Imagine, for a fleeting moment, an elected official in Germany who inexplicably would put forth the idea of commemorating an anniversary of a World War II Nazi victory by issuing a special license plate in honor of a Nazi general. How long would that little idea last before getting ripped to shreds by other German elected officials and worldwide media outlets?
Now imagine something like that happening in these United States (former Ohio Congressional candidate and SS Trooper-dresser-upper Rich Iott aside). Well, it is happening here, in the state of Mississippi, where the State Legislature will consider a proposal for honoring the sesquicentennial of the Civil War by issuing commemorative license plates. One of these plates, set for 2014, will honor Tennessee native and Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Before we delve deeper into Forrest’s background, let me start by explaining, for those who don’t know, that in the Deep South the Civil War is still big business. The War Between the States, or the War of Northern Aggression (as it is known in the South), is highlighted, celebrated, and revered as if the South had won and the Union had been rent asunder. There are Civil War reenactments all over the place. Charleston (South Carolina) was the location of a period costume “Secession Ball” that was touted as a “joyous night of music, dancing, food and drink.” Inside the Municipal Auditorium, descendants of Confederate soldiers and plantation owners celebrated the anniversary of South Carolina’s secession from the United States. Outside the auditorium, descendants of the slaves who picked cotton for the great grandfathers of those inside held their own gathering. Lucky for the rest of us, for the next four-and-a-half years, we’ll be (over-) exposed to every Civil War anniversary, from the firing on Fort Sumter, to the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.
Back to General Nathan Bedford Forrest: before the Civil War, Forrest was one of the South’s richest men, having amassed a fortune of over $1.5 million – and that’s in 1860-value dollars! He earned his fortune as a riverboat gambler, plantation owner, speculator, and slave trader in his home city of Memphis. Upon the war’s commencement, he enlisted as a private, but quickly rose through the ranks and became a Confederate general. For the South, he was a war hero, a worthy strategist and tactician, and a pioneer of the concept of mobile warfare.
The 1864 Fort Pillow massacre, however, made him a war criminal and butcher. After the war, his leadership role and ascension to the title of Grand Wizard in the Ku Klux Klan did little to enhance his legacy. In his later years, he expressed regrets and became an advocate for reconciliation between North and South, and black and white.
While forgiveness is perhaps the ultimate virtue, and redemption can be earned, there are things that simply can’t be overlooked. While there are cities, streets, parks, and schools (including one in Jacksonville, Florida) named after General Forrest, I’m not so sure that here in the 21st Century, any state should further honor someone who’s actions at Fort Pillow were described like this by one of his fellow Confederate soldiers (Tennessee calvaryman Achilles Clark):
“The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor, deluded, negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees, and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. I, with several others, tried to stop the butchery, and at one time had partially succeeded, but General Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased.”
These are not the actions that earn a person a place of honor on a license plate. Let’s spend some time and effort honoring real American heroes, and not continue to embarrass ourselves on the world stage by opening old wounds and showing just how insensitive a people we can be.