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The Truth About Nathan B. Forrest

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The Duval County School Board is considering what to do about the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School. Much of the debate has centered around Forrest himself, and many of the arguments are the same as when this issue came up in 2008.

At that time, WJCT's Karen Feagins spoke with Brian Wills, who was the Kenneth Asbury Chair of History at the University of Virginia's College at Wise and studied Forrest extensively.

Wise left the college in 2010 to lead the Civil War Center at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

Wills says Forrest was most famous as a Calvary rider in the Confederate Army, and is a far more complex figure than most people understand.

Forrest had six months of formal education, so he didn't leave an extensive paper trail, but he did teach himself math and became a successful businessperson.

“Some of the things we respect in terms if independence and self-reliance--those are things we cherish," Wills explained.

"We also, of course, look at some of the things he did and understand these are not things we can embrace or things that we should celebrate by any means.”

Wills points to three major controversies associated with Nathan B. Forrest:

1. He was a slave trader. Wills said this is a well documented fact.

2. He was associated with the Fort Pillow incident in 1864 in which his troops overran a fort occupied by African American Union troops and Tennessee Unionists. Wills said there is no doubt that excesses occurred during this battle, but he does not believe that Forrest ordered a massacre.

"Had he done so," Wills said, "I don’t think frankly he would have allowed  for as many as survived."

3. He was the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. His goal in the Klan, according to Wills, was to get the white, Southern conservative Democrats back in power.

He did later order the organization disbanded, Will thinks "because It had already accomplished its purpose as far as he was concerned in Tennessee."

“I do not believe that he is purely evil, that he is one of these individuals that embodied the worst of humanity," Wills said.

"On the other hand, he’s not, as some of the apologists would suggest, flawless by any stretch of the imagination.”

You can follow Karen Feagins on Twitter @karenfeagins.

Karen found her home in public broadcasting after working for several years as a commercial television reporter. She joinedWJCTin 2005 as the host of 89.9 FM’s Morning Edition and has held many different roles at the station in both radio and television. She has written and produced documentaries includingBeluthahatchee: The Legacy of Stetson Kennedy and Jacksonville Beach: Against the Tide and directed the oral history project, Voices of the First Coast.