Monday, December 6, 2010

Applying the Lessons of the Civil War?

The article, I fight to be a bit meandering, but well worth the read.

Applied Civil War History – Nathan Bedford Forrest and our National Character

After the Civil War Confederate General Robert E. Lee was asked his opinion as to who was the greatest commander of the war. His response was said to have been without hesitation, “A man I have never met, sir. His name is Forrest.” In a conversation after the war, Union General Sherman said essentially the same thing, “After all, I think Forrest was the most remarkable man our Civil War produced on either side.”


Nathan Bedford Forrest - Wizard of the Saddle

As the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of our greatest national catastrophe approaches, controversy is growing as to how that horrible war and its heroes and villains should be remembered and commemorated. More importantly is learning the lessons of the Civil War years and applying them to our present crises.
Few encapsulate the controversies and conundrums of the War more than Confederate General Nathan BedfordForrest – a self-schooled private and former slave trader who rose to Lt. General in the Confederate Army. Forrest’s deep Confederate patriotism, extraordinary tactical acumen, personal bravery, his relationship withblack Americans (bothnegative and positive), and his enduring appreciation for the US Constitution provide us with a mirror to our own contradictions, frustrations, and confusions.

Perhaps not since the assassination of JFK and the debacle of the Warren Commission has trust in our government been as low as it is today. Issues of race continue to rankle, and partisanship in Washington is very much alive despite President Obama’s early promises that he would eradicate it.

There is great fear and worry in the country; two foreign wars, rumors of more conflicts, an ongoing economic disaster, saber rattling by intractable enemies, and consistent high unemployment are just the leading edges of a multiplicity of the many challenges we face. The challenges are devastating in their complexity and numbers – they require a fortitude, unity, and surety to successfully overcome them. All of these important traits, once found in abundance in our culture, now seem in short supply.

There is growing confusion about fundamental truths; what does it mean to be American; what makes our society special; how tolerant must we be to those ideologies (and their followers), if at all, whose purpose is our destruction; how important is our country and our future to us? The sesquicentennial of the Civil War could not have come at a better time.

General Forrest continues to elicit strong reactions, his campaigns continue to be studied. Forrest’s reputation for victory (and serious fighting) was well known to his Union counterparts during the war. Identified as a direct threat to the success of Union military efforts in the Western theater, General Sherman ordered his capture or death.

In March, 1863 two Union garrisons southof Nashville surrendered to Forrest’s smaller numbers when the Federal commander was notified that Forrest was personally leading the Confederate forces in his front and he was given a guided tour of Forrest’s positions. The two garrisons were captured by Forrest with hardly a shot fired.

An unlettered man but brilliant commander Forrest was a fiery and complex personality. At Columbia, Tennessee, Forrest was attacked and shot by an angry subordinate. All who saw the event, including Forrest himself, thought the wound was mortal. In a fury of rage, Forrest pursued his attacker, a junior artillery officer, screaming, “Get out of my way! I am mortally wounded and will kill the man who has shot me!”! Shot in the abdomen, generally a fatal wound at that time, Forrest chased his attacker down and inflicted a mortal wound on the man, a young lieutenant. (Source.)

Stories of Forrest’s brilliance and reckless courage are both famous and numerous. At the battle of Parker’s Crossroads (12/31/62) Forrest’s cavalry was engaged with a Union force when more Yankee units approached from behind. Forrest’s order was swift and clear“We’ll charge them both ways!” 



Forrest is threatened from front and rear at Parker's Crossroads, 

Tennessee - 12/31/1862. Confederate cavalry charge "both ways."
While his greatness as a commander is rarely disputed, his reputation is marred by the ugly events at Fort Pillow, April, 1864, which contemporary Union investigators and witnesses described as a massacre of black Union troops by soldiers under Forrest’s command. In their defense the Confederate soldiers reported that many in the defeated garrison had picked up their arms after surrendering and had re-entered the battle. Fort Pillow remains one of the uglier controversies of a war filled with horrors and excesses on both sides. 

