Hand color tinted photo of Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate Lieutenant General 1862
Nathan Bedford Forrest (July 13, 1821 – October 29, 1877) was a lieutenant general in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. He is remembered both as a self made and innovative cavalry leader during the war and as a figure in the postwar establishment of the first Ku Klux Klan organization opposing the reconstruction era in the South.
A cavalry and military commander in the war, Forrest is also one of the war’s most unusual figures. A crude man who had made his fortune as a slave trader, was noted for both his violence and his hatred of blacks. In the words of historian James M. McPherson, “Forrest possessed a killer instinct toward . . . blacks in any capacity other than slave.” He was one of the very few in either army to enlist as a private and end the war at the rank of general. Forrest discovered and established new doctrines for mobile forces, earning the nickname The Wizard of the Saddle. He was accused of responsibility for war crimes at the Battle of Fort Pillow for leading Confederate soldiers in a massacre of unarmed black Union Army prisoners, but in the face of conflicting evidence was later cleared by the US Congress. After the war Forrest opposed Reconstruction policies and federal occupation by serving as the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and commander of the Grand Dragons of the Realms. In their postwar writings, both Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee stated the Confederate high command had failed to adequately use Forrest’s talents.
Nathan Bedford Forrest was born to a poor family in Chapel Hill, Tennessee. He was the first of blacksmith William Forrest’s twelve children with Miriam Beck. After his father’s death, Forrest became head of the family at the age of 17. In 1841 Forrest went into business with his uncle in Hernando, Mississippi. His uncle was killed there during an argument with the Matlock brothers. Forrest shot and killed two of them with his two-shot pistol and wounded two others with a knife thrown to him. Ironically, one of the wounded men survived and served under Forrest during the Civil War.
Forrest became a businessman, a planter – owner of several plantations, a slave owner, and slave trader based on Adams Street in Memphis. In 1858 Forrest was elected as a Memphis city alderman. Forrest provided financially for his mother and put his younger brothers through college. By the time the Civil War started in 1861, he was a millionaire and one of the richest men in the South. Forrest had amassed a personal net worth of more than $1.5 million.
Memphis City Directory entry, 1855-1856Before the Civil War, “Forrest was well known as a Memphis speculator and Mississippi gambler. He was for some time captain of a boat which ran between Memphis, Tennessee and Vicksburg, Mississippi. As his fortune increased he engaged in plantation speculation, and became the nominal owner of two plantations not far from Goodrich’s Landing, above Vicksburg, where he worked some hundred or more slaves,” according to his obituary. “He was known to his acquaintances as a man of obscure origin and low associations, a shrewd speculator, negro trader, and duelist, but a man of great energy and brute courage.
After war broke out, Forrest returned to Tennessee and enlisted as a private in the Confederate States Army. On July 14, 1861, he joined Captain J.S. White’s Company “E”, Tennessee Mounted Rifles.
His superior officers and the state governor Isham G. Harris were surprised that someone of Forrest’s wealth and prominence had enlisted as a soldier, especially since planters were exempted from service. As a result they commissioned him as a colonel and authorized him to recruit and train a battalion of Confederate Mounted Rangers. In October 1861 he was given command of his own regiment, “Forrest’s Tennessee Cavalry Battalion”. Though Forrest had no prior formalized military training or experience, he applied himself diligently to learn. With strong leadership abilities and apparently an intuition for successful tactics, Forrest soon became an exemplary officer. In Tennessee, there was much public debate concerning the state’s decision to join the Confederacy, and both the CSA and the Union armies were actively seeking Tennessean recruits. Forrest sought men eager for battle, promising them that they would have “ample opportunity to kill Yankees”.
At six-foot, two-inches (1.88 m) tall and 210 pounds (95 kg; 15 stone), Forrest was physically imposing and intimidating, especially for the time. He used his skills as a hard rider and fierce swordsman to great effect. (He was known to sharpen both the top and bottom edges of his heavy saber.)
It has been surmised from contemporaneous records that Forrest may have personally killed more than thirty-three men with saber, pistol and shotgun.
