Today, Nathan Bedford Forrest is more popular than ever among the fans of the Confederacy. No doubt because he’s come to represent unyielding defiance, whether in victory or defeat, in the face of the Yankee enemy. More than any other Confederate officer—certainly more than someone like Lee—Forrest is the modern face of the unreconstructed rebel, the pit bull of the Lost Cause.
Unfortunately, that image doesn’t entirely square with reality—at least near the end of the general’s life. From the Galveston Daily News, June 3, 1875:
In Memphis, last week, a number of Federal officers and soldiers participated at the decoration of Confederate graves. As a result, Generals [Gideon Johnston] Pillow and Forrest addressed a letter through the Memphis papers to surviving Confederate soldiers and veterans of 1812, Florida and Mexico, requesting them to participate in the Federal ceremonies on Sunday last [i.e., on Memorial Day]. From this letter the subjoined is extracted:
“However much we differed with them while public enemies, and were at war, we must admit that they fought gallantly for the preservation of the government which we fought to destroy, which is now ours, was that of our fathers, and must be that of our children. Though our love for that government was for a while supplanted by the exasperation springing out of a sense of violated rights and the conflict of battle, yet our love for free government, justly administered, has not perished, and must grow strong in the hearts of brave men who have learned to appreciate the noble qualities of the true soldier.
“Let us all, then, join their comrades who live, in spreading flowers over the graves of these dead Federal soldiers, before the whole American people, as a peace offering to the nation, as a testimonial of our respect for their devotion to duty, and as a tribute from patriots, as we have ever been, to the great Republic, and in honor of the flag against which we fought, and under which they fell, nobly maintaining the honor of that flag. It is our duty to honor the government for which they died, and if called upon, to fight for the flag we could not conquer.”
Forrest offers a lesson that some of his most ardent, present-day fans seem determined to ignore.