ECW is pleased to welcome back Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era blog
The last month has been one of dislocation for those of us devoted to studying the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Nathan Bedford Forrest was literally relocated, or at least his remains were. The Sons of Confederate Veterans reburied the Confederate cavalryman at their headquarters complex in Columbia, Tennessee. Forrest had been buried originally in Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis after his 1877 demise. In 1904, he and his wife were dug up and buried in a public park in Memphis. There was a giant equestrian statue placed at his gravesite in 1905. Memphis, which spent only a quarter of the Civil War as part of the Confederacy having been captured by Federal forces in the first year of the conflict, showed its True South bona fides by showering honors on Forrest. Even the park where Forrest’s remains were placed was named Forrest Park.
At the 1909 United Confederate Veterans Convention held in Memphis, Forrest was a focus of the assembled veterans. The address to the veterans from the Sons of Confederate Veterans was delivered by Thomas H. Sisson. Sisson was a son of a veteran of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry force. He told the audience that he lauded Forrest as the man behind the Ku Klux Klan. According to Sisson:
Great and trying times always produce great leaders, and one was at hand—Nathan Bedford Forrest. His plan, the only course left open. The organization of a secret government. A terrible government; a government that would govern in spite of black majorities and Federal bayonets. This secret government was organized in every community in the South, and this government is known in history as the Klu Klux Clan [sic]… Here in all ages to come the Southern romancer and poet can find the inspiration for fiction and song. No nobler or grander spirits ever assembled on this earth than gathered in these clans. No human hearts were ever moved with nobler impulses or higher aims and purposes…. Order was restored, property safe; because the negro feared the Klu Klux Clan more than he feared the devil. Even the Federal bayonets could not give him confidence in the black government which had been established for him, and the negro voluntarily surrendered to the Klu Klux Clan, and the very moment he did, the “Invisible Army” vanished in a night. Its purpose had been fulfilled. Bedford Forrest should always be held in reverence by every son and daughter of the South as long as memory holds dear the noble deeds and service of men for the good of others on this earth. What mind is base enough to think of what might have happened but for Bedford Forrest and his “Invisible” but victorious army.
You can read the longer unedited version of the speech here.
The aspects of Forrest’s life that led to his public veneration a hundred years ago, his slave trading roots, his Confederate prominence, and his Klan leadership, were exactly what made the continued presence of his monument in a Memphis where 64% of the people are Black impossible.
After African Americans in Memphis got the vote, a right Forrest had opposed during the 1860s, agitation built to strip the city’s honors. In 2015, the city council voted unanimously to remove both monument and remains from the city park. This effort was fought tooth and nail by outside groups that did not believe in local control of local parks, at least not when the lives of dead Confederates were at stake. Some Forrest defenders insisted that the dead should not be disturbed for political purposes, blind to the fact that the general had been moved to Forrest park three decades after his death precisely for political purposes.
The bisecting of Robert E. Lee’s statue and its removal from its Richmond pedestal drew even more media attention than Forrest’s peripatetic remains. For years the people of Richmond have been trying to move the statue but found themselves blocked in deciding what parts of Virginia history were memorialized in their city by a state legislature of representatives with no connection to Richmond who insisted that Lee and his confederates rule over the city’s monumental landscape.
While some are decrying the removal of the statue as an assault on great art, we need only to watch video of pre-2020 attempts to remove the statue to see that it was not artists, art students, or art historians who encircled the statue in its defense, it was Confederates sympathizers from often racist and extremist organizations carrying Confederate flags who mobilized largely from out of town. There is a reason many Richmonders assembled happily to watch the statue come down. It had become a rallying point for those opposed to the changes in race relations we have seen over the last sixty years.
An example of addition by subtraction is underway in Alabama. When Reconstruction was overthrown in that state, new constitutions were adopted in 1875 and 1901 that threw out hated reforms like the establishment of a public education system and color-blind voting. Now a state commission is looking to remove openly racist clauses in the current constitution. These include phrases like “separate schools shall be provided for white and colored children, and no child of either race shall be permitted to attend a school of the other race.” In a speech by the Chairman of the fateful 1901 Alabama Constitutional Convention explaining the rationale for the new constitution, Chairman John Knox famously announced that “The new Constitution eliminates the ignorant Negro vote and places the control of our government where God Almighty intended it should be — with the Anglo-Saxon race.” Some will no doubt argue that in removing the racist clauses the commission is “erasing history.” So be it.
In Franklin, Tennessee, an interpretive panel was put up outside Rippavilla Plantation near Franklin, Tenn. The panel recounts the story of local enslaved people who enlisted in the United States Colored Troops in 1863 and 1864 during the Civil War. This may not seem as controversial as cutting poor Lee in half, but when you consider how long the South had no monuments or markers dedicated to its brave sons who joined the USCT, you can see why the placing of this historic plaque by the Battle of Franklin Trust and the American Battlefields Trust marks as big a change in the interpretation of history. Kudos to the Franklin Trust for years of engagement with the local African American community to assist in telling its own story.
Richmond, Virginia unveiled a new monument last week commemorating the liberation of the city’s slaves at the end of the Civil War. The installation also honors ten Virginians who fought for freedom, including William Carney of the 54th Massachusetts and Mary Bowser, who spied for the Union inside the Confederate White House.
The move away from Lost Cause revisionism and towards real history was boosted at the national level this week when a major new exhibit on Reconstruction opened at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. While some in the Civil War history community decry declining interest in America’s past, the Museum of African American History is one of the most popular museums in the United States, drawing two million visitors in 2019. That is roughly double the visitation at Gettysburg. The Exhibit, “Make Good the Promises: Reconstruction and Its Legacies,” will draw a new generation to the study of this period.
As the altars to the Confederacy placed on Southern cityscapes during the first hundred years after the Civil War lose their power to enthrall, and sometimes lose their place altogether, the researching of genuine history continues at an unparalleled pace, historically accurate wayside markers are replacing stone monuments to myth, and history is taking the place of hagiography. Archives are turning out new digital records, accessible to all for free, every single day. Online discussions of the Civil War and Reconstruction on Zoom, Facebook, YouTube and blogs, unimaginable in my college days, are joined in by thousands of Americans every day. We can take whole courses on these subjects taught by luminaries like Eric Foner and David Blight from Columbia and Yale for free through MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).
History is not going away, but some of the whitewash is being rinsed out.