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Fact Check: Was Nathan Bedford Forrest A KKK Leader? Probably

Posted at 12:56 PM, Jul 27, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-07 14:17:11-04

In a recent blog post and newspaper column, Tennessee state Rep. Andy Holt claimed that "no evidence exists" showing that Nathan Bedford Forrest "participated in any Klan activity at all." Others have objected to descriptions of Forrest as a KKK founder.

The original founders of the Ku Klux Klan in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1866 were all Confederate veterans.

"They all came from good families, all were well educated for the times, and none of them was Nathan Bedford Forrest," write the authors of Nathan Bedford Forrest: In Search of the Enigma.

But numerous biographers quote the statement from one of the original Klan founders, James R. Crowe, that "after the order grew to large numbers we found it necessary to have someone of large experience to command. We chose General Forrest." In his 1969 book The Invisible Empire, author Stanley F. Horn describes an interview with a Middle Tennessee Klansman who had spoken to Forrest's chief of artillery, John W. Morton. According to his account, Forrest had first been approached by one of the original KKK founders from Pulaski. Told about the secret society, Forrest supposedly replied, "That's a good thing; that's a damn good thing. We can use that to keep the in their place." That's when, according to that story, Forrest was named Grand Wizard.

Morton himself published a memoir in 1909, recalling that, as the KKK spread throughout the countryside, there was a call for a secret meeting in Nashville in 1867 that "crystallized" the formation of a "club for the suppression of the plundering negroes and lawless whites who belonged to the 'Union League.'" Rather than telling the story himself, Morton inserts a magazine article that had been written by Baptist minister and novelist Thomas Dixon Jr. based on an interview with Morton. By that account, Forrest approached Morton prior to the Nashville meeting about joining the Klan. According to that story, "That night the General was made a full-fledged clansman, and was soon elected Grand Wizard of the Invisible Empire." Three years later, "when the white race had redeemed six Southern States from negro rule in 1870, the Grand Wizard knew that his mission was accomplished, and issued at once his order to disband," Morton recalled. (Read Morton's account here.)

In The Invisible Empire, Horn also cites a letter that a spy wrote to Arkansas Gov. Powell Clayton indicating that "he had found that General Forrest was the head of the entire Invisible Empire." In addition, the author quotes from a November 1930 edition of the Confederate Veteran magazine in which veteran George W. Libby recalled going to KKK meetings in Memphis. "N.B. Forrest of Confederate fame was at our head, and was known as the Grand Wizard," Libby wrote.

On top of that, in a 1911 interview with the Arkansas Daily Gazette, former Confederate Col. Robert G. Shaver (who later went on to become major general of the Arkansas State Guard) described being at an 1867 organizational meeting for the Klan in Memphis. "After a meeting of about a week's duration," Shaver said, "the plans were perfected. The order was named, with General Forrest as commander-in-chief, or grand wizard, at the head, and with absolute military authority." (Read that account here.)

In addition, after the death of the last of the original Klan founders in 1913, the Lawrence Democrat (published in Lawrenceburg, a neighboring town to Pulaski) published the account of a man who had "heard from their own lips the story of ... its Grand Wizard, the great Southerner Nathan Bedford Forrest." (Read that account here.) Another eyewitness, the widow of Forrest associate Maj. Minor Meriwether, wrote in her memoir at the age of 92 that she "did not know who first thought of the Ku Klux Klan, but I do know that General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the great cavalry soldier who lived near us on Union Street, was the Supreme Grand Wizard."

As for Forrest, in an 1868 interview with the Cincinnati Commercial, the former Confederate general insisted he was not a member of the Klan, but he appeared to have a lot of information. "It is a protective political organization. I am willing to show any man the constitution of the society," Forrest supposedly said, adding that it had evolved into "a political organization." He went on to defend the Klan, saying that "since its organization the Leaguers have quit killing and murdering our people. There were some foolish young men who put masks on their faces and rode over the country frightening negroes; but orders have been issued to stop that, and it has ceased. You may say further that three members of the Kuklux have been court-martialed and shot for violations of orders not to disturb or molest people." (Read the article here.)

In 1871, Forrest was summoned before a congressional committee that was investigating the Klan and he denied having made many of the more provocative statements in the article.

Contradicting himself several times, Forrest claimed only to have heard of the KKK "from others," then admitted that he had been a member of a Klan group known as "Pale Faces," then insisted that he had not actually been a member but had just attended a couple of meetings.

He was asked directly if he had taken "any steps for organizing" under the KKK constitution.

"I do not think I am compelled to answer any question that would implicate me in anything," Forrest replied.

Later, Forrest declined to formally invoke his rights against self-incrimination, answering directly that he had not engaged in any organizing. Instead, he insisted,  "all of my efforts were addressed to stop it, disband it, and prevent it." (Read Forrest's testimony here.)

More on the controversy:

Disagree? Put your comments below, citing original sources from that time period.