Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1877)

Nathan Bedford Forrest (July 13, 1821 ­ October 29, 1877), was a Confederate general and perhaps the American Civil War's most highly regarded cavalry and partisan ranger (guerilla leader). He was one of the war's most innovative and successful generals; his tactics of mobile warfare are still studied by modern soldiers. After the war, Forrest became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Early life

Forrest was born to a poor middle Tennessee family in the Bedford County town of Chapel Hill. He was the son of blacksmith William Forrest and was the first of twelve children. Forrest became the head of his family at the age of 17, following his father's death, and despite having no formal education, he determined to pull himself and his family up from poverty. Ultimately, he became a businessman, a plantation owner, and a slave trader. He put his younger brothers through college, provided for his mother, and by the time the Civil War broke out in 1861, had become a millionaire, one of the richest men in the South.

Military career

Given that Forrest earned much of his money in the slave trade, he naturally favored the Confederate side in the war. Using his own money, he raised and equipped a regiment of Tennessee volunteer soldiers to fight in the Confederate army. Forrest himself wanted no more than to fight for the Confederacy as a private, but because of his prominence in society and the fact he had raised the troops himself, he ended up as their commanding officer, with the rank of colonel. He knew almost nothing of military operations, but applied himself diligently to learn, and soon became a competent officer.

Cavalry command

Forrest's efforts did not go unnoticed, and he soon won promotion to brigadier general and gained command of a Confederate cavalry brigade. He was noted for tactics that would be more correctly described as "mounted infantry", in which the horses transported soldiers quickly to a position, at which they would fight dismounted. These tactics foreshadowed the mechanized infantry in World War II and had little relationship to the formal cavalry traditions of reconnaissance, screening, and mounted assaults with sabers.

Forrest was an imposing man‹six-foot, two-inches tall, 210 pounds, and arguably the strongest Confederate general‹who was able to intimidate opponents (both Union and Confederate) with his physical presence. He sought to recruit men such as himself, promising them that they would have the opportunity to "Kill Yankees." He was noted for his practice of sharpening both edges of his heavy saber and was unafraid to use it.

Forrest first distinguished himself in battle at the Battle of Fort Donelson in February 1862, where he led a cavalry charge against a Union artillery battery and captured it, and then led a breakout from a siege by the Union army under Ulysses S. Grant. He had tried to persuade his superiors of the feasibility of retreating out of the fort across the Cumberland River, but they refused to listen. Forrest angrily walked out of a meeting and declared that he had not led his men into battle to surrender. He proved his point when nearly 4,000 troops followed him across the river to fight again. A few days later, with the fall of Nashville imminent, Forrest took command of the city and evacuated several government officials and millions of dollars in heavy machinery used to make weapons, something the Confederacy could ill afford to lose.

A month later, Forrest was back in action at the Battle of Shiloh (April 6­7, 1862). Once again, he found himself in command of the Confederate rear guard after a lost battle, and again he distinguished himself. For the first time, he came under enemy fire and showed himself to have no fear. He charged a line of Union skirmishers, driving them off, but was wounded in the process, shot through the pelvis, with the bullet lodging near his spine. He stayed in the saddle, lifted the Union shooter by the shirt collar, and used him as a human shield to avoid more gunfire before casting him aside. Forrest allegedly was the battle's last casualty.

Forrest quickly recovered from the injury and was back in the saddle that summer, in command of a new brigade of green cavalry regiments. In July, he led them back into middle Tennessee after receiving an order from the commanding general, Braxton Bragg, to launch a cavalry raid. It proved a stunning success. On Forrest's birthday, July 13, 1862, his men descended on the Union-held city of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and, in the First Battle of Murfreesboro, defeating and capturing a force of twice their numbers.

Murfreesboro proved to be just the first of many victories Forrest would win; he remained undefeated in battle until the final days of the war, when he faced overwhelming numbers. But he and Bragg could not get along, and the Confederate high command did not realize the degree of Forrest's talent until far too late in the war. In their postwar writings, both Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee lamented this oversight.

Mobile cavalry warfare

In December 1862, Forrest's veteran troopers were reassigned by Bragg to another officer, against his protest, and he was forced to recruit a new brigade, this one composed of about 2,000 inexperienced recruits, most of whom lacked even weapons with which to fight. Again, Bragg ordered a raid, this one into west Tennessee to disrupt the communications of the Union forces under General 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, and all of them fully armed with captured Union weapons. Grant was forced to revise and delay the strategy of his Vicksburg Campaign significantly.

Forrest continued to lead his men in smaller-scale operations until April of 1863, when 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, which would have cut off Bragg's supply line and forced him to retreat into Georgia. Forrest chased Streight's men for 16 days, harassing them all the way, until Streight's lone objective became simply to escape his relentless pursuer. Finally, on May 3, Forrest caught up with Streight at Rome, Georgia, and took 1,700 prisoners.

Forrest served with the main army at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 18­20, 1863), where 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, and not long after, Forrest and Bragg had a confrontation (including death threats against Bragg) that resulted in Forrest's re-assignment to an independent command in Mississippi.

