Nathan Bedford Forrest


Nathan Bedford Forrest (July 13, 1821 Oct. 29, 1877) was a Lt. General in the Confederate Army of Tennessee. He is remembered as a self educated, innovative cavalry leader, nicknamed the Wizard of the Saddle by writers of The Lost Cause movement, and Devil Forrest by Northern troops.

He grew up poor with almost no formal education while many southern and northern generals had gone to West Point. He went into business in Mississippi with his uncle, who was killed in a street fight in 1845. Forrest killed two of the murderers using a pistol and Bowie knife. Later that year, he married Mary Ann Montgomery of a prominent Tennessee family.

He was a successful planter and stagecoach company owner. In 1852 he moved to Memphis and amassed a small fortune as a slave trader. By 1860 he was among the wealthiest men in Tennessee. Forrest enlisted in the army in 1861 as a private in the Tennessee Mounted Rifles. His son enlisted in the CSA at age 15 and served with his father. His grandson, Nathan Bedford Forrest III, graduated from West Point and died a Brigadier General in a bombing raid against Germany in 1943.

Forrests unit in the Tennessee Mounted Rifles was so badly equipped that he bought horses and equipment for a whole regiment. The Governor Isham Harris and his superior officers commissioned Forrest as a Lt. Colonel, and gave him command of a regiment, Forrests Cavalry Corps. Tennessee was a divided state with 100,000 men joining the CSA, and 50,000 joined the Union. Forrest posted ads for men with good horse and good guns. If you wanna have some fun and kill some Yankees join his regiment. He was 62 and weighed 210 pounds, much larger than average. He sharpened both edges of his sword and may have killed over 30 enemy soldiers with saber, pistol and shotgun.

In his first surprise attack, he defeated 500 Union troops in Texas in late 1861. He distinguished himself at Ft. Donelson, Tennessee, in February 1862 when he was cornered by Union forces under Grant. He refused to surrender along with the forts commander, General Simon Bolivar Buckner, the first Confederate general to surrender an army. The fort held about 12,000 Confederates. Forrest escaped with 700 (another source says 4000) and took command of Nashville where he transported millions of dollars of ordinance and equipment before Nashville fell.

At the Battle of Shiloh, (April 6-7, 1862) he commanded a rear guard after the Union victory. His unit attacked a Union skirmish line, but when they reached the full Union brigade, he charged single-handedly with his saber. He was shot in the spine but grabbed a Union soldier for a shield a made it back to his lines. The mini ball was removed (they had no anesthesia). This episode is reminiscent of Alexander the Great attacking an enemy when isolated from his army by a fortress wall.

In June 1862, he captured a Union garrison at Murfreesboro, the first of three battles there. In July, he was made Brigadier General with command of a cavalry brigade. Ordered by Braxton Bragg to the Vicksburg campaign, he led thousands of Union soldiers on a wild goose chase and delayed Grants strategy to isolate and capture Vicksburg.

In May 1863, he chased Union General Streight and convinced him to surrender 1500 men, which kept Streight from cutting the railroad south of Chattanooga in the Atlanta Campaign.

Forrest was prominent at Chickamauga and pursued the retreating Union Army. He did not like the fact that Augustan Joe Wheeler was named Commander of the Confederate Cavalry over himself. Forrest and Wheelers efforts during that battle have been criticized in the recent book, Failure in the Saddle. For example, with 14,000 men and two cavalry corps they did not block Rosecrans from crossing the Tennessee River. Forrest openly criticized Bragg for not recapturing Chattanooga and even made death threats against Bragg.

Forrest was then given an independent command in Mississippi. Later, in April 1864, at the battle of Fort Pillow, Tennessee he was accused of killing over 200 Union soldiers, many of whom were former black slaves. The joint committee on the conduct of the war later agreed that Forrests men committed an unjust slaughter.

In June 1864, his 3500 men defeated 8500 Union soldiers at Brices Crossroads, Mississippi. He was then defeated by Sherman at Tupelo in July, 1864. In August1864, he raided the Union-held city of Memphis and then destroyed a Union supply depot in Johnsonville, Tennessee. He joined John Bell Hood at the CSAs defeat at Franklin and argued with Hood about trying to cut off Union General Scholfields escape route. Forrest was promoted to Lt. General for his rear guard actions in the retreat from Franklin. He was later defeated at Selma in April, 1865 trying to protect Alabama from Brig. General James H. Wilsons raid. When he received news of Lees April 9th surrender, Forrest also chose to surrender.

After the war, he was in business in Tennessee. He joined and was the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in 1866. He later denied any association with the Klan before a congressional committee in1871, and in 1875 addressed a black organization and encouraged them to work, be peaceful and support our country. His railroad business failed in 1876. He died in 1877.

In his farewell address to his troops May 9, 1865, he told them to divest ourselves of hatred and revenge, cultivate friendly feelings against those they contended against but differed from, and meet like men their responsibilities to government, society or individuals.

References: there are 113 articles and over 10 books about or referring to Forrest on Wikipedia alone.

Glen Owen

The Civil War Round Table of Augusta
275 Robert C. Daniel pkwy., Augusta, GA