By Colin Woodward
I was in Memphis for the first time back in late May. I visited for a rock concert, but it wasn’t hard to stumble upon Civil War history. About a block from where I stayed were markers along the Mississippi River discussing the fall of Memphis in 1862, which allowed the Federals to get ever closer to Vicksburg.
In the park was a monument to Jefferson Davis. No one other than me seemed too interested in that. But at night, the place was well traveled by people in horse drawn carriages decked with lights. It was a nice spot, Rebs or no Rebs.
While trying to find the road to Sun Studios, which commemorates a decidedly more pleasant time in Memphis’ history, we drove past Forrest Park, named after Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the most brilliant and infamous commanders of the war. William T. Sherman, who knew something about ruthlessness, called him “that devil Forrest,” for his daring and brilliant cavalry raids and all around harassment of Union columns.
African Americans fared poorly at Forrest’s hands–first as the slaves that he owned and traded before the war and later as victims of Forrest’s men who vowed no quarter at Fort Pillow and Tishomingo Creek. In his defense, did Forrest do more harm than a more “genteel” man like Robert E. Lee? It’s a subject for historical if not philosophical debate. More to the point is whether or not a man like Forrest should be honored by heritage groups.
Granted, it was Sunday morning and quiet, but I couldn’t help feel like there was some seriously bad karma about Forrest Park. I suppose Forrest Park could be a Mecca for Lost Cause defenders. But on the day I visited, other than my wife and I, there were only two people in the park–and they certainly were not there to take pictures for a blog.
The statue of Forrest in the park, ironically, faces Union Avenue. And we can be thankful there isn’t a Confederate flag anywhere to further heighten the irony.
Once we got to Sun Studios, things felt better. There were a lot more people seeing where Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis got their start than were interested in looking at Forrest’s statue. The first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan just doesn’t draw like he used to. Elvis, however, still packs ’em in. Even so, Forrest is important, if only to remind us of how far the South has come. The general was a native of Memphis–he died there in 1877–and was a major figure in the Civil War in Tennessee.
The historical markers at Forrest Park were erected by the Nathan Bedford Forrest Camp 215 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who obviously have an interest in maintaining the general’s legacy. The markers are the first I’ve ever seen that have writing on the front and back. I guess the SCV had a lot to say. Another marker at the park discusses Forrest’s great grandson, Nathan Bedford Forrest, III, a general during World War II and was killed during a bombing mission in Europe. Forrest, III, however, is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Union or Reb, the Forrests like to fight.
On our return home, we stopped in Forrest City, Arkansas, to gas up. The city is named after Nathan Bedford Forrest. The city, just like Memphis, is majority African American.
Since Forrest has been dead for 135 years, it might be time to rename the city. The soul singer Al Green was born there. Green City, Arkansas, has a nice ring to it. Al Sang “Let’s Stay Together” (featured in Pulp Fiction) which is much more pleasant than anything General Forrest ever said.
Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.