General Nathan Bedford Forrest's Biography:
Shelby Foote, a noted Civil War authority, in the P.B.S. series, The Civil War, calls Confederate Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest "one of the two authentic geniuses of the Civil War." The other was Abraham Lincoln.
To be in such select company, Forrest had to outdistance a cast of noted generals like Robert E. Lee, U.S. Grant, and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, just to name a few.
Even Forrest's sworn enemy General William Tecumseh Sherman called him "the most remarkable man our war produced on either side," but Sherman also said, "Forrest should be hunted down and killed even if it costs 10,000 lives or if it bankrupts the Federal Treasury!" and then concluded by cursing Forrest as "that devil Forrest!"
The highly respected Civil War Historian, Ed Bearss, dubbed Forrest "the most colorful man of the war." In the course of the war, Forrest killed 31 men in hand-to-hand conflict and had 30 horses shot from under him.
He has been called an untutored genius, a wizard of the saddle, and a natural born God of War. Union forces that faced his troops afterward thought they had ridden, to quote Tennyson, "into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell."
Who was this, lighting bolt from the clear sky? Why is he still studied and remembered a hundred twenty-seven years after his death?
Nathan Bedford Forrest was born July 13, 1821 in Bedford County, Tennessee. Bedford skipped on his formal education to insure that his brothers, sisters, and mother were never lacking. He worked diligently and rose from relative obscurity in western Tennessee to become a millionaire in a time when having a million dollars was quite a considerable sum of money. Wealthy landowners in nearby counties declared themselves some of the richest men in the county with fortunes of merely $8,000 to $10,000. By the time of the Civil War in 1861, he was one of the wealthiest planters/businessmen in North Mississippi and West Tennessee.
With the coming of the war, he enlisted as a private to fight, but soon was appointed by the Governor of Tennessee to be an officer. He started as a private and would end the war as a Major General. A feat only accomplished by one other soldier in American history.
Forrest's cavalry, of course, went on to great success in the war, fighting their initial engagement on Kentucky soil at Sacramento, where Forrest first displayed his "double envelope maneuver," a frontal attack combined with simultaneous assaults on the right and left sides.
Forrest, a "master of the lightning raid," usually began the maneuver, according to Shelby Foote, by "standing in the stirrups, swinging his sword and roaring 'Charge!' in a voice that rang like brass." Complete that picture and combine it with a steely stare, and it is no wonder that Forrest instilled inspiration in his men and sheer terror in his enemies.
Forrest had little military training, but he had an inborn eye for good ground and a grasp of the battlefield few could equal. To quote the General when speaking of his West Point trained opponents, "I usually have them beat before they can get their tune pitched." He would prove this repeatedly over the four years of the war.
Forrest would after the war be called by General Robert E. Lee, "the best General I had." This sentiment has echoed into modern times as the General's tactics and battles are still studied in military academies world-wide.
Perhaps the shinning example of his genius is the battle of Brice's Crossroads. Here he faced a force that outnumbered his three to one. At the start of the battle the forces were more uneven, for General Forrest had arrived this time last with the least. Undaunted, he threw his headquarters' company into the fight, holding the enemy until the rest of his forces reached the field. He then used the hot June weather of North Mississippi and the skillful deployment of his men, to not only defeat the Yankees, but to route them completely. The Federals had taken three days to reach Brice's only to have Forrest, "put the scare on 'em and keep the scare on 'em," so well that they made it back to Memphis in a day and a half losing all their wagons and supplies. Helping resupply Forrest's men for months to come.
After the fall of Atlanta, he joined Hood at Florence, and fought at Franklin and Nashville. As commander of the Rear Guard of the retreating Confederate Army, Forrest displayed his most heroic qualities, with hardly a parallel but the famous deeds of Marshal Ney while covering Napoleon's retreat from Moscow.
In February, 1865, he was promoted Lieutenant-General, and given the duty of guarding the Frontier from Decatur, Alabama, to the Mississippi. With a few hundred hastily gathered men he made his last fight at Selma, and on May 9th, he laid down his arms. It is stated that he was 179 times under fire in the four years, and he said, "My Provost Marshal's Books will show that I have taken 31,000 prisoners."
Following the Civil War, he was president of the Selma, Marion and Memphis Railroad until 1874. He died at Memphis, Tennessee on October 29, 1877.
By European authority, he is pronounced, "the most magnificent cavalry officer that America has produced."
After the Civil War, General Forrest made a speech to the Memphis City Council (then called the Board of Aldermen). In this speech, he said that there was no reason that the black man could not be doctors, store clerks, bankers, or any other job equal to whites. They were part of our community and should be involved and employed as such just like anyone else.
In another speech to Federal authorities, Forrest said that many of the ex-slaves were skilled artisans and needed to be employed and that those skills needed to be taught to the younger workers. If not, then the next generation of blacks would have no skills and could not succeed and would become dependent on the welfare of society.
Forrest's words went unheeded. The Memphis & Selma Railroad was organized by Forrest after the war to help rebuild the South's transportation and to build the 'new South'. Forrest took it upon himself to hire blacks as architects, construction engineers and foremen, train engineers and conductors, and other high level jobs. In the North, blacks were prohibited from holding such jobs. 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.
Though they had many chances to leave, they chose to remain loyal to the South and to Forrest. Part of General Forrest's command included his own Escort Company, his Green Berets, 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 two 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."
His arch nemeses perhaps said it best:
"There can be no peace in West Tennessee 'till that devil Forrest is dead!"
- William T. Sherman (Yankee General and well know Arsonist)