GALLERY: Details of Forrest gravesite exhumation revealed

Published: Oct. 28, 2021 at 11:32 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The reburial of General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate monument from Memphis’ Health Sciences Park has been shrouded in secrecy.

The journey involved legal maneuvers and delicate decisions that ultimately led to the FBI’s involvement.

When a decision was made that the monument would be removed, all parties involved were not even close to the end of a complicated journey that both divided and united a city all kept under wraps until now.

In our first look at what happened behind that veil with the people closest to the process, the three sides involved in the removal granted Action News 5′s Kontji Anthony an unobstructed look at the exhumation of Forrest and his wife’s remains from the park that once bore the general’s name. This past June, more than three and a half years after the Forrest monument was removed from Health Sciences Park. The remains of Forrest and his wife were also taken out of the park. Green tarps shielded the exhumation from public view.

Flashback to the scene on December 20, 2017, as a 9,500-pound bronze statue of Forrest was removed from its pedestal at the Memphis Medical District park in a moment that was moment decades in the making.

“This entire issue really began when I was on city council back in the mid-90s,” recalls Brent Taylor, a former Memphis city councilman and Shelby County commissioner. “Judge D’Army Bailey approached me during a Memphis in May event.”

He remembers the late civil rights icon being the first to suggest moving the monument of the slave trader and reported KKK founder, but it would take more than two decades and three mayors before the idea became reality. That’s because Tennessee law forbids removing war memorials on public property without a vote by the State Historical Commission, which repeatedly denied the request.

After a movement launched by County Commissioner Tami Sawyer called “Take ‘Em Down 901″ gained traction, Mayor Jim Strickland and some of the city’s top legal strategists found a way around the State Historical Commission.

“And so, they found a loophole, the City of Memphis did, and they sold the property to Van Turner’s organization,” said Taylor.

Memphis Greenspace, Incorporated, established by Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner, took over the park and had the right to remove the statue when it became private property.

“It was really something that we didn’t know would work,” admitted Turner. “We were lucky, we were blessed.”

However, the property transfer concerned more than just a monument. The remains were also buried there.

“It was two parts, right? To remove the monument, that alone was not enough. We then had to go into the ground, basically, unearth remains that have been there for over a century,” explained Turner.

That’s when Taylor, a licensed funeral director was approached again. This time by Greenspace, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the Forrest family, who agreed through court order that Taylor would be the one to remove and relocate the remains.

He explained, “Had my backhoe operator down there on June 7 at nine o’clock. He began digging, and he made about three swipes with his backhoe and he uncovered a piece of granite.”

Taylor says it was a Victorian cradle sitting atop the graves. The bodies were under the plaza in front of the pedestal, not below it.

“Keep in mind, Take ‘Em Down 901 started the process. The property changed hands from the City of Memphis to Memphis Greenspace and the statue came down at 9:01 p.m. I looked at my watch. It was 9:01 a.m. when we discovered where the remains actually were,” he noted.

The discovery is preserved in photographs.

“His casket was intact with a cast-iron casket. One hundred years worth of rust and patina on it,” said Taylor as he leafed through dozens of photos of the exhumation. “All the hinges and latches and so forth all been rusted together, so we had to cut into it. His casket had been full of water and had to drain the water. And what was left was about six inches of sediment inside his casket.”

All of it, along with the soil, was transferred into temporary caskets for transporting. With the remains of a man both reviled and revered and the weight of a city divided on his shoulders, Taylor ordered his staff to place the caskets in two different vehicles.

“I had my staff simply leave the site, drive in different directions and I’ll call you and tell you where,” Taylor recalled.

They drove around about 40 minutes to avoid anyone following them before Taylor directed them to head to his Munford, Tennessee funeral home.

“The reason they had to be in Tipton County was a court order said that I had to store the remains outside of Shelby County,” Taylor said.

Taylor says he changed the locks on the room where he kept the remains, then quietly re-buried them in this Munford cemetery as he waited to learn where the Forrests would be laid to rest permanently.

When the Forrest family decided to make Columbia, Tennesee, the location of the Sons of Confederate Veterans headquarters, the Forrests’ final burial site, Taylor’s team exhumed the remains once again. Sons of Confederate Veterans spokesman, Lee Millar, has mixed emotions about the move.

“It’s always been Forrest Park and I guess it will be until people get used to it. It’s where he was buried for 116 years,” he said.

Turner says the remains had to go.

“There was still something there that wouldn’t let the park be totally free and there would still be protest and still be issues here because the remains were here.”

The remains were tucked inside period clothing and the family planned to stop at the site of one of Forrest’s civil war battle sites on the way to Columbia, but the Forrest family attorney got a call.

“It was now a security threat that the FBI wanted to make us aware of, and they asked that we not take that route, and they not do that ceremony,” said Taylor.

Taylor says they moved the remains in the cover of darkness September 16 for a series of visitations, processions, the funeral and fourth burial of the couple. They were ceremonies attended by approximately 4,000 people and the FBI, with facial recognition software in tow.

“They’re still looking for insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on January the sixth and felt, for whatever reason, that the funeral of Nathan Bedford Forrest might be a good place to find people, who perhaps, were in the Capitol on January the sixth,” Taylor further explained.

Photos from the ceremony show some of the 500 civil war re-enactors, a riderless horse with backward boots and more, photos of women dressed in black carrying his portrait from the mansion up to the gravesite, the casket on display.

Taylor reflects on accepting a task both Greenspace and the Forrest family chose only him to do, saying he just didn’t want another Charlottesville where a Confederate monument relocation ended in violence and deaths. For Memphis, Taylor was the right person at the right time with the right credentials.

“This could have gone horribly wrong in any given moment,” he said. “And I love Memphis. I knew that I could do this in a way that wouldn’t embarrass the city.”

The FBI can neither confirm nor deny an investigation. As for the future of what is now Health Sciences Park, Turner says it will be repaved, but says the park has been weighed down with symbolism for too many years and he would like it to just be a free, open space for people to visit and interpret for themselves before anyone gets any big ideas.

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