When the Civil War began, Forrest offered freedom to 44 of his slaves if they would serve with him in the Confederate army. All 44 agreed. One later deserted; the other 43 served faithfully until the end of the war. Although they had many chances to leave, they chose to remain loyal to the South and to Forrest. Part of Forrest’s command included his own Escort Company (his “Special Forces”), made up of the very best soldiers available. This unit, which varied in size from 40-90 men, was the elite of the cavalry. Eight of these picked men were black soldiers and all served gallantly and bravely throughout the war. All were armed with at least 2 pistols and a rifle. Most also carried two additional pistols in saddle holsters. At war’s end, when Forrest’s cavalry surrendered in May 1865, there were 65 black troopers on the muster roll. Of the soldiers who served under him, Forrest said of the black troops: Finer Confederates never fought.
Forrest distinguished himself first at the Battle of Fort Donelson in February 1862. His cavalry captured a Union artillery battery and then he broke out of a Union Army siege headed by Major General Ulysses S. Grant. Forrest rallied nearly 4,000 troops and led them across the river.
A few days after Fort Donelson, with the fall of Nashville imminent, Forrest took command of the city. Industry included millions of dollars worth of heavy ordnance machinery. Forrest arranged for transport of both the machinery and several important government officials.
A month later, Forrest was back in action at the Battle of Shiloh (April 6 to April 7, 1862). He commanded a Confederate rear guard after the Union victory. In an incident called Fallen Timbers, he drove through the Union skirmish line. In the midst of Union troops with his own men in retreat, he emptied his Colt Army Revolvers into the swirling mass of Union Soldiers and pulled out his saber. A Union infantryman wounded Forrest in the hip with a musket shot, nearly knocking the cavalry man out of the saddle. Forrest was said to be the last man wounded at the Battle of Shiloh.
By early summer, Forrest commanded a new brigade of green cavalry regiments. In July, he led them into Middle Tennessee under orders to launch a cavalry raid. On July 13, 1862, his men joined the First Battle of Murfreesboro, and Forrest is said to have won this battle.
According to a report by a Union commander:
“ The forces attacking my camp were the First Regiment Texas Rangers [8th Texas Cavalry, Terry’s Texas Rangers, ed.], Colonel Wharton, and a battalion of the First Georgia Rangers, Colonel Morrison, and a large number of citizens of Rutherford County, many of whom had recently taken the oath of allegiance to the United States Government. There were also quite a number of negroes attached to the Texas and Georgia troops, who were armed and equipped, and took part in the several engagements with my forces during the day.”
Promoted in July 1862 to brigadier general, Forrest was given command of a Confederate cavalry brigade. In December 1862, Forrest’s veteran troopers were reassigned by Bragg to another officer, against his protest. Forrest had to recruit a new brigade, composed of about 2,000 inexperienced recruits, most of whom lacked weapons. Again, Bragg ordered a raid, this one into west Tennessee to disrupt the communications of the Union forces under Grant, threatening the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Forrest protested that to send these untrained men behind enemy lines was suicidal, but Bragg insisted, and Forrest obeyed his orders. On the ensuing raid, he again showed his brilliance, leading thousands of Union soldiers in west Tennessee on a “wild goose chase” trying to locate his fast-moving forces. Forrest never stayed in one place long enough to be located, raided as far north as the banks of the Ohio River in southwest Kentucky, and came back to his base in Mississippi with more men than he had started with. All of them were then fully armed with captured Union weapons. As a result, Grant was forced to revise and delay the strategy of his Vicksburg Campaign. “He was the only Confederate cavalryman of whom Grant stood in much dread,” a friend of Grant’s was quoted as saying.
Forrest continued to lead his men in small-scale operations until April 1863. The Confederate army dispatched him into the backcountry of northern Alabama and west Georgia to deal with an attack of 3,000 Union cavalrymen under the command of Col. Abel Streight. Streight had orders to cut the Confederate railroad south of Chattanooga, Tennessee, to cut off Bragg’s supply line and force him to retreat into Georgia. Forrest chased Streight’s men for 16 days, harassing them all the way. Streight’s goal became simply to escape pursuit. On May 3, Forrest caught up with Streight’s unit east of Cedar Bluff, Alabama. Forrest had fewer men, but repeatedly paraded some of them around a hilltop to appear a larger force, and convinced Streight to surrender his 1,500 exhausted troops.
Forrest served with the main army at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 18 to September 20, 1863). He pursued the retreating Union army and took hundreds of prisoners. Like several others under Bragg’s command, he urged an immediate follow-up attack to recapture Chattanooga, which had fallen a few weeks before. Bragg failed to do so, upon which Forrest was quoted as saying, “What does he fight battles for?” After Forrest made death threats against Bragg during a confrontation, Forrest was reassigned to an independent command in Mississippi. He was promoted to the rank of major general on December 4, 1863.
