Close to the Bone

There’s a fascinating conflict of values, priorities and equities taking place now in Memphis, Tennessee. The Memphis City Council just voted unanimously to dig up and remove the remains of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife from their current resting place in a city park. On the one hand (and I think probably on several hands), this starts to seem a bit excessive. It’s one thing to lower a flag or relocate a statue. But while bodies are sometimes disinterred and relocated to new grave sites, there’s a default level of respect and finality we accord to the resting places of the dead, quite apart from the political realities of the day. And yet, there’s a bit more to the story.

The remains of Forrest and his wife are buried under a statue in his honor in Memphis’s Health Sciences Park, which itself was named in Forrest’s honor until two years ago. So in some sense that statue and Forrest’s earthly remains may be something of a package deal. But again, we’re into new territory when we’re talking about digging up people’s bodies. And yet, there’s more to the story.

Nathan Bedford Forrest was arguably of the most naturally gifted military leaders of the Civil War. He was also, pretty inarguably, the worst the Confederacy had to offer. As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, one of the drives behind the apotheosis of Gen. Robert E. Lee was the palpably blandness and mediocrity of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. He was also a gifted general, honorable in his personal life and as untainted as you could be by the sins of the Confederacy as you could be while still being one of its top leaders (which is to say, not that untainted).

Forrest was an altogether different kind of figure. He made a huge fortune before the war as a slave trader. (It is one thing to inherit a plantation of slaves and run it. A self-made man who becomes one of the richest in the South buying and selling people takes it to another level.) During the war he oversaw the massacre of captured freedmen (recently freed black slaves) serving in the Union Army, as well as Unionist whites fighting for the USA. After the war he was either the founder or one of the key founders of the Ku Klux Klan, the paramilitary force that fought Reconstruction by terrorizing freedpeople with harassment, beatings and killings. Like I said, Forrest is and was the worst of the worst.

He now has the ironic fate of having his earthly remains interred in the city of Memphis whose population is more than 60% African-American. He is at their mercy. And he never showed mercy.

Late Update: TPM Reader AH sends along this link which is a sort of pro-Forrest argument for moving his remains. Forrest and his wife were originally buried at nearby Elmwood Cemetery, according to their own wishes, along with many other Confederate soldiers. It was only in the early 20th century that they were moved to the current location. So perhaps everyone can agree, for their own reasons.

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