Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Nathan Bedford Forrest License Plate

Mississippi Govenor Haley Barbour announced that he would not "denounce" a proposal by the Mississippi Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans for a state-issued license plate that would honor Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.  However, the Govenor does not think that Mississippi legislators will approve the license plate honoring Forrest who was an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

This is another chapter in the controversial life of General Forrest.  Forrest was a slave trader and shrewd businessman, He was one of the richest men in the South and had a personal fortune of over $1.5 million. Forrest joined the Confederate army as a private and was promoted during the war to Lieutenant General. 

He was a brilliant leader and an early advocate of mobile warfare. Forrest achieved fame at Fort Donelson, Fallen Timbers, First Murfreesboro, Shiloh,  Parker's Crossroads, Brice's Crossroads, and Chickamauga.

At the Battle of Fort Pillow, Forrest's troops massacred  surrendering U.S.C.T. in what one historian described as "intentional murder."  This event plagued Forrest for the rest of his life as he strived to defend his actions.

Often overlooked among General Forrest's accomplishments are his farewell instructions to his troops.  He said, "You have been good soldiers, you can be good citizens.  Obey the laws, preserve your honor, and the Government to which you have surrendered can afford to be, and will be, magnanimous."  Forrest could have easily instructed his men to wage a guerrila war against the Union, but he choose the higher road.

Forrest did join the KKK in 1866-67 and later became one of its leaders. He was involved in Klan violence toward African Americans and white Republicans.  He became disillusioned with the Klan and  reported in 1875 that his setiments on race now differed from the Klan.

The question about tributes to General Forrest have focused on his involvement in the KKK.  Was the proposed tribute for his generalship during the Civil War or for his post-war racism?  The question applies to more than Forrest.  Are we honoring the services of Confederate war veterans or the political and social attitudes of the slave-based Southern economy?

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