I grew up in Eva, Tennessee….on land that was just down the road from Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park. Forrest has, of course, become an icon for Neo-Confederates (e.g., “I Ride With Forrest” bumper stickers), hate groups (he was the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan) and many Tennesseeans in general (there are more historical plaques to NBF in Tennessee than there are to any other single historical figure in all of America). For those who revere him, Forrest is known for his guerrilla tactics–he was one of the first to grasp the doctrines of modern “mobile warfare” that became prevalent in the 20th century. In our historical memories he embodies the image of the renegade rebel, charging into the fray and using unorthodox tactics to win the day.
Others, such as myself, are critical of Forrest–pointing toward historical items such as the controversial Battle of Fort Pillow (also now a TN State Park) on April 12, 1864 (depicted on the right in an 1892 Kurz & Allison print, click on the image for a larger version). In that battle, Forrest demanded unconditional surrender, or else he would “put every man to the sword.” The battle’s details remain disputed and controversial to this day…But what is known is that Forrest’s men stormed the lightly guarded fort, inflicting heavy casualties on its defenders who quickly fell into disarray as the Union command collapsed. Some alleged that the Confederates targeted several hundred African-American soldiers inside the fort, although one battle account says the killing was indiscriminate. Only 80 out of approximately 262 blacks survived the battle, however. After the battle, reports surfaced of captured solders being subjected to brutality, including allegations that they were crucified on tent frames and burnt alive. Whether or not these reports are accurate will probably never be known for certain as both sides used the battle as a political rallying cry and were prone to casting events through their own interpretive lenses.
The fact that I grew up next to NBF State Park probably has something to do with why my anthropological work has centered around race in the nineteenth century…..at any rate, back to why I’m telling you all of this…
Forrest has been associated with Bedford County (TN), Memphis (TN), Hernando (MS), and various other places, but he never lived anywhere near my hometown….so why is it the home of NBF State Park? On this day (Nov. 4th) in 1864, Forrest subjected a Union supply base at Johnsonville, Tennessee, to a devastating artillery barrage that destroyed millions of dollars in materiel. The History Channel describes it like this:
This action was part of a continuing effort by the Confederates to disrupt the Federal lines that supplied Sherman’s army in Georgia. In the summer of 1864, Sherman captured Atlanta, and by November he was planning his march across Georgia. Meanwhile, the defeated Confederates hoped that destroying his line would draw Sherman out of the Deep South.
In the fall, Forrest mounted an ambitious raid on Union supply routes in western Tennessee and Kentucky. Johnsonville was an important transfer point from boats on the Tennessee River to a rail line that connected with Nashville to the east. When Sherman sent part of his army back to Nashville to protect his supply lines, Forrest hoped to apply pressure to that force. Forrest began moving part of his force to Johnsonville on October 16, but most of his men were not in place until early November. Incredibly, the Union forces, which numbered about 2,000, seem to have been completely unaware of the Confederates just across the river. Forrest brought up artillery and began a barrage at 2 p.m. on November 5. The attack was devastating. One observer noted, “The wharf for nearly one mile up and down the river presented one solid sheet of flame.” More than $6 million worth of supplies were destroyed, along with four gunboats, 14 transports, and 20 barges.
The Battle of Johnsonville may not be a part of larger, popular historical narrative(s) about the Civil War, but Forrest is. The American Civil War has never receded into the remote past…It is a point of national trauma, carnage, and emancipation. At the same time, the Civil War is, through historical memory, at the nexus of American national identity, reconciliation and, unfortunately, continued racism and nostalgia for a past that never was. It divides many of us to this day (take, for instance, the current fights over the Confederate battle flag that is incorporated into many state flags throughout the South). In this vein, Jonathan Gianos-Steinberg tells us that “[s]tudying the historiography and social perception of Confederate Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford since the 1860s offers scholars a chance to comprehensively analyze how social undercurrents and memory shape historiography.” Want to know more? Check out Jonathan Gianos-Steinberg’s Assessing Civil War Historiography and Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Place in It (May 12, 2005)