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Forrest, Nathan Bedford (1821-1877)

Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1877)

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Confederate cavalry commander

Raider. One of the best cavalry commanders during the Civil War was Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest and his men frustrated Union military leaders with aggressive raids behind Federal lines. Time and again these Southern raiders appeared out of nowhere and thwarted Union advances. At various skirmishes Forrest was successful in overpowering enemy forces by fighting from a dismounted position and using such irregular weapons as shotguns, squirrel rifles, and flintlock muskets. These tactics allowed Forrest to rout Northern cavalry units which fought in a conventional manner and relied on the cavalry saber as a battle weapon. Throughout the war Forrest operated an independent command that wreaked havoc upon Union forces and at times created controversy by stepping outside the traditional lines of nineteenth-century warfare.

Background. Forrest was born in a secluded Tennessee frontier cabin during the summer of 1821. When he turned sixteen his father, a blacksmith, died, leaving Nathan as the sole family provider. Although he did not receive a formal education, Forrest worked as a real estate broker and slave trader and eventually amassed a large fortune, buying several cotton plantations in Arkansas and Mississippi. At the time of the outbreak of war between the North and the South, he was living in Memphis. Since he did not have a college degree or military training, Forrest enlisted as a private in a cavalry regiment that he raised and equipped himself. By October 1861 the new unit elected him as its commander with the rank of lieutenant colonel. The regiments first assignment was at Fort Donelson on the Kentucky-Tennessee border, the site of Union general Ulysses S. Grants early victory. Informed that the Confederate commander would surrender the stronghold to Grant, Forrest led his cavalrymen through Union lines by fording flooded rivers.

A Clever Opponent. Forrest soon gained a reputation as a military genius. In April 1862 his men fought at Shiloh, Mississippi, where Forrest was seriously wounded. After he recovered, Forrest and his cavalrymen fought at Murfreesboro, Tennessee. His surprise attack captured a thousand Union soldiers, destroyed supplies valued at a million dollars, and wrecked a portion of the railroad. For the next year and a half Forrest conducted raids from west Tennessee and moved as far as the Ohio River. He hit Union supply lines and at one point severely impeded Grants drive to Vicksburg, Mississippi. In the spring of 1863 Forrest displayed his tactical genius by tricking a Union commander into surrendering his fifteen hundred soldiers to Forrests battalion of five hundred.

Fort Pillow. One of the most controversial events of the Civil War involved Forrest and his cavalrymen at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, in April 1864. In an attack known as the Fort Pillow Massacre, the Southern raiders reportedly murdered black Union troops who were trying to surrender. Forrest denied the charge that his men killed African American soldiers in cold blood. On previous occasions, however, Forrest sought to terrorize Union garrisons and force them to give up by raising the threat of no quarter. At Fort Pillow, his men apparently carried out the threat and were not ordered to stop the carnage. In his report written three days after the event, Forrest seemed to take delight in the death of enemy troops who were shot in the Mississippi River trying to escape. He noted that their blood dyed the river red and he hoped that their death will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners. Whether he ordered the massacre or not, the event followed Forrest for the rest of the war and, coupled with his leadership role in the Ku Klux Klan during the Reconstruction era, clearly showed his belief in white supremacy.

Final Stages. From June to November 1864 Forrest conducted a series of raids against Union general William T. Shermans supply lines. On several occasions Forrest beat Union forces nearly twice the size of his unit. On 10 June he captured two thousand Federals along with sixteen guns and 250 wagons at Brices Cross Roads, Mississippi. Later, while operating in west Tennessee in October and November 1864, Forrest destroyed four Union gunboats, fourteen river transports, and $7 million worth of property. After serving with Confederate general John Bell Hood during the latters catastrophic Tennessee campaign, Forrest returned to his independent operations in 1865 and received a promotion to lieutenant general in February. However, his command grew ineffective as hunger and Forrests aggressive tactics finally took its toll on his men. Failing to stop Union forces from capturing Selma, Alabama, in April 1865, Forrest finally surrendered to Northern troops in May. Following the war, many military historians recognized Forrest as the best tactician to fight for the Confederacy.

Sources

John S. Bowman, ed., Who Was Who in the Civil War (New York: Crescent Books, 1994);

Dudley T. Cornish, The Sable Arm: Black Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1987).

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Nathan Bedford Forrest

Nathan Bedford Forrest

A Confederate general in the American Civil War, Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1877) ranks as a near genius of war. He was a daring and successful cavalry leader who had few peers.

