On the history of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s bust at the TN state capitol

One of the leaders of the successful 1970s effort to place a bust of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest in the Tennessee state Capitol building tells Cari Wade Gervin – in one small part of a comprehensive review of that history, including commentary – that race was not a factor.

Kenneth P’Pool, a Sons of Confederate Veterans member who headed the group’s Forrest Bust Committee in 1973 (and who supported George Wallace for president in 1968), teamed with the state Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, and Lanier Merrit, a Civil War expert and collector, in promoting the idea — which quickly became the subject of black protests at the time that have continued today.

P’Pool — the only one of the three men still alive — insists race was not a factor in the five-year project to honor Forrest. P’Pool is now the deputy commissioner for historic preservation at the state of Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and his work has since ranged far, far beyond the Civil War. He’s been involved in restoring the home of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, erecting a monument at the University of Mississippi to honor its first black student, James Meredith, and preserving historic sites of Vietnamese immigrants damaged by Hurricane Katrina, among dozens of other projects. He also says he hasn’t been politically active in 40 years and that he’s apt to vote for independent candidates over a specific party.

As P’Pool recalls it, the idea for the Forrest bust came out of a discussion with Henry, who was a family friend.

“Once we were discussing Civil War history and the fact that Tennessee’s two stars of naval history were honored in the hall of history, and that Tennessee’s premier cavalry general should join them,” P’Pool writes in an email. “There were no racist intentions or discussions, merely a desire to recognize three Tennesseans who are among the nation’s most amazing military figures.”

Henry did note at the time that he viewed the bust of Forrest as complimentary to an extant one of Admiral David Farragut, the Tennessee-born Union naval commander best known for the (possibly apocryphal) saying, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” during the Battle of Mobile Bay.

The SCV originally approached sculptor Puryear Mims about the bust, but he died in 1975. So the organization turned to the wife of one of its members, Loura Jane Baxendale. (Baxendale would later sculpt the busts of Confederate generals that are on display at the Carter House in Franklin.) After over two years of work, the sculpture of Forrest was ready for display.

The Sunday before the unveiling, The Tennessean ran a lengthy story on the front of its “Panorama” section entitled, “Forrest in Bronze Immune to Time,” a laudatory and sympathetic accounting of Forrest’s years as a general with no mention of his slave-trading past, his role in the early years of the Ku Klux Klan or his general brutality towards blacks, enslaved or free.

2 Responses to On the history of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s bust at the TN state capitol

  • Linda says:

    So, what do people opposed to any slight reminder of Nathan Bedford Forrest plan to do about a state park in Benton County in rural West Tennessee named: The Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park and, yes, it has its own statue!

    • Ronnie says:

      Rename the park and take the statue down. It is fine to allow him to be in a museum as military strategist or to allow him to be used as a historical figure who was a military man and seller of fellow human begins. His will instructed that he be buried in Elmwood Cemetery. It is past time that his will was honored.

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Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.
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