Tennessees most controversial
He is undoubtedly one of the
most controversial and misunderstood figures in Tennessee history.
He was a product of his turbulent times and a man who would
rise to become regarded as one of the greatest military minds
in the world a feat he wouldnt accomplish until
well after his 40th birthday. Because of that one five-year
stint where he completely revolutionized the world of military
tactics as a battlefield commander, his life before and after
as a citizen would be the subject of microscopic investigation
and controversial debates that would earn the Tennessean numerous
political enemies both then and now.
It is fair to say that myths and outright fabrications about
him have overshadowed the truths of his life and made even the
most ethical American historian turn their back on the facts
in evidence. Military historians around the world, however,
still regard him as one of the greatest field commanders in
the history of warfare, whose command style influenced battlefield
tactics to this day.
Nathan Bedford Forrest was one of a set of twins born in Bedford
County, Tenn. on July 13, 1821. He was aptly named for the County
in which he was born. He and his twin sister Frances or "Fanny"
would be two of twelve children born to William and Mariam Forrest.
William supported his family as a blacksmith who had been part
of the westward expansion across Tennessee moving from one village
to another as opportunity presented itself.
At age of 13, a young N.B. Forrest and his family moved to a
small farm in north Mississippi. Three years later, his father
died leaving him with the tremendous responsibility of supporting
his family. With only the Mississippi hill farm, Forrest began
making notable changes in the familys business affairs
and helped his mother scratch out a comfortable living for the
family. It wasnt without tragedy for the Tennessee family.
During this time, he had barely survived a typhoid epidemic
that ravaged the region and took the lives of three of his siblings,
including his twin sister. Forrest recovered from the devastating
event and began thinking about his future.
He, like many young men in Tennessee, left the region to join
the fight for Texas Independence. After a brief stint in the
war, he returned home and decided to go into business with his
uncle, who had developed a close relationship with each other
since Forrests father had passed away.
The Tennessean always maintained close ties to his family and
watched over them as best he could. The frontier hardships of
poverty drove him to work hard and become a successful businessman
in order to support his family. He had a few successes in the
slave trade and through investments in business and real estate
in the region.
With hardly any formal education of his own, Forrest managed
to parlay the small Mississippi farm into a plantation outside
of Memphis where he became an active member of the community.
Forrest developed a natural ability as a leader and held many
civic posts throughout his young life. He worked as a law enforcement
officer, magistrate, and was elected alderman for the City of
Memphis. N.B Forrest was reputed as being one of the most ethical
politicians in his day and despised corrupt officials to the
point of becoming a target of them. At one point in his terms,
Forrest exposed a corruption scandal on the board of aldermen
involving the Citys wharf on the Mississippi. The Tennessean
had a temper that was legendary and, when those caught in the
scandal called his reputation into question, the incident almost
ended in bloodshed. The matter, however, was resolved and those
involved were removed from the board.
When rumblings about secession from the Union began in 1860,
Forrest was adamantly opposed to the idea and spoke out against
it. He did not want to see the nation split in two pieces and
knew that economic disaster would soon follow in the largely
When the State of Tennessee voted on June 8, 1861 to secede
from the Union rather than raise troops to invade South Carolina,
Forrest joined the thousands of his fellow countrymen and volunteered
for duty in the Confederate Army. His ability with horses led
him to enlist as a private in Whites Mounted Rifles on
June 14. His ability as a leader and soldier quickly brought
him to the attention of then-Governor Isham Harris. The forty-year-old
private was asked by the Governor to return to Memphis and raise
his own regiment.
At his own expense, Forrest organized a detachment and traveled
undercover to Louisville, Ky. where he purchased the necessary
equipment and supplies to outfit his troops. The brilliance
that would start earning Forrest his reputation showed itself
in the remarkable ingenuity he exhibited in getting the supplied
to Memphis past Federal troops. He was attacked along the way,
but 75 Kentuckians, who were monitoring the passage, came to
his aid and helped beat off the assault allowing Forrest to
pass through unmolested.
