SALLY FORTH today, my fellow Americans, and celebrate the Fourth of July. As you do, you might want to think about some of your favorite Americans. I've composed a list of the 10 Americans whose lives fascinate me most, whose lives I'd like to know more about and who were characterized by their own brand of grit and moxie.
Perhaps you can send me yours.
1. Frederick Douglass -- He determined as a boy that, although a slave, he would learn to read and write. He punched out a slave-breaker at 16, escaped slavery at 20 and became an abolitionist, author and orator. Douglass never stopped learning. While visiting his house -- now a museum -- in Washington's Anacostia, I learned that Douglass taught himself five foreign languages.
2. Harriet Tubman -- It's no accident the top two people on this list are native Marylanders. Tubman makes it not only for returning 19 times to Maryland to lead more than 300 slaves to freedom, but for her willingness to stick her pistol in the face of anyone who wavered and jeopardized the safety and freedom of others on the trek north.
3. Martin Luther King Jr. -- He sacrificed his life to rush to Memphis, Tenn., in 1968 and help striking sanitation workers. Who among us today would lay down his or her life to help garbage workers?
4. Abraham Lincoln -- He makes the list for his stewardship of the nation during its most difficult crisis and keeping it united. Had a lesser man been elected in 1860, we might have five or six countries on the North American continent today, which would have been disastrous when the 1940s came around and one Adolf Hitler needed to be regulated.
5. Mark Twain -- He had a passion for championing the underdog. Twain's best known for "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." But his social satire -- especially his "Letters from the Earth" -- is even more powerful. He told his daughter he couldn't publish "Letters from the Earth" while he was alive because he would be guilty of a felony. But he took many courageous stances, excoriating the McKinley administration for its war in the Philippines and the British for their war against the Boers in South Africa.
6. Ambrose Bierce -- A writer who was a contemporary of Twain, Bierce was also known for his satirical bite. His "Devil's Dictionary" earned him a place forever in my heart. How can you not love a guy who defined April fool as "the March fool with another month added to his folly"; bigot as "one who is HTC obstinately and zealously attached to an opinion that you do not entertain"; and conservative as "a statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others"? Bierce rode off across the Mexican frontier with some revolutionaries in 1913, never to be heard from again.
7. Bass Reeves -- He was one of several black U.S. deputy marshals who patrolled the Oklahoma Territory at a time when crime was so vile and rampant, folks said God didn't exist there. Some historians consider Reeves the best deputy marshal that served under Judge Isaac Parker of Fort Smith, Ark. Reeves tracked and caught outlaws for 32 years. He's on my list because when he was called upon to arrest his son, he remained true to his duty and did so.
8. and 9. Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull -- They opposed the attempt of greedy settlers to encroach on their lands once it was discovered "thar's gold in them thar [Black] hills" and did in the arrogant and vainglorious George Custer at the Little Bighorn in 1876.
10. Nathan Bedford Forrest -- What's he doing on this list? Didn't he command the Confederate troops that massacred black troops at Fort Pillow? Didn't he start the Ku Klux Klan? Wasn't he a slave trader before the war started?
Guilty on all counts. But there's more to Forrest than that. Some of Forrest's defenders claim that he gave no orders to massacre troops at Fort Pillow and that the number of black soldiers killed was less than that claimed. His defenders also claim Forrest, as a slave trader, made it a point never to separate families when he sold slaves.
He took his slaves with him into battle, figuring they would be free if the South lost and promising them their freedom if the South won. ("Better Confederates did not live," Forrest boasted of the blacks who fought with him.) He started the KKK to thwart what he saw as rampant lawlessness in the post-Civil War South but left and condemned the group when he saw it turning into the very thing he was trying to stop.
But it is Forrest the military genius who makes this list. He out-generaled every Union officer sent against him, many of whom had graduated from West Point. Forrest had no military training whatsoever but gave Union officers fits. Several wanted him captured and hanged immediately. Forrest remains one of the most baffling and fascinating Americans our history has yet produced.
Pub Date: 7/04/98