Take a quick poll of Memphians, and we bet most people refer to the newly named “Health Sciences Park” as “that park that used to be called Forrest Park.” For that matter, quite a few people still call it Forrest Park, and probably always will.
Laid out around 1900 as one of the first green spaces created by the new Memphis Park Commission, from the beginning the eight-acre park was named in honor of former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. After his death in 1877, Forrest and his wife, Mary, were laid to rest — according to the wishes he expressed in his will — in the Confederate Veterans section of Elmwood Cemetery.
In 1904, a citizens group had the two bodies exhumed and moved to a new burial place, in the middle of the “floral gardens” you see in the old postcard. (The postcard company didn’t bother spell-checking the park name printed on the front.) About a year later, an imposing statue of Forrest, sculpted by Charles H. Neihaus, was erected over their graves. (It’s hard to give a specific name to the fine-looking horse, since he had so many shot out from under him in battle.) Even then, there was controversy about the position of the sculpture. Critics argued that it should face north, since the General would never turn his back on his beloved Southland. But others complained that he would never turn his back — or retreat, they mean — from those damn Yankees.
In the end, common sense dictated Forrest should face the street with the most traffic, and that was Union Avenue, then and now, so he faces South.
In recent years, of course, there has been an active drive to remove the most obvious symbols of the Confederate States of America. The Memphis City Council recently renamed (though some may disagree whether their actions were legal, and permanent) Forrest Park, Confederate Park, and Jefferson Davis Park. They also voted to exhume the bodies of Forrest and his wife from the park; final approval of that requires a Chancery Court decision. And at the moment, our neighbors in Mississippi are trying to decide whether to remove the Confederate battle flag from the corner of their state flag.
The issue with Forrest Park is complicated by the fact that it is indeed a gravesite, and certain laws and regulations about burials (especially the burial sites of veterans — yes, even Confederate veterans) must be observed before anyone decides that the Forrests should be returned to Elmwood — or moved to another location entirely. And no definite plans have been announced, as far as we know, about what to do with the very large (21 feet tall) and very expensive bronze statue (more than $32,000 when it was first erected), which has been acclaimed one of the best equestrian statues in the country.
One complaint is that exhuming the two bodies who have rested here, though not entirely peacefully, for more than 110 years, would be akin to desecrating a grave. But if that’s the case, how did Memphians feel about it the first time Nathan and Mary were moved here from Elmwood?