In early April, 1865, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. As a technical matter, the war raged on for more than a year, but as a practical matter, it was over. The North had won, the Union preserved (kind of), and the long march toward reimagining the United States without slavery began.
This reality was just too much for many – including Nathan Bedford Forrest. In a world full of absolutely ruthless, horrid human beings, Forrest spent his life jockeying to be chief among them. We’ll get to know more about him in a bit, but for now just know that as the nation ratified the 13th Amendment, traitors who were shown mercy and allowed to go home would begin a reign of terror by founding the Ku Klux Klan. On Christmas Eve, 1865, they began. Their first “grand wizard” would be Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Forrest was one of more than a dozen children born to a poor Tennessee family. His father died in 1837, when Forrest turned 16. Shortly thereafter, his mother remarried, and Forrest set out to make his mark and his fortune. He did so by trading in cotton, horses, cattle, real estate – and most significantly - in human beings. While there is no such thing as a good slave trader, he must be counted as among the absolute worst (let’s just say, the cruelty was the point.) Indeed, he advocated re-introducing the trans-Atlantic slave trade and profited from an illegal mid-19th Century slave ship called The Wanderer from which he sold nearly 40 people. He was mild mannered until angered, at which point he would explode into a rage. He was literate, but just barely so. He refrained from using either tobacco or liquor. Money was more important than anything else in the world to him. He sounds so eerily familiar today.
Although he had no formal education or military training, when the Civil War broke out, he enlisted, but quickly outfitted an entire regiment with his own money; he would eventually be promoted to the rank of Lt. General. He became a skilled soldier and cavalryman and he fought in many battles including Shiloh, Murfreesboro, and Chickamauga. Perhaps his most notorious escapade is not so much a battle as it was a massacre.
About half of the Union troops at Fort Pillow were black men in 1864. When the Confederates arrived, Forrest expected a surrender which is what ultimately occurred. However, as the Union troops realized they could not defend the fort and surrendered, Forrest’s troops opened fire – and not just fire. The accounts are spine chilling – the Union troops black and white, but mostly black - were subjected to a brutality beyond imagining. One of Forrest’s own men recounted,
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. The white men fared but little better. Their fort turned out to be a great slaughter pen. Blood, human blood stood about in pools and brains could have been gathered up in any quantity. - Achilles Clark, a Confederate soldier with the 20th Tennessee Cavalry
Those who survived were boarded upon a ship and sent further South. There are no reliable records of their fates. Even though Forrest and his men committed these atrocities (even at the time considered war crimes) on troops who had surrendered – he would argue that the fate of, particularly the black troops, demonstrated that black soldiers just do not fight very well - and the North should stop recruiting them.
After the war ended and the victorious Union outlawed slavery, Forrest tried different ventures and failed at most. Turns out the only thing he was genuinely good at was separating families and subjecting human beings to auction and a lifetime of bondage. After several setbacks, he ultimately ran a farm. Well, fact-check that. He purchased a farm and then used prison labor – almost exclusively black men – to labor in the fields for no pay and then profited from their work.
At the same time, he was an early member of a secret society espousing “white supremacy” and hell bent on undoing every positive effort of Reconstruction, particularly by terrorizing black people. Affiliated chapters of these terrorists, who demonstrated that they knew they were breaking laws and intimidating valid voters because they wore costumes and masks to obscure their identities, called themselves the Ku Klux Klan. Within two years, Forrest would become its first grand wizard. In 1869, he ordered the Klan dissolved. By then, they had successfully managed to intimidate the bulk of black and Republican voters and the federal government began enforcing anti-Klan laws. Of course, the Klan did not disband; its members continued on as a hate group.
Although considered a “war hero” by those who believe in treason and the Lost Cause of the Civil War, Forrest was honored and memorialized with parks and schools and buildings and statues and even his own day in Tennessee. In the end, he was nothing more than a coward. He profited from human trafficking, he spent his fortune on arming traitors who rose up in insurrection and rebellion against the United States, he then was in command when they committed war crimes against surrendered troops, he could not accept defeat and then sought to interfere with Reconstruction by placing entire populations in fear for their lives and their liberties (tragically, he was largely successful in this endeavor), he testified before Congress about the KKK and denied his membership in the organization despite evidence that he was their leader. Brave on the battlefield, but in real life, he was afraid.
In a particularly Lee Atwater-like move – shortly before he died, he spoke before a black crowd. He did not exactly apologize for being one of the worst people ever to set foot on US soil. Instead, he encouraged black folks – recently emancipated black folks who had spent generations of their lives working themselves to the bone for other people’s benefit – to "work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly". Who was he – who had been none of those things – to give this speech? The kicker came next, when he declared, "when you are oppressed, I'll come to your relief". Which, of course, he never did.
December 24 is so often associated with peace and joy and kindness toward others. Sadly, it is also the date chosen by the first members of the KKK to organize and begin their crusade while dreaming of a very white Christmas.