Nathan Bedford Forrest (July 13, 1821 – October 29, 1877) was a lieutenant general in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. He is remembered both as a self made and innovative cavalry leader during the war and as a figure in the postwar establishment of the first Ku Klux Klan organization opposing the military occupation and rule in the South.
A cavalry and military commander in the war, Forrest is also one of the war's most unusual figures. He was one of the very few in either army to enlist as a private and end the war at the rank of general. Forrest discovered and established new doctrines for mobile forces, earning the nickname The Wizard of the Saddle. He was accused of responsibility for war crimes at the Battle of Fort Pillow for leading Confederate soldiers in a massacre of unarmed black Union Army prisoners, but in the face of conflicting evidence was later cleared by the US Congress. After the war Forrest opposed Reconstruction policies and federal occupation by serving as the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and commander of the Grand Dragons of the Realms. He later worked to disband the KKK claiming it had become unpatriotic and violent.
Forrest became a businessman, a planter - owner of several plantations, a slave owner, and slave trader based on Adams Street in Memphis. In 1858 Forrest was elected as a Memphis city alderman. Forrest provided financially for his mother and put his younger brothers through college. By the time the Civil War started in 1861, he was a millionaire and one of the richest men in the South.
Before the Civil War, "Forrest was well known as a Memphis speculator and Mississippi gambler. He was for some time captain of a boat which ran between Memphis, Tennessee and Vicksburg, Mississippi. As his fortune increased he engaged in plantation speculation, and became the nominal owner of two plantations not far from Goodrich's Landing, above Vicksburg, where he worked some hundred or more slaves," according to his obituary. "He was known to his acquaintances as a man of obscure origin and low associations, a shrewd speculator, negro trader, and duelist, but a man of great energy and brute courage.
His superior officers and the state governor were surprised that someone of Forrest's wealth and prominence had enlisted as a soldier, especially since planters were exempted from service. As a result they commissioned him as a colonel. In October 1861 he was given command of his own regiment, "Forrest's Tennessee Cavalry Battalion". Though Forrest had no prior formalized military training or experience, he applied himself diligently to learn. With strong leadership abilities and apparently an intuition for successful tactics, Forrest soon became an exemplary officer. In Tennessee, there was much public debate concerning the state's decision to join the Confederacy, and both the CSA and the Union armies were actively seeking Tennessean recruits. Forrest sought men eager for battle, promising them that they would have "ample opportunity to kill Yankees".
At six-foot, two-inches (1.88 m) tall and 210 pounds (95 kg; 15 stone), Forrest was physically imposing and intimidating, especially for the time. He used his skills as a hard rider and fierce swordsman to great effect. (He was known to sharpen both the top and bottom edges of his heavy saber.)
It has been surmised from contemporaneous records that Forrest may have personally killed more than thirty-three men with saber, pistol and shotgun.
When the Civil War began, Forrest offered freedom to 44 of his slaves if they would serve with him in the Confederate army. All 44 agreed. One later deserted; the other 43 served faithfully until the end of the war. Although they had many chances to leave, they chose to remain loyal to the South and to Forrest. Part of Forrest's command included his own Escort Company (his "Special Forces"), made up of the very best soldiers available. This unit, which varied in size from 40-90 men, was the elite of the cavalry. Eight of these picked men were black soldiers and all served gallantly and bravely throughout the war. All were armed with at least 2 pistols and a rifle. Most also carried two additional pistols in saddle holsters. At war's end, when Forrest's cavalry surrendered in May 1865, there were 65 black troopers on the muster roll. Of the soldiers who served under him, Forrest said of the black troops: Finer Confederates never fought.
A month later, Forrest was back in action at the Battle of Shiloh (April 6 to April 7, 1862). He commanded a Confederate rear guard after a lost battle. In an incident called Fallen Timbers, he drove through the Union skirmish line. In the midst of Union troops without his own troops, he emptied his pistols and pulled out his saber. A Union infantryman hit Forrest in the side with a rifle shot. Forrest was said to be the last man wounded at the Battle of Shiloh.
