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.