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.


Further Reading on Nathan Bedford Forrest

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.