Should Nathan Bedford Forrest be on a license plate?

Word comes from various sources, including Eric Wittenberg’s Rantings of a Civil War Historian and local press coverage, of efforts by the Mississippi chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to propose several new special vanity plate designs, including one for Confederate general and KKK terrorist Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Forrest remains a controversial figure for obvious reasons.  He was an excellent cavalry commander in a limited sphere who excelled when he was on his own.  However, it is not nearly as clear as to whether he would have enjoyed success in command of a larger body of troops, namely because he could not get along with many of his colleagues and might not have had the personality necessary to get people to work together under his command.  Moreover, for all the talk about the impact of Forrest on the mind of Union commanders, one can debate how much they saw him as a threat and how much they viewed him as an irritant, especially when it comes to Grant and Sherman.  My own view is that regardless of his talents in independent command, Forrest was an unexploited resource that the Confederate high command failed to employ effectively.

However, it is not Forrest’s abilities as a commander that are in dispute here.  What proves far more controversial are Forrest’s actions with regards to the attack upon Fort Pillow on April 12, 1864, and his role in the terrorist organization known as the Ku Klux Klan after the war.

At stake in the debate over what happened at Fort Pillow is (a) whether there was a massacre of black Union soldiers by the Confederate attackers and (b) what responsibility, if any, Forrest had for such actions.  These are subjects worth more discussion at length.  I think there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Confederate soldiers shot black Union soldiers who were attempting to surrender, and that at a minimum Forrest was responsible for the actions of the men under his direct command.  I should note that many people who disagree with me on the latter point (and do not hold Forrest responsible) nevertheless hold William T. Sherman responsible for the actions of his men (recall that we are coming upon the anniversary of the burning of Columbia, South Carolina).  They’ve not been able to explain to me why they hold Sherman responsible but excuse Forrest.  I think that killing human beings is worse than burning buildings, but maybe that’s just me.

Although people debate over Forrest’s exact connection with the KKK, I’ve never heard it argued by responsible parties that he was not a leader in that terrorist organization for several years.  Rather, what I usually hear and read are explanations about how his role was misunderstood, or that he also played a role in disbanding the KKK (although the KKK persisted in parts of the South over this “disbanding,” and was soon replaced by other white supremacist terrorist groups).  I’ve also heard explanations that either excuse the behavior of the KKK or argue that its actions were understandable, as if understanding why people who joined the KKK behaved as they did either excuses or justifies their behavior.  Let’s be clear about this: the Reconstruction Ku Klux Klan was a white supremacist terrorist organization.  It was also a paramilitary arm of the Democratic party, both nationally and in the South.

If that’s the sort of fellow the people of Mississippi want to honor on a license plate, they are free to do so.  All I know is that if Forrest the terrorist was around today, he’d be lucky to be told to make license plates.

26 thoughts on “Should Nathan Bedford Forrest be on a license plate?

  1. stephen matlock February 16, 2011 / 3:09 am

    People are free to speak their minds and support what they want. They are not free from the consequences of their speech.

    People who want to honor Forrest will receive ridicule and abuse. I happen to think they deserve it.

    Forrest was a terrorist and complicit in multiple murders.

  2. Tony Gunter February 16, 2011 / 7:09 am

    Pfeh … this is a tempest in a teapot. Is it an idiotic request? Yes. Will it be signed by the governor, be approved on the floor, or even make it out of committee? Not a snowball’s chance. It amazes me what the press chooses to latch onto. Haley Barbour is being roasted by the press for refusing to denounce this dead-on-arrival bill. However, the press chose to largely ignore the fact that Barbour during his 2003 governor campaign was photographed arm-in-arm with the leaders of the CCC at the Blackhawk Rally. When asked if he would demand that his picture be removed from the front page of the CCC website, Barbour responded “I don’t care who has my picture. My picture’s in the public domain.”

    Which is worse, refusing to condemn a man who had connections to racist terrorist organizations 150 years ago, or refusing to condemn men who have connections to racist terrorist organizations today? Much like the press choosing to ignore the fact that Trent Lott once gave the keynote speech at a CCC rally and then roasting him for some off-the-cuff remarks, this is the press finally waking up to something that was sitting in front of them all along.

  3. Andy Hall February 16, 2011 / 8:07 am

    It’s important to appreciate that this effort is a win-win for the SCV. If they get their license plate, they win. If the effort fails they also win, as they can point to the craven politicians, politically-correct academics, and corrupt out-of-state influences that have sabotaged (once again) a simple effort to honor their Southron Heritage™. This is the game they play, continually appealing to the resentments and perpetual persecution complexes that run deep in this crowd. It’s no accident that they spend so much effort collecting, reporting and protesting so-called “heritage violations.” Sometimes I genuinely don’t know which they get more pleasure out of — winning fights like this one, or losing them.

