blacks should be elevated. He ended the speech by kissing the cheek of one of the daughters of one of the Pole-Bearer members.
Forrest died in October 1877, reportedly from complications of diabetes, in Memphis and was buried at Elmwood Cemetery. In 1904 his remains were disinterred and moved to Forrest Park, a Memphis city park.
Controversy still surrounds his actions at Fort Pillow, and his reputation has been marred by his involvement in the first incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan. His remarkably changed views on race in his latter years were quickly forgotten as Forrest became an icon for the Klan and other Southerners. Regardless, N.B. Forrest will always be regarded as a military leader of great native ability, and one who advanced the principles of wartime cavalry deployment and mobile strike capability that has remained in present warfare philosophy.
In recent years efforts have been made by some local black leaders to remove or eliminate some of Forrest’s monuments, usually without success. In 2005, Shelby County Commissioner Walter Bailey started an effort to move the statue over Forrest’s grave and rename Forrest Park. Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, who is black, blocked the move. Similar efforts to remove a bust of Forrest in the Tennessee House of Representatives chamber have likewise been mounted.
Forrest’s great-grandson, Nathan Bedford Forrest III, also pursued a military career, eventually attaining the rank of brigadier general in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. N.B. Forrest III was killed in action in 1943 while participating in an airborne bombing raid over Germany.
Catton. Bruce (1971). The Civil War. American Heritage Press, New York. Library of Congress Number: 77-119671.
Hurst, Jack. Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography, 1993.
Ward, Andrew. River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War. Viking Penguin: 2005.
Wills, Brian Steel (1992). A Fight from the Start: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest. New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 0-06-092445-4.