Ask the Historian #4 – Statues (Or “Forrest Rested Here”)

Every morning on my way into work in a small, beautiful Middle Tennessee town, I pass an official state historical marker that reads, “Forrest Rested Here.”  Nathan Bedford Forrest is venerated in large circles of the two-county span that constitutes my stomping ground.  Many times, I have contemplated this as I drive from the flat farming country of one county to the slightly mountainous terrain of the next. 

Why is he famous here? This, I reason, is because he was a native Tennessean, and he became world-famous as a cavalry commander during the Civil War.  But I feel there is something additional, something I haven’t quite put my finger on.  There is more to the feeling for Forrest here than pride.  I ponder this, too.

I know that Forrest is controversial.  As a child, I remember a battle over whether to remove a statue of Forrest from the campus of Middle Tennessee State University.  I later learned the reason for the storm swirling around his legacy: his troops were responsible for the slaughter of Federal African American troops who were attempting to surrender to Confederates at the Battle of Fort Pillow.  Historians differ on Forrest’s involvement, with beliefs ranging from Forrest giving the order to kill and actively participating, to Forrest being outside the gates and unaware of what was taking place, to Forrest giving the order for the massacre to be halted and doing everything in his power to stop it.  He is also widely believed to be a founding member of the Ku Klux Klan, with controversies existing over the level and purposes of his involvement in this, too.  I have not researched enough to give my own opinion, but needless to say, it crosses my mind that there are less controversial figures to note with a historical marker.  

Then I decided as part of my Civil War research to read a biography of every major military figure, North and South.  When I made it to Forrest, I thought maybe I could get some elucidation on the matter of the respect for him here.  I never expected to find such a direct answer.  

The two-county span that constitutes my home is rather unheard-of in the grand scheme of the Civil War.  It is usually left out of all mention of era histories.  Not so in a biography of Nathan Bedford Forrest. I was stunned to see the two county seats mentioned again and again, one of them in a very harrowing way.  

Federal (Union) troops moved through as they marched on toward a much larger city. In the smaller of the two towns, they rounded up every civilian (non-combatant) male in the town, arrested them, and took them nineteen miles away to the larger city, where they imprisoned them.  Given that most able-bodied men were in the army, these were mostly old men and little boys.

There is a quote of Forrest’s that when he arrived in the wake of this take-over scene, the women of the town were “buzzing like hornets.”  At first, I thought this was a sexist comment about “noisy” women.  And then I stopped and thought about how one would feel if the old men and little boys of one’s family were marched away and locked into jail by an invading army.  Buzzing probably isn’t a dramatic word.  This was a rounding up of civilian males reminiscent of Pharaoh, with the purpose being what—extermination?  It very nearly happened.

Forrest rode into town, apparently asking what the commotion was. Upon being told, he promised the women that the men would be back with them by nightfall the next day.  And they were.  That was the magic of Forrest for Middle Tennessee.  Desperation knocked; he found a solution.  His troops rode into the larger city, where they seized the town.  Seeing that the matter was hopeless, a Union soldier set fire to the building where the men and boys were imprisoned, in an attempt to burn them alive.  The fire was put out by Forrest’s troops, and he collected the men and boys and returned them home.

As I am reading this almost fantastical story, I think: Why don’t I know this?  And just like that, my mind travels back through the years, and I realize: I do know this.  I am taken to a summer when I was a small child, and my mom and I were in the larger city shopping.  A history teacher, she never let an opportunity pass for learning. She said, “Do you see that building?  All of the men of [the small town] were rounded up during the Civil War and imprisoned there.  They were held there until Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry released them.”  Just the simple historical facts, yet they stayed in my mind’s recesses all of those years.

And I realize: We all know this.  Whether every person knows the facts, this feeling has been handed down through local history just enough that it has left an impression.  It is not general glory-heaping on a famous person.  It is not worship of a cause or a controversial character because of something he came to symbolize.  This is personal.  He saved their men.  Nothing more, nothing less.

This seems profound, somehow.  I think of our current controversy over historical markers and statues and am deeply affected because I grasp all sides of the arguments and cannot think of perfect solutions.  For the life of me, I cannot formulate a succinct answer when someone asks me how I feel about removing statues.

Many see historical memorials as honoring the person or event, and certainly many of them were put up for that purpose.  I have seen certain statues and markers that put off a worshipful vibe and others that are more of just a general notation of history.  (If you read the words even of the Forrest marker, it is more of a notation.) Even that question—honor or notation—is riddled with pitfalls, and again I have no answers.

I tend to a slight revolutionary streak that sides with philosophers who say things like, “No generation has any right to bind the next to its precepts!”  And I think: if we want to take them down, the argument “they have to stay because they’ve always been there” is just not good enough. But then I think of the people who raised money in centuries or decades past, of the artists who crafted the monuments, of the cities who have come to think of them as part of their city signature, and I reserve judgment.

A lot of times, the argument for the side of keeping statues is that the commemoration goes beyond the person, and what he or she did, to a value that is worth upholding. An example of this would be a Thomas Jefferson statue representing not his personal record as a slaveholder, but the founding principles of the country that are sacred, such as self-government, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The fear is that if we remove the statues, we no longer stand for those things.