In 1862, Forrest got his first taste of battle at Fort Donelson.
His men had virtually defeated the Union forces, but, because
of the confusion within the Confederate ranks, his Commanders
decided to surrender the fort to General Grant. Forrest was
appalled by the decision and stated he did not bring his men
to the fort to surrender. He quickly gathered his troops and,
in pitch-black darkness, crossed the icy Cumberland River and
rode towards Nashville.
Forrest joined the command of General Albert Sidney Johnston
and led his men in the Battle of Shiloh where he distinguished
himself covering the retreat of the Confederate forces to Corinth,
Although painfully wounded in the battle, Forrest kept his composure
and drove Union General Shermans troops back towards the
battlefields of Shiloh. The cavalry leader went on to lead many
successful assaults on the Union forces in Middle Tennessee
and rose to the rank of brigadier general. His tactics on the
battlefield made him regarded as one of the most feared generals
in combat. Forrest used his troops creatively and followed a
simplistic plan of incorporating infantry tactics with the hard
charging cavalry routines that often literally pushed the enemy
from the fields of battle.
In 1863, Forrest ventured into East Tennessee where he kept
Union troops in check at Knoxville and led his cavalry in the
Battle of Chickamauga. Following the Confederate victory that
pushed Union troops into retreat towards Chattanooga, Forrest
was regrouping for pursuit, but suddenly became angered when
General Braxton Bragg called back the pursuit. General Forrest
charged into his commanders tent and stated his opposition
to the order saying:
"If you were any kind of a man, I would box your ears and
dare you to resent it."
With that said, Forrest immediately wired his superiors in Richmond
informing them he would not follow another order issued by Bragg
and resigned his commission in protest of Braggs actions
President Jefferson Davis, however, refused to accept Forrests
resignation and, instead, promoted him to major general and
handed him command of all cavalry in west Tennessee and north
By the 1864 campaigns, Forrests men had become hardened
veterans and, supplied with thousands of fresh volunteers, he
engineered a cavalry style that took the Union forces by storm.
In February, Forrest routed General S. Smith at Okatona, Miss.
and swept through Tennessee taking Fort Pillow, a number of
garrisons and the other posts. Fort Pillow would become a battle
that would haunt Forrest and his men. It was guarded by a number
of black Union recruits and, with it successfully captured,
Forrest issued two calls for the Forts surrender. With
Union gunboats closing in on the fort, the General knew that
his hold on it would fail if they brought their guns on Forrests
men from the river. The Union commander was hoping that would
happen as well and stalled the surrender. Feeling he couldnt
wait any longer, Forrest sent his men into a charge and inflicted
numerous casualties on the fort in its capture. The battle of
Fort Pillow, however, would be long remembered as a massacre
by the Union and the presence of black troops used as evidence
to support the Northern claims as to why the General "massacred"
In June of that year, he performed what would become regarded
as his greatest feat as a cavalry officer. With a much smaller
force than the enemy, he moved his men into position against
UnionGen. Sturgis at Brices Crossroads and fought what
military scholars still call the "perfect battle".
The battle resulted in the Tennessean capturing all of the Generals
trains and a third of his men. When Union Gen. A.J. Smith tried
to angrily check Forrests cavalry in an advance, the Confederate
force beat them into retreat towards Memphis. With the Union
on the run, Forrest left half his men to hold the region and
went in pursuit with the other half of his cavalry accomplishing
a grueling non-stop 60-hour ride to Memphis. Forrests
accomplishment so frightened Union forces that the remaining
Northern troops marching to fight Forrests men were called
back to cover Memphis.
In November 1864, with Union General Sherman putting the South
to the torch in his infamous mach, Forrest and his men were
ordered out of Corinth, Miss. and again accomplished what was
thought to be impossible. Union supplies were being brought
in to a supply depot called Johnsonville, after military governor
Andrew Johnson. Gen. Forrest and his men rode to the banks of
the Tennessee River near Johnsonville and, from horseback, captured
a Union gunboat fleet and destroyed $6 million dollars worth
of Union supplies sitting on the docks of Johnsonville. Although
Gen. Sherman had advanced enough where the attack had little
effect on his "march to the sea", the Johnsonville
incident rattled his command. When the wire service reported
the unbelievable assault, rumors began spreading throughout
America and Gen. Forrest was reportedly sighted in Chicago and
Cincinnati rallying pro-Confederate volunteers to his troop.
