Son of the South
Madison Smartt Bell on the controversial life of Nathan Bedford Forrest
Charismatic and controversial, Civil War General Nathan Bedford Forrest has been the subject of many a narrative. Now, novelist Madison Smartt Bell--a fellow son of Tennessee, National Book Award finalist and entertaining dinner companion--takes on this complicated man in Devil's Dream, a thought-provoking and deeply felt study of a general who truly was larger than life (Forrest was six-foot-two, almost as tall as President Lincoln and an unusual height for the time).
Devil's Dream guides readers through much of Forrest's life, from his unconventional courtship of Southern belle Mary Ann Montgomery to the close of the Civil War. Bell, who most recently chronicled the Haitian uprising in a trilogy of novels based on the life of Toussaint L'Ouverture, has created a vivid portrayal of Forrest, who was a natural leader and an amazing horseman (he claimed 30 were shot out from under him during the war) as well as a slave trader and staunch supporter of the Confederacy. We asked Bell a few questions about history, Forrest and the war's legacy.
Much is made of Forrest's ability to inspire his men against the odds. What would you say was his best quality as a general?
To get it into one sentence: he would do anything himself that he would ask his men to do, from carrying provisions across a ford to charging a numerically superior enemy all out. A leader that actually leads in that way—out in front when the going is tough and the risk is high—is kinda special.
The structure of Devil's Dream is unusual—the chapters move backward and forward in time, from Forrest's marriage to the end of the Civil War. How did you decide on an order for the chapters?
Well. The proximate motive was to keep it from getting too long. . . . I needed to cover Forrest’s whole career in the war and a chronological linear approach would have swole up on me, I feared. So I picked four narrative lines that I thought I would weave altogether throughout the book, and then I began writing what I thought were the most attractive episodes in any order. When I had about half of them done, me and my daughter (also a fiction writer, then in high school) spread all the chapters out on the floor and played solitaire with them till there was a tentative arrangement. The rest of the chapters were fit into that arrangement (which evolved as it went along and as I wrote more chapters).
Aside from controlling the length I thought this approach would allow me to arrange events thematically more than chronologically, which seemed like it might be good. I had some grave doubts along the way about whether this experimental approach was working out well or not, but most readers seem to like it . . . so far.
Henri, a black man from Haiti, is the novel's other central character, and much of the tale is told through his eyes. He calls Forrest "a man you can follow" despite having originally planned to come to America to lead a slave rebellion. What inspired this character?
Jack Kershaw, lawyer, polymath, outsider artist of real distinction, perhaps best known to you as the creator of the Bedford Forrest equestrian statue on I-65 north of Old Hickory [in Nashville], told me a story that Forrest’s personal bodyguard was all black men and captained by a son of Toussaint L'Ouverture. I could find no evidence to support this assertion (and any blood son of Toussaint would have been over 60 by the time of the Civil War). But I liked this idea, and in a novel you do get to make things up. I created a Haitian character who had some misfortunate involvement with actual events in Haiti around the right time and needed to go elsewhere for a while.
Devil's Dream ends after peace is declared, without going into Forrest's life after the war and his controversial involvement with the Ku Klux Klan. Why? Do you feel that the war was the most meaningful part of his life?
I think the post-war events are a really a separate story. I think the war was the peak of Forrest’s life, though (in spite of his great talent for pure violence as well as military tactics and strategy) I don’t think he’d have chosen for it to be. The war wore him out and broke his health—he never completely recovered.
As for the KKK, a chronology of real events at the end of my novel throws some light on it. Because of the secrecy it’s hard to know anything for dead sure, but what seems likely is that Forrest did not found the Klan, as is often alleged, but was invited to assume its leadership by Nashvillean John Morton, who had been his artillery commander during the war. Forrest had enough prestige to enforce some organization and discipline, which can be hard to do in a clandestine terrorist organization spread over such a large region.
The Reconstruction KKK was devoted to restoring white supremacy and getting back political rights for former Confederates. It was among other things a resistance movement on the part of a people whose territory was under military occupation by a hostile power. In that sense, the Reconstruction KKK resembles entities like, say, the PLO more than it does later avatars that cropped up in the 1930s and 1960s, which I consider to be racist fascist hate groups and nothing more. The Reconstruction Klan was disbanded after Confederates got their political rights back and Forrest did say that he ordered it to be permanently disbanded at that time, which I am inclined to believe.
