Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest was no more a devil than you or I.  He was an arresting character, a powerful leader of men, and one of those natural-born military geniuses who appear from time to time in history, which is not the same thing as a devil.  The “devil” label was given to him by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who hoped to have Forrest murdered.  We have to remember that anyone who gets in the way of a Puritan, even an atheist Puritan like Sherman, is by definition a servant of the devil.

It is said that after the war an Englishman asked General Lee who was the greatest soldier produced by the late gigantic conflict in America.  Lee replied without hesitation that it was a gentleman in Tennessee whom he had never met—General Forrest.  Sherman agreed with the assessment.  Forrest’s repeated astounding successes in pitting meager resources with skill and daring against superior forces resemble those of Washington and Andrew Jackson, likewise military amateurs, although Forrest’s accomplishments were on a much larger scale.  The citizen-general who could achieve victory with an economy of resources used to be an honored American type but has long since been replaced by the Grant model of a professional manager who marshals overwhelming materiel against an outnumbered enemy.

Several of the reviewers of Bell’s strange novel think, it seems, that Forrest is not only a devil but a “mystery.”  Forrest is a mystery no more than any other human creature.  What they mean by “mystery” is that Forrest is to them an alien and threatening figure, and that he seems to exhibit inconsistencies.  And that tells us that they have a superficial concept of American history.  The inconsistencies are entirely in the eyes of the beholder.  To the contrary, they don’t make ’em any more basically American than Bedford Forrest.

Forrest is very much like Washington and Jackson, a self-made man whose character was formed by the challenges of the western thrust of the South and who entered history leading volunteers against an invader.  Both Andrew Jackson and Forrest were products of what used to be a well-known phase of American history—the Old Southwest.  The only difference between Forrest and Andrew Jackson is that Forrest came along two generations later, when the political context had shifted.  The mollycoddle version of American history simply can’t absorb the fact that black slavery was an accepted everyday custom of American life for nearly everybody for a long, long time and was an integral part of the westward movement.  True, Forrest was a trader, but Washington and Jackson occasionally did a little buying and selling themselves.

It is a commonplace deceit in telling the American story that Southerners who are liked are called Westerners.  If you like Texas, it is Western.  If you hate it, it’s Southern.  Likewise Andrew Jackson.  If you like the music of white Southerners, you call it “country and Western.”  If you don’t like it, you call it “hillbilly,” although its creative geniuses come from every part of the South, not just the hills.  Several writers recently have made a name for themselves by declaring that Southern military virtues are not Southern but “Celtic,” whatever that means.  As if the label made any difference to the blood, sweat, and tears of the real Southern frontier, of which nothing can be more American or central to our history.

Besides slavery, another reason we can’t see the close resemblance between Jackson and Forrest is that the busy pen of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., M.A., has made a fixture of historiography the absurd tale that “Jacksonian democracy” was somehow the creation of Massachusetts intellectuals and New York political operatives, and a forecast of the New Deal.  Schlesinger’s mission has been carried forward very ably in the works of Robert Remini, perhaps the most celebrated recent superficial historian of the Jackson period.  Another commonplace error is to present Andrew Jackson as a stalwart defender of the Union, like Lincoln.  True, Andrew Jackson loved the Union.  So did John C. Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, and Robert E. Lee.  He also hated abolitionists, bankers, and Whigs.  To assume that Jackson would have agreed with Lincoln’s new version of the Union against neighbors, kinfolk, and supporters under the circumstances of 1861 is ridiculous.

In Devil’s Dream Forrest is presumably the intended devil, which is undoubtedly pleasing to those who expect nothing less.  But the dreamer, as far as I can tell, is not Forrest but his supposed half-black son.  And the dream is not a dream, but more like a vision or a visitation or a haunting or some such thing.  I am willing to grant that it may be my fault, but I could not make much sense out of the novel.  Nor can I discern what relationship the book has to the well-known bluegrass tune of the same title.

The fictional Forrest has a long-term black mistress and a mixed-blood son who rides to war with the rest of the Forrest brothers and sons and is killed.  I have no idea whether any of this is based on fact.  It is in the realm of possibility, but I do not know what evidence there may be for it.  Knowing something about the beauty and strong character of Mrs. Forrest, the only person who could ever give the general orders, I rather doubt it.  Be that as it may, the book seems to me to fail both as history and as novel.  From the prominent and complimentary reviews, however, it has already succeeded where the literary bread is buttered.

Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Redemption is not a novel, it is not hostile to its subject, and it relates Forrest’s life with reasonable historical competence, bringing out some previously neglected material.  But it too adapts history to serve current notions, and therefore distorts it.  The author is a Baptist minister who has discovered that Forrest late in life became a professing Christian.  Unlike many other Confederates he was not driven to faith during the war, remarking that there were too many “unholy matters” to be faced.  Note Forrest’s honesty and acceptance of responsibility: “War means fighting, and fighting means killing.”  Compare with Sherman: “War is Hell.”  (I didn’t burn out all those women and children.  It was War that did it.)

Late in life Forrest publicly held out a hand of friendship and cooperation to black people.  The author wants to suggest that Forrest’s conversion and outreach to the freedmen somehow makes him acceptable as a modern antiracist, whatever that may be.  This is a major misunderstanding of context.  Forrest is not in need of such presentistic redemption.  His welcoming of black aspirations was common among Southern leaders in the 1870’s.  Wade Hampton in South Carolina and others took a similar stand, based on the simple understanding that Southern black and white people would have to live together after the occupier had tired of his fool’s errand and departed, just as they had before he arrived.  The stand had nothing to do with religious conversion and does not indicate an embrace of modern attitudes.  Southerners knew their Bible well and knew that Scripture did not consider the status of a master in itself a sin—though being a bad master (or a bad servant) was evidence of a sinful disposition.

Forrest’s reach across the color line had its true source in the paternalism and the close relations of races in the Old South, not in any late-life conversion to liberal attitudes.  Forrest had been known as a good master.  He took 50 of his black men to war with him as teamsters and cooks and promised them freedom if they served faithfully.  Subsequently, he signed 49 emancipation papers.  If Forrest had truly moved toward the “modern” attitude of his own time—the attitude of progressive Northerners—he would have regarded the black people as an alien presence in the United States and wished for their disappearance.  This was certainly the feeling of Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, and most Northerners until they discovered the usefulness of blacks as targets in place of whites and of black voters in controlling the South.  It was because of old ties, and not a new attitude, that hundreds of black people attended Forrest’s funeral, while they were barred from Lincoln’s.

By the way, Forrest’s men did not commit a “massacre” at Fort Pillow.  Anyone willing to study the evidence closely will know that, even though “massacre” has become fixed as an historical “fact.”  If the behavior of the two sides had been reversed, we would hear how treacherous Southerners had provoked just retaliation, which Union soldiers had administered with their usual humanitarian restraint.  Americans should consider some time how many whoppers are needed to sustain the righteousness of the Republican Party’s invasion and conquest of the Southern States: Lincoln was a pious Christian who loved his mother and poor people and was forced into war against his will; Southern prison camps were worse than Northern; General Sherman did not really burn Columbia; the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves; Northern soldiers were benevolent toward black people; ad infinitum.


[Devil’s Dream: A Novel About Nathan Bedford Forrest,  by Madison Smartt Bell (New York: Pantheon Books) 352 pp., $26.95]

[Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Redemption,  by Shane E. Kastler (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Co.) 177 pp., $23.00]