The Removal of Confederate Statues: Let's Talk Nathan Bedford Forrest Bust (Part I)

Updated: Jun 10

I'll begin by telling you about my personal history with Confederate statues and the Civil War. If I do not, you may make assumptions about me that create a barrier to reading this post. The story in your head may tell you I'm a liberal white woman who hates the South (spoiler alert, my liberal friends think I'm a conservative). You may think I know nothing about Civil War history (I am stunned about how much I do know). Maybe you think I have no personal ties to those who fought (more than you can imagine, though only my Union ties will be highlighted here). On the other side, if you do not like what I have to say, you may think I'm a conservative woman defending the heritage of slavery. Uhm...no (my conservative friends think I'm liberal). Being a centrist is a hard place to be. This blog post is long and I hope you make it to the end, but I've highlighted a few important parts for those who prefer to skim as opposed to dive in deep.

(Image above taken at the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in Gettysburg, PA in 2013.We were on the sidelines awaiting the reenactment of fighting between Union and Conferate soldiers.)


Now, let me introduce myself. I am a 6th generation Tennessean whose great-great grandfather enlisted in the Union army as a teenager in Cocke County, Tennessee. (I also have direct ancestors who fought for the Confederacy on my Mother's side - for a later post). He and his brother made the decision, like many other East Tennesseans, to fight alongside Union soldiers though their cousins, also in Cocke County, enlisted in the Confederacy. If you are a student of Tennessee history you will know that our great state was the last state to secede from the Union and great debate was given before the decision was made. Tennessee was not nearly as reliant on enslaved people as some other states and we were not quite so anxious to split from the rest of the nation. (Tennessee was also the first Southern state to ratify the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery.)


Despite our familial ties to the Civil War, and apparently my home county's ties to it as well, I didn't grow up hearing about it in any context other than in the classroom, meaning there was no plot that I was aware of to keep fighting the Civil War 125 years later. (I don't deny that exists.) I grew up in Lewisburg, Tennessee and can remember in 7th grade taking a field trip to the Battle of Farmington. It stands out in my mind as it was (at least somewhat) on the site of the home I lived in for a few years after my parents relocated us from Lawrence to Marshall County in the mid-70's. I stood at the crossroad on Belfast-Farmington Road with my classmates amazed that the Civil War had been fought in my old front yard! Of course, I did not realize at the time to scope of the war and how many places it had been fought. I didn't realize until after my son was born and he was introduced to Civil War history by his grandfather. My son was hooked early on and my vacation dreams of sipping margaritas on a beach turned into camping trips at Civil War battlefields from Shiloh to Gettysburg.


It was also in 7th grade that the name Nathan Bedford Forrest was first introduced to me through the context of not only the Civil War, but his ties to Marshall County. I remember our history teacher talking about Forrest during that field trip. I don't remember any reverence towards the figure himself, but do remember the fervor of a teacher who was excited to tie his students to the history presented in our book. Forrest was important as his boyhood home was also located in our county, just a few short miles up the road from the Battle of Farmington. He became an important figure to the small town of Chapel Hill whose school shares his name, which has been more recently a source of fierce debate.


As I said earlier, all of this became more relevant to me after my father-in-law introduced our son the joy of Civil War history. I cannot remember how it began. A book signing here, trip to a cemetary there, visit to an antebellum home turned war hospital in Coffee County the day it was auctioned off and sold to a friend of my son's grandfather. Suddenly, we are in the midst of the Civil War Sesquicentennial and began our reenactment visits at the Battle of Franklin. From there we spent a spring break alongside 50 THOUSAND reenactors at the Battle of Shiloh, attended the Battle of Fort Donelson, the Battle of Perryville in Kentucky and rounded it out with 5 days camping in Gettysburg, PA for the 150th anniversary of the battle there. You have never seen so many Abraham Lincoln impersonators in one place. Not even kidding. My son even went on to apply and be accepted to Gettysburg College and we took senior photos of him with Union canons on the Gettysburg battlefield.


(Lincolns as far as the eye could see at the 150th in Gettysburg.)


I'm not trying to bore you, but I want you to understand that I have a dog in this fight. I could tell you stories about our trips, about conversations, about so many things relating to the Civil War, conversations I have had with various people, but I won't. I will tell you about how the Nathan Bedford Forest statue came to be at the Tennessee State Capitol and about the fight for removal that has been going on for 40 years.