They were just rumors, but Union Generals Grant and Sherman
were forced to try and explain to President Lincoln why he was
able to accomplish such unbelievable military feats.
Union General Sherman became so frustrated with the Tennessean
that he issued an official proclamation saying: "Forrest
should be caught and hanged at all costs. Even if it means losing
100,000 men and bankrupts the U.S. Treasury."
Confederate authorities were late in seeing what they had in
Forrest, but did promote him to lieutenant general in 1865 and
gave him command of the entire Confederate forces in the western
territories. Although he continued to engage the Union in brilliant
fashion on the battlefields, he was finally forced to surrender
his command on May 9, 1865 making him the only man in
military history to enlist as a private and surrender as a Lieutenant
Forrest returned to civilian life and tried to rebuild the fortunes
he had lost in the war. In the years following the conflict,
Forrest fought to overcome the corruption of Reconstruction.
Those years became as controversial as his career in the Confederate
Army. He lent his name and supported the anti-Reconstruction
movement in Tennessee that was first known as "Cuculo"
and bastardized into the local vernacular as Ku Klux, which
became known as the Ku Klux Clan. The original organization
as well as the Red Shirts, the Knights of the White Camelia,
and others created in the aftermath of the War Between the States
were folded and disbanded. Their targets during their existence
had been aimed more at the corrupt Northern whites who were
seizing properties and virtually buying local governments to
further their own fortunes. N.B. Forrest even testified before
Congress that the criminal elements which had infiltrated and
commandeered the group were the reasons he fought for its demise.
Forrest remained a popular figure in Memphis and aided in its
rebuilding where he called upon all citizens, black and white
to work together. At a black assembly in 1870s, he was presented
an award for his assistance to their community and, as reported
in the July 6, 1875 edition of the "Memphis Avalanche"
newspaper, is quoted as saying:
"I assure you that every man who was in the Confederate
army is your friend. We were born on the same soil, breathe
the same air, live in the same land, and why should we not be
brothers and sisters ? When the war broke out I believed it
my duty to fight for my country and I did so. I came here with
the jeers and sneers of a few white people, who did not think
it right. I think it is right and will do all I can to bring
about harmony, peace, and unity. I want to elevate every man
and to see you take your places in your shops and stores, but
I want you to do as I do go to the polls and select the
best men to vote for. I feel that you are free men, I am a free
man, and we can do as we please. I came here as a friend and
whenever I can serve any of you I will do so. We have one Union,
one flag, one country; therefore let us stand together. Although
we differ in color, we should not differ in sentiment. Many
things have been said in regard to myself, and many reports
circulated, which may perhaps be believed by some of you, but
there are many around me who can contradict them. I have been
many times in the heat of battle oftener, perhaps, than
any within the sound of my voice. Men have come to me during
that time to ask for quarter, both black and white, and I have
shielded them. Do your duty as citizens and if any are oppressed,
I will be your friend. I thank you for the flowers, and assure
you that I am with you in heart and hand."
Nathan Bedford Forrest continued to work and rebuild his fortunes.
He was struck with an emaciating illness a couple of years later
many have said was diabetes and passed away in his beloved Memphis
on Oct. 29, 1877.
Because of the impact of Gen. N. B. Forrests life, few
people realized the Tennessean was the father of a son and daughter
he had with Mary Ann Montgomery Forrest. He named his daughter
Frances A. after his deceased twin sister. History unfortunately
repeated itself when his little girl passed away at the age
Forrest has become a center of controversy over the years due
to Hollywood directors falling prey to those who use the generals
name to support their own political agendas.
Among the enemies, however, have come many surprising supporters.