However, there are deep feelings by those who look at certain statues and see instead a person, an event, or a cause that was harmful to their ancestors.  Of harm that still resonates today.  That still hurts today.  And lest you think anyone is immune from such feelings, picture your least favorite historical figure, then picture yourself standing in front of a statue of that person.  How would you feel?  For a test-drive, how about: Hitler? Mao Tse-tung?  Or what if your ancestors were killed by the Ku Klux Klan and you are standing in front of a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose name is irrevocably tied to that organization?  Or a young man in my sister’s graduate class in South Carolina who recounted what it was like for his grandmother, whose ancestors had lost everything at the hands of General Sherman, to stand in front of his statue in New York City.  Or a Native American standing in front of a statue of one of the myriad generals who made war on your ancestors?  For these and others, it feels equivalent to standing in front of a statue to a murderer. 

I discussed feelings toward historical figures in a separate post, and I stand by the arguments made in that post. I am not speaking as to the personal character of any person in this post, but as to the separate issue of public historical commemoration, which has connotations outside of history itself. There is a feeling that statues send a message about what we value and don’t value, as well as about the legacy we are passing down to future generations. And so the argument does go deeper than just choices on aesthetic display, or liking/disliking someone.

Maybe the people who say we need statues to virtues are right. Certainly virtues are less complicated than any human who has lived. Except…it works for the Statue of Liberty.  I can’t imagine that working many more times.  There is something unique and interesting about expressing art in the form of historical, human figures.  But then, which ones?  I have heard legitimate, good historians say some of the most baffling things about this.  This person, because he didn’t own slaves.  My response: Yes, but he didn’t believe in equality for women.  Not Confederates because they fought against the United States government in an act of treason.  But we can leave the Revolutionary War figures because they built the nation.  My response: Yes, but they enslaved people.  You see the trouble with starting to pick and choose?  Then a historian will throw out a non-controversial figure and say, Why not this person?  He/she never hurt anybody.  And I think: Look hard enough; they did. 

Often these conversations themselves are frankly overblown. Statues are inanimate objects, after all. In the grand scheme of things the statues themselves do not speak to what is in the hearts and minds of people, nor can they physically harm us. This post was written before the recent humanitarian crisis reminded us of what oppression and fear looks like for many around the world… And I don’t want to post this without acknowledging that when statue conversations reach a fever pitch of life-or-death intensity…we have lost the thread.

To the extent conversations center around the public interest in the message being sent or the interests of all people concerned, along with the justifiable feelings of many, they are reasonable and productive. To the extent they descend into very emotional condemnation (or defense) of long-dead people, the conversations would benefit from the increment analysis to deconstruct emotion surrounding public historical figures that I suggested in the last post.

I don’t like historical demonization. I question whether we understand the human condition at all if don’t grasp the depth of our own personal sins and negative capabilities, as though as long as we haven’t done a handful of things that make up our current issues, we have it right.  It seems too easy to look back and point the finger, much easier than looking inwardly. I also do not like blind historical adulation. We run the risk of becoming insensitive if we cannot put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and see that, while a past figure may be someone we admire and want to honor for various reasons, there are reasons others might feel differently. Both sides of the coin unfortunately sometimes betray a total lack of empathy for the other. Often the arguments do not consider context and use instead one aspect only to make a point, which, while it might be the most important point to one person, does not consider the whole story or aspects that might be important to others.

The closest I have gotten to hearing any real solution on the subject is the suggestion by some historians for local governments to form coalitions to research and then make thoughtful, reasoned decisions about historical markers and monuments, present and future. And that will work…until the very next generation has different ideas. The closest I myself can get to expressing an opinion is saying that these things shouldn’t be decided by mobs in the heat of protest.  I can imagine scenarios in which people cannot get things accomplished through the ordinary courses of government and peaceful demonstration.  I can picture situations in which the majority decides to leave something that feels, to some people, to be a huge deviation from morality.  And yet, to the extent the subject is not one of a violation of personal liberty or civil rights under the law, we do benefit by living in a peaceful, orderly society, and by submitting to the democratic, elected processes of government, even if that sometimes means we lose.

So where do we come down on the issue of statues? Throughout history, statues coming down have usually meant some sort of revolution is brewing. Some of them have been good for democracy. Some of them have been bad. That being the case, I do want to acknowledge that there are deep ramifications to this debate long-term. A disagreement over whether something is going to signal the end or beginning of something that goes to the core of freedom is something emotional. Both sides of the debate do have a radical wing that are just not good for the country. But for the largest portion of people in this debate, for now, I do not believe either side of this debate is feeling quite so radical. Both sides can stray into the territory of high emotionalism, yes. But at their core, there are good, valid arguments for both that center on admirable values. And I do not think there is any way to reconcile that perfectly.

But I think “Forrest Rested Here” has something to teach us.  Not everything is cut and dry.  There are complex histories, backstories, and emotions that often have nothing to do with what things might, on their surface, seem to be. A desire to remove a statue could be kindled by deep emotions based on lengthy history.  A desire to place a historical marker could similarly be more complicated than the things to which we boil it down today.  Historical memory is more complicated, too. Everyone has their story.  

These stories are complex at every level.  And once that acknowledgement is made, the urgency, on any side of the matter, is already diffused by half because the urgency is driven by perceived hatred from an opposing side.  But I would posit that hatred has very little to do with the valid feelings that most, for or against, historical notation, can bring to the table.

Cover Photo Credit: New York Times
In-text Photo by Tara Cowan