However, Confederate antipathy toward Union black soldiers was widely known on both sides and a war-time Congressional investigation into the matter concluded (with all the attendant bias against Confederate forces) that the Fort Pillow fight had indeed been a massacre. Forrest denied that a massacre had occurred until his death. This event is one of the central controversies of the war that still remains.
Prior to the war, Forrest had earned a small fortune as a slave trader in Memphis. During the reconstruction era, Forrest served as the head of a new organization created nominally for southern self-defense, Forrest’s title was “Grand Wizard”. The organization was called the Ku Klux Klan.

As the nature of the organization changed and became overtly anti-black and increasingly bizarre and violent, Forrest ordered that the Klan be disbanded. Subsequent events show that this order was largely ignored, and Forrest’s possible continued affiliation with the group remains a subject of debate among historians. Forrest’s motives in joining, leading, and then disbanding the Klan remain controversial issues.

When Forrest died in October of 1877 several thousand black Americans attended the funeral. (Source.) There is no need to suffer any cognitive dissonance at the complexity of Forrest or the apparent changes that he went through during and after the war.

Surpassing General Lee’s final orders to the Army of Northern Virginia in thoroughness and forward thinking, Forrest set a tone of reconciliation and acceptance of the truth of Confederate defeat that would later be echoed by many former Confederate leaders including Lee. Forrest’s acceptance of the end of the war, and his orders to his soldiers to re-integrate could stem in part from his affection for the US Constitution which many Confederates believed had been abrogated by the Lincoln administration (and thus lead to secession). In an interview with a Cincinnati newspaper in 1868 Forrest said,
“I loved the old government in 1861. I loved the old Constitution yet. I think it is the best government in the world, if administered as it was before the war.
The themes of reconciliation and acceptance in Forrest’s May 9, 1865 “Farewell Address” put an end to the idea of continued fighting and set his soldiers’ hearts to home and reintegration.
Civil war, such as you have just passed through naturally engenders feelings of animosity, hatred, and revenge. It is our duty to divest ourselves of all such feelings; and as far as it is in our power to do so, to cultivate friendly feelings towards those with whom we have so long contended, and heretofore so widely, but honestly, differed. Neighborhood feuds, personal animosities, and private differences should be blotted out; and, when you return home, a manly, straightforward course of conduct will secure the respect of your enemies.

I have never, on the field of battle, sent you where I was unwilling to go myself; nor would I now advise you to a course which I felt myself unwilling to pursue. You have been good soldiers, you can be good citizens.
As we face crises greater than those faced by the Civil War generation it is important now to appreciate the lessons of character, of personal growth, and of context and national constancy that people like Forrest and Lee help us to discern.

Though the great battles of the war are often cited, the brutality of the war itself is sometimes forgotten. From the massacre of Union soldiers by Southern guerrillas (under notorious “Bloody Bill” Anderson) at Centralia, Missouri and all the atrocities and local vendettas committed in the border states – to the horrors experienced by Union prisoners of war in the South to the Kentucky man whose sons were beheaded by Union soldiers in the border area between Kentucky and Tennessee – the Civil War was generally not an affair of “glory”.
Jack Hinson became a feared Confederate sniper after his two sons were murdered and beheaded by Union soldiers. Hinson may have killed over 100 men during the course of his private war. He was never captured.



Vendettas were common during the "Late Unpleasantness."
Jack Hinson’s neutrality was shattered the day Union patrols moved in on his land, captured two of his sons, accused them of being bushwhackers, and executed them on the roadside. The soldiers furthered the abuse by decapitating the Hinson boys and placing their heads on the gateposts of the family estate. (source, source)
It seems miraculous in retrospect that the United States was able to re-unite at all after the nightmare of the Civil War years. The qualities of national character that facilitated re-unification and forgiveness after the Civil War are still in effect today.

