Nathan Bedford Forrest
Nathan Bedford Forrest
Born July 13, 1821
Chapel Hill, Tennessee
Died October 29, 1877
Highly feared Confederate cavalry commander
"Forrest simply 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. . . ."
Historian Bruce Catton
Confederate cavalryman Nathan Bedford Forrest ranks as one of the most controversial figures in Civil War history. Forrest was a ferocious fighter who proved time and again that he was one of the war's most brilliant combat strategists. Mixing an aggressive style with superb battlefield instincts, his attacks on Northern military positions and supply centers became so disruptive that Union general William T. Sherman (1820–1891; see entry) warned that "there will never be peace in Tennessee till Forrest is dead."
Forrest's tough reputation and military exploits made him a hero in the South. In the North, however, he emerged as one of the most hated men of the Civil War era. Northerners feared and hated Forrest partly because of his success as a raider and his fearsome reputation. But they also despised him because of his prewar career as a slave trader, his involvement in a wartime massacre of Union soldiers, and his early leadership role in the violent white supremacist group known as the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction.
Growing up in poverty
Nathan Bedford Forrest was born in a frontier cabin in a remote area of Tennessee on July 13, 1821. The oldest son of nine children, Forrest lost five of his brothers and sisters to typhoid fever. The rest of the family barely survived on the money his father made as a blacksmith. This struggle to put food on the table made education seem like a luxury, so Forrest received only six months of schooling during his childhood. When Forrest was thirteen years old, he moved with his family to northern Mississippi. Three years later, his father died and the teenager became the head of the household.
In 1841, Forrest moved to Hernando, Mississippi, to start a new life. He formed a brief business partnership with one of his uncles, who had been feuding with another family for a long time. Their business relationship ended when they were attacked by members of that family. Forrest's uncle was killed in the assault, but Forrest killed or wounded all four attackers.
In 1842, Forrest married Mary Ann Montgomery, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. The couple had two children, a boy and a girl. Their son, William, grew up to ride with his father in the Civil War. But their daughter, Frances, died from disease at the age of six.
Becomes a wealthy slave trader
During the 1840s, Forrest worked hard to build a comfortable life for his family. His lack of education sometimes made these efforts more difficult. After all, he had only a very limited capacity to read and write, and he never received any formal training in subjects like business or mathematics. Nonetheless, his intelligence and determination helped him through the tough times.
After working for a time as a real estate agent, Forrest moved his family to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1851. Once in Memphis, he quickly established himself as one of the city's leading traders of black slaves. Under slavery, white slave-holders treated black people as property, forced them to perform hard labor, and controlled every aspect of their lives.
Forrest knew that even in the South, some people looked down on slave traders as members of a disgraceful profession. But Forrest did not feel that there was anything wrong with buying and selling black people, and he recognized that the slave trade was a booming business. During the 1850s, Forrest's skill as a slave trader and real estate investor made him one of the richest men in Tennessee. By 1860, he owned more than three thousand acres of land, including several big cotton plantations in Arkansas and Mississippi. He also personally owned more than forty slaves.
Beginning of the Civil War
As a slaveowner who depended on the continued existence of the slave trade to add to his fortune, Forrest opposed all Northern efforts to restrict or abolish (completely do away with) slavery in the United States. His support of slavery and his background as a Southerner made it easy for him to side with the Confederacy when the American Civil War erupted in the spring of 1861.
The Civil War came about as a result of long-time disagreements between the Northern United States and the Southern United States over a variety of issues. The most important issue dividing these regions was slavery. Many Northerners believed that slavery was wrong and wanted to take steps to end it. But slavery played a vital role in the Southern economy and culture, and Southerners resented Northern efforts to halt or contain the practice. Fearful that the national government might pass laws that would interfere with their traditional way of life, white Southerners argued that each state should decide for itself whether to allow slavery. Finally, America's westward expansion worsened these disputes because both sides wanted to spread their way of life—and their political ideas—into the new territories and states.
By the spring of 1861, several Southern states had seceded from (left) the United States to form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. But the Federal government declared that it would use force if necessary to make the Confederate states return to the Union. When it became clear that neither side was going to back down, America's North and South began the process of building their armies for war.
Forrest becomes a rebel cavalry leader
Forrest enlisted in the Southern army as a private in June 1861, a week after his native Tennessee voted to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy. But he was discharged (released from service) a short time later so that he could recruit his own battalion of cavalry (a military division that rides on horseback to conduct raids and scout enemy movements). Using his own money to provide his troops with needed supplies, Forrest quickly assembled a cavalry force of about six hundred men. The Confederate Army then promoted him to lieutenant colonel so that he could formally command them.
