The Last Battle of Nathan Bedford Forrest

History forgets more than it remembers. What we know about even important days in the lives of notable people is fragmentary and misleading. We theorize. We patch the holes in what we know with a rough mortar of what we hope or fear or guess.

For instance, we don’t know for certain what the weather was like that day, Independence Day, July 4th, 1875. The weather records only go back to 1902, but it’s almost always hot in the summer in Memphis, so let’s say it was hot. There were no photographs of the ceremony. A reporter from a Nashville paper scribbled down what was said, who knows how accurately. Like much of life, what follows is guesswork.

Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest, CSA (retired), was only 54 years old on that hot day, standing there in the hot sun on the fairground just outside Memphis. Only 54, but war ages a man, and the failure and notoriety that marred his life since had aged him still more. His back hurt from the injury he got at Corinth Road, and his feet throbbed.

He wouldn’t have worn his old uniform, not for this particular occasion. Gideon Pillow, that self-important coward, was strutting around in his. Pillow’s grays were spotless. That’s what comes of never having the nerve for a fight: your uniform stays clean. Forrest tried not to think of his own uniform, moldering in a portmanteau out in the shed. Instead he straightened his gray frock coat, an unreasonable garment for this weather. Like the broad-brimmed hat he was wearing, he’d bought the coat second-hand; like the hat, he chosen it, more or less unconsciously, because it reminded him of the uniform folded up in the portmanteau.

He’d often been a guest at this sort of occasion, even before the War; no prominent man could avoid them. This one, he reminded himself wryly, was a little different. An organization calling itself The Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association had invited him to appear, and against the advice of some of his friends and of his wife Mary Ann, he’d accepted.

The Pole-Bearers was one of many fraternal societies for Memphis Negroes. Its president was an energetic, well-spoken man named Hezekiah Henley, a blacksmith in private life. Henley wanted this year’s annual convention and barbeque, coming as it did on July Fourth, almost exactly ten years after the end of the War, to be a reconciliation of a sort. With that in mind, he issued the invitations to Forrest and to Pillow — as well as to several others prominent veterans who had declined with good grace or otherwise.

Forrest was surprised that Pillow had the courage to show his face. Most of the Tennessee colored had been pro-Union. Perhaps Pillow, in an unwonted burst of honesty, had admitted to himself he’d never been able to do the Union much harm.

Henley was speaking. He was a good speaker, booming voice, Biblical oratory, but Forrest wasn’t paying much attention.

No one could question Forrest’s courage. When he was 24 and one of the Matlock brothers killed his uncle, Forrest had faced all four of them with nothing but a two-shot derringer. When the derringer was empty, there were two brothers still standing. There was a throwing knife embedded in Forrest’s left leg. He pulled the knife from the wound and pressed on with that. The surviving Matlock later served in Forrest’s Cavalry Corps.

The crowd was clapping politely, and Forrest looked up. A young black woman began her speech. She was Lou Lewis, the pretty daughter of the Pole-Bearers’ treasurer. She presented Forrest with a stubby little bouquet of flowers. The smell reminded him of the flowers at Pittsburg Landing, before the fighting started that terrible day in April of 1862.

He was expected to say something. He removed his hat and with his free hand, took the bouquet.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I accept the flowers as a memento of reconciliation between the white and colored races of the Southern states. I accept it more particularly as it comes from a colored lady, for if there is anyone on God’s earth who loves the ladies, I believe it is myself.”

The joke brought a tremendous burst of applause and laughter from the crowd. Forrest felt he had hit the right note. This was one of the reasons he was fond of Negro folk: like soldiers, they appreciated ribaldry. Without glancing over, he knew Pillow and the editor of the Memphis Daily Appeal and the others in the little knot of white guests were pursing their lips in disapproval.

“I did not come here to make you a long speech, although invited to do so by you.” There were only a few chuckles for this mild jab at the club president and his penchant for long speeches, but Henley himself horselaughed. “I am not much of a speaker, and my business prevented me from preparing myself. I came to meet you as friends. I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong.”

Doing wrong, Forrest reflected. All my life, it could be said, I have been doing wrong.

He had been many things before the war, a planter, a slave-trader, a river-boat captain, a real-estate speculator, even an alderman. By the time he was forty years old, he was one of the richest men in the South.

When the War broke out, though, he gave up all his business interests and, along with his son and his brother, enlisted in the Tennessee Mounted Rifles as a private. The governor of Tennessee, who thought it unseemly for such a wealthy and respected man to hold such a lowly rank, promoted him to lieutenant colonel and gave him command of a regiment.

No more foolish reason ever led to a wiser decision: the ruthless businessman turned out to be a brilliant soldier. Nathan Bedford Forrest was born to be a cavalryman as horses are born to run. At the Battle of Fort Donelson, when Pillow disgraced himself, Forrest broke out of a Union siege, bringing four thousand men to safety. He commanded the Confederate rear guards at Shiloh and Nashville, protecting the rebel retreat. At the Fallen Timbers, to protect a Confederate field hospital, he single-handedly charged a Union brigade, killing dozens and taking a Minié ball through his side.

