Multiple Facets to Debate Over Removal of Controversial Confederate General’s Bust from Capitol

A high-ranking Tennessee lawmaker who sponsored a 2013 law prohibiting removal of war-related monuments and memorials from public property opposes calls to get a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest out of the Statehouse.

Steve McDaniel, a Republican from Parkers Crossroads who serves as deputy speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives, said Forrest is a notable figure in the state’s history, and the monument should remain where it is now, so that visitors to the Capitol can see it and “react” to it.

McDaniel said the basic purpose of the “Tennessee Heritage Protection Act” that he, along with Senate GOP Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron, sponsored two years ago is to preserve articles of historical remembrance. The law itself was passed as a reaction to the the city of Memphis renaming a local park named after Nathan Bedford Forrest.

“It is there and it is part of our history — it is part of our Tennessee history and it is part of our national history,” McDaniel, who also chairs the House Ethics Committee, said of the Forrest bust at the Capitol in Nashville.

Steve McDaniel, square picIf items that commemorate people and episodes of history are removed because of contemporary political pressures, “we will start forgetting what our history is about, what happened,” said McDaniel, whose bio on the Tennessee General Assembly’s website says that his “interests include southern historic preservation.”

But a number of prominent Tennessee politicians of both partisan persuasions have indicated they in fact support banishing the bust. Their ranks include Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who in 2013 signed the “Tennessee Heritage Protection Act.” That law won approval in the GOP-dominated Legislature on vote tallies of 69-22 in the House and 26-3 in the Senate.

heritage protection actThe Heritage Protection Act contains different sections covering different types of monuments — and there may be some legal ambiguity, for example, as to whether the NBF bust constitutes a memorial to “the War Between the States,” or rather if it is a statue or monument to a “historical military figure.”

McDaniel acknowledged there may be some unintended uncertainty in the way the law is written regarding whether the Tennessee Historical Commission has authority to order the bust removed under a “waiver” provision in the statute. McDaniel said his “intent,” however, was that such decisions must come before the full Legislature.

Democrats generally opposed the Heritage Protection Act when it was up in the Legislature, particularly in the House.

McDaniel drew ire from minority-party and legislative Black Caucus members when he refused to add amendment language to the measure protecting monuments dedicated to 1960s Civil Rights Movement leaders and events. McDaniel said during floor debate at the time that he wanted to keep the measure “narrowed to Tennessee’s military history.”

In wake of the mass-homicide attack last week by a 21-year-old white gunman, apparently motivated by murderous racial animus, that left nine people slain at a black church in Charleston, S.C., there has been a political clamor across the South to purge symbols associated with the Confederacy from public spaces.

In several states, debate has centered around the Confederate flag. In Tennessee, outrage has focused more on commemorations of Forrest — the bust at the Capitol, a statue of the Confederate military commander on private property but highly visible along I-65 in Nashville, and the Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park in Benton County.

Hero or Hatemonger?

According to the online edition of The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, Nathan Bedford Forrest “established a reputation as one of the greatest cavalry generals of the Civil War.” He is described as “one of the finest Confederate cavalry commanders and one of the foremost military figures produced by the state of Tennessee.”

“(Forrest’s) ferocity as a warrior was almost legendary. His claim to have slain one more enemy soldiers in personal combat than the twenty-nine horses killed beneath him only added to the legend. Forrest understood, perhaps better than most, the basic premise of war: ‘War means fighting and fighting means killing’,” reports his entry in the Tennessee Encyclopedia, which is a joint project of the Tennessee Historical Society and the University of Tennessee Press.

“Despite a mere six months of formal education, Forrest rose from semi-subsistence to planter status, acquiring substantial property and wealth, largely through the slave trade,” it says of his pre-war years.

Also noted are two of the most controversial — some would argue notorious — aspects of his legacy.

Nathan Bedford Forrest portrait“Promoted to major general on December 4, 1863, Forrest conducted raids against Federal communications and supply lines in Tennessee. In April 1864 he captured Fort Pillow, north of Memphis. In the latter stages of that battle, Forrest lost control of his men. As members of the black and Tennessee Unionist garrison attempted to surrender, an act for which they should have been spared, some of Forrest’s men fired on them. Of the fort’s 585-605 men, between 277 and 297 were killed; 64 percent of these were U.S. Colored Troops. Charges of a ‘Fort Pillow Massacre’ became grist for Northern propaganda mills during the war and plagued Forrest for the remainder of his life.”

After the war, Forrest “embraced the Ku Klux Klan, assuming the role of the first Grand Wizard of the secret organization,” according to the Tennessee Encyclopedia.

“Through it he sought to restore white conservative Democrats to power. Even so, he never completely adjusted to the new realities of the postwar South,” the NBF entry continues. “In the 1870s Forrest’s health began to fail, and he died in Memphis on October 29, 1877.