By early summer Forrest commanded a new brigade of green cavalry regiments. In July, he led them into Middle Tennessee under orders to launch a cavalry raid. On July 13, 1862, his men joined the First Battle of Murfreesboro, and Forrest is said to have won this battle.
According to a report by a Union commander:
The forces attacking my camp were the First Regiment Texas Rangers [8th Texas Cavalry, Terry's Texas Rangers, ed.], Colonel Wharton, and a battalion of the First Georgia Rangers, Colonel Morrison, and a large number of citizens of Rutherford County, many of whom had recently taken the oath of allegiance to the United States Government. There were also quite a number of negroes attached to the Texas and Georgia troops, who were armed and equipped, and took part in the several engagements with my forces during the day.
Forrest rarely lost a cavalry battle during the war. Forrest and General Braxton Bragg, commander of the Army of Tennessee, did not get along, though. In their postwar writings, both Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee stated the Confederate high command had failed to adequately use Forrest's talents.
Promoted in July 1862 to brigadier general, Forrest was given command of a Confederate cavalry brigade. In battle, he was quick to take the offensive, using speedy deployment of horse cavalry to position his troops, where they would often dismount and fight. He usually sought to circle the enemy flank and cut off their rear guard support.
In December 1862, Forrest's veteran troopers were reassigned by Bragg to another officer, against his protest. Forrest had to recruit a new brigade, composed of about 2,000 inexperienced recruits, most of whom lacked weapons. Again, Bragg ordered a raid, this one into west Tennessee to disrupt the communications of the Union forces under Grant, threatening the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Forrest protested that to send these untrained men behind enemy lines was suicidal, but Bragg insisted, 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 had started with. All of them were then fully armed with captured Union weapons. As a result, Grant was forced to revise and delay the strategy of his Vicksburg Campaign significantly.
Forrest continued to lead his men in small-scale operations until April 1863. The Confederate army dispatched him 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 had orders to cut the Confederate railroad south of Chattanooga, Tennessee, to 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. Streight's goal became simply to escape pursuit. On May 3, Forrest caught up with Streight's unit east of Cedar Bluff, Alabama. Forrest had fewer men, but repeatedly paraded some of them around a hilltop to appear a larger force, and convinced Streight to surrender his 1,700 exhausted troops.
Forrest served with the main army at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 18 to September 20 1863). 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. After Forrest and Bragg had a confrontation that included his death threats against Bragg, Forrest was re-assigned to an independent command in Mississippi. He was promoted to the rank of major general on December 4, 1863.
Forrest's men insisted that the Federals, although fleeing, kept their weapons and frequently turned to shoot, forcing the Confederates to keep firing in self defense.. The Union flag was still flying over the fort, which indicated that the force had not formally surrendered. A contemporary newspaper account from Jackson, Tennessee, states that "General Forrest begged them to surrender," but "not the first sign of surrender was ever given." Similar accounts were reported in many Southern newspapers at the time.
These denials, however, are contradicted by accounts of the massacre found in the letters of the Confederate soldiers who were there. Achilles Clark, a soldier with the 20th Tennessee cavalry, wrote the following in a letter to his sister penned immediately after the battle. "The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor, deluded, negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees, and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. I, with several others, tried to stop the butchery, and at one time had partially succeeded, but General Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased."
Faced with these conflicting claims the U.S. Congress first accused, then cleared, Forrest of responsibility for war crimes at the battle.