  4. stephen matlock February 16, 2011 / 9:25 am

    I agree that there’s a motive behind the SCV, and it ain’t pretty.

    Still, decent people need to continue to protest and point out that they are honoring an anti-American terrorist.

  5. Lyle Smith February 16, 2011 / 11:34 am

    I don’t see how Mississippi can deny the SCV the right to have the state make the license plate. Freedom of speech is freedom of speech and States run up against the Constitution when they start denying special interest groups speech rights. In Texas, for example, you can order a University of Florida or LSU license plate simply because someone got enough pen signatures to meet the Texas state requirement on license plates. If enough people in Texas wanted a KKK license plate, they could get it by law I think.

    …. and Mississippi still has the battle flag incorporated into their State flag, and it remains so by a statewide referendum. That’s arguably more embarrassing then a Forrest license plate. Although, I have to say that Mississippi handle their flag matter much democratically than either Georgia or South Carolina did (by vote, and not by closed door legislative maneuvering).

    So as a stalwart of freedom of speech I wouldn’t stand in the SCV’s way of getting the license plate, but I wouldn’t ever have it on a vehicle of mine.

    Other Mississippians might ought to have the state make a license plate with Frederick Douglass on it or one with Grant or Lincoln… like Grant standing victorious at Vicksburg or something. That would be a hoot.

    I also have problems with overly poohing-poohing Forrest as a historical figure. He was just a man, a very resourceful and successful man in a lot of ways. And he’s not really any different than many other men of his time or who came before him. Was he exceptionally evil or something, more so than someone like Thomas Jefferson? Would a Thomas Jefferson license plate be equally as vexing to those who decry this Forrest license plate?

    • Allen Gathman February 16, 2011 / 12:40 pm

      Surely you don’t intend to argue that all people who lived before some arbitrary time are declared morally equal? I think we have to judge people in their historical and cultural context, but certainly Forrest’s actions indicate that he was substantially more evil than, say, Jefferson. Jefferson never massacred men who were attempting to surrender, to my knowledge.

      • Andy Hall February 16, 2011 / 1:49 pm

        Jefferson also has quite a bit on the other side of the scale.

      • Brooks D. Simpson February 16, 2011 / 2:44 pm

        @ Andy Tell Texans about the importance of Thomas Jefferson …

      • Lyle Smith February 16, 2011 / 7:07 pm

        No, not all people from the past, like now, are (were) morally equal… but at closer look, I’m not sure Thomas Jefferson was that much more moral than Nathan Bedford Forrest, if at all. Is Thomas Jefferson of greater importance to the United States and United States history than Forrest, certainly, because he was a founder (as his field Negroes were toiling away at Monticello Jefferson was off writing the Declaration of Independence or helping to think up our Constitution ). Should we esteem him and celebrate him for his political works? Yes, of course… but as a human being was his morality much different than Forrest’s, I’m not so sure about that.

        To begin with Thomas Jefferson had a major part to play in maintaining and perpetuating the slave economic system in the antebellum South. The slave owning planter class was effectively living the Jefferson’s version of the American dream. If you were able to own land, have slaves to work that land, and turn a living out of it, if not for a profit, you had accomplish something… exactly as Jefferson had himself. Forrest participated in and profited from this way of life no more or no less than Jefferson had.


        Jefferson didn’t free the whole of his chattel property upon death. Why? Cause they were the most monetarily valuable part of his patrimony. He descendants would have struggled to live the planter life without their father’s slaves… or just to get by financially no matter how they chose to live, planter or not (Jefferson recognized and appreciated the value of the slave market – just like Forrest). They needed those slaves for either work or money. This is what Jefferson wanted. He had the opportunity to do the right thing at the end of his life and free all of his slaves, and he didn’t do it. Moral? Not really. Financially smart and protective of slavery? Yes. So like Forrest, Jefferson by his own actions was a staunch defender of slavery… and ultimately white supremacy.

        Lastly, Jefferson, although he didn’t literally murder anyone while fighting in a civil war to protect his planter class mores or to maintain his chattel property in the face of Republican fiat, did have a hand in America’s quest for manifest destiny. Arguably he set the stage for such an idea with the Louisiana Purchase and then his enthusiastic support for the idea of mapping out the new territory, in what eventually came to fruition in the Lewis and Clark expedition. These were events that did not bode well for the indigenous people who populated those lands. Thomas Jefferson actually had a relatively high opinion of native Americans, especially when compared with his views on blacks… but Thomas Jefferson wasn’t above seeing native American civilization vanquished for the sake of his agrarian ideal of America. Jefferson wasn’t stupid. What did he think was going to eventually happen to the indigenous people in his newly acquired Louisiana territory? They were just going to assimilate peacefully if they just did what their Great Father asked them to?

