“Down Along with That Devil’s Bones: A Reckoning with Monuments, Memory, and the Legacy of White Supremacy”
Author: Connor Towne O’Neill
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Price: $26.95 (Hardcover)
Connor O’Neill, a recent graduate of the U of A MFA program, may be known to Alabamians for his work on the podcast “White Lies.” This is his first book and it is a solid and timely assessment of the history of Confederate monuments, focusing on those dedicated to Nathan Bedford Forrest.
The discussion of systemic racism in general and of statues honoring Confederates in particular is raging nationwide. There are, O’Neill reminds us, over 1,500 “publicly sponsored symbols honoring Confederate leaders.” About 700 of them are monuments, not just plaques.
All Confederates are Confederates but not all Confederates were complete monsters.
Here in Tuscaloosa, Morgan Hall, named after a Confederate general, is now the English Building. Like the Washington football team, it has been cast into nomenclature limbo. Morgan fought for the South but, as Jacksonville University historian Hardy Jackson has written eloquently, was also hugely important in the progress of the University of Alabama after the war.
Nathan Bedford Forrest would seem harder to defend. In Memphis, he operated the biggest slave market in the South, buying and selling over one thousand souls a year at a profit of one million a year in modern money. During the war he failed to stop the massacre of black Union troops at Fort Pillow, and afterwards was the first Grand Wizard of the KKK.
By many, however, he is revered even above Robert E. Lee. Lee, an aristocrat, was a strategist, a gentleman, and, O’Neill suggests, may have been symbolically emasculated, for purposes of myth-making, by presiding over the surrender at Appomattox.
Forrest, a hand-to-hand warrior, reputedly had 29 horses shot out from under him.
He was essentially illiterate and is quoted as saying the sight of a pen reminded him of a snake. It is distressing to be reminded that Forrest was revered by men of such conspicuous sophistication as the Agrarian Andrew Lytle and the remarkable historian Shelby Foote who called Forrest, “the most man in the world.”
Forrest’s bones, in Memphis, have for the faithful the status of saints’ relics.
There are, we are told, 31 Forrest monuments in Tennessee alone, more than the statues of the three U.S. presidents from Tennessee combined.
O’Neill focusses on three of the Tennessee sites of Forrest worship but first focusses on Selma, Alabama, the town Forrest defended unsuccessfully for a few hours before it was burned down by Union troops.
In an African-American–majority city, the home of so much racial violence, how galling to have the bronze bust erected on city property immediately after the election of the first black mayor.
At Middle Tennessee State University, the ROTC building was name for Forrest in 1958. The school desegregated in 1962. That year Forrest became the football sideline mascot.
O’Neill reminds the readers that most monuments were erected NOT right after the Civil War but during periods of change in racial laws—right after Reconstruction, around 1905 during the imposition of Jim Crow, at the Dixiecrat rebellion in 1948, during the school integration and civil rights years.
They reflect the times they were built more than the 1860s and are meant to be defiant, proclamations of white supremacy, O’Neill argues, not memorials to heritage and courage.
O’Neill also rejects the notion, put forward by the Southern League and other apologists, that the war was fought for states rights. Forrest himself put it plainly: “If we ain’t fighting to keep slavery, then what the hell are we fighting for?”