Every day for the past six years — ever since I wandered into an old Confederate cemetery on a major civil rights anniversary — I’ve been chasing the story of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Or, maybe more specifically, I’ve been chasing the story of his afterlife — the fights over the fates of his many monuments. Fights over what the life of this slave trader, Confederate “military genius,” war criminal, and Grand Wizard should mean to Americans today. His story became the lens through which I came to understand the upheaval in this country in recent years. And this Confederate general has proved a useful lens. The debate about Forrest’s life and legacy throws into relief what is at stake in everything from police shootings and the movement for Black lives, white supremacist rallies and debates over immigration. My book, Down Along with that Devil’s Bones, chronicles the battles over monuments of Nathan Bedford Forrest in four America cities. In them I’ve seen the whole of American history blowing through, charting an unexpected but revealing account of how we got from Appomattox to Charlottesville – and where we might go next – told in marble, bronze, and brick.
Connor Towne O’Neill is the author of Down Along with That Devil’s Bones: A Reckoning with Monuments, Memory, and the Legacy of White Supremacy. He works as a producer on the NPR podcast White Lies, which was a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Audio Reporting. His writing as appeared in TIME, New York Magazine, The Bitter Southerner, and Slate and he teaches at Auburn University.
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