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Forrest, Nathan Bedfordfree

(13 July 1821–29 October 1877)
  • Rodney P. Carlisle

Forrest, Nathan Bedford (13 July 1821–29 October 1877), Confederate general, was born in Marshall County, Tennessee, the son of William Forrest, a blacksmith, and Mariam Beck. When Forrest was sixteen, his father died, and Forrest supported his mother and five younger brothers by raising stock and crops until his mother remarried. No record or evidence indicates that he ever attended school. In 1841 Forrest volunteered to serve in Texas, but on arriving there he found that the Texas Republic was not recruiting. He earned his fare back to Tennessee by splitting rails. In 1845 he married Mary Montgomery, and they had one child who survived childhood.

As a young man, Forrest entered the plantation business in 1842 in Hernando, Tennessee, with an uncle. In 1857 he moved to Memphis, where he dealt in real estate and slaves, earning a fortune in a short time. Between 1857 and 1859 he invested in a cotton plantation, which he was successfully operating when the Civil War broke out in 1861. His annual plantation income exceeded $30,000, a vast sum in the period.

In June 1861 Forrest enlisted as a private in a mounted rifle company, which later became a unit in the Seventh Tennessee Cavalry Regiment. In July 1861 the governor of Tennessee authorized him to recruit his own battalion of cavalry. He was appointed lieutenant colonel and commanded a force of some 650 men. Over the next four years, he established a controversial reputation as the most brilliant cavalry officer on either side of the Civil War and, at the same time, as a ruthless and bloodthirsty officer with little regard for human life. His critics charged him with at least one major massacre, while his defenders claimed that such charges were based upon his reputation for success and his brilliant cavalry tactics.

Forrest’s promotions to higher rank came quickly. He was promoted to colonel of the Third Tennessee Cavalry in March 1862; to brigadier general of the Confederate States Army (CSA) in July 1862; to major general, CSA, in December 1863; and to lieutenant general, CSA, in February 1865. The tally of his battles was extensive. He led a breakout of his troops from Fort Donelson on 13 February 1862, while the rest of the Confederate garrison surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. At the battle of Shiloh he led a charge that captured a Federal battery. On 13 July 1862 he attacked a Federal encampment at Murfreesboro (Stones River), capturing the entire garrison of infantry and cavalry as well as four cannon.

Forrest had several disputes with his commanding officers, including General Joseph Wheeler. He participated with Wheeler in an unsuccessful attack on Fort Donelson and vowed never to serve under Wheeler again. Later, when army commander Braxton Bragg ordered Forrest to work under Wheeler, Forrest protested and was given an independent command in West Tennessee.

In the fall of 1862 Forrest organized a new brigade with local recruits and led them to several victories, the first near Lexington, Tennessee. He captured Trenton, Tennessee, along with a store of ammunition, then Union City, Tennessee. He destroyed the Mobile and Ohio Railroad near Jackson, Tennessee, preventing the Federal army from moving on Vicksburg. At Thompson’s Station, Tennessee, on 5 March 1863, he defeated a Federal unit, capturing 1,500 prisoners, and at Brentwood, Tennessee, he captured another 700, including 35 officers. Forrest led the pursuit of General Abel Streight and captured him with his artillery and 1,200 men. Further successes at Chickamauga, Georgia, on 18 September 1863, at Okolona, Mississippi, in February 1864, and at Paducah, Kentucky, in March 1864 enhanced his reputation. The attack on Fort Pillow, 12 April 1864, was the battle that brought his name to the attention of the U.S. Congress and to the northern press.

The bare facts of that attack were that 221 defenders were killed, 130 were wounded, and the remainder were captured. An uncounted number of civilians who had taken refuge in the fort were also killed. The high military casualty rate stunned the North, and rumors spread that Forrest had ordered a “Black Flag” or “no quarter,” which led to the massacre of many of the African-American defenders. His troops pursued men into the woods and continued to fire on the fleeing defenders, killing many as they sought to escape. Later, Forrest’s supporters and friendly biographers collected evidence from both Confederate and Union veterans of the battle to offset the conviction that he was personally responsible for the massacre. Nevertheless, the casualty figures and the testimony of many suggested it was the worst incident of its kind during the war.