He was outwardly dismissive of his own success. An admirer asked him his secret and he smiled. “I get there first with the most men.” Tennesseans weren’t boastful, so Forrest would never said aloud he was proud of himself, but he was. Before the War, he had been successful, but successful at money-grubbing, at slave-driving, at politics. As a soldier, he fought alongside Lee, Jeb Stuart, and Jackson, giants and he was glad to be counted among them. Forrest’s war was going very well.

Until Pillow’s fort.

“Many things have been said about me which are wrong, and which white and black persons here, who stood by me through the war, can contradict.”

Pillow again. How he loathed Gideon J. Pillow.

Early in the war, the man had built a strongpoint on the Mississippi River in Henning, Tennessee. Forrest was never one for forts and fortifications, but if you’re going to build one, by God, build it right. Fort Pillow was a deathtrap. The walls were low, but too thick to allow defenders a good field of fire. The Blue-Bellies had captured it easily and Forrest, with the 2500 men of his Cavalry Corps, was sent to take it back and raze it.

After his forces surrounded the place and softened it up with artillery, he sent in a note, demanding their surrender. “I did everything I could,” he now repeated to himself, only 30 miles down-river but 12 years later. “I promised those Northern boys their lives, I pleaded with them.”

But more than half the defending force were black, freedmen and escaped slaves. They heard the threats from other Confederate officers that any Negro captured in Union blues would be hanged or worse. They didn’t believe Forrest’s promises.

So they fought. With nowhere to go but Heaven or Hell, they fought like demons. When the sun finally set on that horrid afternoon, fewer than 50 of the colored soldiers were still alive.

Bad as it was, the Northerners made it sound worse. A massacre, they called it, an atrocity. The black soldiers had tried to surrender, they claimed, and been cut down where they stood. Forrest was a murderer, a foul beast, the Devil straight from Hades.

The college-educated generals from Virginia and Georgia, men Forrest admired, regarded him with disdain: what could you expect from a border ruffian like him? Either he couldn’t control his men and keep them from executing prisoners, or worse, he ordered them to do so.

After the War, Andrew Johnson pardoned Forrest, and that had only served to stir everything up again. Everyone, even the Southern papers, said the pardon was owed to President Johnson’s personal friendship with Forrest. Not true, Forrest protested, he barely knew the man.

A few years back, the Spanish captured the Virginius, an American steamer that was carrying munitions for Cuban rebels, and executed 53 of her crew. Eagerly, Forrest wrote to his old foe, General Sherman, now the supreme commander of the US military, and offered his service in the coming war with Spain. Sherman wrote back politely, after Spain had apologized and the crisis had passed, saying what an honor it would have been to serve together. Forrest kept the letter, re-reading it for any sign of pity or contempt.

“I believe I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to elevate every man, to depress none.”

And what about the Klan, Forrest asked himself. Did that elevate every man?

Forrest insisted to himself as he insisted to others that he only took the reins of that organization because he believed it could be a force for good. It was necessary. There had to be some force to counter-balance the carpet-baggers, the scallywags, the Union Leagues, the Grand Army of the Republic. If he could have tamed the Klan, it could have helped reconstruct the South.

If. Standing there, looking at the sea of friendly black faces, Forrest admitted to himself he had failed. He had failed to stop the massacre at Fort Pillow; he had failed to keep the Ku Klux Klan from degenerating into terrorism and hatred.

He’d failed his wife too. He’d had to sell the plantation he bought her when they married, and now they lived in a miserable cabin. She’d never reproached him for it, but the privation must sting.

Should he admit his failures? Here, to this assembly? Should he tell them the truth, which was that he, Nathan Bedford Forrest, major general of the Confederate Army, eldest son of William and Miriam Forrest, had failed to do his duty?

No, today was just a Sunday outing. The light wind was blowing the smell of barbecued pork his way, and he could see the stoneware pitchers of lemonade sitting in rows on the tables. Better to finish up, let these good people enjoy their luncheon.

“We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment. Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I’ll come to your relief.”

I’ll try to come to your relief. I tried to save the black soldiers from my own men. I tried to dissolve the Klan. I’m an old man. The calendar says I’m 54, but I feel 70. That bullet at Fallen Timbers nicked my spine, I’ve been stabbed, frozen, trampled by horses. My feet are blue and useless from diabetes. What can I do?

“I thank you, Ladies and Gentlemen, for this opportunity you have afforded me to be with you, and to assure you that I am with you in heart and in hand.”

Forrest had been many things in his life, a slave-trader, a millionaire, a Confederate general, a hero, a Klansman, things he no longer was, but he was born a warrior and was one still. The soldier who won by getting there first with the most men was now old, lame, and alone, but he was still a soldier, still a fighter.

In front of the crowd, in front of the reporters, in front of that poltroon Gideon Pillow, he turned to the young black woman standing next to him, gave her a kiss on the cheek, and walked away.

This was to be the general’s last public appearance. He died two years later at the age of 56 from complications of diabetes. Three thousand black citizens of Memphis were among the ten thousand people who thronged his funeral.

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