Don’t run Forrest down
Lisa Rein’s Oct. 24 PowerPost article describing the removal of the painting of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from the Department of Veterans Affairs office of David J. Thomas Sr. left out many historical facts about Forrest that prove he was not the racial villain many folks believe him to be [“Veterans Affairs official removes painting of KKK figure”].
While it is true that Forrest was a slave dealer and owner in and near Memphis, he was considered by locals a “benevolent” slave dealer and owner in that he never sold slaves that would split families, he went out of his way to buy slaves to unite families, and he did not sell slaves to a person whose reputation was that of a mean or cruel master.
Although Forrest had no military training, he had a unique instinct about fighting strategies that made him very popular and enhanced his reputation as a successful general and recruiter of troops. No less an authority than Shelby Foote believed Forrest was one of the two geniuses to emerge from the Civil War. The other was Abraham Lincoln.
After the war ended, Forrest and many others in the South, where local authorities were depleted by the war, organized vigilante groups to protect communities from marauders and scalawags and to guard against suspected “freed slave uprisings” against former slave owners. One of these vigilante groups evolved into the Ku Klux Klan, and, because of his reputation and popularity, Forrest was made the first grand wizard of the Klan. When the KKK began to burn crosses and lynch people, Forrest took action to disband the KKK, directing members to burn their sheets and stop the violence. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen, but Forrest’s letter directing the terminations has survived, though this is not well known.
At his funeral in Memphis, in 1877, the two-mile-long procession of mourners contained thousands of whites and thousands of blacks. While it is true that Forrest was a KKK grand wizard for a brief period, it is unfortunate that his whole story concerning race relations is not better known. If it were, perhaps the Forrest painting would be returned to the VA office with the appreciation of all the workers there.
George E. Mattingly, Bethesda