The congressional committee investigating the battle concluded that Forrest had taken advantage of a truce to reposition his forces and that he had allowed his troops to commit the slaughter. The committee heard testimony that some wounded Union troops were intentionally burned in their barracks, while other wounded were buried alive. Since Forrest was a slave trader before the war, his battle tactics were unconventional, rapid, and ruthless, and he had a personal reputation for certainty of purpose and strict discipline against any of his men charged with cowardice or violation of orders, he became a convenient symbol of the violence and sometimes explicit racism of the rebellion. On at least two occasions, he was reputed to have personally shot standard-bearers of his own men who were fleeing the front, thereby rallying his forces.

Nevertheless, Forrest’s defenders argued, he always showed complete propriety in his dealing with prisoners, and at Fort Pillow, they claimed, he attempted to restrain his men. He punished those responsible for burning the barracks, and the burial detail, they claimed, was conducted by drunken Union troops. Forrest’s troops continued the attack, they claimed, because the fort’s defenders refused to lower their flag as a signal of surrender. Furthermore, Union forces violated the prebattle truce by moving gunboats to defend the fort.

The defending general of Fort Pillow, Major William F. Bradford, was, on his word he would return, given parole so that he could attend the funeral of his brother. Bradford, however, attempted to escape. On his recapture, Forrest’s men quietly took him into the woods and murdered him, adding to Forrest’s reputation for ruthlessness. On the other hand, some captured Union officers testified later that Forrest showed them every consideration, even punishing those of his own command responsible for their ill treatment.

In subsequent battles, Forrest continued to lead his troops to victory and to evade defeat or capture by Union forces. In August 1863, leading a surprise attack, he took Memphis with a group of 1,500 raiders and drove off a vastly superior force of 17,000 men, whom he had outflanked by his raid. He successfully interfered with the supplies flowing to William T. Sherman in Georgia. Sherman issued orders for Forrest’s defeat or capture, even if it cost 10,000 men, but Forrest continued to elude the Federal forces dispatched to catch him. These efforts resulted in an embarrassing defeat for the Federals at Brice’s Crossroads in Mississippi in June 1864. Sherman later commented that Forrest had a “genius for strategy that was original and to me, incomprehensible.”

During the last months of the war, Forrest was put in charge of the Confederate cavalry in the whole district of Alabama, Mississippi, and eastern Louisiana. At this point he was promoted to lieutenant general. With a small command, he fought against an invasion of Alabama by Union forces, abandoning Selma and falling back to Gainesville. There, hearing of Robert E. Lee’s surrender, Forrest ordered his men to surrender, which they did a few weeks later on 9 May 1865 to General Edward R. S. Canby. Despite suggestions from many of his officers to lead his troops across the Mississippi River to continue the war, Forrest insisted on surrender.

Forrest’s military victories were remarkable for several reasons. First of all, he was not a literate man, and his writing reflected the fact that he never mastered spelling or standard grammar. As a consequence, some of his reports and communiqués that survive have a distinctly illiterate flavor when published without editing or correction. However, he was reputed to be excellent in mathematics, and his personal business ventures demonstrated the truth of that observation. Furthermore, he had no military training whatsoever. Thus, his tactics were entirely based on his own thoughts about his own forces and the disposition of the enemy. He moved rapidly, perfecting the techniques of the surprise raid, the flanking and rear attack, and escape through unexpected routes. Military observers at the time and later concluded that Forrest was a natural military genius. He had few precepts but was quoted as saying that his rule of war was to “get there first with the most men,” a motto that was often attached to his name. A tall and commanding figure, usually astride a horse, he was revered by his men. Forrest was wounded several times. By the careful count of one admiring biographer, he had twenty-nine horses shot while he was riding them and was personally responsible in hand to hand combat for the death or serious injury of thirty Union officers and men.

Following the war, Forrest returned to his life as a planter and later engaged in railway construction. He served briefly as president of the Selma, Marion and Memphis Railroad. He was active in politics, representing Tennessee at the Democratic National Convention of 1868. He was one of the organizers and leaders of the early Ku Klux Klan. Called before Congress to testify about the organization in 1870–1871, he claimed he knew little about it. He died in Memphis, perhaps of diabetes.

Bibliography

Information on Forrest can be found in the Robert Selph Henry Papers at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg. Sources on Forrest include John A. Wyeth, Life of Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest (1899), a generally laudatory account; Arlin Turner, “George W. Cable’s Recollections of General Forrest,” Journal of Southern History 21 (May 1955): 224–28; Robert Selph Henry, As They Saw Forrest (1956); Steven Woodcock, Jefferson Davis and His Generals (1990); Brian Steel Wills, A Battle from the Start (1992); and Jack Hurst, Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography (1993). An obituary is in the New York Times, 30 Oct. 1877.