I've watched a video with a simplified version of General Nathan Bedford Forrest's history. It was in the context of contemporary pressure to remove statues of Confederate leaders.

I did some fact-checking and found that many points were misleading or incorrect, for example:

  1. He started the Ku Klux Klan.
    Actually he was only its first Grand Wizard, it had already existed for two years.
  2. His army had massacred black Union soldiers after the surrender at Fort Pillow. (half truth)
    Edit: Also mentions Southern whites fighting for the Union, not sure if this included northern Union troops. Actually the Union troops at Fort Pillow consisted of black and white soldiers. Accounts from the time state that:

The whitte [sic] men fared but little better.
Achilles V. Clark, survivor of the massacre

  1. The reason he left the KKK was because its members "weren't disciplined enough".
    (To me this sounded to insinuate that he didn't believe they were racist enough, or something like this.)

Number 3 is the main part of my question. I've read from this source that after only a year in the Klan:

After only a year as Grand Wizard, in January 1869, faced with an ungovernable membership employing methods that seemed increasingly counterproductive, Forrest issued KKK General Order Number One: “It is therefore ordered and decreed, that the masks and costumes of this Order be entirely abolished and destroyed.”
Huffington Post article

And that he disbanded it (Ibid.).

In 1868 he denied ever being part of the Klan.
Wikipedia KKK membership

It seems also that he had a change of heart about his views, at least ostensibly. The Huffington Post article includes an excerpt from "Nathan Bedford Forrest: In Search of an Enigma":

on page 464 and 474-475, you can see that Forrest not only publicly disavowed the KKK and worked to terminate it, but in August 1874, Forrest “volunteered to help ‘exterminate’ those men responsible for the continued violence against the blacks.” After the murder of four blacks by a lynch mob after they were arrested for defending themselves at a BBQ, Forrest wrote to Tennessee Governor Brown, offering “to exterminate the white marauders who disgrace their race by this cowardly murder of Negroes.

So in case anyone lost the original question from reading the context I provided, my question is what is the reason this man left the KKK?

  • 1
    While I don't know enough about Forrest to give any sort of answer, perhaps the problem here is that the creators of the video (like all too many people) are indulging in simplistic binary thinking.
    – jamesqf
    Apr 20, 2018 at 18:01
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    2 Things: 1: There's a reason given in the WP article. What's wrong with it? 2: From what I can see reading his WP entry over, he at least once denied being in it while he was leading it. Given that, I'm not real sure why anyone should necessarily take him at his word that he really left when he said he did.
    – T.E.D.
    Apr 20, 2018 at 18:32
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    @Zebrafish - I'm not saying that. I'm just saying that's what the WP article on the subject said, and I'm wondering what was wrong with that explanation. "Its very badly supported" would certainly be a good answer.
    – T.E.D.
    Apr 20, 2018 at 19:37
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    "weren't disciplined enough" is a common comment of former generals when given civilian leadership roles. They expect obedience of their instructions rather than challenge. The Duke of Wellington said much the same of his cabinet when he became British Prime Minister in 1828
    – Henry
    Apr 20, 2018 at 20:08
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    Short answer: Forrest was an opportunist who was willing to make abrupt course changes in order to take advantage of circumstances. The main reason the first Klan ended is because the federal government very forcefully suppressed it. Once this vigorous federal effort began, it would no longer be to Forrest's advantage to associate himself with the Klan.
    – user2848
    Apr 21, 2018 at 23:02

1 Answer 1


Why did Nathan Bedford Forrest leave the KKK?


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Nathan Bedford Forrest was a wealthy plantation owner prior to the Civil war. A true believer in the South's cause. Given Forrest's wealth and the number of slaves he owned he was exempt from service in the Confederate Army. Still Forrest enlisted as a private on June 14, 1861, six days after Tennessee seceded from the union. Along with Forrest his youngest brother and 15 year old son enlisted with him and served along side him throughout the war. Upon volunteering for service as a private, Forrest outfitted his entire regiment with horses and equipment out of his own pocket.