Forrest led other raids that summer and fall, including a famous one into Union-held downtown Memphis in August 1864 (the Second Battle of Memphis), and another on a 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 Franklin-Nashville Campaign. He once again fought bitterly with his superior officer, demanding permission from General John Bell Hood, the newest (and last) commander of the Army of Tennessee to cross the river during the Second Battle of Franklin and cut off Union Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield's army's escape route (the attempt was eventually made and defeated). After his bloody defeat at Franklin, Hood continued to Nashville while Forrest led an independent raid against the Murfreesboro garrison. Forrest engaged Union forces near Murfreesboro on December 5, 1864, and was soundly defeated at what would be known as the Third Battle of Murfreesboro. After Hood's Army of Tennessee was all but destroyed at the Battle of Nashville, Forrest again distinguished himself by commanding the Confederate rear-guard 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 Wilson's Raid. His opponent, Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson, defeated Forrest in battle. When news of Lee's surrender reached him, Forrest chose also to surrender. On May 9 1865, at Gainesville, Forrest read his farewell address to his troops.
In the four years of the war, reputedly a total of 30 horses were shot out from under Forrest and he may have personally killed 31 people. "I was a horse ahead at the end," he said.
The following text is excerpted from Forrest's farewell address to his troops. It showed an understanding of the difficulties likely in postwar years.
Civil war, such as you have just passed through naturally engenders feelings of animosity, hatred, and revenge. It is our duty to divest ourselves of all such feelings; and as far as it is in our power to do so, to cultivate friendly feelings towards those with whom we have so long contended, and heretofore so widely, but honestly, differed. Neighborhood feuds, personal animosities, and private differences should be blotted out; and, when you return home, a manly, straightforward course of conduct will secure the respect of your enemies. Whatever your responsibilities may be to Government, to society, or to individuals meet them like men.
The attempt made to establish a separate and independent Confederation has failed; but the consciousness of having done your duty faithfully, and to the end, will, in some measure, repay for the hardships you have undergone. In bidding you farewell, rest assured that you carry with you my best wishes for your future welfare and happiness. Without, in any way, referring to the merits of the Cause in which we have been engaged, your courage and determination, as exhibited on many hard-fought fields, has elicited the respect and admiration of friend and foe. And I now cheerfully and gratefully acknowledge my indebtedness to the officers and men of my command whose zeal, fidelity and unflinching bravery have been the great source of my past success in arms.
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. Obey the laws, preserve your honor, and the Government to which you have surrendered can afford to be, and will be, magnanimous.
N.B. Forrest, Lieut.-General
Headquarters, Forrest's Cavalry Corps
May 9, 1865
"Forrest ... used his horsemen as a modern general would use motorized infantry. He liked horses because he liked fast movement, and his mounted men could get from here to there much faster than any infantry could; but when they reached the field they usually tied their horses to trees and fought on foot, and they were as good as the very best infantry. Not for nothing did Forrest say the essence of strategy was 'to git thar fust with the most men'.
Forrest is often erroneously quoted as saying his strategy was to "git thar fustest with the mostest," but this quote first appeared in print in a New York Times story in 1917, written to provide colorful comments in reaction to European interest in Civil War generals. Bruce Catton writes:
"Do not, under any circumstances whatever, quote Forrest as saying 'fustest' and 'mostest'. He did not say it that way, and nobody who knows anything about him imagines that he did.
Forrest became well-known for his early use of "maneuver" tactics as applied to a mobile horse cavalry deployment. He sought to constantly harass the enemy in fast-moving raids, and to disrupt supply trains and enemy communications by destroying railroad track and cutting telegraph lines, as he wheeled around the Union Army's flank. His success in doing so is reported to have driven Ulysses S. Grant to fits of anger.
Many students of warfare have come to appreciate Forrest's somewhat novel approach to cavalry deployment and quick hit-and-run tactics, both of which have influenced mobile tactics in the modern mechanized era. A report on the Battle of Paducah stated that Forrest led a mounted cavalry of 2,500 troopers in only 50 hours.
One of Forrest's most famous quotes is:
"War means fightin', and fightin' means killin'."
