Historian Shelby Foote once said that perhaps Nathan Bedford Forrest "was born to be a soldier the way John Keats was born to be a poet." The Confederate certainly died to become a folk myth in the way Che Guevara died to become a martyr or a villain depending on one's perspective.
One-hundred-and-forty years after Forrest's death, his memory has become a flashpoint in a vicious debate over race, politics, and American history. Down in Tennessee, his bust in the state capitol has become particularly controversial. Republican Gov. Bill Haslam says the monument to the Confederate general turned Ku Klux Klan leader should be removed, that Forrest doesn't deserve "honor at the Capitol."
Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., disagrees.
"I don't think that we should begin removing all the history that our children will learn by, I think we have to leave history to be history and let it be a lesson," Black told the editorial board of the Washington Examiner on Monday.
The candidate for governor quickly qualified that she's "a 10th Amendment person," who would leave the issue up to the state legislature. And Black made certain not to condone Forrest, a character from one of "the times that weren't the best times in our country."
Once the country starts pulling down Civil War statues though, Black wonders where it all stops. She asks, for instance, "do you say we're no longer going to honor the Gettysburg dead and the battle we had there that killed so many people?"
It's a good question. One my colleague Tom Rogan recently explored. After all, once society demands that Historia Delenda Est, where does it end? Can anyone's marble or copper statue stand up to the ever-increasing demands of complete perfection from the progressive Left?
The crowded gubernatorial field in Tennessee will have to give their answer. Candidates in that race are already struggling to position themselves on both the right side of history and the ballot box. Some want the bust gone and others demand it stay put. Here, history proves an agonizingly poor guide. Separating the myth from fact about Forrest is more difficult than protestors and counter-protestors with all their modern political baggage might imagine.
"Forrest's wholesale slaughter of troops at Fort Pillow tarred any national reputation he might have had forever," Regent history professor, Miles Smith explains. "But his raiding prowess earned him the respect of his soldiers, and his benevolent protection over Confederate civilians earned him massive esteem in the post-war South."
Complicating things further, comparing wartime Forrest with reconstruction Forrest is baffling. The rebel traitor who allowed the barbaric slaughter of nearly 300 black Union soldiers during the war made his last public appearance before black Americans celebrating the Fourth of July. It was "a friendly speech," The New York Times remembered in his obituary, an opportunity "to declare that he was a hearty friend of the colored race."
And that's what puts Black in such an interesting position. Defending Forrest by appealing to debatable history ensures that the rebel ghost will linger over the race. And in deep-red Tennessee, that historical apparition could as easily help or haunt Black's campaign.
Philip Wegmann is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.