Confederate History and Heritage Month: The "emphatically good" treatment of Nathan Bedford Forrest's slaves

Nathan Bedford Forrest. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

As we continue our celebration of all of the glorious and wonderful things our Confederate ancestors did, lest we forget perhaps one of the most important Confederate figures to ever live, General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest was accomplished both on and off of the battlefield.  His business prowess, specifically before the war, was the stuff of legends. Forrest was a self-made millionaire before a single shot was ever fired. What talent! But don't think that the money came easily. Forrest had to work his tail off to make all of that cash!

Forrest, Jones & Company slave trade advertisement. The Memphis Daily
Avalanche, December 24, 1859 (Image courtesy of

Let's turn now to this passage from Jack Hurst's wonderful biography, "Nathan Bedford Forrest":

“The appearance and atmosphere of this compound were recalled in 1923 by Horatio J. Eden, a Memphis-born Arkansas barber who in the 1850s—as a child of “four or five”—was sold with his mother at the Forrest establishment. Its “yard was a kind of square stockade of high boards with two room negro houses around, say, three sides of it and high board fence too high to be scaled on the other side or sides.” The slaves “were all kept in these rooms, but when an auction was held or buyers came, we were brought out and paraded two by two around a circular brick walk in the center of the stockade. The buyers would stand near by and inspect us as we went by, stop us and examine us and our teeth and limbs and a Doctor generally [would examine] if there were sick negroes.” Eden said his mother later explained to him that the buyers always examined them “to see if there were any scars on our body from a whip as it indicated a vicious temper or as they said a ‘bad nigger.’
Southern Caucasian legend has it that the proprietor of these premises was emphatically good to his human stock in trade. Writer Lafcadio Hearn, who was visiting Memphis at the time of Forrest’s funeral in 1877, reported that he was said to have been “kind to his negroes; that he never separated members of a family, and that he always told his slaves to go out in the city and choose their own masters.” No slave took advantage of this freedom to run away, Hearn said, because “Forrest taught them that it was to their interest not to abuse the privilege; and, as he also taught them to fear him exceedingly, I can believe the story. There were some men in the town to whom he would never sell a slave, because they had the reputation of being cruel masters.
Colonel George W. Adair, an Atlanta slave dealer and later newspaper executive “intimately associated with Forrest during this period of his career,” has been quoted in particularly roseate terms, asserting that Forrest “was overwhelmed with applications from many of this class, who begged him to purchase them.” Adair went on to say that when “a slave was purchased for him, his first act was to turn him over to his negro valet, Jerry, with instructions to wash him thoroughly and put clean clothes on him from head to foot,” thus making the slave “proud of belonging to him.” Adair said Forrest “was always very careful when he purchased a married slave to use every effort to secure also the husband or wife, as the case might be, and unite them, and in handling children he would not permit the separation of a family.
He is reported to have been “kind” to his slaves, yet to have “taught them to fear him exceedingly”; was it possible to be the one while doing the other? Possibly so, because a little fear could go a long way. The inflammatory but in some ways accurate New York Tribune dispatch of 1864 would charge that his slave yard was “a perfect horror to all negroes far and near” and that his method of punishing a “refractory” slave was to require four others to hold the victim “stretched out in the air” while Forrest and his crippled brother John, whom the dispatch described as the establishment’s “jailor and clerk,” would stand “one on each side” and “cut up” the victim with bullwhips “until the blood trickled to the ground.” The article went on to claim that slave women had been “stripped naked” and whipped with a “heavy leather thong dipped in a bucket of salt water,” and that one male slave had been whipped to death with a “trace chain, doubled,” and secretly buried.
This dispatch’s account of such whippings could well be expected to horrify Northern readers of 1864 almost as much as those of today, but whipping wasn’t uncommon in the antebellum South. Interviews with freed slaves contain countless descriptions similar to those in the Tribune article, differing only in minor details. Sallie Carder, who lived as a slave in western Tennessee and was interviewed at age eighty-three in Burwin, Oklahoma, recalled that there “was a white post in front of my door with ropes to tie the slaves to whip dem.” For the whippings, she said, owners or overseers commonly used “a plain strap, another one with holes in it, and one dey call de cat wid nine tails which was a number of straps plated [i.e., plaited] and de ends unplated.” The slaves would be whipped with “a wide strap wid holes in it and de holes would make blisters. Den dey would take de cat wid nine tails and burst de blisters and en rub de sores wid turpentine and red pepper.” 
Dealing with a large and constantly changing number of slaves on as temporary a basis as his salesmanship could render possible, Forrest—and his “brother John, who was involved in the Memphis business by 1857, if not before—had to have stringent discipline, and whipping was the most common punishment to accomplish it. It perhaps was more “kind” and “humane” in the long run to make an occasional horrific example of some transgressor of a rule, thus rendering the large majority eager to obey every rule and making the whippings a rare occurrence. As horrible as whippings were, they seem to have been considered by both blacks and whites to be of less importance than the separation of families.
As an “intimate” associate, Colonel Adair had to have known what Lafcadio Hearn and most others unfamiliar with the language and customs of slave dealing probably did not: that to be successful, a slave trader had to be known as humane, at least in the areas where he bought slaves. Few planters of any prominence would sell to a trader possessing any other kind of reputation, either because of their own sensitivity or out of sensitivity to the opinions of their peers. Selling in itself was to be avoided whenever possible. “Few persons of good standing and not traders ever admitted that they had sold slaves, except ‘involuntarily’; virtually none admitted that they had divided families.” 
Yet many, probably most, actually did divide families; they stood to gain more profit by doing it. Some even did so openly. “It seems almost incredible that any one should advertise willingness to separate husband from wife, and a mother from her little children, yet this was sometimes done. Without suiting the purchaser, the highest price could never be obtained.” Even the arrangement of slaves in the sale-yard promenades —often in lines “according to sex and in descending order of height”—seems to have been for the convenience of purchasers and to eliminate family ties.” That way, a buyer could feel less constrained to buy a whole family and less guilty about not doing so. 
The kind of treatment Adair says Forrest gave newly purchased slaves apparently wasn’t unusual. At least, to try to make the human merchandise as attractive as possible was common among traders, some of whom went to considerable lengths.”