Forrest offered freedom to some of the slaves that served with him, and called for harmony between the races in at least two public speeches after the Civil War. Yet he was a slave trader and Klan member. How do you explain these contradictory impulses? Do they need to be explained?
The contradictions are certainly interesting and rather hard to figure out. For one thing I think Forrest was not a very reflective person, and so could accommodate paradoxes in his being and behavior more comfortably than more reflective people could.
Beyond that, I think the key is that Forrest did nothing half-heartedly. At the end of the war he desperately wanted to go to Texas or Mexico to carry on some kind of struggle in one of those places but he was persuaded by Anderson that it would be wrong to abandon his soldiers that way. So he threw himself into dealing with the consequences of defeat with all the energy he had thrown into the war. The Klan was about making the conditions of defeat more tolerable to the interest group to which Forrest belonged. Once the Klan disbanded though, Forrest was vociferous in denouncing white on black racial violence, and did work quite seriously for racial reconciliation.
Now I have no doubt that Forrest was a white supremacist through and through, that he thought blacks inferior to whites and believed that blacks needed to be governed and directed by whites . . . as in fact did most white men of his time. (Abolitionists who were also true egalitarians, like Wendell Philips, were exceptional).
A big difference between Forrest and most others in the South is that he had more contact with a greater variety of black people because he was a slave trader. Forrest was constantly encountering every type of person who was in slavery. He had far more acquaintance and knowledge of them than most—and I think that in spite of that deep vein of virulent racism his instinct was to take individuals one at a time and finally judge them (um, to quote a famous phrase) on the content of their character.
Another thing, Forrest was a pragmatist and a somewhat unusually farsighted one. That allowed him to understand what Sherman was up to way before anybody else, during the war . . . and after the war, I think he was early to understand that for the South to recover its social harmony and prosperity there would have to be meaningful racial reconciliation, acceptable to both whites and blacks. That idea did not get itself generally accepted until the 1960s, and then not without a lot of struggle and pain.
There are many memorable monuments to Forrest throughout the South—even schools have been named in his honor. These often inspire controversy. Do you feel those who want to remove Forrest's name from buildings, etc., have a valid case?
If there are public schools named for Bedford Forrest I think they should take his name off the door and put a few good books about him in the library and require students to read them alongside the works of Frederick Douglas and Sojourner Truth, and so on. In general it’s probably not a great idea to name schools for combatants in a civil war.
More generally, I believe the principle is the same as not flying the Confederate battle flag on government buildings—the flag, or the enshrinement of the Confederate hero in the school, is bound to make some people think they will not get the unbiased treatment they are entitled to, when they go into those places looking for education or for justice.
I feel differently about Civil War monuments on the battlefield sites, and squares and so on. These memorialize one aspect of the story: the struggle and sacrifice of white men fighting for what each side at the time conceived to be its nation. That’s only part of the whole story but it is important and it would be stupid and destructive to push it into oblivion. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to . . . etc. At the same time, there could stand to be a few more monuments commemorating the struggle and sacrifice of other classes of people, particularly black people of the period, in and out of slavery. I’m for putting up more and tearing none down.
You started out writing contemporary fiction, but your recent works have been historical fiction. What is it about the past that inspires you? Do you think you'll continue to write historical fiction?
Well, the story of Toussaint L'Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution struck me as a wonderful tale that few Americans knew anything about at the time I started working on it. . . . A discovery, that is.
And in general I think that diving into the past every so often is good for refreshing your sense of the present. I like to write a mix of contemporary and historical narratives.
What are you working on next?
A book with a basically contemporary setting, otherwise so weird I can’t really describe it, and a novel about the Creek Wars (which pitted Andrew Jackson against Lamochattee (aka Red Eagle and William Weatherford).
What are you reading now?
Mvskoke language instruction, Karl Kerenyi’s book on Dionysus, memoirs of Milfort, Davy Crocket, Benjamin Hawkins and Sam Dale, Yanvalou pour Charlie by Lionel Trouillot, essays by Edwidge Danticat, a book on the “Clovis” people in Pleistocene America, novel about Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn, novel about stock and bond traders by Cortwright McMeel, The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola… you know, stuff like that.