Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forest
I have never, on the field of battle,
sent you where I was unwilling to go myself; nor would I now advise you to a
course which I felt myself unwilling to pursue. You have been good soldiers,
you can be good citizens.
-- General Forrest's farewell address to his troops,
Gainesville, Alabama, May 9, 1865
Bedford Forrest (1821-1877) -
A wealthy plantation owner, Nathan B. Forrest distinguished himself in the
Confederate Army during the
Civil War. A
cavalryman, he saw extensive service in the
and became one of the most feared Confederate officers in the region. He was a master of mobile warfare
and is often remembered for his fast attacks and raids.
Born to a poor Scots-Irish family
in Chapel Hill, Tennessee on July 13, 1821, Forrest was the first of
twelve children. His father died when he was 17 and the ambitious young
man soon pulled his family out of poverty, becoming a business and
plantation owner, as well as a slave trader in Mississippi. By the time the
Civil War broke out in 1861, he had become
one of the wealthiest men in the South. Forrest enlisted in the
Confederate Army as a private, joining the Tennessee Mounted Rifles in
July, 1861. When he began to buy horses and equipment for the regiment, using
his own money, he gained the attention of the "higher-ups" and was soon
commissioned as a Colonel and given command of his own regiment in
October, 1861 -- Forrest's Tennessee Cavalry Battalion.
Though he had no formal military training
or experience, he quickly proved himself to be an exemplary officer, first
distinguishing himself in the Battle of Fort Donelson, Tennessee
in February, 1862, where he refused to
capitulate with the rest of the
Confederate forces and made his way out before the fort was surrendered. He
then led his men in the Battle of Shiloh, Tennessee in April, 1862, where he was
wounded and several months later, in July, he was promoted to a Brigadier
General. He then took part in the
Offensive leading his battalion in the First Battle of
In December 1862, Forrest's veteran troopers were reassigned by
to another officer, against his protest. As a result, Forrest had to
recruit a new brigade, composed of about 2,000 inexperienced recruits,
most of whom lacked weapons. Again, General Bragg
ordered a raid, this one into west Tennessee
to disrupt the communications of the
General Ulysses S. Grant,
who were threatening the city of
Forrest protested that to send such untrained men behind enemy lines was
insisted, and Forrest obeyed his orders.
In the raid, he showed his
brilliance, leading thousands of Union
soldiers in west Tennessee
on a "wild goose chase" to try to locate his fast-moving forces. Never
staying in one place long enough to be attacked, Forrest led his troops in
raids as far north as the banks of the Ohio River in southwest
He returned to his base in
with more men than he had started with. By then, all were fully armed with
weapons. As a result, Union General Ulysses S. Grant
was forced to revise and delay the strategy of his Vicksburg Campaign. A
friend of General Grant's was quoted as saying of Forrest, "He
was the only Confederate cavalryman of whom ant stood in much dread."
Forrest continued to lead his men in
small-scale operations until April, 1863, when he was dispatched into the
backcountry of northern Alabama and west Georgia to defend against an
attack of 3,000 Union
cavalrymen commanded by Colonel Abel Streight, who had
orders to cut the Confederate railroad south of
supply line, and force
and his troops to retreat into Georgia. With a force far smaller than
those of the Union,
Forrest and his troops chased Streight's men for 16 days, harassing them
all the way. On May 3rd, Forrest caught up with Streight's unit east of
Cedar Bluff, Alabama. Though his men were much fewer, he repeatedly
paraded some of them around a hilltop to appear a larger force, and
convinced Streight to surrender his 1,500 exhausted troops.
Forrest served with the main army at the
Battle of Chickamauga, Georgia in
September, 1863 and took hundreds of Union
prisoners. Like several others under
command, he urged an immediate follow-up attack to recapture Chattanooga,
which had fallen a few weeks before. When
failed to do so, the two got into a confrontation and
reassigned him to an independent command in Mississippi.
On December 4, 1863, Forrest was promoted to the rank of major general. He
would continue to lead his troops in more battles including
Brice's Cross Roads
defeated a superior Union
force; and conflicts at
By February, 1865, he had been promoted to a Lieutenant General.
In his strategies
and tactics, Forrest was often described as a “born military genius.” However, one blemish on his
record was the
Massacre of Fort Pillow, Tennessee
April 12, 1864. In keeping with Confederate policy at that
time, Forrest ordered his troops to “take no more Negro prisoners” when
they assaulted and captured Fort Pillow.
A Congressional investigation committee verified the slaughter of more
than 300 black men, women, and children within the fort.
Massacre at Fort Pillow
He was forced back at Selma, Alabama in
April 1865 and surrendered his entire command in May. During the war, he was one of the most
highly regarded cavalry and partisan rangers, as well as one of the most
innovative and successful generals. His tactics of mobile warfare are
still studied by modern soldiers.
After the war, Forrest settled in Memphis,
Tennessee, but, was financially ruined due to the abolishment of slavery.
Eventually, he took a job with the Marion & Memphis Railroad, where his
business skills soon placed him in the position of President. It was at
this time, that the Ku Klux Klan movement was forming and by 1867, he was
made its first Grand Wizard. This choice, as well as allegations of
brutality in the Battle of Fort Pillow, led to Forrest's heroic reputation
suffering dramatically. However, in 1869, Forrest, who disagreed with the
increasingly violent tactics of the Ku Klux Klan ordered it disbanded.
Though the order was ignored, Forrest distanced himself from the organization.
October, 1877, he died from complications of diabetes and was buried at
Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis. In 1904 his remains were moved to
Forrest Park, a Memphis city park.
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