Tennessee’s most controversial General

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 wouldn’t 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 family’s business affairs and helped his mother scratch out a comfortable living for the family. It wasn’t 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 Forrest’s 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 City’s 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 agrarian South.
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 White’s 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, Miss.
Although painfully wounded in the battle, Forrest kept his composure and drove Union General Sherman’s 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 commander’s 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 Bragg’s actions at Chickamauga.
President Jefferson Davis, however, refused to accept Forrest’s resignation and, instead, promoted him to major general and handed him command of all cavalry in west Tennessee and north Mississippi.
By the 1864 campaigns, Forrest’s 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 Fort’s 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 Forrest’s men from the river. The Union commander was hoping that would happen as well and stalled the surrender. Feeling he couldn’t 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" the troops.
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 Brice’s Crossroads and fought what military scholars still call the "perfect battle". The battle resulted in the Tennessean capturing all of the General’s trains and a third of his men. When Union Gen. A.J. Smith tried to angrily check Forrest’s 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. Forrest’s accomplishment so frightened Union forces that the remaining Northern troops marching to fight Forrest’s 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 General.
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. Forrest’s 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 of five.
Forrest has become a center of controversy over the years due to Hollywood directors falling prey to those who use the general’s 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. Forrest’s 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 Union’s 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 wasn’t for European historians, most people would probably never have known how great General Forrest’s accomplishments really were."
While Winbush’s comments have often put him at odds with others, he sticks by his statements and defends his grandfather’s 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 Brice’s Crossroads is still taught at the United States Military Academy and Forrest’s 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 Forrest’s 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 wouldn’t do himself. Even German General Erwin Rommel traveled to Tennessee to study him prior to World War II– not because of Forrest’s 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."