Full disclosure. I am not in support of destroying any statues. I'm not. You can agree or disagree. I will share more of my opinion on this later. But, there are only a couple of places where these statues belong in regards to government funded facilities. They are state/federally owned battlefields and museums - not courthouses and certainly not capitol buildings. Now that you know where I stand, let's talk about the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue. This statue has been long been debated in Tennessee, was recently approved for removal and now has created a knee-jerk reaction to its removal by Tennessee state legislators. The bust is located in Tennessee's state capitol building, installed in 1978. It wasn't installed in 1865, just after the Civil War, nor would it have been as Governor William Brownlow, one of the most vocal opponents to succession would NEVER have tolerated its installation. Never. Ever. It wasn't installed during the era of Jim Crow laws (which would have made sense but would still need to be removed). It was installed in 1978. To put this in further context it was 18 years after Nashville's Woolworth sit-in and 10 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennessee, both major events in Civil Rights history.


One of the most MOST IMPORTANT pieces to this story is regarding the Forrest bust, okay, the most important piece to the story of the Forrest bust is its ties to Senator Douglas Henry of Nashville. Henry was a Dixiecrat, a Southern Democrat holding onto the older views of the party even after the shifts leading up the Civil Rights. He was a member of the Sons of the Confederacy and primarily responsible for not only getting the bust installed into the Capitol, but also the removal of the portrait of, you guessed it, former Governor William Brownlow. Brownlow's own history is laced with pro-slavery positions, however, he was adamantly opposed to secession, signed the 13th Amendment the day after his inauguration and followed it by giving black Tennesseans the right to vote while removing the right to vote from former Confederate soldiers. He fought against the KKK his entire time in office and even Forrest stated that he refused to recognize the Tennessee government with Brownlow at its head. Henry (the Senator responsible for the bust in 1978) was closely connected to Jack Kershaw who is the deceased owner of the larger Forrest statue along I-65 here in Nashville. Kershaw was the attorney for James Earl Ray, the man who shot Dr. King. There is a big picture here.


The bust was financed via fundraising by the Sons of the Confederacy and designed by Senator Henry's wife. (You will have to read the history of that organization on your own.) From the day it was announced, it was the source of great contention. The statue was fought by African American groups who made several peaceful attempts to stop it from being placed in the Capitol. Protests occurred on the day of installation and again the next year but their pleas were ignored. Ignored may not be the right word as following their attempts a cross was burned at the headquarters of the Nashville NAACP. The burning cross was a symbol that had been (I assume still is) used by the Ku Klux Klan and is significant to the story as Forrest was named the first head of the KKK. The removal of the bust was not in response to 2020 protests, George Floyd, or Colin Kaepernick kneeling. This has been an ongoing effort for over 40 years to remove the memorial of a person whose name is synonymous with hate in our state.


I've tried to lay out the story with as much information as possible to understand the intention in the addition of the Forrest bust to the Capitol building. If I haven't convinced you yet of the reasons it needed to go, read on. Anyone who disagrees with this bust being removed needs to truly ask themselves why they oppose its removal. Why would anyone oppose the removal of a bust of a man who perhaps more than any historical figure of the Civil War, represents racism, installed in 1978, after the turmoil of the Civil Rights movement, when our nation was moving toward a more equitable society? Why was a former Governor's portrait removed at the request of one Senator, the same man also responsible for the bust? We could ask ourselves why our state allowed the installation of the bust of a Confederate General known to be the first head of the most well known hate group in our nation to be placed in the center of our law making process, but that would be pointless. We are here and now and when I think of our black lawmakers walking past that statue every single day...the image I conjure in my mind is not a pleasant one and brings me great sadness. Forrest had a few (very few) redemptive moments after the Civil War and due to this he was also rejected by many of his peers who favored continued oppression of black people, but his legacy (look up the Fort Pillow massacre) cannot be changed into something palatable which would make him a hero or worthy of representing Tennesseans.


