Nathan Bedford Forrest's Speech at Jubilee of Poll Bearers

tmh10

Major
Joined
Mar 2, 2012
Location
Pipestem,WV
Forrest's speech during a meeting of the "Jubilee of Pole Bearers" is a story that needs to be told. Gen. Forrest was the first white man to be invited by this group which was a forerunner of today's Civil Right's group. A reporter of the Memphis Avalanche newspaper was sent to cover the event that included a Southern barbeque supper.

Miss Lou Lewis, daughter of a Pole Bearer member, was introduced to Forrest and she presented the former general a bouquet of flowers as a token of reconciliation, peace and good will. On July 5, 1875, Nathan Bedford Forrest delivered this speech:

"Ladies and Gentlemen, I accept the flowers as a memento of reconciliation between the white and colored races of the Southern states. I accept it more particularly as it comes from a colored lady, for if there is any one on God's earth who loves the ladies I believe it is myself. (Immense applause and laughter.) I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to elevate every man, to depress none.

(Applause.)
I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going. I have not said anything about politics today. I don't propose to say anything about politics. You have a right to elect whom you please; vote for the man you think best, and I think, when that is done, you and I are freemen. Do as you consider right and honest in electing men for office. I did not come here to make you a long speech, although invited to do so by you. I am not much of a speaker, and my business prevented me from preparing myself. I came to meet you as friends, and welcome you to the white people. I want you to come nearer to us. When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment. Many things have been said about me which are wrong, and which white and black persons here, who stood by me through the war, can contradict. Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I'll come to your relief. I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for this opportunity you have afforded me to be with you, and to assure you that I am with you in heart and in hand." (Prolonged applause.)

End of speech.1

Nathan Bedford Forrest again thanked Miss Lewis for the bouquet and then gave her a kiss on the cheek. Such a kiss was unheard of in the society of those days, in 1875, but it showed a token of respect and friendship between the general and the black community and did much to promote harmony among the citizens of Memphis.

J.H. Sears, Charles Kelly Barrow "Black Southerners In Confederate Armies" (Pelican, 2007)
 

Josey_Wales

Corporal
Joined
Jun 15, 2012
Location
Ohio
Very nice speech by Forrest and thanks for sharing, and majority of people thinks he was just pure evil he sure opened up with a nice speech.
 

diane

Retired User
Joined
Jan 23, 2010
Location
State of Jefferson
It's hard to try to find out who the Pole Bearers were. There's not much about them - at least not that I've found yet - but it seems they were a black fraternal organization, something along the lines of Odd Fellows or such. They often marched in parades along with Masons and others. They were also para-military, having permission to bear arms - this makes them rather an interesting group indeed! The crowd Forrest addressed was 5,000 strong, and the speaker before him was Gideon Pillow. Pillow did not make too nice a speech and, at the end, urged blacks to give up politics. Forrest's speech was about reconciliation, and he indicated they should stay in politics and vote - the vote was the only way they'd change anything! The other Memphis paper put in a few comments Forrest made regarding ex-Confederates and their willingness to be friends of the blacks - I've always thought this might have been his way of letting them know he was no longer a klansman. (I'm pretty sure most blacks knew this 'secret' fact.) Also, another part left out was where Forrest acknowledged blacks as Southerners, saying, "We were born on the same soil, breathe the same air. Why can we not be brothers and sisters?"
 

truthckr

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 1, 2010
Location
Waynesboro, Virginia
Forrest was a brutal man during a brutal time, but I think he always had soft place in his heart for women and children. Regardless of all that he was accused of and in some cases did before and during the ACW, he was a changed man by the end of his life.
 

Diana9

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Feb 25, 2012
Location
Southern California
I remember coming across a newspaper abstract that had all the speeches of that day. I found those speeches very revealing.

Does anyone know where I can find that abstract?
 

FrazierC

First Sergeant
Joined
Sep 20, 2012
It's the last thing I think of, too! :laugh: (Forrest either, for that matter...) The speech is pretty short, actually. He could put words together well when he was of a mind to do so, but he usually didn't string many together!
Talk about a guy who let his pistols do the talking.
But you're right; I was pleasantly surprised by this speech by Forrest.
 