Among them is a retired black school teacher from Ripley, Tenn.
named Nelson Winbush. He is descended from a black Confederate
soldier Louis Napoleon Nelson who rode with General Forrest.
He has spoken to groups in America and Europe trying to as he
says "set the record straight about Gen. Forrest.
"At one point," said Winbush, "seven of Gen.
Forrests personal bodyguards were black. If the man was
a paranoid racist as many armchair historians tell us, when
in the hell did he ever sleep? The fact is money and pride is
what got the bullets flying. Southern blacks were just as worried
as whites about what would happen when the Union came charging
into the South. There was no guarantee of freedoms at the start
of the war for blacks and most of the northern states had stronger
policies against us than the Southern states. The victors, however,
always write the history books and as a result myths have become
regarded as truth. We earned our right to be called Confederates
just as much as we did to be called Americans. Look at the P.O.W.
records in the North. The last prisoner released at the Unions
Rock Island P.O.W. camp was entered into the books simply as
a Negro Reb. That should tell people something.
What surprises me is the fact if it wasnt for European
historians, most people would probably never have known how
great General Forrests accomplishments really were."
While Winbushs comments have often put him at odds with
others, he sticks by his statements and defends his grandfathers
service in the Confederate Army proudly pointing to his
pension records from the State of Tennessee and statements from
those who served with him.
Historians have interviewed him and his family at great length
and from those interviews have come two definitive works on
what people call the "Forgotten Confederates".
"Forrest is probably the most studied General in America
and the most misunderstood," said Virginia history professor
Dr. Brian Wills, who authored the Forrest biography A
Battle from the Start, "His battle at Brices
Crossroads is still taught at the United States Military Academy
and Forrests actions at the Battle of Johnsonville still
stands as the only time in military history where a cavalry
unit defeated a superior naval force from the banks of a river.
In addition, generals throughout the world have studied him
more than any other American officer. Many historians like to
criticize Forrest for his business as a slave trader, his actions
at Fort Pillow, or his involvement with the Ku Klux Klan. If
Forrest is to be criticized for anything, he should be criticized
for being a man of his time. It is easy for someone with the
values and social mores of the 21st Century to criticize an
individual of the 19th century. On that same standard, no one
on either side of the War Between the States can be called saintly.
They fail to remember it was Union General U.S Grant who had
to be forced to free his slaves after the war because, as he
said, good help was hard to find."
Over the past few years, efforts have been underway to reclaim
the heritage and legacy of Forrests life in Tennessee.
A group is trying to raise the gunboats sunk at Johnsonville
and his boyhood home in Chapel Hill, Tenn. was transferred by
the state to the Sons of Confederate Veterans who are working
to repair it and now hold it in trust as a tourist attraction.
The group says it wants to reclaim the proper heritage due Forrest
and to overcome the myths that have usurped the historical truths
of his life.
"Gen. Forrest was a great man," said one Tennessee
historian, "and, because of the actions of few racist thugs,
historical perspective has been replaced with bumper sticker
slogans. Unfortunately, these comments have led many civil rights
activists to attack Forrest on the face value of their lies.
Regardless of their efforts, military textbooks still put this
Tennessean in the same realm with other great generals like
Hannibal and the Roman Ceasars and, hopefully, the truth will
bear this out over time and Forrest be placed in proper historical
perspective. He had 29 horses shot from under him, is credited
with personally killing more than 30 men in hand to hand combat,
and never ordered his men to do something he wouldnt do
himself. Even German General Erwin Rommel traveled to Tennessee
to study him prior to World War II not because of Forrests
political beliefs that only a few historians at best know and
understand, but because of his brilliant tactics on the battlefield,
which he often said he wished he could adopt to his tank crews.
As far as the state goes, N.B. Forrest is one of our own and
reflects the greatest volunteer traditions of Tennessee, but
the most telling comment of his prowness as a general can be
traced back to General Robert E. Lee who was asked after the
war who he thought was the greatest general on either side of
the conflict. He said: Although I have never met him,
it is Nathan Bedford Forrest. From a West Point graduate
and professional soldier, that was the ultimate admission."