A General Invitation, Revisited
July 16th, 2015
As we once again struggle with the fact and fiction of Southern history and heritage, I’m going to revisit several columns dealing with the ghosts that haunt us and with the painful truths we all must face to put them to rest.
To bury the ghosts, not the truth.
In 1852, local speculators bought some rolling land about three miles out of town and started a cemetery. They were part of the rural cemetery movement in America, creating spacious, park-like, landscaped environments away from the cramped churchyards and the hustle and bustle of cities. Families could come here not only to pay respect to loved ones but to enjoy the outing, to picnic, to listen to concerts – to recognize death in celebration of life. They named it Elmwood.
Early on, Nathan Bedford Forrest rode out to Elmwood and bought lots for his entire family.
It’s time to return.
Published in The Daily News, July 17, 2015, and in The Memphis News, July 18-24, 2015, edited from a column first published in The Daily News and The Memphis News in January, 2013
COME ON BACK TO ELMWOOD, GENERAL FORREST.
I first issued that invitation in 2013 and while we haven’t yet heard from the General, we’ve heard from just about everybody else. The invitation stands because – as it has been for some time – it’s past time.
Come on home, General, and bring the missus. The family’s waiting. Whatever anybody else says, this is where you said you wanted to be.
After all, you bought the Elmwood lot yourself in 1854 and you were buried here in 1877. Your wife was, too, before some folks you never met took both of you away in 1904.
Your brothers Jeffrey, William and Jesse are here, and your son, William. You rode with all of them in life and in war, and you should rest with them in the Forrest family lot. Not in honor of any cause lost or otherwise. Not in praise of military genius or wizardry in the saddle. Not in the disgrace of trading human beings as property or murdering them as they surrendered at Fort Pillow. Not in the infamy of founding the Ku Klux Klan or in the endless spin to justify and glorify your fascinating and darkly polarizing life.
Not because of any of that but in recognition of your place in history, here in a place of history, where respect is given for what must come to all of us and judgment is left to history itself and to the passage of time and not the passion of moments or movements.
Those who would deny the whole truth of the whole life you actually lived, those who would cause so much pain to propagate romantic mythology, should hear what I’m sure your neighbor in the plot next door at Elmwood, Shelby Foote, would say:
The Civil War is history. Rest in peace.
Come home, General. Everyone’s here.
You’ll be among 21 generals from both North and South, Southern spy Ginny Moon, “Mother of the Confederacy” Sarah Chapman Law, and the editor who published the Memphis paper from boxcars a step ahead of the Union army.
You’ll join veterans of every American war, next to our most famous and infamous, saints and scallywags, black and white, madams and mayors, our brightest stars and darkest memories.
You’ll be part of the soul of Memphis history, 75,000 souls strong and counting.
As to that park, let’s name it Healing Arts Park – warmer and less clinical than Health Sciences Park – and rededicate it to our rich history in that regard. We could recognize Dr. Willis C. Campbell who, quite literally, wrote the book on modern orthopedics, or honor Dr. Lemuel W. Diggs, a pioneer in sickle cell anemia, creator of the South’s first blood bank and facilitator in the founding of St. Jude, or acknowledge thousands of fragile new lives saved by the dedication of Dr. Sheldon B. Korones.
The story of so many more, and more yet to come, can be told in this park, an inspiring story of progress.
I’m a Memphian, and healing is better for us.
If you don’t read it, I’ll read it to you.
The book is available in print online and all over town and now in audio online at Amazon, Audible and iTunes, read by the author – columns, comments and character references for a city filled with it and often absolutely full of it. Take a look or a listen.