Midway through the second novel in my new series, I realized I needed to do more research. So, I stopped before my character’s zeal to confess his backstory irretrievably misdirected my story and the series and did more research on the Civil War.
My challenge is the character’s story involves a man the North made into and still believes was the great monster of the Civil War, while the South still calls him a hero, and the military still studies his genius. Bedford Forrest was not a West Pointer, he was not the son of Southern aristocracy but of a poor farmer who died leaving him head of the household at fifteen, he was semi-literate, and as a man made his living as a slave trader. The question is, when politics define history, what story does the storyteller tell?
I admire James R. Benn for his myth regarding Eisenhower’s distant nephew that fuels the Billy Boyle series, it is plausible, a bit humorous, and works. But who didn’t like Ike? Or am I that old? Though Ike fiddled around with his MTC driver, he never became the subject of the teeth-gnashing yellow journalism Forrest did after the “massacre” at Fort Pillow. One could argue that if most of the troops protecting Fort Pillow had not been black, the ruthless overrun of the fort would not have made the front page of abolitionist newspapers and the New York Times.
The massacre at Fort Pillow was a gift to the North. It proclaimed a Southern monster days after the 13th Amendment passed the Senate, energized Lincoln’s base in an election year, helped the 13th Amendment through Congress, and reinvigorated the Northern fight as Lincoln let Grant and Sherman loose on the South. Though excoriated, General Forrest put the skeer in the Northern generals and keep them skeered, raiding Union stockpiles, burning bridges, and winning battles against long odds right up to the end.
After the war, every time Forrest’s influence rose, the Northern press dredged up Fort Pillow, proving Reconstructionist-era politicos were as afraid of him as their generals had been during the war. Did his decision to lead the nascent Ku Klux Klan help public perception? Of course not. He lent his skills to the fledgling organization to get a Reconstruction Governor out of the Tennessee State House. When the Governor moved to the US Senate, Forrest resigned his leadership. That Klan disappeared after a few years to be reborn in the 1920s as the terrorist Klan we know.
Even now, the Northern legend that the South’s best general was a murdering, slave-trading monster is accepted fact. How then does my character tell a believable tale of an eleven-year-old boy riding with and cared for by Forrest after the boy’s father dies in battle? Will readers accept my character’s backstory, will they label me an apologist, will they ban the book? In the current climate, anything is possible.
My character stands by his story, though the other characters in Illinois in 1876 will not believe it any more than they would now. But it is an opportunity to air both sides of the argument for and against a brilliant, complicated, profane man who managed hell so well both Patton and Rommel studied him.
So, getting back to the title of this blog, at the end of John Ford’s movie The Man who shot Liberty Valance, when Jimmy Stewart’s character finishes telling the truth about Liberty Valance’s death, the newspaperman taking notes says, “When the legend becomes the fact, print the legend.” In that story, a tough, irascible man does the right thing to save a man he considers better than him. The act changes the trajectory of both their lives forever. Forrest’s “legend” changed his life and the trajectory of this country, as well, otherwise, historians say, we might have become the Confederate States of America. There is a story there.