Bipartisan Agreement: NBF Doesn’t Belong in Capitol

Present-day Democrats are among those leading the charge to erase Forrest’s name and likeness from government-owned property.

In a statement to the Tennessean, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, a Democrat and former state lawmaker, wrote, “Symbols of hate should not be promoted by government. South Carolina should remove the Confederate battle flag from its Capitol, and Tennessee should remove the bust of Forrest inside our Capitol.” In the same article, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, was quoted saying that “our Capitol should be representative of the people of Tennessee.” Fitzhugh said he believes more commemoration of women and African Americans is in order.

“Only those that represent the very best of Tennessee should be afforded such recognition in the halls of state government,” Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro of Nashville said in a statement Wednesday. “We can’t and shouldn’t sanitize our history, but we do have a choice about which individuals we honor and elevate as models to school groups touring the Capitol.”

A statement Wednesday from Tennessee’s 17-member Black Caucus of State Legislators, all of whom are Democrats, demanded “the removal of a bust of Confederate General and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest from the state capitol.”

The Black Caucus “fully supports the growing movement to remove racist symbols from places of prominence across the country,” read the statement, which added: “Since the tragic murder of nine African-American church members in South Carolina last week, a national debate has re-ignited about the appropriateness of these symbols being displayed, particularly the Confederate flag that currently flies in front of the South Carolina statehouse.”

Republicans lawmakers are voicing discontent with the NBF bust as well.

Tennessee House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga sent a letter to the State Capitol Commission Tuesday declaring, “In light of recent events, I feel it is appropriate to reevaluate the current placement of the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest in our State Capitol.”

“Nathan Bedford Forrest’s military prowess and exploits in the Civil War have been well-documented,” wrote McCormick. “However, his background as a slave trader and a founding member of the Ku Klux Klan overshadows his contribution to our state’s history in the minds of many. Certainly, we should attempt to find the proper balance between honoring his military accomplishments versus his less positive attributes.”

haslam and gerald mccormick 2015McCormick is seeking “a recommendation from the Capitol Commission that Nathan Bedford Forrest’s bust be removed from its current location in our Capitol and be turned over to the Tennessee Historical Commission for an appropriate placement, perhaps in a Civil War setting in which his military service can be put in the proper perspective.”

“I realize that this is a passionate topic,” McCormick concluded. “I look forward to discussing this matter with each of you in a way that will reflect positively on our state at the next Capitol Commission meeting.”

McDaniel: Whitewashing History Wrong

A member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans who is active as a Civil War battlefield preservationist, McDaniel takes a more charitable view of Forrest than critics of the Capitol bust.

He called Forrest “a military genius.”

“That is the reason I admire him,” McDaniel said, adding that Forrest “is still studied today when you look at military tactics, his tactics are studied by our modern-day military.”

McDaniel said that “generally speaking” he regards Nathan Bedford Forrest as an honorable figure in the history of the American South. “You have to look at a person like him in the context of his time,” McDaniel said. “None of us today would ever condone slavery, but that was a different day and a different time. And so you have to do the best you can to judge someone in their time frame of when they lived.”

McDaniel said Forrest was cleared of allegations he committed what amounted to war crimes at Fort Pillow, and that his association with the KKK is somewhat misunderstood today.

“He was not a founder of the Klan” said McDaniel. “They founded the Klan and then placed the honor of being the top person — they asked Forrest to be the first grand wizard, which he accepted because of what they initially stood for. But he saw that they were not standing for the principles that he believed in, so he resigned and disbanded the Klan. And of course the Klan has come back many times, and most of the time they are waving the Confederate flag. And so those that appreciate history think that is very unfortunate that people have abused the intent of the Confederate flag.”

McDaniel noted that he draws a distinction between the debate over Nathan Bedford Forrest in Tennessee and controversies boiling with respect to the Confederate flag. “I wouldn’t be a proponent of flying the Confederate battle flag over any government building,” he said.

McDaniel said he does not oppose removing the bust on the grounds that any honest examination of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s life must necessarily prove he was a noble man. Rather, McDaniel said he thinks people should be free to draw their own conclusions and form their own opinions about him.

“If the Forrest bust is not there, then we remove part of history and people won’t have an opportunity to react one way or the other,” he said.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, sent a letter of his own to the Capitol Commission Wednesday urging the members “to begin the process of evaluating the characteristics of Tennesseans who should be honored in the Capitol Complex.”

Ramsey’s letter didn’t mention Nathan Bedford Forrest by name, but noted that “(t)hose honored in the Capitol should be those who accurately reflect the historic accomplishments of the Volunteer State and its people.”

“Under state law, the Tennessee State Capitol Commission is given the power to develop a master plan for the capitol building and its grounds and to determine its furnishings,” wrote Ramsey. “As such, we are writing to encourage you to begin the process of evaluating the characteristics of Tennesseans who should be honored in the Capitol Complex.”