Forrest became associated with the Ku Klux Klan movement, but he officially denied participation. Upon learning of the Klan and its goal to reinstate the "true" Southern leaders, Forrest supposedly remarked, "That's a good thing; that's a damn good thing. We can use that to keep the niggers in their place." (Historians disagree as to whether this quote is real.) Delegates at an 1867 KKK convention in Nashville named him the organization's honorary Grand Wizard, or leader-in-chief.
In an 1868 interview by a Cincinnati newspaper, Forrest claimed that the Klan had 550,000 members in the Southern states. He said he sympathized with them and could muster thousands of men himself.
In the interview Forrest described the Klan as "a protective political military organization...The members are sworn to recognize the government of the United States...Its objects originally were protection against Loyal Leagues and the Grand Army of the Republic..." Historians, however, have classified the Klan as a kind of guerrilla group, insurgents who refused to accept the power changes of defeat, and carried on the Civil War by other means.The Klan used Forrest's name in recruiting. In 1869, Forrest, disagreeing with its increasingly violent tactics, ordered the Klan to disband. He stated it was "being perverted from its original honorable and patriotic purposes, becoming injurious instead of subservient to the public peace."
In the Congressional investigation on Klan activities in 1871, the committee concluded that Forrest's involvement with the Klan was limited to trying to get it to disband. They determined there was no evidence that he had founded or led the Klan.
Nearly ruined as the result of the failure of the Marion & Memphis Railroad in the early 1870s, Forrest spent his final days running a prison work farm on President's Island in the Mississippi River. There were financial failures across the country in the Panic of 1873. Forrest's health was in steady decline. He and his wife lived in a log cabin they had salvaged from his plantation.
On July 5, 1875, Forrest became the first white man to speak to the Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association, a civil rights group whose members were freedmen. In his short speech, he stated blacks had the right to vote for any candidates they wanted and that the role of blacks should be elevated. He ended the speech by kissing the cheek of one of the daughters of one of the Pole-Bearer Memphis Appeal members, evinces Forrest's racial open-mindedness that seemed to have been growing in him. As reported in the contemporary pages of the Memphis Appeal.
"Ladies and Gentlemen I accept the flowers as a memento of reconciliation between the white and colored races of the southern states. I accept it more particularly as it comes from a colored lady, for if there is any one on God's earth who loves the ladies I believe it is myself. (Immense applause and laughter.) I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to elevate every man to depress none. (Applause.) I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going. I have not said anything about politics today. I don't propose to say anything about politics. You have a right to elect whom you please; vote for the man you think best, and I think, when that is done, you and I are freemen. Do as you consider right and honest in electing men for office. I did not come here to make you a long speech, although invited to do so by you. I am not much of a speaker, and my business prevented me from preparing myself. 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. Many things have been said about me which are wrong, and which white and black persons here, who stood by me through the war, can contradict. Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I'll come to your relief. I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for this opportunity you have afforded me to be with you, and to assure you that I am with you in heart and in hand. (Prolonged applause.)"
Whereupon N. B. Forrest again thanked Miss Lewis for the bouquet and then gave her a kiss on the cheek. Such a kiss was unheard of in the society of those days, in 1875, but it showed a token of respect and friendship between the general and the black community and did much to promote harmony among the citizens of Memphis.
Forrest died in Memphis in October 1877, reportedly from acute complications of diabetes. He was buried at Elmwood Cemetery. In 1904 his remains were disinterred and moved to Forrest Park, a Memphis city park named in his honor.
Many memorials were erected to Forrest in Tennessee. Obelisks in his memory were placed at his birthplace in Chapel Hill and at Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park near Camden. A statue of General Forrest was erected in Memphis's Nathan Bedford Forrest Park. A bust sculpted by Jane Baxendale is on display at the state capitol building in Nashville. The World War II Army base Camp Forrest in Tullahoma, Tennessee was named after him. It is now the site of the Arnold Engineering Development Center.