Forrest first attracted national attention in February 1862 for his actions at Fort Donelson in Tennessee. The fort had been targeted for capture by Union forces led by Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; see entry). As Grant's troops advanced on the stronghold, Confederate brigadier general Gideon J. Pillow decided to surrender. But Forrest refused to admit defeat. Even as thirteen thousand rebel soldiers surrendered to Grant's troops, Forrest's cavalry escaped from the area by taking an unguarded road that had flooded.
Two months later, Forrest again proved his worth to the Confederate cause at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. The clash ended with Confederate forces in full retreat, hounded by pursuing Union troops. But Forrest's cavalry stepped in and slowed the Union pursuit with a series of quick strikes against Federal forces. This brilliant performance brought Forrest even more attention, especially since he had led his cavalry even after suffering a serious bullet wound.
After recovering from his wound, Forrest returned to the field. Forrest's superiors were eager to make use of his aggressive style and strategic abilities, so they decided to grant him a great deal of independence from other Confederate military operations. This decision proved to be a good one, as Forrest used his cavalry to torment Union patrols and supply centers. In mid-July 1862, for example, Forrest completed an extended raid of Union positions in middle Tennessee by bluffing (purposely mislead) the Union commander at Murfreesboro into surrendering. Forrest thus seized more than one thousand Union soldiers and hundreds of thousands of dollars in Union supplies.
Forrest continued to strike against Union forces with great effectiveness for the next eighteen months. Ranging from western Tennessee to the Ohio River, his cavalry moved at a speed that frustrated all Northern pursuers. His most dramatic triumph during this period came in Alabama in the spring of 1863, when he fooled a Union commander into surrendering to him, even though the Union leader had three times as many soldiers. But Forrest also led dozens of other effective raids that did not receive as much publicity. "[Forrest] was probably the best cavalry leader in the entire war," wrote Bruce Catton in The Civil War. "Forrest simply 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."
The Fort Pillow Massacre
Forrest's cavalrymen admired their leader's bravery and leadership. But his reputation as a violent man with a terrible temper made them fear him, too. The most famous example of Forrest's ruthlessness was a controversial clash that took place at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, in April 1864. In this incident, known as the Fort Pillow Massacre, hundreds of Union troops were killed. Many of these Union soldiers, which included both black soldiers and white soldiers from Tennessee, were apparently killed while trying to surrender. The correspondence of some members of Forrest's command indicates that their leader approved of the massacre. "The slaughter was awful," wrote Confederate cavalryman Achilles V. Clark. "Words cannot describe the scene. . . .I with several others tried to stop the butchery and at one point had partially succeeded—but Gen. Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued." Today, the Fort Pillow Massacre remains the biggest blemish on Forrest's war record. "Whether Forrest ordered [the massacre] or not, and that is still debated, he certainly watched as the slaughter went on," wrote historian Brian Pohanka.
Raids in the western theater
In the fall of 1863, Forrest was transferred to the war's western theater (the area west of the Appalachian Mountains). He wasted no time in making his presence felt. In the months following his arrival, his cavalry conducted damaging raids on Union positions throughout northern Mississippi and western Tennessee.
Beginning in June 1864, Forrest launched a series of raids against the supply lines of Union general William T. Sherman, who had begun a major invasion of the Confederacy's western region earlier in the year. Sherman responded by ordering a force of eighty-five hundred Northern troops to find Forrest and stop him. Instead, Forrest launched a surprise attack on his pursuers. This clash, which took place at Brices Cross Roads, Mississippi, on June 10, resulted in one of the greatest Confederate cavalry victories of the war. Despite being outnumbered by almost a two-to-one margin, Forrest pushed his foes into a wild retreat. By the end of the day, his cavalry had captured two thousand soldiers, sixteen cannons, and hundreds of supply wagons.
Forrest's cavalry continued to strike against Union troops and supply lines through the rest of 1864 and into early 1865. But the Union Army's growing dominance over its Confederate foes elsewhere in the South made these raids seem less and less important. In addition, Forrest's cavalry operated during this period under the same shortages of food and supplies that were weakening other Confederate armies. On April 2, 1865, Forrest's fading cavalry was disabled once and for all when it absorbed a terrific beating outside Selma, Alabama, at the hands of Union cavalry forces led by Major General James H. Wilson (1837–1925).
Forrest and the Ku Klux Klan
Forrest and the remnants of his cavalry surrendered to Union troops in May 1865, a few weeks after General Robert E. Lee (1807–1870; see entry) and the main Confederate Army surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia. After the war, Forrest expressed a deep desire to put the conflict behind him and return to his business interests. "I did all in my power to break up the government but I found it a useless undertaking and I now resolve to stand by the government as earnestly and honestly as I fought it. I'm also aware that I am at this moment regarded in large communities of the North with abhorrence [hatred] as a detestable monster, ruthless and swift to take life."
