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Little known facts about Nathan Bedford Forrest

Updated on February 19, 2012

Some 150 years after the end of the Civil War, Nathan Bedford Forrest remains known largely for two things – his skill and daring on the battlefield, and his role in the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. His military skill has earned him grudging respect, but he is otherwise scorned as an unrepentant racist, if not an out-and-out terrorist. But Forrest was not the one-dimensional boogeyman portrayed today.

Nathan Bedford Forrest
Nathan Bedford Forrest

Forrest as a slave trader

Forrest is often reviled for his pre-war activity trading slaves, and it’s true that not only was he a slavetrader, he was quite successful at it. By the time he enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1861, Forrest was worth roughly 1.5 million dollars, an amazing sum at the time. But unlike many of his contemporaries, Forrest never lost sight of the fact that he was dealing with people (although it’s probably safe to assume that he did not consider them his equals). He followed a strict rule to never buy or sell a slave it if would break up a family, and would reunite broken families by buying the individual members and then selling them as a family unit.

Forrest was also determined that slaves should be treated humanely. He had a list of men that he refused to sell slaves to because they were known as cruel masters. Forrest also allowed newly purchased slaves a measure of self-determination that was unheard of in that day and age. He would give the slave a pass to move about town with the instructions to “find the man you would like to be your master, and I will then sell you to that man.”

Forrest as slave owner

It would seem that Forrest was well-regarded by his own slaves as well. When he formed his own cavalry unit, he offered his male slaves the opportunity to ride with him and fight for the Confederacy. In return, if they served honorably, they would be given their freedom at war’s end, win or lose. Forty-five men accepted the offer, and 44 stayed with him through the end of the war. In 1863, well before the end of the war, Forrest drew up the papers freeing them all.

Of the 45 freed men, 44 stayed with him and continued to serve in the Confederate Army until the end of the war. The last man returned home to nurse his dying wife. In 1876, Forrest wrote, “Those boys stayed with me…and better Confederates did not live…those among us during the war behaved in such a manner that I shall always respect them for it.” Throughout his writings, even in personal letters, Forrest consistently referred to slaves or free man as ‘colored’ or ‘black,’ which were the politically correct terms of his times.

Forrest and the White Knights

To some extent, Forrest’s association with the Klan has been magnified over the years. True, in 1865 he helped form the Knights of the White Camellia, but Forrest’s Knights differed from the modern image of the Klan. Today’s Klan would find the founding members highly objectionable – several of these former Confederate officers were Jewish. Forrest’s original vision was of a political and fraternal group, and the goal was to fight the excesses of the Freedman’s Bureau and the Federal occupation troops.

That intent obviously became badly warped even early on, and some members adopted a violent approach. When these members refused to stop what amounted to terrorism or to give up wearing masks, Forrest asked for the group to disband and renounced his association with them. The modern Klan actually dates back less than 100 years. Founded in Gary, Indiana, in 1915, the Klan may claim they are the legacy of Forrest’s Knights of the White Camellia, but their philosophies and practices bear little resemblance to the views actually held by Forrest himself.

Forrest after the war

Both Forrest’s public speeches and private writings spoke of peace and reconciliation. This began as early as his farewell address to his troops in 1865. He explained, “Reason dictates and humanity demands that no more blood to be shed. Fully realizing and feeling that such is the case, it is your duty and mine to lay down our arms, submit to the powers that be, and to aid in restoring peace and establishing law and order throughout the land.”

He also instructed his men that “Civil war, such as you have just passed through naturally engenders feelings of animosity, hatred and revenge. It is our duty to divest ourselves of all such feelings; and as far as it is in our power to do so, to cultivate friendly feelings towards those with whom we have so long contended…”

Forrest was invited to speak often in the years following the war, and he encouraged support for the U.S. government and Constitution, and acceptance of free blacks as political and legal equals. His last public speech was in 1875 at a Fourth of July bar-b-que held by the Independent Order of Pole Bearers, an early black civil rights organization in Memphis. Although many of his white contemporaries urged him to decline the invitation, Forrest ignored their advice.

Speaking to the group, Forrest said, “I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think I am doing wrong. I believe I can exert some influence…and shall do all in my power to elevate every man, to depress none. I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going.” He also encouraged them to vote, saying “I don’t propose to say anything about politics. You have a right to elect whom you please; vote for the man you think best, and I think, when that is done, you and I are freemen. Do as you consider right and honest in electing men for office.”

While no one is ever going to claim that Forrest deserves consideration as a civil rights pioneer, an objective look at history shows that he was a far more complicated man than is often recognized.


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    • Angie497 profile image

      Angie497 6 years ago

      Thanks very much for the kind words! To me, it's hard not to be fascinated by the contradictions that can be seen in so many of the public figures in the antebellum and Civil War period. We tend to think now of things as having been very cut and dried, either/or, and with no shades of gray, but that's definitely not the case.

    • Civil War Bob profile image

      Civil War Bob 6 years ago from Glenside, Pennsylvania

      Angie497: Very well done hub!! I was glad to see you had NBF's Redemption on your sidebar. I read Jack Hurst's NBF, A Biography when I was researching my book, God Caused the Civil War, and learned of his conversion in 1875; which made sense, considering his wife and mother in law's prayers for him for so many years. I think it's time to follow you.