MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Gray-uniformed soldier re-enactors fired long-barreled muskets in salute and United Daughters of the Confederacy in ankle-length dresses set wreaths before the towering statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis, paying tribute to a Confederate cavalryman whose exploits still divide Americans today.
The annual tribute Sunday to the hard-driving Confederate lieutenant general coincided this year with the 190th anniversary of his July 13 birth and the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, where he achieved his greatest success — and lasting notoriety.
The celebration in downtown Memphis at Forrest’s burial site signaled that the cult of personality remains alive among the admirers of Forrest, a slave trader and cotton farmer whose deeds during and after the war still prompt division against those detractors who have deemed him a virulent racist.
“He’s a polarizing figure,” said Ed Frank, a University of Memphis historian whose great-grandfather served under Forrest. “He was a man of considerable accomplishment, but also a very rough and a very hard person.”
Detractors counter that Forrest traded black people like cattle, massacred black Union soldiers and joined the early Ku Klux Klan. His defenders dispute much of that and counter with stories that depict him as a protector of slave families and defender of the weak who resigned from the KKK.
To this day, his legacy stirs controversy.
In February, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s refusal to condemn a proposed license plate honoring Forrest had some asking if the Republican was too out of touch to run for president. (Barbour later announced he wouldn’t run.)
Or in 2008, a Florida school board considered stripping Forrest’s name off a high school. (They didn’t.) Or in 2005, when Memphis ended up rejecting an effort to rename Forrest Park, the scene of Sunday’s celebration and the burial place of the Confederate cavalryman.
Dore Dorris — a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy wearing a white-and-black dress buttoned to the neck — was among the women who laid a wreath before the 20-foot statue of Forrest. The bronze figure of Forrest astride a horse is one of Tennessee’s largest historical statues.
For his fans, the landmark honors a hard-charging leader who preferred to attack at all costs, even against an enemy in retreat or near surrender.
“He was probably the world’s greatest general,” Dorris said of Forrest. “His country asked him to do this, and he did what was asked of him.”
For others, he rankles.
Jerald Peterson, who is black, took offense with others who looked on at Sunday’s celebration from a distance. “To me it looked like a prejudiced affair,” he said.
Forrest’s iron will and toughness are legendary.
Jack Hurst, author of “Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography,” says Forrest was the only soldier in either Civil War army to rise from private to lieutenant general, killing 30 Union soldiers in hand-to-hand combat in the process. Hurst quotes Union Gen. William Sherman as calling Forrest a “devil” who should be hunted down and killed.
Despite little formal education, Forrest showed early gifts for military tactics. He swiftly ascended the ranks of the Confederate Army and won a big victory at Fort Pillow, the fortification near Memphis seized by Union forces in 1862.
On April 12, 1864, Forrest and about 1,500 Confederate soldiers attacked Fort Pillow and the Union garrison of some 600 soldiers, half of them black troops.
As Forrest’s soldiers took the upper hand, he asked Union Maj. William Bradford and his troops to surrender. Forrest’s men then stormed the fort and killed about 300 soldiers, half of them black. Forrest won the battle, but was later accused of massacring the black and white Union soldiers. He also took black and white prisoners.
Questions linger as to whether the Union soldiers were killed as they tried to surrender. Northern newspaper reports referred to the battle as an atrocity.
Some historians argue differently.
“He gets a bad rap,” said Lee Millar, president of the General Nathan Bedford Forrest Historical Society. “There was no order to kill the black troops … It was just a consequence of the battle.”
After the war, Forrest became a member of the Klan. Though he didn’t found the group, he is credited with being an early member of the group that intimidated and threatened Southern blacks. Forrest is believed to have helped disband the Klan in 1869, possibly because he did not agree with its increasing violence. After disbanding temporarily, the Klan reemerged in the early 1900s.
Supporters point to his resignation when arguing that he wasn’t a racist. Others praise him for offering to free 45 of his own slaves if they would serve in the war. They also note that Forrest was reluctant to divide families when he bought slaves.
In 1875, Forrest gave a speech in Memphis during which he accepted a bouquet of flowers from a black woman and accepted a kiss on the cheek from her. He seemed penitent, saying “We may differ in color, but not in sentiment.”
For African-American community leaders like pastor Reginald Porter, however, Forrest’s apparent penitence means little because of his record as a slave trader and KKK member.
“Slave trading and the affiliation with the Klan has no redeeming quality,” said Porter, pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church in Memphis. “That makes the statue offensive.”
A copy of Forrest’s 1875 speech was handed out Sunday, along with proclamations that had been issued by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam. A dozen bikers who call themselves the Sons of Confederate Veterans Mechanized Division also attended.
Forty-six-year-old biker Barry Sowell said the Civil War’s outcome might have been different if the South had had more leaders like Forrest, calling racism claims against him a “bunch of bull.”
“He’s my hero,” Sowell said.
Seated in the shade near the Forrest statue, 33-year-old Alanda Rinix could hear the speeches and see Confederate flags waving. Rinix, who is black, found Sunday’s celebration “sadly disappointing.”
“If I had it my way, I would bulldoze that statue,” Rinix said.