After obtaining a pardon (official forgiveness) from President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; see entry) for his wartime activities, Forrest resumed his life as a businessman. As time passed, though, he became very angry about federal Reconstruction policies that gave blacks increased economic and political rights in the South. (Reconstruction refers to the period in American history immediately after the Civil War, when the Southern states were readmitted into the Union.)
Forrest and some other white Southerners who were angry about Reconstruction policies subsequently formed the Ku Klux Klan. This organization of ex-Confederates quickly became known for its white supremacist philosophy and its willingness to use violence against blacks and people who helped them. Forrest was reportedly one of the Klan's early leaders, but some historians contend that he eventually withdrew from the organization because of its heavy use of violence and intimidation. In the 1870s, Forrest's business ventures in farming, insurance, and railroads failed. By the time of his death from illness on October 29, 1877, the former cavalry leader was deeply in debt.
Where to Learn More
Davis, William C., Brian C. Pohanka, and Don Troiani. Civil War Journal: The Leaders. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill, 1997.
The Forrest Preserve. [Online] http://nbforrest.com/ (accessed on October 9, 1999).
General Nathan Bedford Forrest Historical Society. [Online] http://www.tennessee-scv.org/ForrestHistSociety/ (accessed on October 9, 1999).
Hurst, Jack. Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1993.
Lytle, Andrew Nelson. Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company. New York: Minton, Balch and Co., 1931. Reprint, Nashville: J. S. Sanders and Co., 1992.
Wills, Brian S. A Battle from the Start: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. Reprint, Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.
Wills, Brian S. The Confederacy's Greatest Cavalryman: Nathan Bedford Forrest. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.
Wyeth, John A. Life of General Nathan Bedford Forrest. New York: Harper, 1899. Reprint, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
Forrest's Unlucky Horses
During the course of the Civil War, Nathan Bedford Forrest reportedly had twenty-nine horses shot out from under him in battle. In addition, the cavalry leader suffered several serious wounds during the war. The most unusual of Forrest's war injuries came in June 1863, when he was shot by an angry Confederate aide named Andrew W. Gould. Forrest survived the attack by killing Gould with a penknife.
None of Forrest's injuries kept him out of the saddle for very long, however. Fearless and grimly determined to fight for the Southern cause, Forrest hated being away from the action. This attitude made him a deadly foe on the field of battle. By the end of the war, he claimed that he had taken revenge for every horse he lost by personally killing thirty Union soldiers. Some people viewed this boast as yet another sign of his callous (unfeeling) attitude toward human life. But Forrest usually responded to such accusations by saying that "war means fighting and fighting means killing."
Forrest, Nathan Bedford (1821-1877)
Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1877)
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 regiment’s first assignment was at Fort Donelson on the Kentucky-Tennessee border, the site of Union general Ulysses S. Grant’s 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 Grant’s 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 Forrest’s 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. Sherman’s 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 latter’s 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 Forrest’s 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.
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.
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. □
Forrest, Nathan Bedford
At the outset of the Civil War, Forrest raised a cavalry battalion in the Confederate army. He led his men out of Fort Donelson just before its 16 February 1862 surrender, and at the 6–7 April Battle of Shiloh was conspicuously aggressive, being severely wounded covering the Confederate retreat. That summer he led a cavalry brigade in a spectacular raid through middle Tennessee. Promoted to brigadier general 21 July, he again raided behind Federal lines in December, helping to defeat Ulysses S. Grant's first drive on Vicksburg.
In Alabama, in April 1863, he captured Col. Abel D. Streight's superior Union raiding force by bluff. At the Battle of Chickamauga, 19–20 September, Forrest's troops opened the fighting. Afterward, he fell out with his army commander, Braxton Bragg, was transferred to Mississippi, and promoted to major general on 4 December 1863.
In April 1864 his troops at the Battle of Fort Pillow, Tennessee, stormed the fort, killing black Union soldiers as they attempted to surrender. In June, he routed a superior force under Samuel D. Sturgis at Brice's Cross Roads, Mississippi, but suffered defeat at Tupelo the following month. In November and December, Forrest commanded all the cavalry accompanying Gen. John Bell Hood's ill‐fated offensive into Tennessee, and skillfully covered the Confederate retreat.
On 28 February 1865, Forrest was promoted to lieutenant general, but he and his command were worn out, and they faced a powerful Federal mounted force under James H. Wilson driving into Alabama. Wilson defeated Forrest at Selma in April. After the war, Forrest returned to planting and served as the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
His military usefulness in the Civil War was marred by his hot temper; he virtually required autonomy. Nevertheless, as the leader of a semi‐independent mobile striking force, he has had few equals. He is also remembered for his alleged advice to commanders to “get there ‘firstest’ with the ‘mostest.’”
[See also Civil War: Military and Diplomatic Course; Confederate Army.]
Brian Steel Wills , A Battle from the Start: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest, 1992.
Steven E. Woodworth