Reading Birmingham: Author Connor Towne O’Neill Explores Race Through the Legacy of Nathan Bedford Forrest

Nathan Bedford Forrest statue stands in Memphis. (Source: Lisa M Friedrichs via Wikimedia Commons)

“Down Along With That Devil’s Bones: A Reckoning With Monuments, Memory, and the Legacy of White Supremacy,” by Connor Towne O’Neill (Algonquin Books)

Earlier this year when the city of Birmingham removed the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument from Linn Park, the action was part of a broad nationwide discussion on the place of Confederate symbols in our culture and who decides how and where those symbols are displayed.

Connor Towne O’Neill, who teaches in the English Department at Auburn University and produces the National Public Radio podcast White Lie, has achieved every nonfiction author’s dream. He began researching a book five years ago that is now being published and could not be more relevant to this moment.

Race in America is too big a topic to take in a single bite. O’Neill chose to examine a more narrow but telling slice. “Down Along With That Devil’s Bones” is a travelogue of race and racial tensions that explores the topic through the life and legacy of one of the Confederacy’s most popular figures, Nathan Bedford Forrest.

“In his symbolic afterlife,” O’Neill writes, “Forrest haunts the landscape.” There are busts of Forrest on display in Selma and the Tennessee state capital, statues in Rome, Georgia, and Memphis. Dozens of schools, streets, buildings and other memorials remember the Confederate general. With “each generation,” the author writes, “Forest’s legend has only grown.” According to one source, Forrest T-shirts outsell Robert E. Lee.

Why Forrest? Born into poverty, Nathan Bedford Forrest gained wealth as a Memphis slave trader, selling Blacks born in the upper South to slave holders in the lower South. In the Civil War, he fought for the Confederacy, rising from the rank of private to lieutenant general, and built a reputation as a daring and inventive cavalry officer. For many adherents of the Confederacy’s lost cause, Forrest is the great missed opportunity. If his skills had been appreciated sooner, if he had been given a larger role, many believe the war might have turned in the South’s favor. “He is the Confederate counterfactual,” O’Neill argues, “the great hope of the Monday morning Rebel quarterback who refuses to accept the war’s end or outcome.”

Like a good journalist and a curious explorer, O’Neill asks questions and listens everywhere he goes. In Selma, he accepts a packet of racist literature from a diehard Forrest fan, and he reads what she has given him. At Middle Tennessee State University, he meets students campaigning to remove Forrest’s name from a campus building. In Memphis he sees the massive equestrian statue that sits atop Forrest’s grave, and outside Nashville he finds a roadside statue of Forrest so amateurish and garish that “it could be on a mini-golf course.”

And as he travels and listens, one thing becomes clear. Battles over Nathan Forrest are not, at their heart, about Forrest. These fights are over the meaning that people attach to Forrest. Some see a gallant hero while others see a murderous agent of oppression.

As O’Neill explores the battlefields where Forrest fought and the shrines where he is venerated, the author recognizes an uncomfortable truth about the sometimes clueless but often harmful nature of whiteness. White people perpetrated slavery, lynching, disfranchisement, segregation. We are still fighting over the meaning of the Civil War because we are still fighting over who gets to define the meaning of justice, equality, privilege  and decency. The current battles over memory and monuments have revealed “a deep rift in American life,” O’Neill writes.

Many white Americans today are open to looking at race more honestly. But many other whites hold beliefs that are as primitive and vicious as those held by their 19th century ancestors. If you have witnessed a Trump parade — not on television or online but up close and in person, as I did a few weeks ago — then you know this is true. Unschooled and uncouth, a slaver, white supremacist, and traitor to his country, Nathan Bedford Forrest is a fitting symbol for what was worst about his own time and what is worst about our own.

“Down Along With That Devil’s Bones” is a beautifully written book that explores some of America’s ugliest sins through the life and legacy of a profound sinner.

Suggestions for additional reading:

“Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture,” by Karen L. Cox (University Press of Florida)

“The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory,” by Adam H. Domby (University of Virginia Press)

“The Cause Lost: Myths and Realities of the Confederacy,” by William C. Davis (University Press of Kansas)

James L. Baggett

 About Reading Birmingham: James L. Baggett, a Birmingham archivist, has assisted with research on many of the 450 books about Birmingham and Alabama since 1970. He reviews new publications and older titles that address the city and state for Birmingham Watch. He has authored or edited five books on Birmingham and Alabama history. Baggett received the Alabama Library Association’s 2019 Eminent Librarian Award.