General Nathan Bedford Forrest CSA
Born in 1821 in Tennessee, Forrest moved to Mississippi when he was 13.
The "Ku Klux Klan", from the greek "kuklos", ("circle" or "wheel"), was founded in Polaski, Tennessee, in 1866 by 6 Confederate officers. One of them, and the first Imperial Wizard of the KKK, was a former Confederate general and Freemason, Nathan Bedford Forrest
J. Dominguez, M.D.
He ruled the Klan as the undisputed Commander in Chief from 1867 to 1869. In 1869 he firmly believed The Klan had accomplished its Mission and that it would be best to end the Armed Struggle at that time, so he ordered The Ku Klux Klan to disband. When Grand Wizard Forrest ordered the disbandment, some of the Klaverns obeyed the order; others saw fit to disregard it and carry on their Ku Klux activities and activities.
Some accounts accused Forrest of ordering black prisoners to be massacred after a victory at Tennessee's Fort Pillow in 1864, though historians question the validity of the claims.
In 1867, the newly formed Klan elected Forrest its honorary Grand Wizard or national leader, but he publicly denied being involved. In 1869, he ordered the Klan to disband because of the members' increasing violence. Two years later, a congressional investigation concluded his involvement had been limited to his attempt to disband it.
Farewell to the Troops
Gainesville, Ala., May 9, 1865
By an agreement made between Lieutenant-General Taylor, commanding the Department of Alabama, Mississippi and East Louisiana, and Major-General Canby, commanding United States forces, the troops of this department have been surrendered. I do not think it proper or necessary at this time to refer to the causes which have reduced us to this extremity, nor is it now a matter of material consequence as to how such results were brought about. That we are beaten is a self-evident fact, and any other further resistance on our part would be justly regarded as the very height of folly and rashness. The armies of Generals Lee and Johnston have surrendered; you are the last of all troops of the Confederate States Army east of the Mississippi River to lay down your arms. The cause for which you have so long and manfully struggled, and for which you have braved dangers, endured privations and sufferings, and made so many sacrifices, is today hopeless. The government which we sought to establish and perpetuate is at an end. Reason dictates and humanity demands that no more blood be shed. Fully realizing and feeling that such is the case, it is your duty and mine to lay down our arms, to submit to the 'powers that be,' and to aid in restoring peace and establishing law and order throughout the land.
The terms upon which we were surrendered are favorable, and should be satisfactory and acceptable to all. They Manifest a spirit of magnanimity and liberality on the part of the Federal authorities which should be met on our part by a faithful compliance with all the stipulations and conditions therein expressed. As your commander, I sincerely hope that every officer and soldier of my command will cheerfully obey the orders given, and carry out in good faith all the terms of the cartel.
Those who neglect the terms and refuse to be paroled may assuredly expect when arrested to be sent North and imprisoned. Let those who are absent from their commands, from whatever cause, report at once to this place, or to Jackson, Miss., or, if too remote from either, to the nearest United States post or garrison, for parole. Civil war, such as you have just passed through, naturally engenders feelings of animosity, hatred and revenge. It is our duty to divest ourselves of all bitter feelings, and, so far as it is in our power to do so, to cultivate friendly sentiments toward those with whom we have so long contested and heretofore so widely but honestly differed. Neighborhood feuds, personal animosities and private differences should be blotted out and when you return home a manly, straightforward course of conduct will secure the respect even of your enemies. Whatever your responsibilities may be to government, to society, or to individuals, meet them like men. The attempt made to establish a separate and independent confederation has failed, but the consciousness of having done your duty faithfully and to the end will in some measure repay you for the hardships you have undergone.
In bidding you farewell, rest assured that you carry with you my best wishes for your future welfare and happiness. Without in any way referring to the merits of the cause in which we have been engaged, your courage and determination, as exhibited on many hard fought fields, has elicited the respect and admiration of friend and foe. And I now cheerfully and gratefully acknowledge my indebtedness to the officers and men of my command, whose zeal, fidelity and unflinching bravery have been the great source of my past success in arms. I have never on the field of battle sent you where I was unwilling to go myself, nor would I now advise you to a course which I felt myself unwilling to pursue. You have been good Soldiers; you can be good citizens. Obey the laws, preserve your honor, and the government to which you have surrendered can afford to be and will be magnanimous.
