Forrest, Nathan Bedford

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Forrest, Nathan Bedford (1821–1877), Civil War general, slave trader, planter.Born in Bedford Country, Tennessee, Forrest received little formal education but learned to hold his own—and then some—in a violent frontier society. By ruthless drive and intelligence he made himself a planter and slave trader.

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