An excerpt from: Jack Hurst. “Nathan Bedford Forrest.” iBooks.

(Image courtesy of

Now see, doesn't that just sound wonderful? Now I totally get why the Confederate Heritage crowd elevates Forrest onto such a high pedestal. This dude took care of his slaves. He cleaned then, gave them slick duds. We know what you're thinking, he probably did that so he could get more money for them at sale. Come on. Do you really think that's all he cared about? Money? Hogwash! Forrest loved these slaves so much that he gave them unique, personalized names, like "6", "13", "22", and so on...

1860 Slave Schedule. (Image courtesy of

And in turn, those slaves did right by Forrest too. He multiplied those numbers, then deposited all of that cash into his own bank account. And just how much cold, hard cash did Forrest make from selling all of those human beings?

1860 US Census. (Image courtesy of

Well, according to the 1860 US Census, Forrest had $170,000 in real estate and $90,000 in personal estate by June of that year. Adjusted for inflation, that works out to roughly $7,000,000. Not bad for a guy with very little education.

(Images courtesy of

So tonight, let us tip our hats and honor General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the epitome of the Confederate Heritage cause. There may never live another so honorable as this man.

Restoring the honor!


  1. An interesting note about the timeline here. Both the Census and the Slave Schedule were at the very end of Forrest's slave trading era of his life. Less than one year after the Slave Schedule was recorded the Nation would be at war and Forrest would be a Private in Captain Josiah White's Company E, Tennessee Mounted Rifles. The Census was taken in Memphis, Tennessee, while the Slave Schedule was recorded in Coahoma County, Mississippi two months later. It shows Forrest owned 36 human beings.

  2. Here, let the Heritage community tell you how to view Forrest's slave trading:

    "Nathan Bedford Forrest was a slave trader. That sounds bad to Twenty-first Century ears, but Forrest lived in the Nineteenth Century. His actions must be judged by the morals of that day, not ours."

    "Answers to the common lies about Nathan Bedford Forrest" By Dr. Michael Bradley, April 23, 2015 reprinted in the Southern Heritage News and Views blog

    There. All better now.

    1. As though the idea of owning people wasn't repugnant to white people in the 19th century. Dr. Bradley doesn't address a lie, just rationalizes and justifies the repugnant action. How very scholarly.

    2. I think it might be this Dr. Mike:

      Sons of Confederate Veterans... Hmmmm...

    3. To paraphrase the above quote, "If you put you white supremacist hat on for just a moment, NBF was a pretty great guy."

  3. You try and try and try, but you're still irrelevant.

    1. Such an erudite rejection of factual information on her part.

    2. She has been quiet as a little church mouse this Confederate History and Heritage of Hate Month. :)D

    3. Of course. She would look stupider than usual rejecting flat out facts. She chooses silence. Note how well she denies the racism involved with confederate heritage. She can't deny it because the facts are clear. This whole thing comes to down to a belief system rooted in lies or a belief system rooted in facts. Her beliefs don't use facts.


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