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Down Along with That Devil's Bones: A Reckoning with Monuments, Memory,…

by Connor Towne O'Neill

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This was an eye opening read because I had heard of Nathan Bedford Forrest but didn’t know much about him. It was fascinating how the author takes the story of activists trying to get this KKK grand wizard’s monuments down (and his supporters efforts to stop it from happening) across four different places, to give a scathing commentary on how all this discourse is more about people trying to cling onto their racist ideals rather than some perceived Southern heritage. He also gives some backstory about Forrest himself and how this slaveholder came to be such a popular figure in confederate America.

But ultimately it’s not completely a hopeful book despite being written brilliantly. The efforts of all the people trying to bring down these monuments is highly commendable but they do seem to be having many setbacks which is depressing; but more sad is the immense racial divisions and hate that exist, the willful ignorance regards to understanding actual history of the country, and not really having a clear idea how it can be solved. But that’s not the book’s fault and I definitely recommend the audiobook which is very well narrated. ( )
  ksahitya1987 | Aug 20, 2021 |
Book covers Civil War monuments and the attitudes surrounding them in Selma, AL and 3 TN cities: Murfreesboro, Nashville & Memphis ( )
  WakeWacko | Apr 27, 2021 |
Thanks to Algonquin Books, and Connor O’Neill for a free ARC copy in exchange for an honest review.

This book is an in depth look at how deeply rooted racism is. How symbols can represent hatred and oppression to some, and a heritage of being Southern/Confederate to others. Connor O'Neill came to Alabama as a white Northerner. Previously he hadn't really thought about racism, naively thinking being from the North absolves you. He comes across a demonstration crying for the protection of a statue of Nathan Beford Forrest. Nathan Beford Forrest serves as the center from which O'Neill learns more about what triggers such extreme emotions. Nathan Forrest was a general in the civil war who was known for plowing in and fighting when the odds were against him. He also was the first Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan. Using monuments and the protests surrounding them, O'Neill travels to Selma, AL; Murfreesboro, TN; Nashville, TN; and Memphis, TN. examining and talking to people on both sides. This book takes us on an intimate trip, allowing us to feel and understand what each side feels, to show us that racism is deeply ingrained and not easy to uproot. ( )
  cjyap1 | Nov 5, 2020 |
The controversy over confederate statues and monuments needs to be addressed. Connor O’Neill was in all the right places at the right times to reveal the depths and depravity of the movements to preserve and promote them. He has written a book, Down Along With That Devil’s Bones, to document his recent travels, research and interviews. It is as ugly as you would expect, and less than it could be.

He picks Nathan Bedford Forrest, a name little known outside the southern United States, as his poster child. There are statues, monuments, halls and schools named after him all over the southern states. This estimable gentleman of the south, worthy of everyone’s respect and idolatry, was a slave auctioneer and Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, restoring white supremacy to several southern states after the south lost the civil war. That anyone would want to remove his monuments is something for all good citizens to rise up and fight against.

O’Neill visited Charlottesville for the battle over monuments, where one supporter drove his car though a crowd of protestors, killing a woman. He visited Selma, always the epicenter of controversy, Nashville, Memphis, Montgomery and more. Their links to slavery and the civil war are all noted. He asked people for their thoughts, dug into history and followed the removal of statues, often in the dead of night. It’s all very descriptive, with lots of mood setting and color. And minimal impact.

What he found should come as no surprise. Southerners are apologists for their flawed heroes. They willfully ignore the slave ownership, the beatings , the lynchings and the exhortations to slavery as highly ethical Christian living. Instead, they cite heroics in battle, or success in business – without mentioning the business was slave auctioning or that the battles were actually lost.

For whites, the old south way of life has become The Lost Cause, worthy of pity rather than criticism. O’Neill calls it all magical thinking, which also absolves white supremacists of the nastiness of their lives. They love to cite the heritage they want to honor, without the hate it specifies. Magical thinking honors the fighting but not the reason for the fighting, O’Neill says. White supremacy rests entirely on magical thinking.

Down south, the statues, monuments and flags are a ”palliative” to the white victims of the loss of the civil war. Their civil war statues always face north, i.e. never retreating. Entire universities gather in football stadiums to wave their rebel flags and hoot and holler like the victors they were not. It is (and is meant to be) a very intimidating sight, especially for black students. Weekly, throughout the fall months, every year. Blessed by the administration as good clean fun. Inspiring future generations of white supremacists.

