Around a hundred and ninety years ago, in a central Tennessee basin teeming with dogwood, red oak, and poplar-treed expanses splotched by canebrake and Bluestemmed barrens, the blacksmith William Forrest and his young wife Marian gave birth to Nathan Bedford Forrest, their second child. Ten more followed, as well as a move to Mississippi, where 13-year old Nathan soon found himself paterfamilias, his father dead and this being Mississippi in 1837 where, I like to think, they commonly used words like paterfamilias. Nathan, possessing only a rudimentary education as it were, quit school and went to work to support his family, though the primitive conditions of 1840-ish Mississippi alleviated him of many mouths to feed, five of his eleven siblings (including Fanny, his twin) killed off by yellow fever.
Nathan was an aggressive, resourceful kid, and legend has it that at twenty years of age, he shot and killed two men and, using throwing knives, injured two others, all brothers Matlock, avenging the murder of his uncle and employer, Jonathan. Apocryphal or not, Nathan was clearly a man of action: he took over his uncle’s livery and livestock business, married, moved to Memphis, and built an empire through his dealings in cotton plantations, livestock, real estate, and slaves. By 1859, Nathan was retired and had in his possession well over one million dollars. That’s twenty-seven million dollars in 2010 money, if we use the Consumer Price Index, but if we go with the more bourgeois Relative Share of Gross Domestic Product, Mr. Forrest was worth a little over three billion dollars, putting him just south of Misters Gates and Buffett on the Forbes list of the world’s richest men.
In November of 1860, America elected Abraham Lincoln president, and barely a month and a half later South Carolina – fearing the abolition of slavery – seceded from the Union. Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas quickly followed, and by April 12th, 1861, relations between the Union and the seven Confederate states had degenerated to an armed stand-off at Charleston, South Carolina, resolved (sort of) only when Edmund Ruffin, a scholarly 67 year-old farmer from Virginia, pulled a lanyard that lit a fuse and lobbed a mortar round from Fort Johnson, over Charleston Harbor and into the Union-occupied Fort Sumter, starting the Civil War.
Between April 17th and May 20th, Virginia, Arkansas and North Carolina seceded, and on June 8, 1861, Tennesseans voted 2-to-1 to join suit. By mid-July billionaire Nathan Forrest enlisted, as a private, in the Tennessee Mounted Rifles. Four years later he was a three-star General, had been directly engaged with and fired upon by enemy forces almost one hundred and eighty times, taken over 31,000 prisoners, cemented his status as World’s Greatest Cavalryman, allegedly ordered or condoned the wholesale slaughter of surrendering (and defenseless) black Union soldiers, and uttered the timeless adage “war means killing, and the way to kill is to get there first with the most men.” Lesser known, but of great importance to this story, are his post-Civil War activities: Nathan Bedford Forrest was the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
And here is where I begin each morning: I leave my house in Tennessee at about 5:30 am, getting on the interstate at Exit 1, ensuring I stay left to avoid the tractor-trailers parked in the narrow shoulder overnight; head west on I-24 to exit 86, now in Kentucky; then drive south on Highway 41A amidst the closest thing we have to rush hour traffic. Across the street from Jenna’s Toy Box, recently put off-limits by the Commanding General not for their extensive porn-and-bong collection but for their equally extensive synthetic marijuana offerings, I make a right through Gate 5 and onto Fort Campbell, but only after showing my identification card to, more often than not, the contracted security guard and advice-dispensing Mr. Williams (“stay dry now!,” or “keep smilin’, you almost made it to Friday!”). From beginning to end, the road at Gate 5 – Forrest Road – is just nine-tenths of a mile.
But it’s not the length, I’m told, but rather what one does with it. And what Fort Campbell has done with it is put the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate – my office, the place where I spend about 60 hours a week doing my best to lead, guide, and mentor fairness, integrity, and, hopefully, justice – right at about the half-way point of Forrest Road, named after a man who, if we look through the yankeeist of eyes, achieved vast wealth on the unwilling backs of black men, dedicated four years of his life fighting against America, then headed up a new organization that has spent the last century and a half inciting violence against just about anyone who wasn’t white and Christian.
Aside from a short, non-descript road at Ft. Campbell, Nathan Bedford Forrest is memorialized by, at a minimum, a town in Arkansas, a county in Mississippi, high schools in Tennessee and Florida, a park, a university building, monuments in Nashville; Selma, Alabama; and Rome, Georgia; over thirty historical markers throughout the state of Tennessee and at least one figure in pop culture (run, Forrest). He is a favored Son of Tennessee and of the South, and is remembered accordingly. But he has nothing to do with Fort Campbell, no connection to any unit ever garrisoned here. The Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne owe their lineage to, of all things, a Union unit from Wisconsin. The entirety of Forrest Road sits, in fact, in Kentucky, not in Tennessee.
Mumbai was once Bombay; Volgograd Stalingrad; and Istanbul Constantinople. Russell Jones (RIP) was known as Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Dirt McGirt, Big Baby Jesus, Joe Bananas, and, fleetingly, the Old Dirty Chinese Restaurant. It should be a minor inconvenience to rename a mile long stretch of asphalt on an Army base. But this is the South.