Nathan Bedford Forrest
Uneducated but not illiterate, Nathan Bedford Forrest was a natural tactician who earned the praise of his enemies. Both Grant and Sherman feared this man who entered the Confederate forces a private and left a general. The stories of him are legend.
- With Fort Donelson supposedly surrounded, he stormed from a meeting where the commanding officers were preparing to surrender and led his cavalry and a number of infantry out of the area without a shot being fired at him.
- At Pittsburgh Landing (Shiloh) he charged and routed a line of Union skirmishers by himself in defence of the retreating rebel army.
- In Murfreesboro, Tennessee he freed a garrison jail of locals imprisoned, according to the Union commander, for attacks on patrols near their farms. Advised to leave after the successful escape the colonel replied, "I did not come here to make half a job of it, I want them all" and proceeded to demand unconditional surrender of the entire garrison. The Union commanders had more men, guns and an entrenched position but surrendered anyway, unaware that Forrest was bluffing.
During Bragg's retreat through Tennessee he used Forrest repeatedly as his rear guard. Later, protecting the Confederate right during the battle of Chickamauga he won the accolades of Bragg's staff when his men dismounted and attacked as infantry, pressuring the Federals to retreat from their position near the creek to one more in line with other Union troops at the Lafayette Road.
Immediately after the battle it was Forrest who reported the Federals were in full retreat to Chattanooga and the Army of Tennessee should attack, sound advice that Brag ignored. This widened a rift between Forrest and his commander. Bragg, who was having problems with most of his subordinates after Chickamauga ordered Forrest to "turn his troops over" and report to Gen. Joseph Wheeler, fully aware that Forrest had vowed never to fight with Wheeler again. An angry Forrest confronted Bragg over the orders, threatening the Commander of the Army of Tennessee with bodily harm. Bragg never reported the incident because he realised that Forrest was too important to the cause to be jailed for insubordination. Forrest was assigned to an area further west.
His engagement of Federal troops at Brice's Crossroads on June 10, 1864 is considered by many the perfect battle. Union Major General Samuel D. Sturgis, with 8,000 men was marching south into northern Mississippi to block the cavalry from attacking Sherman's supply lines. When Sturgis ran into Forrest's dismounted horsemen he assembled a perimeter around the crossroads. Forrest flanked him on both sides, the same double envelopment that worked so well near Bowling Green. The blue coats ran. A bridge over the Tishomingo Creek became a roadblock for the retreating army and ever vigilant for such opportunity, the Confederate general pounced. Sturgis would later write "What was confusion became chaos " as the rebels pounded the fleeing blues. With less than three thousand men Forrest had destroyed an enemy more than twice the manpower.
Assisting Confederate General John B. Hood in the abortive Nashville Campaign, Forrest could see the end was near for the Confederacy. As Lee and then Johnston surrendered their forces in April, 1865, the rebel cavalryman told a friend that he had a tough time deciding if he should continue the fight in Mexico or give up. His was the last group of men to surrender east of the Mississippi. After the war he ran Selma Railroad and led a small group of men that acted as enforcers for the Democratic Party in the South, the Ku Klux Klan. Diabetes took its toll on Forrest and he passed away a frail man in 1877.
Born: Chapel Hill, Tennessee, July 13, 1821
Died: Memphis, Tennessee, October 29, 1877
The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, February 1998
Some More Facts about N. B. Forrest
Born of English/Irish stock, a farmer and blacksmith. Place of residence, Duck River Country, Chapel Hill. Much chastised by his mother. Many childhood legends abound. Killed a rattlesnake whilst blackberrying; dived naked into a muddy creek to recover a lost knife and retrieved it; hurled from his horse into the maws of two watch dogs he was tormenting and escaped from further punishment because the dogs were startled; travelled west at 13 years in 1834 when the family moved to Salem, Mississippi. Was not very good at reading and writing; took over as head of the family in 1837 when his father died.
At 12 he could shoe a horse, cast and weld. The Forrests gave seven sons to the service of their country, from the Mexican wars to the end of the civil war. The baby brother, Nathan who died in his arms at the Battle of Oklona. Nathan's mother remarried - a Scots/Irishman (Joseph Luxton) and had a further three girls and three more boys. During a heated argument in Hernando 1845, he became embroiled in a fight, saw his uncle shot dead, was given a Bowie knife to defend himself, with which he took out one assailant and shot two others. A fourth fled the field. Nathan himself was wounded by a pistol ball. All were arrested, charged and fined. Though Nathan was set free for acting in self defence, the victim of several "bush whack" attempts, surviving by the quickness of his draw. Always the gentleman, the love of his life was a Miss Mary Ann-Montgomery, a young lady of Irish descent. She came from fighting stock - at least one of her forebears had died a soldier's death in Quebec in 1775 and she was a woman. Nathan was married in September 25th, 1845. He ran a successful business dealing in real estate and a dealer in slaves. Nathan took great care of his slaves, making them bathe then dressing them in good clean clothes. He wouldn't split a family up and would always purchase the whole unit! He was a fair man who didn't beat his workers and proof, by 1860, over 1000 bales of cotton had been sent from the Forrest plantation. He was a proven orator and leader of men.
An Alderman of the city in 1861 and rigid opponent of sharp practice and graft. It was only by hard and honest work that the Forrests became rich.
In the first clash of arms at Charleston, April 1861, he was of the opinion that "good citizens made good soldiers", and as such he handed over his affairs to his wife and set out to Memphis and enlisted as a trooper in Dr White's company of the Tennessee Mounted Rifles. But it wasn't long before he was called upriver to Nashville by Governor Harris to form his own regiment of Cavalry. His appeal for "Mounted Rangers" eventually led him to a Captain Overton at Brandenburg on the Ohio. Called "Boone Rangers". Forrest met up, enrolled them all, arriving at Nolin in dribs and drabs to avoid the "Northern Home Guards". The Company eventually mustered some 650 men. Apart from N.B's own purchase of 500 pistols and saddles, most were armed only with shotguns and pistols. The arms "furnished by the state" failed to materialise. The whole unit were situated in Fort Donaldson and had an area of 60 miles from Cumberland and Green Rivers to patrol.
N.B. Forrest's first encounter was with a steamer - the "Conestoga".
Gleanings from several sources.
B S Spencer, 28th Mass. Vol. Inf.
The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, June 1999