Nathan Forrest was a self-made man. He came from the dirt poor, learned to buy and sell, and found slaves the best commodity to move. His Negro Mart, situated right between his home and the Calvary Church (still standing) on Adams St. in Memphis, saw over a thousand slaves sold every year, providing Forrest with profits of $50,000 (one million in today’s dollars) every year. He stored them there, beat them bloody and sold them off, either in auctions or to passing shoppers. He bought farms and plantations to be worked by the slaves he was unable to sell at his standard 20% markup, so the overall profits remained stellar. He was rich enough to fund his own regiment when the civil war broke out, and led it to several victories, as well as numerous defeats, for all of which he earned great praise – and the rank of lieutenant general in the confederate army. He was famous for slaughtering northern soldiers after the battle was already won, and making the rivers run red with their blood.

When the war ended, the prospect of racial equality led him to join the emerging KKK, which soon made him its leader. This allowed Forrest to command all kinds of troops again, this time committing all kinds of murder, arson, threats and intimidation in order to prevent blacks from assuming any kind of role in society. Instead, the KKK placed whites back in control like they had always been, infiltrating the police, the courts and civic institutions to ensure enforcement. When he had “redeemed” six states for white supremacy, he finally took his retirement, and catching dysentery, died at the age of 55, a hero for his exemplary life.

O’Neill says the rebel flag was uncommon until the 1940s, when overt racists like Strom Thurmond stirred white supremacist feelings. With constant setbacks at the hands of FDR, Truman and Johnson, the confederate flag took on new symbolism and became ubiquitous. But to be honest, it was never really absent. It was baked into state flags, for example. Thurmond’s Dixiecrat rebellion made no bones about white supremacy. For them, desegregation was the crisis. They were there because blacks were there. It was a clue the civil war had not been carried to its full conclusion.

O’Neill is white, and feels guilt and shame. He ends his book at a slave memorial, suitably revolting in his description. But the book left me totally unsatisfied. There are two giant factors obviously missing from it. I find it astonishing he could write this book without them, since he tries to be so thorough and fair in his descriptions and in his questioning of his subjects:

1.Ancient history shows us that the way to assimilate a conquered people is to destroy their statues. With their gods and heroes gone, they must gravitate to accepting the conquerors’ values, heroes and gods. Hundreds, if not thousands of gods have disappeared this way. (HL Mencken once tried to list them all. It was impressive.) By allowing the losing South to build new statues and monuments to their own, and through allowing them to promote the confederate flag, the United States utterly failed to acknowledge the history of the world, and is suffering that failure even today. There is no excuse for permitting white southerners to build legends around failed rebels.

Nowhere else will you see monuments to the losers. Nowhere else do they glorify criminal ideology. The whole idea is to vanquish the failed ideology, not let it fester and thrive again. That’s what the war was about. The USA never bothered to finish the civil war. Just like in Afghanistan and Iraq, it lost interest in finishing the job and reintegrating the country as something cohesive.

2. History also shows that the conquerors won the wars when they seized the flag of the vanquished. They then banned it, never to fly again. In any war, the flag will change when it is reissued. The old flag is a symbol of the defeated regime and has no right to appear ever again. To fly the rebel flag and build memorials to defeated secessionists is what is called treason in the United States, as it is in the rest of the world. Governments cannot and must not tolerate it, if only to keep the country as one. The business of it being history and that all history must be preserved is bogus, a canard for racism. Treason outranks history. Flying the confederate flag should be punishable by long prison terms.

I wanted O’Neill to challenge all the people he met and interviewed with the fact they were committing treason against the USA. Palliatives for whites is a trivial apology and a pathetic answer. Rewriting history to avoid the mention of slavery is intellectually dishonest. But honoring and glorifying a defeated enemy of the state is treason. Their disloyalty to the USA is not merely disgusting; it is a national security threat.

What would they have all said to that?

We’ll never know.

David Wineberg ( )
  DavidWineberg | Sep 30, 2020 |
I have to say I think this title is a mistake. I had a terrible time remembering it when trying to tell friends about the book. A very interesting book. Well researched and thought provoking. Just the right amount of personal reflection along with the history and interviews. I was given an advance copy in exchange for my honest review. Unfortunately this copy had no numbers in it unless they were spelled out. This caused some of his points to be lost as statistics and years were not there. Made it hard to tell the magnitude of the point the author was trying to make. I'm sure this will be corrected in the final edition. ( )
  njcur | May 22, 2020 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Connor Towne O'Neillprimary authorall editionscalculated
Cantor, GeoffreyNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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