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Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate Badass

By Doug Coleman


civil-discourse-nathan-bedford-forrestIn the course of making his iconic series on the Civil War, Ken Burns interviewed historian Shelby Foote. Foote recalled Nathan Bedford Forrest as quite the compelling character, stating, ” I think the war produced two authentic geniuses. One of them was [Nathan Bedford Forrest]. The other was Abraham Lincoln.” In his interview with Ken Burns, Foote was of the opinion that Forrest “was born to be a soldier the way John Keats was born to be a poet.”  Today, Forrest is remembered for his extraordinary physical courage, his genius as a cavalry commander, but mostly as a white supremacist.

Bedford Forrest was born in Chapel Hill, Tennessee in 1821, the eldest of 12 children of a poor Scotch-Irish blacksmith. His father died when he was 17.   At the age of 20 he went into business with his uncle. After his uncle was killed in a fight, Forrest confronted the killers. He shot and killed two and wounded two more with a knife. At age 24 and 6’2″, he was every bit as tall and formidable as a young Andrew Jackson. Reading Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, Forrest gives us a real-life peek at Thomas Sutpen – fearless, ambitious, brilliant, and, when required, brutal.

Forrest prospered accordingly, becoming a businessman, a slave trader, and a river boat captain. He owned several plantations and over 100 slaves to work them. He had become one of the richest men in the South. Nonetheless, in July of 1861, one day after his fortieth birthday, the millionaire enlisted in the Confederate cavalry along with a brother and his 15 year-old son. Noting that his comrades were woefully ill-equipped, he began supplying them out of his own pocket.

His commitment, generosity and leadership were quickly noted. The Confederacy had better use for such a man than a common soldier. The Confederacy gave Forrest the opportunity to form his own cavalry unit, again financed in part by his ample fortune. Going from private to lieutenant colonel in 90 days, he was put in charge of a regiment of mounted rangers – troops akin to our modern mechanized infantry who could move quickly, then fight either as cavalry or dismounted. A number of his slaves fought with him: “When I entered the army, I took forty-seven negroes into the army with me, and forty-five were surrendered with me. I told these boys that this war was about slavery, and if we lose, you will be made free. If we whip the fight and you stay with me you will be made free. Either way, you will be freed. These boys stayed with me, drove my teams, and better Confederates never lived.”

Forrest’s recruiting poster advertised for horsemen who “wanna have some fun and kill some Yankees.” This was not a guy who trafficked in safe space and micro-aggressions. As he said in his farewell to his troops in May 1865, he never asked them to go anyplace he wasn’t going too. He killed 31 Yankees at close range with revolver, shotgun and saber (sharpened on both sides as a working weapon, not a symbol of command). He had 30 horses shot out from under him and was able to quip: “I was a horse ahead at the end.”  In his debut at Sacramento, Kentucky in December 1861, he may have killed nine men, some with his saber; at one point he was engaged with four at once, killing three and capturing the fourth. This modern berserker astounded his men with his fury and physical courage – and they knew they had the right colonel.

civil-discourse-fort-pillow-massacre-from-harpers-weeklyHe was himself wounded three times, the first was on April 8th 1862, right after Shiloh. Forrest’s troopers were acting as rearguard for the Confederate withdrawal. As Federal infantry approached a Confederate camp and field hospital, Forrest led a mounted charge to push them back. His troopers had the good sense to halt when they realized the Yankees were there in force. Forrest forgot to look over his shoulder and hit the Yankee line all by himself. Emptying his pistols and swinging his double-edged saber, he managed to extricate himself from the mob, but not before taking a musket ball to the lower back.   Then, in June 1863, in a dispute with a junior officer named Gould. Gould shot him in the hip. Immobilizing Gould with one hand, Forrest opened a pocket knife with his teeth and mortally wounded Gould. (The “Tennessee way” is not “the Chicago way” – you bring a revolver to the fight and some guy just loads meaner than you guts you with a penknife.) Finally, Forrest was shot in the foot at the battle of Tupelo in July 1864.

