When “That Devil” got saved

No, I am not a universalist.  That was a reference to NB Forrest.

Predestination and Sovereign grace expose the Pharisee in all of us. We want “bad” people to “really get it good and hard,” but then God saves them. This offends many. Predestination is offensive because if Forrest received forgiveness, then Christians are obligated to forgive him, too. 

The author gives a decent summary of Forrest’s life. The style is obviously pastoral, not historical. He has read all of the relevant material and is accurate in his analysis of it. There are some problems which I will list at the end of the review. 

Forrest’s enigma is that he exhibited Christian principles before his conversion. Even more, these very principles enable him to succeed. Yet, he refused to call himself a Christian. Part of the problem is that he knew he was obligated to hard violence in defense of Southern women and culture, yet he could not see–like many Christian pacifists today–that there is no tension between hard violence and holy violence when we defend the weak. It is a shame Forrest did not have good teaching on this point.

Forrest’s heroics make for good fiction, except that they are real. Passing over these (admittedly exciting) stories we will look at his rise through the Confederate ranks to emerge the military genius and hero to oppressed Southern women and children, both white and black (after the war a man was whipping a black woman and Forrest killed him). 

The author does a good job in showing what really happened at Ft Pillow, where Forrest was accused of butchering surrendering troops. A quick listing of the facts shows that the case against Forrest wouldn’t stand in any court:

  • Forrest urged Union commander Bradford to surrender. Bradford refused, raised the flag high, and fought. If anything, he is the guilty one.
  • Only 42% of the Union garrison died. Not only is that remarkably low for Civil War standards, if Forrest truly wanted to massacre the garrison, well, why didn’t he?
  • Many of the soldiers who surrendered their weapons picked them back up. In any military or police setting, drawing a weapon on an armed military opponent is a death sentence. This is common-sense.
  • While it’s possible that Forrest’s men executed the soldiers at point blank range, a more likely explanation for the powder burns is that Forrest had long told his men to fight primarily with revolvers and shotguns, and given the close-quarters combat of the fort, this makes more sense.
  • The Union garrison at Ft Pillow had long raped and extorted the local population. It was so bad that Union commanders ordered a stop to it (which was disregarded by Booth and Bradford).
  • Kastler doesn’t mention this last point, but Forrest’s men hit the fort from three sides.  The contingents hitting the fort later in the battle wouldn’t have known anything of the surrender ahead of time and would have only seen the Union flag flying.


After the War:

Legend has it that he started “The KKK.” Lost Cause adherents try to vindicate Forrest by saying it wasn’t the same Klan as it was today. Of course, that’s true–but what’s the point? No one will believe it. They will also point out that the Radical Republican governor of Tennessee called for the slaughter of most Southerners in the state, and so the Klan was formed as a defense unit. Again, that’s true but no one will believe it. 

What is historically verifiable, though, is that Forrest did not start the Klan. Forrest denied he was ever a member (though Morton says he was). In any case, Forrest was instrumental in stopping the Klan during its first phase.

Conversion

It is better to speak of Forrest’s regeneration than trying to pinpoint a specific conversion experience. Regeneration is the new birth. Conversion is a revival back to life (which may at times overlap with regeneration). I disagree with Kastler that the sermon on Matthew 7 was the “defining moment.” I think his praying a few weeks earlier was. But no matter. It is a beautiful story nonetheless.

Evaluation

The book is quite good. Kastler (for the most part) keeps a tight narrative. I read the book in one afternoon. There is a lot of speculation and sometimes it gets the better of Kastler. While I am sure Forrest was a “racist” (whatever that Marxist term means), Kastler contradicts himself on this point. He accuses Forrest of racism but never gives a specific example. And I don’t think racism governed Forrest’s actions in the slave-trade. For one, Forrest refused to break up families, 2) Forrest, having grown up poor, was likely more influenced by money than some sinister racist plot, and 3) the Freedman’s Bureau, no friend to white Southerners, criticized Forrest for being too nice to blacks! 

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One comment on “When “That Devil” got saved

  1. Angela Wittman says:

    Sounds like an interesting read! Thanks for the review. 🙂

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