Don’t run For­rest down

The Washington Post - - FREE FOR ALL -

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

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