Monday, July 13, 2009

July 13: The Wizard of the Saddle: Nathan Bedford Forrest

"War means fighting and fighting means killing." -Nathan Bedford Forrest

He was the eldest of eleven children born to Chapel Hill, Tennessee, who – upon the death of his father – became the head of the family when he was sixteen years old. He would become a businessman, a planter, and a feared Confederate Civil War general.

Nathan Bedford Forrest was born in a rough-hewn frontier cabin on July 13, 1821 to William and Mariam Beck Forrest. When Forrest was thirteen, his parents moved the family to the edge of the settled frontier in northern Mississippi. His father established a farm there, clearing the forests and plowing the virgin land. Then, three years later in 1837, died – leaving sixteen year old Nathan as the head of the family, consisting of his widowed mother, seven brothers and three sisters. Mariam would eventually remarry around 1840 to Joseph Luxton.

Forrest and his older brothers continued to clear the land and plant crops. Gradually they raised corn, wheat, and cotton – and began to raise cattle. The farm became successful, and profitable. Because of the frontier conditions while growing up, and then his role as head of the family, Forrest found that he was limited to about six months of formal education.

When he was twenty, Forest went into business with his uncle, Jonathan Forrest, in Hernando, Mississippi. Forrest’s natural fighting instincts and ability came to the forefront when his uncle was about to be attacked in 1845 during an argument with the four Matlock brothers. Forrest interceded before the attack began, but one of the brothers drew a pistol and shot Forrest’s uncle, mortally wounding him. The other brothers turned their pistols toward Forrest, wounded him, and he returned fire with a double-barreled pistol, killing two of them, then wounded two others with a bowie knife thrown to him by a bystander.

That same year Forrest married Mary Montgomery – a sophisticated and intelligent woman who became his most ardent supporter and a buffer between her husband and the social set that made up Southern plantation society.

Forrest proved to be an astute businessman, settling in Memphis and increasing his wealth and property through investments, speculation, and managing his varied business interests. By the time the Civil War broke out his activities in buying/selling of slaves, speculation in land, horse trading, and more had provided him with two plantations, a hundred slaves to work them, standing as one of the richest men in the South, and the potential of living life as a country gentleman.

When the Civil War broke out and Tennessee seceded from the Union, Forrest – even though he was exempt from military service because of his standing as a planter - enlisted as a private in Company E, Tennessee Mounted Rifles, led by Captain Josiah White. His natural leadership, imposing physical appearance, and natural grasp of cavalry tactics soon led Governor Isham G. Harris to authorize Forrest to raise a regiment of mounted troops – even though Forrest had no formal military training. He would write in 1865: “I ain’t no graduate of West Point & never rubbed my backside up against any college.”

By December 1861, Forrest had recruited and equipped his new command, largely at his own expense. His unit differed from many other Southern cavalry outfits at the start of the war in that each member was outfitted with two Colt repeating revolvers, greatly enhancing their firepower and reducing the need to reload in combat.

Forrest initiated many other changes as well. He became one of the first to truly grasp the concept of mobile warfare. He would his cavalry into dismounted infantry – embodying the strategic concept, so aptly expressed by Forrest, of “getting there first with the most”. He also didn’t hesitate to brazenly bluff his opponents, sometimes capturing a Union position where the Union forces actually outnumbered his own. Finally, close, hand-to-hand fighting became a hallmark of Forrest’s cavalry, as did strategic raids far behind enemy lines.

Forrest’s audacity was shown early in the war when Union General U.S. Grant surrounded Fort Donelson in western Tennessee. The commander of the fort wanted to surrender, but gave his men the option of trying to escape. Forrest was the highest-ranking officer to lead troops out of the trap – both his cavalry and infantry – saving these men to continue the battle for the Confederacy.

Forrest was wounded on April 8, 1862, as his troops formed a rear guard covering the Confederate retreat after the battle of Shiloh. He recovered, and was wounded again June 14, 1863 – this time by a disgruntled subordinate, Andrew W. Gould, whom Forrest mortally wounded with his penknife.

By July 1862 Forrest had been promoted to Brigadier General. He had success as an independent commander, but did not fare as well when under the command of others. He would suffer a major defeat at Dover, Tennessee while under the orders of CSA General Joseph Wheeler. Appointed to his own command, he continued raids and actions against the Union, until placed under the command of Braxton Bragg for the battle of Chickamauga. Again not getting along under the command of a superior, Forrest requested and was granted a command in western Tennessee. There he bedeviled Union forces to the point where Union Commander William Tecumseh Sherman was said to exclaim in a letter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton: "I will order them to make up a force and go out and follow Forrest to the death, if it cost 10,000 lives and breaks the Treasury. There never will be peace in Tennessee till Forrest is dead."

As word of the surrender of General Lee slowly filtered west, the question on the minds of the Union commanders was: What would Forrest do? To the surprise of many, he agreed to the surrender, bid an emotional farewell to his men, and went back to Memphis. His war, which he had fought in so valiantly, and led so brilliantly, was over.
Forrest was involved in two great controversies: one during the war, the other after. The first was the Fort Pillow Massacre on April 12, 1864. After a day-long intense battle – in which Forrest had three horses shot out from under him – Confederate forces forced the Union defenders, consisting of the 2nd U.S. Colored Light Artillery and the 6th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery and the white 13th Tennessee Cavalry, to retreat. The accusations of massacre were trumpeted by the Northern press, while the Confederacy stated that there was continued resistance. The full truth may never be known. Forrest did deny a massacre in public speeches for the rest of his life.

The second was his involvement with the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK rose after the war in a bid by disenfranchised southerners initially for protection, and ultimately to retain some element of control over their former slaves. Forrest was actually named Grand Wizard at the 1867 KKK convention in Nashville. But Forrest publically separated himself from the organization. Forrest publically stated several times a desire for equality and harmony between black and white Americans.

After leaving the army Forrest attempted to recoup his pre-war fortune. He became president of a railroad (which ultimately failed), and would live with his wife in a log cabin. His health began to deteriorate and he would pass away when he was fifty-six years old, on October 29, 1877. For a special A Tribute To Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest posted on YouTube, click here.


Our local library has the following resources on Nathan Bedford Forrest

-Bradley, Michael R., Nathan Bedford Forrest's Escort and Staff
-Davison, Eddy W., Nathan Bedford Forrest : In Search of the Enigma
-Henry, Robert Selph, "First with the most" Forrest
-Hurst, Jack, Men of Fire : Grant, Forrest, and the Campaign that Decided the Civil WarWyeth,
-John A. (John Allan), That devil Forrest: life of General Nathan Bedford Forrest


Google Books: Life of General Nathan Bedford Forrest
New York Times Obituary
Tennessee Encyclopedia


F 01. Forrest Civil War portrait, Wikipedia
F 02. Forrest’s Signature, Google Books
F 03. Gravesite, Find A Grave photo by Selk

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