Forrest had never been a professional soldier prior to the war, and had no formal education. A natural leader he rose through the ranks and became a Brigadier General July 21, 1862 (13 months after enlisting). Nathan Bedford Forrest is widely regarded as one of the finest calvary officers in the war on either side of the conflict. J.E.B Stuart and Nathan Bedford Forrest share this distinction among Southern Calvary Officers and are generally ranked #1 or #2 depending upon your opinion of J.E.B Stuart's actions leading up to the battle of Gettysburg.

General Forrest was famous even in the North and his name featured prominently in Union dispatches by such Union Generals as Grant and Sherman.

Nathan Bedford Forrest
Union General William Tecumseh Sherman called him "that devil Forrest" in wartime communications with Ulysses S. Grant and considered him "the most remarkable man our civil war produced on either side". Grant himself described Forrest as "a brave and intrepid cavalry general" ....Forrest is considered one of the Civil War's most brilliant tacticians by the historian Spencer C. Tucker.

Which is why he was named Grand Dragon of the KKK. The organization was secretive, his membership and leadership in that organization was not. Nathan Bedford Forrest's famous name brought the KKK recruits, publicity and notoriety.

Forrest took part in domestic Terrorism after the Civil War in an attempt to both suppress African Americans and dissuade them from voting in the Presidential election of 1868. There was a terror wave leading up to that Presidential election across the south with many thousands of people murdered, and sadly Nathan Bedford as leader of the Tennessee Klan, Forrest was right in the middle of it. Yes according to interviews Forrest gave in 1868 he said he was not affiliated with the terrorist organization while giving figures on it's membership in the tens of thousands. He also said members in the organization had pledged allegiance to the United States and said he was sympathetic with their goals, an important note to make for a former insurrectionist who himself had pledged allegiance to the Union as terms of his parole following the civil war. Also remember, his interview was given after the Terror wave has hit, and interested readers across the nation were considering the response for such action. After thousands had been murdered. Forrest was denying participation in what he would latter admit occurred under his leadership.

In Jan of 1869 in a different interview Forrest said he had resigned as Grand Dragon of the KKK after serving in that role for 1 year and had disbanded the organization. Resigned from membership and leadership in the organization because of "discipline" problems.

This was not the first time Nathan Bedford Forrest used the "discipline" problems excuse to escape the hangman's noose. It is not the first time his brutal tactics, or at least his tolerance of brutal tactics on defenseless people backfired on his cause. April 12, 1864, in Henning, Tennessee at the Battle of Fort Pillow about 40 miles north of Memphis. Troops under Nathan Bedford Forrest fell upon a union fortress named Fort Pillow which was about half colored and half white troops. After the Union troops surrendered Nathan Bedford Forrest's troops set about slaughtering the defenseless soldiers including women and children.

The New York Times reported on April 24:
The blacks and their officers were shot down, bayoneted and put to the sword in cold blood.... Out of four hundred negro soldiers only about twenty survive! At least three hundred of them were destroyed after the surrender! This is the statement of the rebel General Chalmers himself to our informant.

Battle of Fort Pillow
The rebels commenced an indiscriminate slaughter, sparing neither age nor sex, white nor black soldier nor civilian. The officers and men seemed to vie with each other in the devilish work. Men, women and their children, wherever found, were deliberately shot down, beaten and hacked with sabres. Some of the children, not more than ten years old, were forced to stand up and face their murderers while being shot. The sick and wounded were butchered without mercy, the rebels even entering the hospital buildings and dragging them out to be shot, or killing them as they lay there unable to offer the least resistance.

Forrest would report the incident in his dispatches.

The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for two hundred yards. The approximate loss was upward of five hundred killed, but few of the officers escaping. My loss was about twenty killed. It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.

