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If you surrender, you shall be treated as prisoners of war, but if I have to storm your works, you may expect no quarter.
~ Nathan Bedford Forrest

Nathan Bedford Forrest (July 13th, 1821 - October 29th, 1877) was the first supposed Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. He was a Civil War Confederate general who is known for a massacre of 300 black Union troops under his command. Forrest later formed the Ku Klux Klan during the Reconstruction period after the end of the American Civil War to regulate supposed northern injustices. He later left the organization under the supposition that they began to become unnecessarily violent. Reveled as a villain to many, he is still celebrated by some for his service to the Confederacy and the "southern cause".

Biography

Although scholars admire Forrest as a military strategist, he has remained a highly controversial figure in Southern racial history, especially for his alleged role in the massacre of black soldiers at Fort Pillow, his 1867–1869 leadership of the white-supremacist/terrorist Ku Klux Klan, and his political influence as a Tennessee delegate at the 1868 Democratic National Convention.

Before the war, Forrest amassed substantial wealth as a cotton plantation owner, horse and cattle trader, real estate broker, and slave trader. In June 1861, he enlisted in the Confederate Army, one of the few officers during the war to enlist as a private and be promoted to general without any prior military training. An expert cavalry leader, Forrest was given command of a corps and established new doctrines for mobile forces, earning the nickname "The Wizard of the Saddle". His methods influenced many future generations of military strategists, although the Confederate high command is seen to have underutilized his talents.

In April 1864, in what has been called "one of the bleakest, saddest events of American military history.", troops under Forrest's command massacred Union troops who had surrendered, most of them black soldiers along with some white Southern Tennesseans fighting for the Union, at the Battle of Fort Pillow, in what is considered to be one of the worst war crimes perpetrated by the Confederacy during the war. Forrest was blamed for the massacre in the Union press and that news may have strengthened the North's resolve.

Forrest apparently joined the Ku Klux Klan in 1867 (two years after its founding) and was elected its first Grand Wizard. The group was a loose collection of local factions, throughout the former Confederacy, that used violence and the threat of violence to maintain white control over the newly-enfranchised slaves. The Klan, with Forrest at the lead, suppressed voting rights of blacks and Republicans in the South through violence and intimidation during the elections of 1868. In 1869, Forrest expressed disillusionment with the lack of discipline among the various white supremacist groups across the South, and issued a letter ordering the dissolution of the Ku Klux Klan and the destruction of its costumes; he then withdrew from the organization. Lacking coordinated leadership and facing strong opposition from President Grant, this first incarnation of the Klan gradually disappeared.

In the last years of his life, Forrest publicly denounced the violence and racism of the Klan, insisted he had never been a member, and made at least one public speech (to a black audience) in favor of racial harmony. He and his wife moved onto President's Island in late 1875, established a home and started a business venture that relied on the Convict Lease System enacted in 1866 by the state of Mississippi, to secure a labor force of 117 convicts whose sentence would be served in clearing and cultivating 800 acres of the 1300 that Forrest had leased. "Among those convicts in his employ were eighteen black and four white female prisoners along with thirty-five white and sixty black male convicts who worked the land on Forrest's island plantation."

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