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For much of the last decade, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) has been roiled by an internal civil war between racial extremists and those who want to keep the Southern heritage group a kind of history and genealogy club.
It’s beginning to look like the racists won.
First came the news, originally reported on this blog last August, that the SCV was planning a Feb. 19 march down Dexter Avenue here in Montgomery, Ala., to “CELEBRATE THE BEGINNING OF THE CONFEDERACY” and ensure that it “is remembered and portrayed in the right way.” What the SCV meant by “the right way” was made obvious by its website promoting the event, which insists that “the South was right!” and claims that “there is no difference between the invasion of France by Hitler and the invasion of the Southern states by Lincoln.”
And now, from the Mississippi Division of the SCV, comes this new gem: The group wants the state to issue a special license plate, keyed like the Montgomery march to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, to honor Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest — a millionaire Memphis slave trader before the war, an apparent war criminal who presided over the massacre of surrendering black prisoners at Fort Pillow, Tenn., during it, and the first national leader of the Ku Klux Klan afterward, when the Klan’s terrorist violence paved the way to a Jim Crow South.
Neo-Confederate apologists in the SCV and elsewhere claim that Forrest has been mischaracterized, that he was a good man who disbanded the Klan when it became violent. Mississippi SCV member Greg Stewart told The Associated Press that Forrest had sought “Christian redemption” and ultimately rejected the Klan. “He redeemed himself in his own time,” he said. “We should respect that.”
That is false. Forrest, for all the fawning attention he’s received from the historical revisionists of the neo-Confederate movement, was certainly a brilliant and highly successful cavalry general — but he was also a homicidal bully.
Before the war, according to a newspaper account at the time, he was known for personally bullwhipping slaves who were held stretched out in the air by four other slaves. Women slaves were reportedly stripped naked and whipped with a leather thong dipped in salt. Former slaves later backed up these accounts.
In 1864, Forrest demanded the surrender of 580 mostly black troops at Fort Pillow, warning them that otherwise, “I cannot be responsible for your fate,” even as he stealthily and illegally improved his position during negotiations under the white flag. Then, when the Union commander refused, Forrest unleashed his men. “The slaughter was awful,” an appalled Confederate sergeant later wrote his family. “I with several others tried to stop the butchery and at one time partially succeeded, but Gen. Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs, and the carnage continued.” Numerous surviving Union soldiers reported hearing Confederate officers saying that Forrest had ordered them to “kill the last God damn one of them.”
Forrest was known for personally executing deserters or Confederates who fled the field. As the war came to a close, he came upon a father and son near Selma, Ala., and decided they were deserters. He ordered them shot and their bodies left out for two days before burial with a sign, “Shot for desertion,” hung above them. Several days later, it emerged that the pair had, in fact, been entirely innocent.
After the war, even as former Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was urging fellow Southerners to “promote harmony and good will” in the reborn Union, Forrest initiated hard-line resistance to Reconstruction and secretly became the Klan’s first national leader. It is false that he disbanded the Klan because it became violent. In fact, Forrest disbanded the Klan — after lying to Congress about his membership — only after its work was done and it had come under severe criticism. Klan terrorism had by then already made it impossible for blacks and Republicans to vote.
Both the Montgomery march and the Mississippi license plate request are part of a whole series of events planned by the SCV to commemorate the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Civil War. None of them give so much as a nod to the horrors of slavery or to the civil rights movement that finally liberated the South a century later — and, in fact, the Montgomery neo-Confederate parade, in a particularly ugly and unmentioned irony, follows the same route as the end of the famous 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march led by Martin Luther King Jr.
None of this is much of a surprise if you take a look at the national SCV website promoting the series of events, including the Montgomery march, that are meant to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. There, a series of writers attempt to make the case that slavery had nothing to do with the war, another utter falsehood. In fact, as virtually all serious historians agree, the South seceded because it became obvious that Congress would not allow the extension of slavery to the new Western territories, threatening the slave lobby’s dominance. The Texas Declaration of the Causes of Secession, for example, said plainly that the free states were “proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality for all men, irrespective of race or color,” and added that blacks were “rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race.” Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, said as much in his infamous 1861 “Cornerstone” speech: “Our new Government is founded on exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and moral condition.”
But these historical facts are of no interest to the SCV. Instead, while most Americans remember the bloodiest war in American history as the nation’s most trying moment, the SCV is busy promoting a Southern past that never was.