I think this blurb sums up Fort Pillow nicely

Nathan Bedford Forrest
The consensus of recent historians is that Forrest did not order the massacre; after thorough investigation he was not charged with a crime nor dereliction of duty. It was, however, the South's publicly stated position that slaves firing on whites would be killed on the spot, along with Southern whites that fought for the Union, whom the Confederacy considered traitors. According to this analysis, Forrest's troops were carrying out Confederate policy, and were simply obeying orders. By his inaction Forrest showed that he felt no compunction to stop the slaughter, and his repeated later denials that he knew a massacre was taking place, or even that a massacre had occurred at all, are not credible. Consequently, despite this isolated incident in his otherwise distinguished career as a general, his role in it was a stigmatizing one for him the rest of his life, both professionally and personally,

  • Note: Just following orders was a top excuse given at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials after WWII. Many of the convicted and executed Nazi war criminals would attempt to use that defense/explaination.*

The aftermath of Fort Pillow were disastrous for the Confederacy. Prisoner exchanges ceased a few months latter, with Pillow being a root cause. Also Union troops were disinclined to surrender after this massacre even when outnumbered or surrounded. Popularity in the war grew significantly in the North as a result too. Overall, the brutal tactics backfired on General Forrest, and the Confederacy.

In 1868 4 years after Fort Pillow, history would repeat itself. In the Presidential Elections of 1868 thousands of African Americans were murdered across the south. Nathan Bedford Forrest by his own accounts was the public vocal leader of one of the domestic terrorist organization which conducted these atrocities. Yet, Union General Ulyses S Grant still won the election in a landslide, along with majorities in both the Congress and Senate. Grant literally ran his campaign for president in opposition to the Klan's wave of terror. Grant's campaign slogan in 1868 was "Let us have peace".

Grant Responds to the racial hit squads being conducted in the South with

  • The Fourteenth Amendment (July 9, 1868) Grants Citizenship, due process, and equal protections.
  • The Fifteenth Amendment (February 3, 1870), Protects the right to vote, and grants the federal government the authority to do so.
  • Enforcement Acts 3 acts from 1870-1871 which resulted in thousands of arrests and prosecutions of southerners. The third enforcement act is also known as the KKK act as it gave the Federal government special privileges tailored for going after the Klan.
    -made state officials liable in federal court for depriving anyone of their civil rights
    • made a number of the KKK's intimidation tactics into federal offenses
    • authorized the president to call out the militia to suppress conspiracies against the operation of the federal government
    • prohibited those suspected of complicity to serve on juries related to the Klan's activities.
    • authorized the president to suspend habeas corpus
    • It was passed at the request of President Ulysses S. Grant.


I would argue that it's one thing to be a famous public leader of a domestic terrorist organization in 1867 and it's an entirely different thing to be such in 1868 after Grant was elected President, and the nation had witnessed thousands of murders during the Presidential Election.

We know Nathan Bedford Forrest was a domestic Terrorist who brutally suppressed African Americans after the war and prior to the 1868 election. We know he was both active in the Klan, and lied about both his leadership and membership in the organization. We know he lied under oath, before Congress.

Nathan Bedford Forrest
Forrest testified before the Congressional investigation on Klan activities on June 27, 1871. He denied membership, but his individual role in the KKK was beyond the scope of the investigating committee, which wrote, "our design is not to connect General Forrest with this order, (the reader may form his own conclusion upon this question... ."[156] The committee also noted, "The natural tendency of all such organizations is to violence and crime; hence it was that General Forrest and other men of influence in the state, by the exercise of their moral power, induced them to disband".

We know the Klan's brutal activities were counter productive and lead to two Constitutional Amendments and 3 Federal laws to capture and punish Klan members. ( like the RICO act only in 1868). These laws resulted in thousands of arrests.

And we have Nathan Bedford Forrest the Leader of the Klan saying after his tactics failed, that he had resigned and disbanded the organization and washed his hands of it. It wasn't me, it wasn't me!! All this on the eve of the Feds getting tough on these terrorist organizations after thousands had been murdered at their hands. We know the Federal Government arrested thousands of suspected Klansmen, shortly after Nathan Bedford Forrest, their public face proclaims himself a victim of poor discipline, and dissolved the criminal organization with a bullseye on it's back.

