Friday, April 11, 2008

Agios Bedford?

I was going to leave a comment on Lee's post on the Forrest cult at Chickamauga, but it was growing too lengthy for that venue. Besides, I know there are a number of blog-scanners (myself, admittedly, included) who rarely look into the comments section, so here we go.

Lee, you know good and well the "whys" to Bedford's cult following. He (and I say "he" with regard to the Lost Cause school/ neo-Confederate/ etc. constructed Forrest character) is a man with whom many Civil War buffs can identify. He has a "history" (again an intentionally loose term) that they "get." The poor man made good, the hard-charging fighter, the untrained yet successful commander, the sly fox who countered Federal manpower and material advantages.

Each of these qualities was, to some debatable extent, present in the historical Forrest. But there is a greater complexity to all of those elements that is often brushed under the rug, intentionally and not. The "Forrest" icon of popular Civil War memory is as 2-dimensional as anything you'll find in an Orthodox Church. But indeed, just as those icons are not the saints themselves, but only representations left to remind the faithful of their good deeds, the "Forrest" of Civil War myth is not the real article either. The very elements of the 2-dimensional "Forrest" legend that so many revere, expose the fascinating complexity of the 3-d historical figure.

For example, that poor man made himself good through the detestable occupation of slave trading. And "detestable" is not simply a retrospective modern judgment, either. Southern "society," the Chivalry to borrow one term, shunned such new, profit-motivated men as well, a fact that deserves its own lengthy analysis of the relationship between the consciously money-driven New South of the 1880s and 1890s and the Lost Cause mythology that it produced. It brings up a number of new questions about the historical Forrest versus the "Forrest" of legend. When did Forrest become an icon? Was it during the initial wave of memory-making, led by the veterans themselves? Was it later, and if so, why? My hunch says that among the veterans (perhaps excepting those in Tennessee), Forrest was not the important player in Confederate memory that he is today. I would bet that Forrest becomes big in the 20th c., and his rise in popularity is likely linkable to some social and/or economic crisis in the South or the nation. If anyone has some thoughts on that (or better yet some scholarship), I would love to see it.

The military points have their counterpoints as well: the visitor's comment about Forrest's Federal opposition, the fact that he often raided against isolated garrisons, or that his lauded combativeness and aggression produced, as Lee noted, a terrible battlefield performance at Chickamauga. As a (future) academic, I find the claim that the untrained civilian gave the what's for to West Point's best particularly revealing. I can't help but wonder if this is some sub-conscious (or indeed conscious) jab at the "liberal" (whatever that means, and we shan't debate it here), "northern-influenced," straw-man-academic that the modern consumer of Lost Cause mythology loves to rail against for "vilifying" Johnny Reb. Forrest proves that the amateur can occasionally put the bottom rail on top, and thus gives hope to those who cannot (or indeed chose not to) see their heroes examined under the properly configured historical lens. Forrest -- or rather "Forrest" -- is fundamental to the anti-academic, pro-Confederate interpretation of Civil War history.

This explains, I would guess, some of his cult following at what we NPS interpreters (and I myself am more than guilty of this) refer to as the "common soldiers' fight" of Chickamauga, regardless whether the historical Bedford performed well there or not. The icon need not fit the historical reality when the 2-d symbolism is in sync.


Drew W. said...

You guys have done the seemingly impossible -- that is, posted a questioning article about Forrest and failed to inspire a flame war. Perhaps they haven't found you....yet. BTW, I enjoy your overall effort here. You've also done the smart thing by ensuring your blog is at or near the top of alphabetically organized blog rolls. ha

Patrick Lewis said...

Haha. Playing with fire is fun sometimes. I hope we can have a little while to cut our teeth and gain some friendly readers before "they" do find us. Then things might get fun... :D

Thanks for the compliments, Drew

WPT III said...

Interesting commentary on Forrest, Patrick. Not being a Civil War scholar, your points are new and thought-provoking to me, particularly the difference between the Lost Cause iconography and the historical reality. Of course, you may say anything you like about Forrest, but when referring to Daniel Harvey Hill, you would be treading on thin ice if you were to offer anything other than complete adulation. ;-)

Yr Svt,

Patrick Lewis said...

Fear not, Will. This blog has built a sterling reputation amongst tarheels for defending one of the North State's most contentious sons, Braxton Bragg. I think the Yankee-hating Prof. Hill is safe from our scorn as yet. ;)

WPT III said...

Well Mr. Lewis, General Hill, I believe, is an example worthy of imitation, particularly in his attitudes towards our Northern Brethren, which my own experiences have shown to be true. Could you kindly explain to me, since I have only recently returned to this war after many long years in the previous century, why General Hill was placed in command of a corps of the Army of Tennessee at Chickamauga?