        So no, Jefferson didn’t participate in anything as dastardly as the massacre at Fort Pillow or whatever Forrest did do as a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan… but he did show Americans the way West and all that came with it, and as we all know now that included a fair number of massacres too, and whatever other degradations.

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 16, 2011 / 2:43 pm

      Well, first of all, Mississippi isn’t denying anyone’s right to do anything. Legislation has not even been introduced in support of this proposal. Nor do I see it as a free speech issue, because the state can determine which sorts of vanity plates to approve (the entire issue of vanity plates is a different issue). So the SCV doesn’t have any “rights” in this matter, and the language of “rights” really doesn’t work here … especially as these procedures differ from state to state (and so what goes in Texas may not be what goes in Mississippi).

      That said, as I’ve pointed out, I will leave it to Mississippi to decide what Mississippi wants to do.

      As for Forrest as a military commander, my own research suggests that Union commanders (Grant and Sherman) didn’t fear Forrest as conventional wisdom would have it. Even Sherman’s overheated rhetoric sounds like a fellow who used sledgehammers to whack flies.

      • Bob Huddleston February 16, 2011 / 3:19 pm

        I completely agree with you on NBF. He was a second rate commander who had lots of great press. Where did he ever impact the war? In 1864, when he should have been raiding Sherman’s lines he as off in Western Tennessee massacring prisoners. Part of being a general is to get along with both your superiors and your subordinates; he could do neither.
        Tennessee has produced three American presidents. But in the state there are more monuments to Nathan Bedford Forrest than there for the three chief executives combined.
        However, this has not always been true. Some years ago while visiting that small skirmish in Southern Pennsylvania, I purchased a color reprint of a 22X 8.5 lithograph, done, evidently originally printed when money was being raised for the Lee/Virginia monument. It is copied from one at the Museum of the Confederacy.
        The center shows the caption, “Our Heroes and Our Flags,” with a picture of Lee flanked by a marching Rebel and a mounted one. Above is a medal (UCV?) and below, they are surrounded by the four Confederate flags, incorrectly labeled as “No. 1,” “No. 2,” “No. 3” and “No. 4.” “Two” is the battle flag, and one, three and four are the seven star “Stars and Bars,” “Stainless Banner” and the final one with the red band. In the middle is a prototype of the Virginia monument, with a fancy base and no statues around it. The Monument was dedicated in June 1917, so the lithograph must be earlier than that, and was printed before the final monument was finalized. Let us date it as circa 1910.
        What is interesting is that around the perimeter are eighteen Confederate leaders. Across the top are, from left to right, Bragg, Beauregard, Davis, Alexander Stephens and Stonewall Jackson. Down the left margin, under Bragg, are Hood, Powell Hill, Longstreet, and Samuel Cooper. On the right side, under Stonewall, we find Sterling Price, Polk, Hardee and JEB Stuart. Across the bottom, from under Cooper to under Stuart, we find Wade Hampton, Ewell, John Morgan, Kirby Smith and Joe Johnston.
        There are several surprising things about the choice of people to commemorate: first, is the inclusion of Old Peter – one would have thought that, since this was the height of the Lost Cause, Longstreet would have been boycotted. Second, is the division of the men between the East and the West: two politicians, one general staff officer, and, by my count, five ANV leaders, six AoT and Trans-Mississippi, and four who had notable leadership in both (rather arbitrary, my choice of “both” is Beauregard, Hood, Longstreet and Joe Johnston.) Without arguing about my divisions, the selections are well balanced – but stronger on Westerners.
        And third, who they included. Beside the anathematized Longstreet, why John Morgan? The others are all corps and army commanders, except for Morgan.
        And, finely, of relevance here, why was Forrest not included? He was a corps commander and a lieutenant general. In the early years of the twentieth century, was Bedford Forrest not considered to be in the Confederate pantheon? If not, when did he become one of the Most Famous Civil War Generals? I can not imagine a similar poster today not including Forrest.

      • Lyle Smith February 16, 2011 / 7:30 pm

        That’s true professor, Mississippi is not denying anyone their rights, and I’m not trying to say they are. The state can obviously regulate vanity plates, but not the message of the plates once they have begun letting groups of citizens say all kinds of things with their Mississippi vanity plates (if they’re doing that). Once a state starts allowing different groups to have their own vanity plate, they’ve almost always have to allow other groups to have theirs as well… because they can’t arbitrarily discriminate against one group’s speech, i.e. a picture of General Forrest over.