The 9/11 atrocities, all perpetrated by Muslims following the doctrine of Islamic hatred against non-Muslims as commanded in the core religious texts of Islam did not then, nor today result in a widespread reaction against the Muslim community in the United States. Hate crime statistics for 2009 released recently by the US government show that in 2009 hate crimes against Muslims were by far lower than hate crimes against Jews.
The small number of anti-Islamic crimes (107) versus Anti-Jewish crimes (931) in 2009 would suggest that there is no rise in anti-Islamic sentiment and hate crimes in the wider American culture even after the jihad attack at Fort Hood – regardless of what some Islam apologists suggest. Muslims are statistically safer in the United States than are Jews or homosexuals (hate crimes against gays in the US for 2009: over 1000).

Anti-Semitism and anti-gay hatred still remain a serious concern in the United States. No such concern is warranted due to the negligible (in comparison) numbers of anti-Islamic hate crimes.

The low number of anti-Islamic hate crimes is a testament to the nature of our culture of inclusiveness and tolerance; Americans do not blame an entire community for the actions of a few. It is clear from the statistical evidence that Americans make a strong differentiation between individual Muslims and Islam itself.
Forrest accepted the defeat of the Confederacy and ordered his soldiers to do the same just as we must accept, but do not, that an ideological and terror war is being waged against us. Our failure to acknowledge this state of affairs would be akin to Forrest or Lee denying the defeat of the South – it simply could not be done, reality would not allow it.

Our failure to acknowledge the causes underlying our difficult and challenging circumstances is nothing less than a denial of reality. Ours is a post-9/11 world and we consistently refuse to understand why.

As the sesquicentennial approaches there is no escaping the rampant Orwellian denialism and moral confusion across our culture. The definitive surety that motivated our heroes in the Civil War is now elusive as our culture denies the nature of the threat against us and refuses to give our enemy a name.

Perhaps Nathan Bedford Forrest, the lightning rod of controversy, can be a model for us today. Surrounded by controversy ourselves, the example of Forrest, and the brave men of ‘61-65, can help us remedy the confusion that stultifies so many into inaction and defeatism.

The best parts of our national character can be seen in the faces of the bronze and stone statues of our Civil War soldiers located in every town square across the United States.

The moral confusion that drives our inability to defend ourselves against a totalitarian ideology of hatred and violence unconvincingly disguised as a “religion of peace” originates in self-doubt – that is, is the West worthy of saving? Our guilt at past indiscretions, mistakes, excesses, etc., have overturned for many the inherent value to be found in the freedoms that we enjoy under our Constitution and the promise that our country represents for the oppressed of the world.

We live in a post-911 world but rarely discuss why. National survival and the existence of the fledgling Confederacy were at stake in the Civil War, now our civilization itself is at stake.

There was much discussion about the future in Confederate leadership circles in 1865 as the outcome of the War for Southern Independence became clear. Jefferson Davis is said to have been one of the few in favor of continuing the war and fighting the North with guerrilla methods. General Forrest and Robert E. Lee’s attitudes of accepting defeat, and re-integration into the Union as good citizens were the dominant view.

Our ongoing confusion about our national importance, the value that we bring to the world, and the extraordinary achievement that is our Constitution – all worthy of protection and saving – prevents us from successfully engaging in an ideological war against an absolutist, totalitarian, and cruel enemy. This is why the sesquicentennial of the Civil War is so propitiously timed.

Next time you pass by the public square of your town look carefully at the faces of the Civil War soldier on his pedestal. There is an absolute certainty, a surety, and confidence in the right that is visible in every one, Union and Confederate. These are the classic American traits shared by both Union and Confederate soldiers and civilians that we must rediscover, quickly.

The purpose of Civil War monuments is commemorative. Perhaps more importantly, the Civil War soldiers in every American town square are there to inspire future generations – us.


Civil War hero- Iola, KS
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