A massive but strange statue of Forrest on horseback stands south of Nashville. Here his face takes on a comical growl, and his over sized silver body sits atop an undersized bronze mount. Both detractors and admirers of Forrest dislike this rendering so intensely that in 2002 it was reported that someone shot at it.
Tennessee has dedicated 32 historical markers linked to Nathan Bedford Forrest, more than are dedicated to the three Presidents who came from the state—Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and Andrew Johnson. Finally, the Tennessee legislature established July 13 as "Nathan Bedford Forrest Day.
A monument to Forrest in the Old Live Oak Cemetery in Selma, Alabama, reads "Defender of Selma, Wizard of the Saddle, Untutored Genius, The first with the most. This monument stands as testament of our perpetual devotion and respect for Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest. CSA 1821-1877, one of the south's finest heroes. In honor of Gen. Forrest's unwavering defense of Selma, the great state of Alabama, and the Confederacy, this memorial is dedicated. DEO VINDICE." As armory for the Confederacy, Selma provided most of the South's ammunition.
High schools are named for Forrest in Chapel Hill, Tennessee, and Jacksonville, Florida. Leaders in other localities have tried to remove or eliminate Forrest monuments, with mixed success.
In 2005, Shelby County Commissioner Walter Bailey started an effort to move the statue over Forrest's grave and rename Forrest Park. Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, who is black, blocked the move. Others have tried to get a bust of Forrest removed from the Tennessee House of Representatives chamber.
Forrest City, Arkansas, was named in his honor and a private K-12 school operated there during the 1970s. The school named Nathan Bedford Forrest Academy was closed in 1981 due to declining enrollment and poor financial performance.
Forrest's great-grandson, Nathan Bedford Forrest III, pursued a military career, first in cavalry, then in aviation, and attained the rank of brigadier general in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. On June 13, 1943, N. B. Forrest III was killed in action while participating in a bombing raid over Germany, the first U.S. general to be killed-in-action in World War II. His family was awarded his Distinguished Service Cross (second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor) for staying with the controls of his B-17 bomber while his crew bailed out. The plane exploded before Forrest could bail out. Tragically, by the time German air-sea rescue could arrive, only one of the crew was still alive in the freezing water.
In the 1994 motion picture Forrest Gump, the eponymous Tom Hanks character stated that he was named after his ancestor General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Due to the character's low IQ, he did not know of the Klan as a racist group, but rather a "club" that rode horses and "dressed up as ghosts". He then continued to explain he was called that to remind himself that people can do things that "just don't make no sense."
In the 1967 independent film In The Woods the ghost of Nathan Bedford Forrest appears and says he is "Happy to have founded the Ku Klux Klan". In the alternative history/science fiction novel The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove, Forrest runs for president of the Confederacy in its 1867 election. John Grisham refers to Forrest in his book The Summons.
The song 'The Decline and Fall of Country and Western Civilization' by Lambchop (band) begins with the lines: "I hate Nathan Bedford Forrest / He's the featured artist in the Devil's chorus."
In addition to Forrest City, Arkansas being named after Gen. Forrest, Forrest County, Mississippi (Hattiesburg) was also named for the general in 1908.
But The Times also reported that it would not be for military victories that Forrest would pass into history:
This northern news paper obituary further stated:
Forrest's men were alleged to have set fire to Union barracks with wounded Union soldiers inside. The report of Union Lieutenant Daniel Van Horn said that act was due to orders carried out by Union Lieutenant John D. Hill. Van Horn also reported that, "There never was a surrender of the fort, both officers and men declaring they never would surrender or ask for quarter.
These claims were directly disputed in letters written by Confederate soldiers to their own families, which describe wanton brutality on the part of Southern troops.
Following the cessation of hostilities, Forrest transferred the 14 most seriously wounded United States Colored Troops (USCT) to the U.S. Steamer Silver Cloud. He sent 39 USCT taken as prisoners to higher command.
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