Attached to the Army of Tennessee, not famous for inspiring leadership, Forrest was always a bright spot. In February of 1862, when Grant offer “no terms but unconditional surrender” to the roughly 12,000 men trapped near Fort Donelson, Forrest growled: “I did not come here to surrender my command.” He led his horsemen out of the trap on a cold night through the bed of a shallow creek. Forrest would subsequently take part in Shiloh and the first battle of Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, Paducah, Fort Pillow, Brice’s Crossroads, Tupelo (one of his losses), Spring Hill, the disaster at Franklin, the third battle of Murfreesboro, the disaster at Nashville, and Selma (his other loss), before surrendering about a month after Lee’s surrender. Of course there were innumerable skirmishes, but the point is Forrest was there for the duration of the war in the west. The essence of his success was to appreciate strategic topography and move as many of his mounted troops to the critical place as quickly as possible (the origin of the apocryphal “get there firstest with the mostest” quote: Forrest was a smart guy and did not talk like Forrest Gump). Once there, Forrest would act with unbelievable aggression and violence of action, usually overwhelming even superior forces. He and his troopers knew what cavalry was for.

His extreme aggression got him (and a bunch of Yankees) in a lot of trouble at Fort Pillow, an event now generally known as “the Fort Pillow Massacre.” Forrest had surrounded the fort, whose garrison included United States Colored Infantry, turn-coat Tennessee Unionists and Confederate deserters. His sharpshooters were taking their toll and it was clear that the fort would fall as the snipers crept closer. He offered the same terms as Grant had at Fort Donelson and Vicksburg: unconditional surrender or annihilation. The Yankees hemmed and hawed, then decided not to surrender. Forrest’s men overran the fort in minutes. What happened next is controversial. The Yankees claimed that Federal troops tried to surrender after the fort had fallen, but were cut down with their backs to the river; the Colored Infantry suffered disproportionately, supporting the argument that they were deliberately massacred because they were black. Forrest himself wrote to his commander right after the battle: ” The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for two hundred yards. The approximate loss was upward of five hundred killed, but few of the officers escaping. My loss was about twenty killed. It is hoped these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that Negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.” Forrest likely bears blame for the massacre to the extent he threatened the Black Flag if the fort fought on. The Yankees bear some blame as well: while some men in the mob at the river were trying to surrender, others were still shooting back. Finally, remember that Forrest put himself between the Yankees and his men and ordered the killing stopped – even he seemed horrified once he realized what was happening below the bluff. Afterward, U.S Colored troops would wear “Remember Fort Pillow” badges – but many removed them when an encounter with Forrest was actually likely.

Post-war, Forrest faced financial difficulty – the slave trade and big plantations were a thing of the past. He tried running a railroad, but this went bankrupt. He ended his days running a prison farm.

Today, he is mostly remembered as a Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan. While there is no doubt he was a member of the Klan, he distanced himself from it in 1869 as it became increasingly violent. When he testified before Congress in 1871, he denied membership. Forrest ended up being denounced by Southerners after an 1875 speech before a black audience where he said: “I came to meet you as friends, and welcome you to the white people. I want you to come nearer to us. When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment. Use your best judgment in selecting men for office and vote as you think right.”

Forrest died young in 1877, aged 56. In 1904, he and his wife were disinterred and moved to a Memphis city park named in his honor. In 2015, in keeping with the attack on all things Confederate, the Memphis City Council voted to disinter Forrest and his wife and remove his monument. They may want to reconsider – if one must disturb the dead, best pick on a more timid spirit…


Sources: The Civil War, Geoffrey C. Ward, Kenneth Burns, Richard Burns; Nathan Bedford Forrest; http://www.historynet.com/nathan-bedford-forrest

Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at dcoleman@coleman-lawyers.com.

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