The title of this blog comes from a remark made by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman during the American Civil War. Referring to the notorious Tennessee-born former slave trader, Confederate Cavalry General, and later, prominent member of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Sherman growled in 1864 that “that devil Forrest must be hunted down and killed if it costs ten thousand lives and bankrupts the federal treasury.”
Forrest proved a constant thorn in the side of Union commanders in the Civil War’s western campaigns, and he remains a controversial figure in American history to this day. As a symbol of the support for the system of chattel slavery and racial oppression that birthed the Confederate States of America, Forrest is simultaneously derided by those who wish to move beyond the uglier events of America’s past and celebrated by those who want to wrap up the past’s wounds in factually relative, revisionist gauze.
Beyond competing memories of the Civil War’s tumultuous legacy, however, Forrest serves as a greater symbol of how the American past, in William Faulkner’s famous words, is “not even past.” History continues to influence contemporary discussions of everything from political debates to popular culture. This is because everyone has an opinion — however well or poorly informed — about American history. Even those who claim ambivalence or outright hostility to the study of the past will have a strongly worded stance on it once you prod them enough on their particular pet issue. Thus, historical figures like Forrest, and the symbols and ideologies evoked by such figures, continue to stir passions among the historically literate and illiterate alike. Depending on who you ask, and depending on the cultural context on which they base their opinions, Forrest is either a hero or a villain — his legacy either embraced or rejected.
In this respect, the symbol of “that devil Forrest” might well be applied to history itself. Indeed, history is that most nefarious of devils whose influence can be embraced or rejected, invoked for good or bad, used to justify peace or murder, freedom or repression. This blog, then, will tackle “That Devil History” warts and all to examine crucial issues in America’s past. Furthermore, it will also connect historical issues to contemporary ones to discuss the ways history is appropriated and refashioned to suit the needs of the righteous and the devious alike, the best and the worst in American society.
Thanks for reading. I’m looking forward to looking backward.