Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Forrest for the Trees

[posted by Callimachus]

The left goes ballistic because some Republican in Congress quotes the old military aphorism attributed to N.B. Forrest about getting there first with the most.

Shouldn’t this be a bigger deal? Given all of the racial problems of the Republican Party, isn’t it rather scandalous for a Republican lawmaker to rely on the words of the founder of the KKK?

And, from the comments thread:

These are the things racists do to show their sympathies to one another.


More dog-whistle words to incite Das Base into destroying the republic.


Seriously; why is anyone even surprised anymore when the GOP whips out the hate card?

The trouble is, it's just a good, useful quote, regardless of who said it. It's not difficult to find leftist or progressive sites that have used the quip, quite appropriately, in the past. It's been quoted on Juan Cole's site, for instance.

As for Forrest, he was just about the only major Confederate military leader (or really, major military leader on either side) who did not have a West Point background. This made him unconventional in his approach to the warfare of the times, and led him to think more like a modern guerrilla fighter or insurgent. Which, as we were tirelessly reminded in the early stages of the Iraq War, is not the same thing as a "terrorist."

Forrest, like some others in the CSA, saw the potential for insurgent tactics, but they turned aside from the chance to use them on a large scale. His farewell address to his troops, who were among the last to remain in the field, is a model of propriety:

The Government which we sought to establish and perpetuate is at an end. Reason dictates and humanity demands that no more blood be shed. Fully realizing and feeling that such is the case, it is your duty and mine to lay down our arms, submit to the "powers that be," and to aid in restoring peace and establishing law and order throughout the land. The terms upon which you were surrendered are favorable, and should be satisfactory and acceptable to all. They manifest a spirit of magnanimity and liberality on the part of the Federal authorities which should be met on our part by a faithful compliance with all the stipulations and conditions therein expressed. As your commander, I sincerely hope that every officer and soldier of my command will cheerfully obey the orders given and carry out in good faith all the terms of the cartel.

The real black mark on his record is the massacre of black soldiers who had surrendered at Fort Pillow; though the exact details of his role in that are not entirely clear, as commander he bears responsibility for it.

He was a central figure in the founding of the first KKK, which was many things, including a white paramilitary militia that battled with Unionist and black militias in the postwar South, and also a relief organization. It was entirely different from the second KKK that flourished after World War I as a huge, nativist and Christian organization strongest in the Midwest. And it had even less in common with the modern, reactionary, racist Klan.

Forrest and the original Klan hardly can be said to have been characterized by racism: they certainly were racist by our standards, but no more so than any other average white man or organization of the time.

I'd compare him in some essential ways to George S. Patton, from a later war. A man of battlefield brilliance and tactical audacity whom we rightly revere -- for that. At the same time, a man who held attitudes common to adult white Americans in his day, but which we now deplore. And he expressed them rather bluntly. His quotes on Russians, Orientals, Germans, and especially Jews ("the greatest stinking bunch of humanity I have ever seen" ... "lower than animals") are cringe-making, to say the least. Patton even has a rough equivalent of Fort Pillow on his record, as his ferocious rhetorical charges to his troops were credited with inspiring a massacre of prisoners at Biscari.