Maybe you oppose the removal of the statue it is because you mistakenly believed it was a very old piece of art. Maybe you oppose its removal because you don't have the understanding of Forrest's history or the details of how it came to be. Maybe all you can see is our Southern Heritage being attacked (we are not attacked until the Yankees try to take our sweet tea). Did you know that the Forrest bust is one of only a handful of such pieces at the Capitol? Among those it houses a monument to former Presidents Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson and also houses the tomb for former President James K. Polk and his wife. Sam Davis and Alvin C. York are two other statues on site. Another more recent monument on the grounds is focused on the Middle Passage and remembers the 400 years of human trafficking of Africans to the United States. So, you see, Forrest is in odd company here (Sam Davis is an interesting addition and his story will follow). Unfortunately, the Forrest bust is not the only piece that gives a nod to an infamous person in our history who was not favorable toward black Tennesseans - the second is Senator Edward Ward Carmack. I will not go into details about Carmack, but feel free to look him up and ask again if this is who we want representing our state, when we have so many other options of notable Tennesseans despite Dolly's thanks but no thanks stance on her own statue.


As a Southerner, I'll be honest, I am constantly frustrated by the rhetoric about how racist Southerners are. I know there is blatant racism, and I am even more sure that racism lurks in many places and many ways that I cannot quite understand, not having experienced that particular form of hate myself. I look at what is happening nationally and am repeatedly stunned that Southern culture is somehow blamed for shootings that happen above the Mason-Dixon line. I am equally as stunned to see white nationalists in Michigan and Wisconsin and Idaho holding Confederate flags as their banners when they most likely have no ties to anything Southern. It doesn't matter that these are people in other parts of the nation, their waving of the Confederate flag ties them to me, to my Southern heritage and in the minds of many Americans makes us responsible for every instance of hate. Recently there was a story on NPR about Confederate flags in Gettysburg. The story went that last summer a black Gettysburg police officer pulled over a white man speeding through town. When he pulled him over he noticed the Confederate flag bumper sticker and asked the man if he was visiting the area (the officer of course, noted the PA license plate). The man said no, he was from the county over. Over and over again, the Southern reliance on slavery over 150 years ago, Jim Crow laws, the history of lynching, and simple perceptions of an entire region of people rears its head and is clutched in the hands of those seeking to spread hate. And then, we have the monuments.

(I believe we took this shot at the Battle of Perryville in Kentucky in 2012. I don't remember getting this close to anyone at Gettysburg!)


I have told people for years that Southerners have tried more than other parts of the nation to move toward equity and equality. We have had to do so. Our legacy forces that upon us. We cannot fully own the brunt of the history of racism in this nation. But, we can own that it happened and acknowledge it still exists.


A few years ago I had the opportunity to work with a nationally renowned expert on bullying in schools. I had a few takeaways that I have realized applies not only to kids but adults as well. One of the biggest is that when bullying is called out it moves "underground", it becomes more subtle. That's what a statue of Forrest in the Tennessee state capitol is. It is a subtle (maybe not so subtle) form of racism. It says that there is a group of people who hold a Confederate general, who is seen by many as the face of the Confederacy, who was responsible for the Fort Hood massacre, that served as the first person to head the Ku Klux Klan in higher esteem than anyone else in our state.


I would like to say that the story ends with our state removing the bust. That is happening. The bust is being retired to the Tennessee State Museum. I have no idea if the bust will be sent to the archives (if you like history you have not lived until you had a private tour of the archives) or be placed on display. But, it was voted to be removed. No. The story ends with current legislation being proposed by Republican members of the Tennessee House to in the future hinder any removal of statues. They are treating the removal of the bust as something that is a new idea. The reality is that people have been attempting to remove this memorial of hate, and that is what it is, for over 40 years.


If you are a Tennessean, especially if you are a conservative, I urge you to look beyond the last four years and understand that while Nathan Bedford Forrest may be part of our heritage, he is not the best part. He is not who we want to represent us as a state, or at least he shouldn't be. I do not want him removed from history - but he should be removed from the Tennessee state capitol building. It is in removing people like him from history that we forget how hate and division can take a foothold on our nation. But, I do want him placed in appropriate context - a historical figure on the losing side of history, a reflection of hate whose cautionary tale is only appropriate for museums and text books and because of that, he only belongs in a museum, perhaps in the archives.


Finally, take a look at Senate Bill 600. Consider letting your representatives know that no one is taking our heritage and preventing the Tennessee Historical Commission from doing its job is not the answer. https://fox17.com/news/local/how-republican-lawmakers-hope-to-change-the-rules-on-removing-monuments-in-tennessee


(Last one. I took this shot at the Pennsylvania Memorial at the Battle of Gettysburg. It had a been a hot day. The rennactment was over and walked around in the Memorial as the sun set.)