Nathan Bedford Forrest, eldest son of his family, was born near Chapel Hill, Tenn., on July 13, 1821. The family moved to Mississippi in 1834, and Forrest's father died when the boy was 16. As head of the house, Forrest farmed, traded horses and cattle, and finally traded slaves. Slowly he accumulated the capital to buy Mississippi and Arkansas plantations. At length a wealthy man, he married Mary Ann Montgomery in 1845. Moving to Memphis in 1849, he was active in city affairs and served as alderman. Denied formal education, he taught himself to write and speak clearly and learned mathematics; yet he never learned to spell.

With the Civil War coming, Forrest enlisted as a private in the Confederate Army. Since he raised and equipped a cavalry battalion at his own expense, he was appointed lieutenant colonel in 1861. As a cavalry leader, Forrest displayed spectacular talent. His men were devoted to him, admiring his stature, commanding air, courtesy, even his ferociousness.

Forrest took part in the defense of Ft. Donelson, Tenn., in 1862. He persuaded his superiors to let his troops escape before the surrender, which endeared him to the troops. As a full colonel at Shiloh, he received a bad wound. In 1862, commissioned brigadier general, he began a long and lustrous association with the Confederate Army of Tennessee.

A succession of commanders realized Forrest's talent as a raider and used him to wreak havoc behind enemy lines. Forrest believed in surprise, audacity, and nerve. His men became splendid scouts as well as superb raiders. His philosophy of war is distilled in his maxim, "Get there first with the most."

Several of Forrest's battles were minor classics of cavalry tactics. Near Rome, Ga., in 1863, he outmaneuvered and captured a raiding Union column. In 1864 he defeated a much larger Union force at Brice's Cross Roads, Miss. In planning this action Forrest had taken account of weather, terrain, the condition of his own and of enemy troops, deployment of the enemy column, time, and distance in a deft blending of strategy, tactics, and logistics.

Not always affable, Forrest had troubles with some superiors, especially Gen. Braxton Bragg. Forrest thought Bragg unfair, jealous, and discriminatory regarding the Chickamauga campaign, and he took his grievance to President Jefferson Davis. Davis transferred Forrest and in 1863 commissioned him major general.

Although historians still argue over Forrest's responsibility for the Ft. Pillow massacre, in which Union African American troops were slaughtered, it appears that Forrest did not order the massacre. Lack of evidence prevents a definite conclusion. Toward the end of the war Forrest raided successfully in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama.

Promoted to lieutenant general in 1865, Forrest fought increasing enemy forces with dwindling ranks. The long spring raid of Union general James H. Wilson pushed him back to the defense of the Confederate ordnance center at Selma, Ala., where he was finally defeated. He surrendered on May 9, 1865.

After the war Forrest lived in Memphis, Tenn. He was evidently active in organizing the Ku Klux Klan but abandoned it when its course turned violent. For several years he was president of the Selma, Marion and Memphis Railroad. He died in Memphis.

Further Reading

The best biography of Forrest is Robert S. Henry, "First with the Most" Forrest (1944), although Andrew N. Lytle, Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company (1931; rev. ed. 1960), and John A. Wyeth, That Devil Forrest (1959; originally published as Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest, 1899), are both good. □

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Forrest, Nathan Bedford

Nathan Bedford Forrest, 1821–77, Confederate general, b. Bedford co., Tenn. (his birthplace is now in Marshall co.). At the beginning of the Civil War, Forrest, a wealthy citizen of Memphis, organized a cavalry force, which he led at Fort Donelson (Feb., 1862) and Shiloh (April). He assumed command of a cavalry brigade in the Army of Tennessee (June) and in July captured a large Union garrison at Murfreesboro. He was made a brigadier general. With a newly recruited command he effectively cut Grant's communications in a raid through W Tennessee (Dec., 1862). After foiling a Union attempt to cut the railroad between Chattanooga and Atlanta (May, 1863), Forrest participated in the Chattanooga campaign until trouble with Braxton Bragg led him to accept a command in N Mississippi. He was promoted to major general (Dec., 1863); captured Fort Pillow (Apr., 1864); defeated a superior force at Brices Cross Roads, Miss. (June); and held Gen. Andrew Jackson Smith to a drawn battle at Tupelo, Miss. (July). These Union failures against Forrest caused Sherman, then advancing on Atlanta, much concern for his communications. Forrest commanded all the cavalry under John Bell Hood in that general's Tennessee campaign (Nov.–Dec., 1864) and was promoted to lieutenant general (Feb., 1865). He surrendered shortly after his defeat at Selma, Ala., in April. After the war he engaged for a time in railroading and also was important in the activities of the Ku Klux Klan. Forrest, probably the greatest Confederate cavalryman, is one of the most interesting figures of the war.

See biographies by J. A. Wyeth (1899, repr. 1959), E. W. Sheppard (1930), R. S. Henry (1944), and A. N. Lytle (rev. ed. 1960).

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