Battle of Fort Pillow
On April 12, 1864, General Forrest led his forces in the attack and capture of Fort Pillow on the Mississippi River in Henning, Tennessee. The Battle of Fort Pillow led to great controversy about whether a massacre of surrendered African-American Union troops was conducted or condoned by General Forrest.
Forrest’s men insisted that the Federals, although fleeing, kept their weapons and frequently turned to shoot, forcing the Confederates to keep firing in self defense.. The Union flag was still flying over the fort, which indicated that the force had not formally surrendered. A contemporary newspaper account from Jackson, Tennessee, states that “General Forrest begged them to surrender,” but “not the first sign of surrender was ever given.” Similar accounts were reported in many Southern newspapers at the time.
These denials, however, are contradicted by accounts of the massacre found in the letters of the Confederate soldiers who were there. Achilles Clark, a soldier with the 20th Tennessee cavalry, wrote the following in a letter to his sister penned immediately after the battle. “The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor, deluded, negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees, and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. I, with several others, tried to stop the butchery, and at one time had partially succeeded, but General Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased.”
Faced with these conflicting claims the U.S. Congress first accused, then cleared, Forrest of responsibility for war crimes at the battle.
The battle remains controversial, and historians differ on the interpretations. Richard Fuchs, author of An Unerring Fire concludes that “The affair at Fort Pillow was simply an orgy of death, a mass lynching to satisfy the basest of conduct – intentional murder – for the vilest of reasons – racism and personal enmity.” Andrew Ward downplays the controversy, “Whether the massacre was premeditated or spontaneous does not address the more fundamental question of whether a massacre took place… it certainly did, in every dictionary sense of the word.” John Cimprich states “The new paradigm in social attitudes and the fuller use of available evidence has favored a massacre interpretation… Debate over the memory of this incident formed a part of sectional and racial conflicts for many years after the war, but the reinterpretation of the event during the last thirty years offers some hope that society can move beyond past intolerance.”
Forrest’s greatest victory came on June 10, 1864, when his 3,500-man force clashed with 8,500 men commanded by Union Maj. Gen. Samuel D. Sturgis at the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads. Here, his mobility of force and superior tactics led to victory. He swept the Union forces from a large expanse of southwest Tennessee and northern Mississippi. Forrest set up a position for an attack to repulse a pursuing force commanded by Sturgis who had been sent to impede Forrest from destroying Union supplies and fortifications. When Sturgis’s Federal army came upon the crossroad, they were ambushed by Forrest’s cavalry. Sturgis ordered his infantry to advance to the front line to counteract the cavalry. The infantry, tired and weary, were quickly broken and sent into mass retreat. Forrest sent a full charge after the retreating army and captured 16 artillery pieces, 176 wagons and 1,500 stands of small arms. In all, the maneuver had cost Forrest 96 men killed and 396 wounded. However the day was far worse for Union troops which suffered 223 killed, 394 wounded and 1,623 men missing. This was an especially deep blow to the black regiment under Sturgis’s command. In the hasty retreat, they stripped off commemorative badges that read “Remember Fort Pillow” to avoid further goading the Confederate force pursuing them.
Conclusion of the war
One month later, Forrest’s first major tactical defeat came at the Battle of Tupelo. Concerned about his supply lines, Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman sent a force under the command of Maj. Gen. Andrew J. Smith to deal with Forrest. The Union forces sent Forrest from the field, but his forces were not wholly destroyed. He continued to oppose Union efforts in the West for the remainder of the war.
Forrest led other raids that summer and fall, including a famous one into Union-held downtown Memphis in August 1864 (the Second Battle of Memphis), and another on a Union supply depot at Johnsonville, Tennessee, on October 3, 1864, causing millions of dollars in damage. In December, he fought alongside the Confederate Army of Tennessee in the disastrous Franklin-Nashville Campaign. He once again fought bitterly with his superior officer, demanding permission from General John Bell Hood, the newest (and last) commander of the Army of Tennessee to cross the river during the Second Battle of Franklin and cut off Union Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield’s army’s escape route (the attempt was eventually made and defeated). After his bloody defeat at Franklin, Hood continued to Nashville while Forrest led an independent raid against the Murfreesboro garrison. Forrest engaged Union forces near Murfreesboro on December 5, 1864, and was soundly defeated at what would be known as the Third Battle of Murfreesboro. After Hood’s Army of Tennessee was all but destroyed at the Battle of Nashville, Forrest again distinguished himself by commanding the Confederate rear-guard in a series of actions that allowed what was left of the army to escape. For this, he earned promotion to the rank of lieutenant general.