        Look for the SCV to sue the State of Mississippi if they don’t get what the want. Look at all the license plates one can get in Mississippi as well…

      • Lyle Smith February 16, 2011 / 7:45 pm

        What I meant to say above at first is… the group of people advocating for a Forrest license plates don’t have any “rights” yet. However, if they push forward with it and Mississippi denies them, they’ll then have “rights” and could probably successfully sue the State of Mississippi to get a Forrest license plate. This has happened in other states before. As in where a state allowed for a pro-life tag, but not a pro-choice tag… and then the state got sued by the pro-choice group, and the state ultimately lost.

        Mississippi’s only recourse might then be to abolish the vanity license plate program entirely so no particular group could have a plate.

      • Brooks D. Simpson February 16, 2011 / 8:18 pm

        Why not simply have a plate for Brice’s Crossroads, in keeping with the other “place” plates? That said, while it’s something I wouldn’t do, Mississippians should handle this. They should do it with eyes wide open. As for vanity plates in general, it’s become something of a bizarre game.

      • Lyle Smith February 16, 2011 / 8:57 pm

        “Why not simply have a plate for Brice’s Crossroads, in keeping with the other “place” plates?”

        … because that’s apparently not what this group of people want. The state doesn’t do the messaging of the license, but just the manufacturing and providing of it. The petitioning group decides the message. Perhaps some one can talk some sense to them and get them to change it to a Brice’s Crossroads tag, but they just another group of Mississippians could petition for a Medgar Evers license plate, this other group can go for Gen. Forrest.

        … and think that’s a better way of fighting it too. Stand Evers next to Forrest.

      • Brooks D. Simpson February 16, 2011 / 9:05 pm

        Lyle, all I’m doing is asking a question as to why the decision’s been made to feature for one year a person (Forrest) instead of a place or a symbol.

        Given the SCV’s opposition to the KKK, it seems unfortunate that this controversy will associate the two organizations in the minds of many people.

        You are right … there are other ways to conduct the battle of vanity plates (I’m sure this happens with Mississippi versus Mississippi State, with Southern Miss lurking elsewhere). Moreover, that would be a constructive way to go about it. But just as the SCV has chosen to honor a terrorist, so the NAACP can battle that decision, and it will be left to Mississippians to make a decision. I can only hope they move a little more quickly on this than they moved to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment. That took 130 years.

  6. Bob Huddleston February 16, 2011 / 8:41 pm

    I notices that the UCV has a vanity plate. In Colorado, to qualify for a vanity plate an organization must guarantee enough sales to cover the cost of stamping them. I wonder if the UCV plates will disappear!

  7. Tony Gunter February 16, 2011 / 10:25 pm

    As written, this will never make it to court. The unusual nature of the SCV request that the design be changed *every* year gives Mississippi an easy way to dodge the request on a technical rather than viewpoint basis. If the SCV request is re-submitted to conform with other designs, and NBF is still included, it should make for an interesting 1st Amendment fight.

    Personally, I can’t see how post 9/11, the courts could uphold the right of any group to request a plate honoring a terrorist. Can you imagine how quickly a “LUVOSAMA” plate would be rejected?

    • Mike April 11, 2011 / 7:29 pm

      Actually, he isn’t a terrorist; He’s an American Veteran.

      Remember Public Law 85-425?

      An excerpt:
      “(e) For the purpose of this section, and section 433, the term ‘veteran’ includes a person who served in the military or naval forces of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War, and the term `active, military or naval service’ includes active service in such forces.”

      That’s right, Confederates are American Veterans.

      • Brooks D. Simpson April 11, 2011 / 9:13 pm

        That definition, however, does not cover his postwar activities.

        • BorderRuffian May 5, 2011 / 9:26 am

          …and what are those “postwar activities” based on?

          Hearsay? Second and third hand comments? Newspaper articles?

          • Brooks D. Simpson May 5, 2011 / 9:54 am

            I know what his postwar activities were based upon: Forrest’s never-wavering belief in white supremacy and home rule.

            Re-read your comment. That’s what you asked. You probably meant “and upon what evidence do you rely in describing his postwar activities?”

            Upon what evidence do you rely? Fairy tales? White supremacist myths? Forrest’s own equivocation when it came to testifying as to his own behavior? After all, if you ask the question, then you should answer it as well.

  8. southern rights May 4, 2011 / 8:05 pm

    and any plate that should honor sherman is as what you say…I will not repeat such slander on such a Honorable hero.Get your facts straight Sir. Sherman killed and starved hundreds hoping to become pres.Dear God man this is America I can get any pate I desire.
    southern Rights

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 4, 2011 / 8:13 pm

      Actually, you can only get a plate issued by the DMV for the state in question, but you are free to get your pate at any food market.

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