AUG

Major
Retired Moderator
Joined
Nov 20, 2012
Location
Texas
This is the side of Forrest people don't hear about, but should. As Forrest is known to have said in an interview at the United States 40th Congress 3rd Session: “I want you to understand distinctly, I am not an enemy to the negro. We want him here among us; he is the only laboring class we have, and more than that, I would sooner trust him than a white scalawag or carpet-bagger. When I entered the army I took 47 negroes into the army with me, and 45 of them were surrendered with me. I said to them at the start: 'This fight is against slavery; if we lose it, you will be made free; if we whip the fight, and you stay with me and be good boys, I will set you free. In either case you will be free. Those boys stayed with me, drove my teams, and better confederates did not live.'"

There are many accounts that point out that these black teamsters were allowed to carry weapons and at times, during battle, got into the fight. I posted this a while back http://civilwartalk.com/threads/confederate-colored-servants-fight-at-chickamauga.81198/

People are taught that he was nothing but a racist slave trader who founded the kkk, and about what happened at Fort Pillow, when in fact there is a lot more to the man than just that. That other, not as well known information about Forrest should be taught as well.
 

Diana9

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Feb 25, 2012
Location
Southern California

John Hartwell

Major
Forum Host
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Aug 27, 2011
Location
Central Massachusetts
This is all very enlightening, indeed. Thank you for posting.

But, before lamenting "we weren't told" about this, and starting to think of some big anti-Forrest conspiracy, we should first wonder Why this comes as a surprise to most of us. I am far from an expert, but as I understand it, there has been a good bit of writing about Forrest in the past 150 years -- from full scale biographies to magazine articles -- most of it, I expect, admiring. Why didn't all, at least of those studies covering the post-war period, bring this up, and make it well known? Testimony strongly brought forward by his admirers would have been much harder for his detractors to ignore.

I suspect it is because the sentiments Forrest expressed in that 1875 speech, and later, were an embarrassment to most Americans, pro- and con-, in the Jim Crow era. And so, ignoring them, was in the interest of both those who loved him and those who hated him; and it is they who formed the cannon of future Forrest scholarship.

It all comes down to a strong argument in favor of the continued re-evaluation and "re-writing" of history.

jno
 

diane

Retired User
Joined
Jan 23, 2010
Location
State of Jefferson
This is all very enlightening, indeed. Thank you for posting.

But, before lamenting "we weren't told" about this, and starting to think of some big anti-Forrest conspiracy, we should first wonder Why this comes as a surprise to most of us. I am far from an expert, but as I understand it, there has been a good bit of writing about Forrest in the past 150 years -- from full scale biographies to magazine articles -- most of it, I expect, admiring. Why didn't all, at least of those studies covering the post-war period, bring this up, and make it well known? Testimony strongly brought forward by his admirers would have been much harder for his detractors to ignore.

I suspect it is because the sentiments Forrest expressed in that 1875 speech, and later, were an embarrassment to most Americans, pro- and con-, in the Jim Crow era. And so, ignoring them, was in the interest of both those who loved him and those who hated him; and it is they who formed the cannon of future Forrest scholarship.

It all comes down to a strong argument in favor of the continued re-evaluation and "re-writing" of history.

jno

There have been several well done efforts to shed light on who Forrest really was. He himself blamed his bad reputation on the northern press and Ft Pillow, which hung around his neck like an albatross. The northern papers, both during the war and after it, painted him in blood. Ft Pillow was used by Lincoln to force Davis to treat black Union POWs the same as whites - not to execute them for insurrection or return them to slavery or beat the daylights out of them or execute their white officers. Forrest himself was partly responsible for his bad rep - he very often bluffed with a dire and fearsome threats, such as no quarter. This was great psychology for the war - he won many battles through bluff and threat! However, it seems nobody noticed that if someone called his bluff, when he got them licked there was no death, doom, despair and general mayhem. Prisoners were actually surprised at how well they were treated. Black ones were returned to their masters or sent to Forrest's superiors for processing, and especially after Ft Pillow he got rid of them faster than if they had the plague! One Union chaplain was captured and Forrest asked him to supper. The chaplain didn't much like the idea of dining with Attila and his Huns but didn't have much choice. Forrest asked him to say the blessing. The reverend was so surprised he thought it was some kind of joke so he quickly looked around. Every head was bowed, every hand neatly folded, every eye closed. Except one - Forrest was eyeballing the preacher with one sharp eye! After the war, the northern press continued to portray Forrest as a guerrilla chieftain, a violent drunk, a man with a black wife and a white wife, and on and on. Then he joined the klan. I think that is what is wrong today. Forrest was not a founder but he did help to spread it throughout the South. He sold insurance for a while and it took him all over the place - he'd do business and then plug the klan a little! He also para-militarized it and set it up with an infrastructure based on his old war time intelligence network. The Union never broke Forrest's intelligence ring and they had great difficulty breaking the klan's. Grant stomped on them, but he probably should have been a lot more thorough about it than he was. I think he felt like Sherman did, that the decent men of the South would put a stop to them.

