Hero or monster? A portrait of a general | Philadelphia Inquirer | 03/28/2010
By Madison Smartt Bell
Pantheon. 337 pp. $26.95
Reviewed by Bill Kent
Was Civil War Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest a hero or a monster? both, neither, or something in between?
On the heroic side, Forrest can be seen as an early example of the American dream, even if he made his fortune growing cotton and trading slaves. Then, without having any military experience or training, he joined the Confederate army and rose to the rank of lieutenant general, distinguishing himself as a ferociously brave cavalry commander.
Tall, wiry, foulmouthed, and a charismatic leader of both white and black troops (whom he promised freedom after the war), Forrest is renowned among military historians for the speed at which he moved his troops, his relentless attacks, his brutally effective saber-and-six-gun fighting style, and his strategic use of terrain.
Yet, this is the same commander who presided over the slaughter of hundreds of surrendering African American Union troops at Fort Pillow. Most heinous of all, after the Civil War concluded, Forrest joined the Ku Klux Klan and transformed what had been a secretive white-supremacist social club into a paramilitary terrorist organization.
Biographers have tended to group Forrest and Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman together as marginal types who found their calling in acts of incomprehensible wartime barbarity (Forrest at Fort Pillow, Sherman with his horrendous devastation of Georgia) and then used what they had learned to ill effect: Forrest with the Klan, Sherman on a genocidal campaign against Native Americans.
Five years ago in The March: a Novel, E.L. Doctorow turned “Uncle Billy” Sherman into a brooding depressive whose mental problems and dislike of his fellow generals animated his destructive zeal.
In Devil’s Dream, Madison Smartt Bell, the prolific Baltimore novelist who has just finished a three-volume fictional biography of Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture, plays fast, but not loose, with a 20-year slice of Forrest’s life, from 1845 to 1865. His story isn’t so much about the man, but the people around him who dance – reluctantly or eagerly or against their will – to his peculiar tune (the novel’s title refers to a traditional fiddle tune).
We meet Forrest’s wife, slaves, brothers, children (legitimate and not), and fellow soldiers, the most interesting of whom is Henri, a dark-skinned man who could be a Native American, but is actually the Haitian equivalent of Che Guevara.
Claiming to be a descendant of Toussaint L’Ouverture, Henri has come to the United States to incite slaves to rebel (and, he admits later, to kill as many white people as possible). He has the uncanny ability to see ghosts, glimpse the future, and sense the thoughts of animals. He finds himself fascinated and appalled by Forrest, who invites him to join his regiment. Capriciously, Henri accepts, and proceeds to kill white Union soldiers.
Bell lets his narrative skid back and forth in time (the perplexed can turn to a 26-page biographical time line appended at the end of the book). we see Forrest in combat and in intimate public and private moments. a stern, proud, vulgar, and explosively violent man who abhors liars and pretense, Forrest loses himself – and a fortune – in dice games.
He has an astonishing ability to endure pain, a fiery stoicism about war, and fierce determination to vanquish every enemy. He makes love to his slaves, acknowledges his offspring but never quite accepts them until they follow him into battle, where bravery under fire means more than who wins, loses, suffers injury, or dies. In a peculiar but moving vignette set before the war begins, we see Forrest buying back a female slave to appease a slave who loved her.
The Fort Pillow massacre is mentioned, but it isn’t central to the story. Bell also avoids consideration of what lead Forrest to the Klan in the years that followed. instead, he shows us the sad irony of one who can buy and sell human beings, make love to them, raise his children from that union, free them, fight beside them, but never accept them as equals. we feel the bitterness of a fighter of such consummate skill that he can win so many battles, but lose the war.
And finally, we taste the bitterness of a man whose world ended not with the surrender at Appomattox, but from the moment he entered the war. “Hit’s sometimes I wonder,” Forrest says, standing over a horse that served him well but perished in battle, “what in the Hell are we doen this for?”
Bell has given us a remote, disturbing portrait of a man who was never understood in his own time, and probably will remain an enigma for generations to come.
Bill Kent is a novelist who teaches novel writing at Temple University and lectures in history and biography.
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