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Nathan Bedford Forrest

Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1877) is today known for two things. He was one of the most innovative and successful generals of the American Civil War, developing tactics that are still studied even today. After the war, he became the first leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

Forrest was born to a poor middle Tennessee family on July 13, 1821 in the Bedford County town of Chapel Hill. Forrest became the head of his family at the age of 17, following his father's death, and despite having no formal education, he determined to pull himself and his family up from the poverty they were mired in. Ultimately, he became a businessman, a plantation owner and a slave trader. He put his younger brothers through college, provided for his mother and by the time the American Civil War broke out in 1861, was a millionaire, one of the richest men in the South.

Military Career

Given that Forrest earned much of his money in the slave trade, he naturally favored the Confederate side in the war. Using his own money, he raised and equipped a regiment of Tennessee volunteer soldiers to fight in the Confederate army. Forrest himself wanted no more than to fight for the Confederacy as a private, but because of his prominence in society and the fact he had raised the troops himself, he ended up as their commanding officer, with the rank of colonel. He knew almost nothing of military operations, but applied himself diligently to learn, and was soon a competent officer.

Forrest's efforts did not go unnoticed, and he soon won promotion to brigadier general and gained command of a Confederate cavalry brigade. He first distinguished himself in battle at the Battle of Fort Donelson[?] in February 1862, when he led a breakout from a siege by the Union army. He had tried to persuade his superiors that it was possible to retreat out of the fort across the Cumberland River, but they refused to listen. Forrest angrily walked out of a meeting and declared that he had not led his men into battle to surrender. He proved his point when nearly 4,000 troops followed him across the river to fight again. A few days later, with the fall of Nashville imminent, Forrest took command of the city and evacuated several government officials and removed millions of dollars in heavy machinery used to make weapons--something the Confederacy could ill afford to lose.

A month later, Forrest was back in action at the Battle of Shiloh. Once again, he found himself in command of the Confederate rear guard after a lost battle, and again he distinguished himself. For the first time, he came under enemy fire and showed himself to be fearless. He charged a line of Union skirmishers, drove them off, but was wounded in the process. Forrest is said to have been the battle's last casualty.

He quickly recovered from the injury and was back in the saddle that summer, in command of a new brigade of green cavalry regiments. In July, he led them back into middle Tennessee after receiving an order from the commanding general, Gen. Braxton Bragg, to launch a cavalry raid. It was a stunning success. On Forrest's 40th birthday, his men descended on the Union-held city of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, defeating and then capturing a force twice the size of his own.

This was just the first of many victories Forrest would win; he was never defeated in a battle until the final days of the war, when he faced overwhelming numbers. But unfortunately, he and Bragg could not get along, and the Confederate high command didn't realize how talented Forrest was until it was far too late in the war. In their postwar writings, both Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee lamented this oversight.

In December 1862, Forrest was again given a new command, this one composed of about 2,000 green recruits, most of whom lacked even weapons with which to fight. Again, Bragg ordered a raid, this one into west Tennessee to disrupt the communications of the Union forces under general Ulysses S. Grant, threatening the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Forrest protested that to send these untrained men behind enemy lines was suicidal, but Bragg was insistent, and Forrest obeyed his orders. On the ensuing raid, he again showed his brilliance, leading thousands of Union soldiers in west Tennessee on a "wild goose chase" trying to locate his fast-moving forces. Forrest never stayed in one place long enough to be located, raided as far north as the banks of the Ohio River in southwest Kentucky, and came back to his base in Mississippi with more men than he'd left with, and all of them fully armed with captured Union weapons.

Forrest continued to lead his men in smaller-scale operations until April of 1863, when he was dispatched into the backcountry of northern Alabama and west Georgia to deal with an attack of 3,000 Union cavalrymen under the command of Col. Abel Streight. Streight's orders were to cut the Confederate railroad south of Chattanooga[?], Tenn, which would cut off Bragg's supply line and force him to retreat into Georgia. Forrest chased Streight's men for 16 days, harassing them all the way, until Streight's lone objective became simply to escape his relentless pursuer. Finally, on May 3, Forrest caught up with Streight at Rome, Georgia and took 1,700 prisoners.

