Haley Barbour would like to take a run at the presidency, but his close identification with Old Dixie keeps getting in the way. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the Sons of Confederate Veterans are sponsoring a vanity license plate venerating the memory of Confederate commander Nathan Bedford Forrest. By all accounts, Forrest was a bold and ruthless leader with a gift for guerilla warfare, but he comes with a little baggage.
After the Civil War, Nathan Bedford Forrest served as the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The Mississippi NAACP isn’t impressed.
But there’s more. Civil War historians have tied Forrest to a string of wartime atrocities, the worst of them being the infamous fort pillow massacre. Here’s an account of that incident from a New York Times article published on the day of Forrest’s death in 1877.
Without discrimination of age or sex, men, women, and children, the sick and wounded in the hospitals, were butchered without mercy. The bloody work went on until night put a temporary stop to it; but it was renewed at early dawn, when the inhuman captors searched the vicinity of the fort, dragging out wounded fugitives and killing them where they lay.
The whole history of the affair was brought out by a Congressional inquiry, and the testimony presents a long series of sickening, cold-blooded atrocities. Forrest reported his own loss at 20 killed and 60 wounded; and states that he buried 228 Federals on the evening of the assault. Yet in the face of this he claimed that the Fort Pillow capture was “a bloody victory, only made a massacre by dastardly Yankee reporters.”
The news of the massacre aroused the whole country to a paroxysm of horror and fury. A force of 12,000 men was sent against Forrest, under Gen. Sturgis, who so wretchedly mismanaged the affair that he was utterly routed by him. Another column was sent against him in July, under A. J. Smith, which met with scarcely better success, and the next thing heard of Forrest was when, on the morning of Aug. 18, he made a sudden and daring raid through Memphis, escaping with small loss.
In short, Nathan Bedford Forrest is a polarizing figure, the line of demarcation running the length and breadth of the Mason-Dixon Line. In the 19th century, Northerners were aghast at the slaughter of defenseless men, women and children (half of them African-American); Southerners took pleasure in their man’s dexterous defiance. In the twenty-first century, Yankees remember Forrest as a sadistic racist; those longing for the restoration of the Old Confederacy venerate the man as a war hero embodying everything that made the Lost Cause great and noble.
Thus far, Haley Barbour has refused to denounce the Mississippi politicians who are sponsoring the Nathan Bedford Forrest vanity plate. There’s no need to comment, the governor says, because the legislative effort is bound to fail.
But here’s the problem: Mr. Barbour can’t denounce those who would honor the founder of the KKK without angering his political base, and he can’t ignore the controversy without killing his presidential ambitions. A recent article in Slate lays out the historical root of the problem.
Unlike the generation of conservative Southern politicians before him, who were almost all ardent segregationists, Barbour entered politics in the post-civil rights era. He has no personal track record of joining filibusters, blocking schoolhouse doors, or engaging in the blunt race-baiting that was critical to Southern political advancement in the mid-20th century. Thus, he hasn’t faced the same ceiling that stymied, say, Richard Russell, the Georgia senator who coveted the presidency but knew it was unattainable, thanks to his role as Jim Crow’s preservationist-in-chief.
But Barbour still has plenty of Old South in him, and it tends to show when he talks about his own political roots and the Mississippi of his youth. To call Barbour racist is probably too much; the problem is more that he still seems to accept the version of Southern history that he and every other white child in Yazoo City was presented with back in the 1950s and early 1960s. He never really appreciated just what Jim Crow meant to the blacks who lived on the other side of town. He never really figured out how to talk about race outside of the South, other than to say he didn’t like segregation.
Republican presidential aspirants like Mike Huckabee do a much better job of nuancing the racial history issue. But Mike doesn’t live in Mississippi; Haley does.