Controversial battle of Fort Pillow

Forrest went to work and soon raised a 6,000-man force of his own, which he led back into west Tennessee. He did not have the resources to retake the area and hold it, but he did have enough force to render it useless to the Union army. He led several more raids into the area, from Paducah, Kentucky, on March 25, 1864, to the controversial Battle of Fort Pillow on April 12, 1864. In that battle, Forrest demanded unconditional surrender, or else he would "put every man to the sword", language he frequently used to expedite a surrender. The battle's details remain disputed and controversial to this day. What is known is that Forrest's men stormed the lightly guarded fort, inflicting heavy casualties on its defenders who quickly fell into disarray as the Union command‹already short several officers‹collapsed. Conflicting reports of what happened next are the source of controversy. Some alleged that the Confederates targeted several hundred African-American soldiers inside the fort, though one battle account says the killing was indiscriminate. Only 80 out of approximately 262 blacks survived the battle. Casualties were also high among white defenders of the fort, with 164 out of about 295 surviving. After the battle, reports surfaced of captured solders being subjected to brutality, including allegations that they were crucified on tent frames and burnt alive. Whether or not these reports are accurate will probably never be known for certain as both sides used the battle as a political rallying cry and were prone to exaggerate the events. Forrest himself does not appear to have participated in or sanctioned brutality in the battle, as witnesses reported his efforts to reign in his troops after arriving on the front line.

Conclusion of the war

Forrest's greatest victory came on June 10, 1864, when his 3,500-man force clashed with 8,500 men commanded by General Samuel D. Sturgis at the Battle of Brice's Crossroads. Here, his mobility of force and superior tactics won a remarkable victory, inflicting 2,500 casualties against a loss of 492, and sweeping the Union forces completely from a large expanse of southwest Tennessee and northern Mississippi.

Forrest led other raids that summer and fall, including a famous one into Union-held downtown Memphis in August 1864, and another on a huge 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 John Bell Hood to cross the river at Franklin and cut off John M. Schofield's Union army's escape route. He eventually distinguished himself by commanding the Confederate rearguard in a series of actions that allowed what was left of the army to escape from the disastrous Battle of Nashville. For this, he earned promotion to the rank of lieutenant general.

In 1865, Forrest attempted without success to defend the state of Alabama against Union attacks, but he still had an army in the field in April, when news of Lee's surrender reached him. He was urged to flee to Mexico, but chose to share the fate of his men, and surrendered. Forrest was later cleared of any violations of the rules of war in regard to Fort Pillow, and was allowed to return to private life.

Impact of Forrest's doctrines

Forrest was one of the first men to grasp the doctrines of "mobile warfare" that became prevalent in the 20th century. His one directive to his men was to "get there firstest with the mostest", even if it meant pushing his horses at a killing pace, which he did more than once. (The "firstest ... mostest" quote, although an accurate description of his strategy, was not uttered in that form by Forrest. It was invented by a New York Times story in 1917, written to provide colorful comments in reaction to European interest in Civil War generals.) A report on the Battle of Paducah stated that Forrest led a mounted cavalry of 2,500 troopers 100 miles in only 50 hours. A total of 29 horses were shot out from under him. And he was noted for personally killing 31 people during the war.

Forrest's victory at Brice's Cross Roads became the subject of a class taught at the French War College by Marshal Ferdinand Foch before World War I, and his mobile campaigns were studied by the German general Erwin Rommel, who as commander of the Afrika Korps in World War II, emulated his tactics on a wider scale, with tanks and trucks.

Postwar activities

Forrest lost almost all his fortune during the war, since much of it was invested in slaves, and of what was left, he gave much to the men who had served under him, but who had come home to find they had nothing.

Embittered by the state of his homeland after the war, in May 1866, Forrest became "Grand Wizard" of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization of Confederate veterans. Because of Forrest's prominence, the organization grew rapidly under his leadership. In addition to aiding Confederate widows and orphans of the war, many members of the new group began to use force to oppose the extension of voting rights to blacks, and to resist Reconstruction-introduced measures for the ending of segregation. In 1869, Forrest, disagreeing with its increasingly violent tactics, ordered the Klan to disband. However, many of its groups in other parts of the country ignored the order and continued to function.

Forrest returned to private business in the Memphis area and remained engaged in such for the rest of his life. In his final years, Forrest encouraged his followers to live in peace with the freed slaves who lived among them. He also continued to support his old soldiers so long as he lived; and when he died on October 29, 1877, of dysentery possibly triggered by diabetes, thousands of them congregated at his funeral. His funeral oration was given by Jefferson Davis himself. Forrest was buried on October 30, 1877, in Elmwood Cemetery. His remains were moved to Forrest Park, a Memphis city park, in 1904.


Forrest's great-grandson, Nathan Bedford Forrest III, also followed a military career, reaching the rank of brigadier general in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II, before being killed in action in 1943 while on a bombing raid over Germany.

In the motion picture Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks's character Forrest Gump states that he was named after a "General Forrest".