N. B. FORREST, Lieutenant-General.
Nathan Bedford Forrest
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The Confederacy's Greatest Cavalryman: Nathan Bedford Forrest
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Forrest and his 10 siblings grew up well beyond the edge of the civilized world, in a two-room cabin in the middle of Tennessee. His father was a blacksmith and subsistence farmer, his mother a virtual giantess at six feet. Forrest survived the typhoid that killed half his siblings, including his twin, and at 21 left home to become a planter and slave trader in Memphis. He soon became one of the wealthiest men in the South. In 1861, when he was 40 years old, Tennessee seceded from the Union. The survival of the South, and of Forrest's livelihood, were suddenly thrown into doubt, and Forrest joined the Confederate Army.
His violent temper was perfected in the theater of war: he immediately distinguished himself as a natural military genius. Sherman confessed to being perpetually flummoxed by Forrest's feral cunning and exhausted by his energy. In his first engagement, in Kentucky, Forrest defeated a Union force twice the size of his own. In subsequent battles, he took on and defeated, time and again, larger, better-equipped, and more thoroughly trained forces, often by dint of subterfuge and deceit — more than once he tricked Union commanders into surrendering to his smaller force — but just as often by ferocity and shrewdness. He fought alongside his troops, and by the end of the war had personally killed 30 enemy soldiers. His own horses fared only a little better. He had 29 shot from underneath him, sometimes one within minutes of its ill-fated successor. He was wounded four times, two bullets coming to rest near his spine.
In the spring of 1864, low on provisions, Forrest attacked and captured Fort Pillow, a garrison north of Memphis. The incident became perhaps the most controversial military action in the Civil War, as Forrest had at his command more than twice as many soldiers as were occupying the fort, about half of whom were recently freed slaves. Surrounded and outnumbered, the Union forces declined to surrender, and, typically, Forrest was ruthless. His men overran Fort Pillow, taking few prisoners. The Union called the battle a massacre. Forrest would later appear before Congress to defend himself against charges of war crimes, and though he was found not guilty, he was known to many, for the rest of his life, as the Butcher of Fort Pillow.
Post-War Years in Tennessee
Meanwhile, in Pulaski, Tennessee, six Confederate veterans had formed, as a lark, a secret society that they whimsically dubbed the Ku Klux Klan (from the Greek word for circle, kuklos — they evidently liked the mystical ring of the alliterated k's.) At first, the six men and their recruits undertook non-violent, theatrical stunts to frighten back into line the freed slaves just beginning to assert their new rights. But soon enough, more men joined the KKK and, as Republican efforts to rehabilitate Southern society grew more concerted, the KKK became a violent, marauding organization whose individual "dens" answered to no centralized authority. Society was changing quickly, and the KKK was trying to slow the pace. Bodies of freedmen, their white supporters, and Republicans began to litter the roadside.
It was at about this time that Forrest, learning of the KKK, expressed a desire to join. The eminent recruit was elected grand wizard, the Klan's highest official, and tried to bring the rapidly multiplying dens under a centralized authority — his own. Forrest probably did not object to the violence, per se, as a means of restoring the pre-war hierarchy, but as a military man, he deplored the lack of discipline and structure that defined the growing KKK. In its methods and aims, the KKK was merely the avenging ghost of the Confederate army. To Forrest's dismay, though, it was not an army that he could command.
After only a year as Grand Wizard, in January 1869, faced with an ungovernable membership employing methods that seemed increasingly counterproductive, Forrest issued KKK General Order Number One: "It is therefore ordered and decreed, that the masks and costumes of this Order be entirely abolished and destroyed." By the end of his life, Forrest's racial attitudes would evolve — in 1875, he advocated for the admission of blacks into law school — and he lived to fully renounce his involvement with the all-but-vanished Klan. A new, different, and much worse Klan would emerge, 35 years after Forrest's death, in the wake of D.W. Griffith's revolutionary 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, a reactionary screed with a racialist brief that had been expanded to include Catholics and immigrants of all kinds. The second Klan was never restricted to the South; its goals had nothing to do with Forrest's vision of a restored Dixie.
Nathan Bedford Forrest was a product of a divided society in which acts of racism were often considered good Christian behavior. He always suffered from a wild temper, bullied his subordinates and even his commanding officers, and was extremely violent. He grew up impoverished to a degree that few of us can imagine, and by ruthlessness and hard work rose to become one of the four or five most important actors in the American Civil War. Contemporary critics complained that he was ungallant, uncouth, and uneducated, not a grand Southern gentleman such as Robert E. Lee. Forrest himself would not have argued the point. But as a military mind and as a cultural artifact, Forrest is indispensable to a full understanding of the period.
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