Coincidentally a week after Nick Griffin defended his relationship with ‘an almost totally non-violent’ leader of the Ku Klux Klan – it is the anniversary today of the death of in 1877 of one of the Klan’s founders, General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
The original Klan – formed in Tennessee in 1865 in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War – is sometimes contrasted with the modern Klan ‘re-founded' in 1915. It is true that it was only at this later stage that its racism was elevated into the pseudo-philosophical and grandiose belief system of modern white supremacists. The original Klan just had more mundane and practical objectives – primarily intimidating the newly emancipated and enfranchised black electorate in the Southern states, along with their Reconstructionist white supporters.
Forrest’s experience as a brilliant general of cavalry raiders and irregular troops stood him in good steed to lead this campaign of intimidation. The Civil War in the Western theatre had frequently been conducted in a particularly brutal guerrilla-fashion, especially in disputed ‘border’ states such as Forrest’s home state of Tennessee. And Forest’s raiders had been very successful exponents of this – and unusually for a general of the time Forest himself revelled in personal combat and claimed a tally of more than thirty ‘kills’. As a commanding officer he was responsible for the notorious massacre at Fort Pillow in 1864 when surrendered Union troops – significant half of them from a black regiment – were slaughtered.
If the patrician image of General Robert E Lee has come to represent the supposedly chivalrous and benevolent face of the Old South, Forrest without a doubt represents the Confederacy at its ugliest and meanest. Unlike the ‘aristocratic’ Lee who uneasily inherited his estates and slaves and after the war denounced racism and urged reconciliation, Forrest was born into poverty. He went on to become one of the richest men in the pre-war South largely through his involvement in the slave trade - killing his first two men at the age of 20 in a business dispute.
Arguments about the Civil War and the Confederacy still understandably run strong in the ‘states – rather less so over here. But I would suggest that rather than claiming Winston Churchill as a proto-member of the BNP, Griffin could have more appropriately retro-adopted the memory of Bedford Forrest.