The Klan Myth

 

It has been said that Bedford Forrest was the most effective cavalry commander produced by the Civil War. It has also been said that Forrest is the most controversial figure produced by the war. Both statements have merit. Forrest is considered an outstanding cavalry leader because of his mastery of the technique of deep penetration raids during which his command disrupted Federal logistic networks and because of his victories over superior forces during his defense of a major food producing area in Mississippi in 1864. Controversy swirls around Forrest because of a massacre of United States Colored Troops (USCT) at Fort Pillow in April, 1864, and because of his widely-believed involvement with the Ku Klux Klan following the war. More stories and myths are associated with Forrest than with any other major figure from the Civil War and many of these are uncritically accepted as factual, but the man is more complex than his legend. [1]

The post-war years of Forrest's life have produced an enduring controversy concerning his widely-believed connection to the Ku Klux Klan. Although it is often stated that Forrest founded the Klan this is false. The Klan was founded in Pulaski, Tennessee, in early 1866 by six young men whose names are known. Forrest was never in Pulaski following the war, had no connection to Pulaski, nor did he ever correspond with the founders of the Klan. It is also commonly stated that Forrest was the head of the Klan. On June 27, 1871, Forrest testified before a committee of the U.S. Congress which was investigating Klan activities. While his responses to questions were sometimes rambling and he often could not remember details about which he was interrogated, the Committee did not charge Forrest with Klan connections or activity and it did praise him for having used his influence against the Klan. While it is often stated that Forrest was involved with the Klan, the actual role he played is not clear and remains a matter of debate among historians. Generally ignored are the numerous documented incidents on which Forrest advocated economic and political opportunities for all citizens of his state since he viewed this as the best path to regain economic prosperity and political stability. In August 1868 Forrest participated in a meeting in Memphis to protest the lynching of four African Americans in the town of Trenton, Tennessee. While this expression of support for the rights of the formerly enslaved was met with scorn in many Northern papers some of the Radical press defended Forrest. Another public expression of this attitude was made on July 5, 1875, when Forrest, by invitation, made a speech to the Independent Association of Pole Bearers, an African American social and political organization. In his address Forrest said “I shall do all in my power to elevate every man, to oppress none... I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going. . . You have the right to elect whomever you please, vote for the man you think best. . . When I can serve you, I will do it. We have one flag, one country; let us stand together. When you are oppressed I'll come to your relief. . . I am with you in heart and in hand. [2]

Forrest was not a 21st Century man who believed in racial equality; he remained a man of his time, sharing the almost-universal view of white Europeans and Americans in the 19th Century that Anglo-Saxons were superior to other peoples, but neither was Forrest a reactionary racist who sought a return to slavery. Forrest worked to accept the end of slavery and the social changes resulting from the war as indicated by his words to his men in his 1865 farewell address. A recent biographer of Forrest says “The reality is that over the length of his lifetime Nathan Bedford Forrest's racial attitudes probably developed more, and more in the direction of liberal enlightenment, than those of most other Americans in the nation's history.” [3]

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Notes:

[1] The event at Fort Pillow, April 12, 1864, became a matter of controversy almost immediately. Newspaper reports of the fighting emphasized the heavy causalities among the garrison, especially among the USCT while the Confederates pointed out that the fort was captured by direct frontal assault and that the garrison never surrendered as a group. A Congressional investigating committee published a report which was calculated to rouse support for the war effort at a time when the fortunes of the Union were low. This matter is discussed in Brian Steel Wills, The River Was Dyed With Blood: Nathan Bedford Forrest and Fort Pillow (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014), 148-61. It is generally assumed that Forrest was the head, or Grand Wizard, of the Ku Klux Klan. An anecdote included by Andrew Lytle in Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company (New York: Minton, Balch and Company, 1931) relates that Forrest was selected as Grand Wizard in a meeting held at the Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville in 1867. However, Lytle provides no documentation for this anecdote, does not give the names of any of those said to have been present, does not give a date for the event. The identification of Forrest as the head of the Klan has now been repeated in so many secondary sources that it has become accepted as historical fact, but the truth is there is no primary source material to show Forrest was the Grand Wizard of the Klan. There are many anecdotes and some circumstantial evidence that Forrest was involved with the Klan but primary source documentation is absent. In the most recent book on the history of the Klan, Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan During Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), Elaine Frantz Parsons writes on page 50 “There is also no compelling contemporary evidence to establish that Forrest ever exercised any leadership functions.” The chapter entitled “The Roots of the Ku Klux Klan” is quite compelling in demonstrating the lack of evidence for the idea that Forrest was the first Grand Wizard of the Klan. Because similar local vigilante groups and organizations spread throughout the South in the reconstruction period it is difficult to determine what the Klan was responsible for and how effective it was. That it existed and operated during Reconstruction from 1866 to about 1877 is clear. That it was an effective, monolithic, South-wide organization with bureaucratic leadership is less certain. In common with historians such as Allen Trelease in White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979) and Ben H. Severance in Tennessee’s Radical Army: The State Guard and its Role in Reconstruction, 1867-1869 (Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 2005), Parsons discusses this issue and the various vigilante organizations that operated at that time.

[2] Jack Hurst, Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1993), 366-7.

[3] Ibid., 385.