Byron de la Beckwith was an itinerant fertilizer salesman of trifling success. He was also a member of the White Citizens’ Council of Mississippi, a group dedicated to keeping the African-American population of Mississippi, “in their place” – that is, in low-paying servile jobs, without full rights of citizenship, and subject to humiliation and violence as a routine of daily life.
In the summer of 1963, in Jackson, Mississippi, de la Beckwith shot Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers in the back and bragged about it for more than thirty years. de la Beckwith got away with murder – no less than a planned and executed assassination – because in that time, the state of Mississippi would not empower a jury that would convict him. An apt description of de la Beckwith is from the writer, Rhodes Scholar, and native Mississippian, Willie Morris, who described him as “common,” meaning he was cowardly and of low moral character. (Faulkner’s character, Ab Snopes in “Barn Burning,” is a good rendering of the likes of de la Beckwith.)
Finally, in 1993, the state of Mississippi retried de la Beckwith, found him guilty of murdering Medgar Evers, and put him in prison for the rest of his life, thus correcting a great and shameful wrong.
No one could say that N.B. Forrest was common, for in all ways he was extraordinary. Forrest proved his bravery by leading cavalry charges that were nothing less than suicidal against much larger elements of the Union Army. (It’s a miracle that Forrest didn’t get killed at Fort Donelson, or at Shiloh, at Bryce’s Crossroads, though he sustained severe wounds in other battles.)
Before the Civil War, Forrest was one of the richest men in the South, chiefly from buying and selling African-American slaves whom he kept at his slave jail, which at the time was the largest in the nation, which was near the intersection of 2nd and Adams, in Memphis, Tennessee, not far from where Calvary Episcopal Church still stands.
It was reputed that Forrest started the KKK, but to be fair, by the time the KKK came into existence, Forrest was an invalid as a result of his war wounds and had nothing to do with its founding. The geography doesn’t fit either: he was in Memphis, the KKK sprang up in Pulaski, Tennessee, two-hundred miles to the east. As well, there is no question that Forrest was a brave man and also no question that the members of the KKK – hiding their faces as they did and still do under their hoods – were and continue to act cowardly, so it doesn’t seem likely that Forrest would have given them his approval had he been in full control of his senses. The best that I can surmise is that the KKK misappropriated his name, which certainly fits with their character.
Still, Forrest was no saint. At Fort Pillow his army committed horrible war atrocities, that according to eye-witnesses, included the lynching of African-American soldiers who fought for the Union and also the execution of white soldiers from east Tennessee who too were in the Union army. These were mass murders of unarmed men and could be described as nothing less than a killing frenzy. Of course, all of this is contested in some quarters, even now, despite the fact that there is a large and reliable body of evidence that gives substance to these charges.
In Memphis there is a statue of Forrest mounted on a horse in a park named for him on Union Avenue, next to the University of Tennessee Medical College. Every spring, a group of rowdies gets dressed up in their rebel military get-ups and parade in front of the statue under banners proclaiming “Heritage not Hatred” as they honor their hero, this former slave trader. Of course, the heritage of the Confederacy is hatred, and there’s no other way to put it.
Up until the start of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee had been one of the most able officers in the United States Army. The success of the Mexican War was largely the work of Lee in directing the artillery fire and organizing the infantry flanking movements against the Mexican position, which resulted in complete victory for the U.S. Army with very few casualties – truly outstanding. By the time of the Civil War, though, the weapons had become more deadly by a vast scale, and the armies had gotten much larger too.
At least in the early battles of the war, Lee demonstrated that he was a sound tactician. Still, his victories came at the cost of many Confederate casualties, which the South could ill afford, which shows that though Lee was a good combat officer – at least in the early battles of the war against incompetent Union commanders, such as MacClellan, Rosecrans, Burnside, and Hooker – he was not a good strategist in looking ahead to what he would have to do if he were to win the war. Nor did his tactics prove to be anything but disastrous at Gettysburg.
By Gettysburg, Lee’s limitations and incompetence as a soldier caught up with him. Perhaps his army could have won that most significant battle of the war had he listened to James Longstreet, who as Shelby Foote noted, might well have been the most able officer in either army. Longstreet strongly protested against the frontal assault that has become known as Pickett’s Charge, which did indeed break the back of the rebel army. Lee was still working with ideas that worked almost twenty years earlier in Mexico, and his obsolete vision proved fatal to his army and to his cause.
Some maintain that Lee was a product of his times and that he only did what the convention of those times accepted and allowed, and that owning slaves in his beloved Virginia was something he did not question, and that these were his high moral principals. If he found owning slaves so distasteful – as many report and would like for us to believe of him – then why didn’t he give them their freedom? As well, after the war, when he awarded the presidency of Washington & Lee College, largely because he was the hero of the lost cause of slavery and not for any academic talent he may have had for leading a college, why didn’t he open enrollment to African-Americans? Again, his defenders’ excuse is that “he was a product of his times.”
Lincoln too was a product of those same times.
Lee’s worst crime was that he broke his oath as an officer in the United States Army to defend the United States of America from enemies both foreign and domestic, which at that time was punishable by execution. However, Lincoln and Grant had no stomach for retribution after the surrender was settled, thus they saved Lee from being convicted of the high crime of treason, for which he surely would have been hanged or shot before a firing squad.
Instead, the people of the South, to justify their lost cause and to defend their “way of life” – that is, owning and working slaves to uphold the economy of planting and growing cotton to sell to the textile mills of England and New England, and thus get rich from it – made this racist, merciless slave owner, and mass-murderer – Lee – out to be a saint, one that Byron de la Beckwith and his ilk worship to this day.