Forrest served with the main army at the Battle of Chickamauga that September, where he pursued the retreating Union army and took hundreds of prisoners. Like several others under Bragg's command, he urged an immediate follow-up attack to recapture Chattanooga, which had fallen a few weeks before. Bragg failed to do so, and not long after, Forrest and Bragg had a confrontation which resulted in Forrest being assigned to an independent command in Mississippi.

Forrest went to work and soon raised a 6,000-man force of his own, which he led back into west Tennessee. He wasn't strong enough to retake the area and hold it, but he did have enough force to render it useless to the Union army. He led several more raids into the area, one of which ended in the controversial Battle of Fort Pillow on April 12, 1864. In that battle, Forrest demanded unconditional surrender, or else he would "put every man to the sword"--language he frequently used to expedite a surrender. Only this time, he meant it, and his men stormed the fort and began killing the men inside. The Confederates seemed to target several hundred black soldiers inside the fort, and very few survived. Forrest eventually called off the slaughter and accepted the surrender of the survivors, but only 80 of the 262 black troops survived.

But his greatest victory came on June 10, 1864, when his 3,500-man force clashed with 8,100 men commanded by Gen. Samuel D. Sturgis at the Battle of Brice's Cross Roads[?]. Here, his mobility of force (he fought his men as mounted infantry[?]) and superior tactics won a remarkable victory, inflicting 2,500 casualties against a loss of 492, and sweeping the Union forces completely from a large expanse of southwest Tennessee and northern Mississippi.

He led other raids that summer and fall, including a famous one into Union-held downtown Memphis in August 1864, and another on a huge Union supply depot at Johnsonville[?], Tennessee on October 3, 1864, causing millions of dollars in damage. In December, he fought alongside the Confederate Army of Tennessee in the disastrous campaign that ended in the Battle of Nashville[?], distinguishing himself by commanding the Confederate rearguard in a series of actions that allowed what was left of the army to escape. For this, he earned promotion to the rank of lieutenant general.

In 1865, Forrest attempted without success to defend the state of Alabama against Union attacks, but still had an army in the field in April, when news of Lee's surrender reached him. He was urged to flee to Mexico, but chose to share the fate of his men, and surrendered. Forrest was later cleared of any violations of the rules of war in regard to Fort Pillow, and was allowed to return to private life.

Forrest was one of the first men, if not the first, to grasp the doctrines of "mobile warfare" that became prevalent in the 20th century. His one directive to his men was to "get there firstest with the mostest", even if it meant pushing his horses at a killing pace, which he did more than once. Forrest's victory at Brice's Cross Roads was the subject of a class taught at the French War College by Marshal Ferdinand Foch[?] before World War I, and his mobile campigns were studied by the German general Erwin Rommel, who as commander of the Afrika Korps in World War II emulated his tactics on a wider scale, with tanks and trucks.

Shortly after the war, Lee was asked who the best soldier he ever commanded was. Although Forrest only came under his command in the last month of the war, when Lee became overall Confederate commander, Lee replied "A man I have never met, sir. His name is Forrest."

Postwar Activities

Forrest lost almost all his fortune during the war, since much of it was tied up in slaves, and of what was left, he gave much of it to the men who had served under him, but who had come home to find they had nothing.

Embittered by the state of his homeland after the war, in May 1866, Forrest became "Grand Wizard" of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization devoted to restoring the prewar status quo to the South by any means necessary. Because of Forrest's prominence, the organization grew rapidly under his leadership. The Klan was "successful" in the sense that its creators intended it to be, as white supremacy soon settled back in over the South and held sway for the next 100 years, but its excesses soon even turned off Forrest. In 1869, he ordered the Klan to disband, but many of its groups in other parts of the country (klaverns) ignored the order and continued to function.

Forrest returned to private business in the Memphis area and remained engaged in such for the rest of his life. In his final years, Forrest's attitudes changed somewhat, and he encouraged his followers to live in peace with the freed slaves who lived among them. He also continued to support his old soldiers so long as he lived, and when he died on October 29, 1877, thousands of them congregated at his funeral. His funeral oration was given by his old boss, Jefferson Davis himself.

His grandson, Nathan Bedford Forrest III, also became a general, reaching the rank of major general in the U.S. Army during World War II before being killed in action in 1943.



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