‘Down Along With That Devil’s Bones’ Reckons With Monuments To Nathan Bedford Forrest
To modern-day Northerners, Nathan Bedford Forrest might be best known as the namesake for Forrest Gump. But for certain Southerners, the former Confederate general and first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan is a near-mythic figure, both a “manly man, fearless and true” (in the words of one historian) and a symbol of the South’s refusal to heel, even 150 years after Appomattox.
Journalist Connor Towne O’Neill’s new book is not a biography of Forrest, though you’ll learn plenty about the Tennessee native’s dramatic, violent life while reading it. Instead, “Down Along With That Devil’s Bones” tells the story of Forrest’s afterlife, by exploring the battles raging over monuments to him in four places: Selma, Ala.; and the Tennessee cities of Murfreesboro, Nashville and Memphis. He describes the situation, aptly, as a “cold Civil War” in which legal battles and political maneuvering now replace battlefield aggression.
As O’Neill explained on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, he first stumbled on the battle of a monument to Forrest in Selma while covering the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday.” The showdown between marching protesters and state troopers brandishing clubs and whips proved a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement.
But it also led to a backlash. Just after Selma elected its first Black mayor in 2000, his white predecessor signed off on installing a monument to Forrest at a city-owned museum. Years of heated, legal arguments ensued.
“It is tempting to think about monuments only in terms of the figure in history they seek to honor,” O’Neill said. “But of course these monuments don’t just show up out of nowhere. It requires money, it requires political capital to put up a monument in the first place. They say as much about the present as they do about the past.”
In the book, O’Neill doesn’t just grapple with the life of Nathan Bedford Forrest and the legacy of slavery. He also grapples with how he benefited from it as a white man — even as a white man who grew up in Pennsylvania. As he writes in the book, “I can reject every tenet of the Confederacy and yet the fact remains that, in fighting to maintain white supremacy, Forrest sought to perpetuate a system tilted in my favor. Forrest fought for me.”
He added: “I think it’s really convenient for folks in the North — and this was certainly the received wisdom that I grew up with — that by dint of our affiliation with the Union Army, the great emancipators, that we were really on the right side of history. And we were unimpeachable for that. … But the more that I dug into the legacy of the Civil War and [looked] at just how important, fundamental the system of slavery was to the entire country — the way that Northerners were benefiting from it, profiting from it. …
“You come to see, once you open the aperture up and get over these naive and self-serving ideas about how the North is not implicated in this, you start to see just how cataclysmic this system of slavery was and how tarred everyone was with it.”
What: Connor Towne O’Neill Virtual Event with St. Louis County Library
When: 7 p.m. Oct. 29
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.