It's also worth noting that there are two versions of the Pole Bearers speech. One was published by the Memphis Avalanche, and contains the portions of the speech about friendly ex-Confederates, the blacks being born Southerners like whites and a couple other things. The Memphis Appeal - the version in the original post - deletes these comments. The Appeal's editor was a man named Galloway, who had been on Forrest's staff during the war and who was also a klansman - his paper always carried their cryptic messages. The Appeal was Democrat while the Avalanche tended to lean toward the Union although it was not Republican. So, it's a factor to take into consideration - the political leanings of the Memphis papers - and the reporting of the speech.
 

Lazy Bayou

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Apr 17, 2011
Location
Mississippi
It's also worth noting that there are two versions of the Pole Bearers speech. One was published by the Memphis Avalanche, and contains the portions of the speech about friendly ex-Confederates, the blacks being born Southerners like whites and a couple other things. The Memphis Appeal - the version in the original post - deletes these comments. The Appeal's editor was a man named Galloway, who had been on Forrest's staff during the war and who was also a klansman - his paper always carried their cryptic messages. The Appeal was Democrat while the Avalanche tended to lean toward the Union although it was not Republican. So, it's a factor to take into consideration - the political leanings of the Memphis papers - and the reporting of the speech.

The Commercial Appeal is still a left leaning paper. Nothing's changed.
 

bama46

Captain
I have read that speech about 50 times. It is well known and available to anyone who wants to learn about Forrest.He was like all of us, a man of many contrasts. Not as perfect as perhaps his admirers thought he was, not as evil as his detractors thought he was.
We must always remember, he was a man of his times and his experiences. They colored his outlook on life just as our times and experiences color ours
 

AndyHall

Colonel
Joined
Dec 13, 2011
As Bama46 says, this address to the Pole Bearers is very well known to anyone who's read much at all about Forrest. I'm not sure why it's "a story that needs to be told," since it's been "told" many, many times. A quote from it even appears in one of the CWT mod's signature line.

Much is made of this address he gave, and it is frequently cited as evidence that "ZOMG See? Forrest wasn't a racist!" or some such simplistic trope. But it has to be understood as only a part of a much larger picture, and in the context of the time and place it was made.
 

diane

Retired User
Joined
Jan 23, 2010
Location
State of Jefferson
I have read that speech about 50 times. It is well known and available to anyone who wants to learn about Forrest.He was like all of us, a man of many contrasts. Not as perfect as perhaps his admirers thought he was, not as evil as his detractors thought he was.
We must always remember, he was a man of his times and his experiences. They colored his outlook on life just as our times and experiences color ours

There is another, much less well known, speech Forrest gave to the Council of Aldermen in Memphis regarding the discrimination blacks were experiencing in employment and setting up businesses. He told the august body that there were many skilled persons among the newly freed slaves and that these skills were much needed by the South to rebuild. They now had their own stake in the hard labor they'd always done. As a former slave trader, Forrest was in a position - maybe ironically - to know much more about black people than those who owned them. He had bought and sold people who were far better educated than himself, after all! He also pointed out that in addition to large numbers of war cripples, there were also large numbers of white men who refused to work, or to do the menial work the blacks had always done. It would be a good thing for Memphis to ease up on the restrictions about race and employment!
 

diane

Retired User
Joined
Jan 23, 2010
Location
State of Jefferson
As Bama46 says, this address to the Pole Bearers is very well known to anyone who's read much at all about Forrest. I'm not sure why it's "a story that needs to be told," since it's been "told" many, many times. A quote from it even appears in one of the CWT mod's signature line.

Much is made of this address he gave, and it is frequently cited as evidence that "ZOMG See? Forrest wasn't a racist!" or some such simplistic trope. But it has to be understood as only a part of a much larger picture, and in the context of the time and place it was made.

That's exactly right. There was definitely a political undercurrent in it, despite Forrest's saying he wasn't talking politics. It would be nice if the Pole Bearers cozied up a little to the Democratic party. Forrest and some others recognized that the black vote was very important if they wished to restore the Democrat party to power in Tennessee. (Pillow obviously didn't appreciate that fact!)
 
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