In 1865, Forrest attempted, without success, to defend the state of Alabama against Wilson’s Raid. His opponent, Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson, defeated Forrest in battle. When news of Lee’s surrender reached him, Forrest chose also to surrender. On May 9, 1865, at Gainesville, Forrest read his farewell address to his troops.
In the four years of the war, reputedly a total of 30 horses were shot out from under Forrest and he may have personally killed 31 people. “I was a horse ahead at the end,” he said.
Forrest’s Farewell Address To His Troops, May 9, 1865
The following text is excerpted from Forrest’s farewell address to his troops. It showed an understanding of the difficulties likely in postwar years.
Civil war, such as you have just passed through naturally engenders feelings of animosity, hatred, and revenge. It is our duty to divest ourselves of all such feelings; and as far as it is in our power to do so, to cultivate friendly feelings towards those with whom we have so long contended, and heretofore so widely, but honestly, differed. Neighborhood feuds, personal animosities, and private differences should be blotted out; and, when you return home, a manly, straightforward course of conduct will secure the respect of your enemies. Whatever your responsibilities may be to Government, to society, or to individuals meet them like men. The attempt made to establish a separate and independent Confederation has failed; but the consciousness of having done your duty faithfully, and to the end, will, in some measure, repay for the hardships you have undergone. In bidding you farewell, rest assured that you carry with you my best wishes for your future welfare and happiness. Without, in any way, referring to the merits of the Cause in which we have been engaged, your courage and determination, as exhibited on many hard-fought fields, has elicited the respect and admiration of friend and foe. And I now cheerfully and gratefully acknowledge my indebtedness to the officers and men of my command whose zeal, fidelity and unflinching bravery have been the great source of my past success in arms. I have never, on the field of battle, sent you where I was unwilling to go myself; nor would I now advise you to a course which I felt myself unwilling to pursue. You have been good soldiers, you can be good citizens. Obey the laws, preserve your honor, and the Government to which you have surrendered can afford to be, and will be, magnanimous.
N.B. Forrest, Lieut.-General
Headquarters, Forrest’s Cavalry Corps
May 9, 1865
Impact of Forrest’s doctrines
Forrest was one of the first men to grasp the doctrines of “mobile warfare” that became prevalent in the 20th century. Paramount in his strategy was fast movement, even if it meant pushing his horses at a killing pace, which he did more than once. Noted Civil War scholar Bruce Catton writes:
“Forrest … used his horsemen as a modern general would use motorized infantry. He liked horses because he liked fast movement, and his mounted men could get from here to there much faster than any infantry could; but when they reached the field they usually tied their horses to trees and fought on foot, and they were as good as the very best infantry. Not for nothing did Forrest say the essence of strategy was ‘to git thar fust with the most men.”
Forrest is often erroneously quoted as saying his strategy was to “git thar fustest with the mostest,” but this quote first appeared in print in a New York Times story in 1917, written to provide colorful comments in reaction to European interest in Civil War generals. Bruce Catton writes:
“Do not, under any circumstances whatever, quote Forrest as saying ‘fustest’ and ‘mostest’. He did not say it that way, and nobody who knows anything about him imagines that he did.”
Forrest became well-known for his early use of “maneuver” tactics as applied to a mobile horse cavalry deployment. He sought to constantly harass the enemy in fast-moving raids, and to disrupt supply trains and enemy communications by destroying railroad track and cutting telegraph lines, as he wheeled around the Union Army’s flank. His success in doing so is reported to have driven Ulysses S. Grant to fits of anger.
Many students of warfare have come to appreciate Forrest’s somewhat novel approach to cavalry deployment and quick hit-and-run tactics, both of which have influenced mobile tactics in the modern mechanized era. A report on the Battle of Paducah stated that Forrest led a mounted cavalry of 2,500 troopers 100 miles (160 km) in only 50 hours.
One of Forrest’s most famous quotes is:
“War means fightin’, and fightin’ means killin’.