I would thus argue that Forrest never resigned from his leadership of the Klan. We only have Forrest's own statements to suggest he had resigned and Forrest lied continuously about his more controversial conduct. I would observe, Forrest is not a creditable source especially when disavowing his responsibilities for actions where the consequences would be severe.

History tells us the Klan went from overt to covert after the 1868 Election, with good reason, due to their conduct leading up to the 1868 election. History also informs us Nathan Bedford Forrest's son would emerge some years later as the Grand Dragon of the KKK, suggesting the Forrest family had continuous sympathies and high connections with the organization.

Forrest's declaration that he was the Grand Dragon and had disbanded the organization is more appropriately attributed as an attempt to get himself and his state out of the Federal's cross hairs. We know Forrest himself was never prosecuted for his crimes, and we know the KKK in Tennessee continued on for more than 100 more years.

from zebrafish's original question
His army had massacred black Union soldiers after the surrender at Fort Pillow. (half truth)

Half Truth??!

Battle of Fort Pillow
Historians agree that defenders' casualties varied considerably according to race. Only 58 (around 20%) black soldiers were marched away as prisoners, whereas 168 (about 60%) of the white soldiers were taken prisoner. Not all of the prisoners who were shot were black; Major Bradford was apparently among those shot after he surrendered.[39] Confederate anger at the thought of black men fighting them and their initial reluctance to surrender (many of the black troops believed they would be killed if they surrendered in Union uniform) resulted in a tragedy.

In addition to the soldiers Forrest's troops used the women and children as shields during the battle and slaughtered them too after the surrender. It was one of the worst atrocities against surrendered troops in the US civil war and was investigated by both the Union army (General Sherman) and Congress. While Forrest was not charged for his command of this atrocity the event followed him for the rest of his life both personally and professionally; and was among the first things mentioned in his obituary decades after the event.


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    Interesting. Thanks for the info. So you believe his departure from the Klan and his order to dissolve it was more for political or reputation reasons. Also I'm guessing later on in '74 when he specifically made some really stern condemnations against racists and white supremacists this was also for political or reputation reasons.
    – Zebrafish
    Apr 21, 2018 at 1:50
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    As for 74, Look we know Forrest was a liar. He lied in interviews about being in the Klan. He lied under oath with one hand on the bible before Congress about being in the Klan. Why is it so hard to believe he gave a speech in front of a NY Times reporter, to show what a good boy he was being in 1874? Just a few months after Grant passed the third and most devastating Enforcement Act. Fact is Forrest was very lucky he wasn't hung.
    – user27618
    Apr 21, 2018 at 2:04
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    This is extremely lengthy (including the photo, which adds nothing and takes up almost a whole screenful), and very little of this material really has anything to do with answering the question.
    – user2848
    Apr 21, 2018 at 22:59
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    @jamesqf, slaughter of troops after surrender not to mention women and children, was not common place on either side of the civil war. It wasn't common for Forrest either, yet he did this thing and it was such an atrocity it inspired two investigations, one headed up by Sherman, the other a Congressional investigation. It haunted Forrest for the rest of his life "both professionally and personally". It's not a question of his time excusing his behavior, It was an atrocity in his time. Murdering hundreds of defenseless soldiers, and women, and children by gruesome means after surrender.
    – user27618
    Apr 22, 2018 at 19:08
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    @BenCrowell Demonstrating that Gen. Forest committed an atrocity during the civil war and lied about it throughout his life establishes a pattern. Showing he committed acts of terrorism leading up to the 1868 Presidential election while lying about it further extends that pattern. That he claims to have left the KKK, as the sword of Damocles is whistling towards his head fits that pattern and fulfills the supports the given answer to this question. Forest was a true believer who twice overstepped in using terror to support his cause, when called upon to face the consequences he lied.
    – user27618
    Apr 22, 2018 at 19:28

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