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A Nathan Bedford Forrest 'Smoking Gun' - Or Not?

Posted at 6:35 PM, Jul 27, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-07 14:17:07-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A nearly 150-year-old document, buried in state files, illustrates how the current controversy about Nathan Bedford Forrest has its roots in a post-Civil War debate surrounding the Confederate general.

The document, which purports to be a "letter of advice" to the Ku Klux Klan, had been listed in the files of the Tennessee State Library and Archives as having been written by Forrest himself.

Now, archivists aren't so sure.

"It has a number of things that kinda make you scratch your head," said archivist Myers Brown. "It's peculiar, to say the least."

Tennessee politicians now find themselves embroiled in a heated historical debate over Forrest's legacy and whether his bust should be removed from the halls of the state Capitol.

The so-called "letter of advice" -- from the man widely believed to be the KKK's first grand wizard -- was published in 1872, well after Forrest had publicly claimed to have renounced the Klan.

View 'Letter of Advice' (from TN Virtual Archive)

Brown said researchers initially took it at face value, but he and other Civil War experts began revisiting it after NewsChannel 5 Investigates began asking questions.

And they had plenty of questions themselves.

"Did Forrest himself actually write it maybe? Or did he dictate it to somebody else to write? Or did somebody else use his name?" Brown said.

"The bottom line is, we don't really know."

He noted that the letter is labeled "confidential," yet it was published as a broadside for public distribution. And "it's extremely long and verbose for what generally we see from Forrest."

The treatise reaffirms the Klan's goal to "restore the Bible institution of slavery" and to "suppress the damd n....r."

It was printed in the middle of the 1872 presidential campaign between Ulysses Grant and Horace Greeley, and the author urges support for Greeley, conjuring up the worst images of the Klan.

"Brush up your disguises, clean your revolvers..., secure fleet horses and be ready, at a moment's warning, for efficient service," it reads, adding: "And you well understand the meaning of that."

The archivist said that, if you look back at the 1872 presidential campaign, "people were trying to connect Greeley with the Klan."

"If you look at it in that light, you almost wonder if pro-Grant people created this in order to implicate Greeley and connect him with Forrest," Brown said.

"It's just one of those, who knows?"

While no one disputes that before the war Forrest had been a prolific slave trader, offering "Negroes sold on commission," his supporters note that, in 1875, the former Confederate general addressed a group of African-Americans in Memphis, offering reconciliation.

As the tale goes, he even kissed one of the women.

In fact, the essay urges Klan members to "make yourself all things to all men.... Wherever n....rism is epidemic, hug and kiss the n....r and the n....r's wife and daughter."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked the archivist, "So you would call this a historical curiousity?"

"Absolutely," he agreed.

Brown said the document definitely reflects the role of race during a dark period of American history.

As to what is says about Forrest, "it's either the smoking gun -- or it's not," he said with laugh.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates also reached out to one of the leading Nathan Bedford Forrest biographers.

Dr. Brian Steel Wills said he had never seen the document, but said the wording does not sound like something the Confederate general would have written or allowed to go out under his name.

Still, even if it's just political propaganda from a presidential campaign, the experts agree how controversy has always followed Forrest.

More on the controversy: