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BORN: 1821 in Bedford City, TN.
DIED: 1877 in Memphis, TN.
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Nathan Bedford Forrest was born in Bedford County, Tennessee on July 13, 1821, the son of a poor blacksmith. At the age of 16, young Forrest was forced to take responsibility for the large family. By 1861, he was a financially successful slave trader and planter. He enlisted in the Confederate army as a private in 1861. On July 21, 1862, he was appointed a brigadier general; and was made a major general on December 4, 1863. Although he lacked a military education, he was a skilled tactician with a true understanding of strategy. He articulated his military philosophy as the following: "war means fightin' and fightin' means killin'." Forrest became the most feared cavalry leader in the Confederacy. His actions at Fort Donelson and Shiloh helped him advance early in the Civil War. This advancement allowed him to develop raiding strategies that made his cavalry an efficient strike force. On April 12, 1864, he and his troops captured Fort Pillow, a Union post in Tennessee. Of the 570 troops in the fort, a little less than half were black. Of the Union troops, 231 were killed, 100 were wounded and 226 were taken prisoner, while the Confederates lost 14 dead and 86 wounded. The black troops were killed in large numbers, with only 58 out of 262 taken prisoner. Forrest reportedly explained: "it is hoped that these facts will demonstrate ... that Negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners." The events that took place at Fort Pillow remain in dispute. The Union claimed that a large number of Union troops were killed after they had surrendered the fort, making the Fort Pillow incident a shocking massacre. The Confederacy provided other explanations for the casualties, including the unusually high number of black casualties. Congress' Committee on the Conduct of the War investigated the incident, but evidence remains split between Union accusations and Confederate explanations. It is highly unlikely, however, that all the Union casualties at Fort Pillow were necessary for Forrest and his troops to simply take the garrison; and that the Confederate forces were entirely without malice. Whether the bulk of the casualties occurred before or after the surrender of the fort, however, has not been definitively established. After the Civil War, Forrest became a farmer and businessman. He died on October 29, 1877, in Memphis, Tennessee.

Forrest, Nathan Bedforet – Controversal in the Civil War and Present

Nathan Bedford Forrest is an extremely controversial person who has been in the news recently. While there are supporters, there are many troubled by his past as a Confederate general and slave trader among other things. This post will take a look at the man and his past.

Forrest was a Confederate general during the American Civil War. He had no formal military training but was personally and financially involved in the war. A private who financed the men with clothing, equipment and horses, he was promoted from private to lieutenant general. Despite no training he is considered to be a brilliant cavalryman and military leader. He was relentless in harassing Union forces. Forrest is also remembered for his controversial involvement in the Battle of Fort Pillow in April 1864 when troops under his command massacred scores of Black solders following the surrender by the Union troops. He is also widely remembered as a slave trader and the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Nathan Bedford Forrest was born July 13, 1821 in Chapel Hill, Tennessee. His family was poor, and he received little formal education. At an early age, he went into business with his uncle, Jonathan Forrest in Hernando, Mississippi. Two years later his uncle was killed in a street brawl over a business dispute. Forrest responded by killing 2 of the murders using a pistol and a Bowie knife.

Forrest continued the business after his uncle was killed and found success as a planter before moving to Memphis, Tennessee where he made a fortune as a slave trader and his business only grew during the 1850’s. In 1858 he was elected a Memphis alderman and by 1860 owned 2 cotton plantations and was recognized as one of the wealthiest men in Tennessee.

At the start of the Civil War, which could disrupt the slave trade business, Forrest enlisted as a private in the Tennessee Mounted Rifles. Being wealthy, he equipped the unit using his own money. This allowed him to be promoted from private to lieutenant colonel and given his own battalion of 650 mounted troops.

Forrest eventually found success as a planter and owner of a stagecoach company. In 1852 he moved his young family to Memphis, Tennessee, where he amassed a small fortune working as a slave trader. His business continued to grow throughout the 1850s, and in 1858 he was elected a Memphis alderman. By 1860 Forrest owned two cotton plantations and had established himself among the wealthiest men in Tennessee.

As part of his recruiting, he published a recruiting notice in a Memphis newspaper including the line “Come on boys, if you want a heap of fun and to kill some Yankees.”

His most controversial event was. the Battle of Fort Pillow in Tennessee in April of 1864, where the forces under his command captured the federal garrison and Forrest’s men killed over 200 Union soldiers, a grossly disproportionate number of them Black former slave. Survivors of the “Fort Pillow Massacre” as the event became known as report that Forrest’s men ignored their surrender and murdered scores of unarmed troops. The Joint Committee on the Conduct of War investigated the incident and concluded that Forrest’s men had ignored the surrender of the soldiers at Fort Pillow and murdered scores of unarmed troops. They also agreed that Forrest’s men had committed an unjust slaughter.

After the war, Forrest began an association with the Ku Klux Klan, a not so well kept secret that terrorized Blacks. They also opposed Reconstruction. (Reconstruction was that period after the Civil War where the United States worked on government and social legislation that granted rights to Blacks.) Forrest served as the Klan’s first grand wizard. Forrest has both denied and admitted serving in the Klan. In 1874, he was overseeing a prison labor camp ear Memphis which could bring huge profits to the overseer.

Despite his history of slave trading and the massacre at Fort Pillow among other dishonorable actions there are many memorials to Forrest in Tennessee and other Southern states. Most erected more recently than most would suspect.

Of more recent unrest is the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest on display in the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville. A recent survey of historical markers found 32 dedicated to Forrest more than the total dedicated to the 3 former United States presidents associated with the state. Andrew Jackson, James K Polk and Andrew Johnson. July 13 is also recognized as “Nathan Bedford Forrest Day” in the state.

The history and memory of this slave trader and massacrer is hard to take by many including an overwhelming number of Black citizens, yet elected officials push these horrible memories on the citizens.

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Clip 1 from ‘The Forgotten Battle of Fort Pillow’

Clips from the documentary ‘The Forgotten Battle of Fort Pillow’ directed by Stan Armstrong.

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The River was Dyed with Blood

The battlefield reputation of Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, long recognized as a formidable warrior, has been shaped by one infamous wartime incident. At Fort Pillow in 1864, the attack by Confederate forces under Forrest’s command left many of the Tennessee Unionists and black soldiers garrisoned there dead in a confrontation widely labeled as a “massacre.” In The River Was Dyed with Blood, best-selling Forrest biographer Brian Steel Wills argues that although atrocities did occur after the fall of the fort, Forrest did not order or intend a systematic execution of its defenders. Rather, the general’s great failing was losing control of his troops.

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Fort Pillow Clip 3 – Attack on the Fort!

This clips shows the actual attack on Fort Pillow from the documentary ‘The Forgotten Battle of Fort Pillow’ directed by Stan Armstrong.

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River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War

An account of the controversial April 1864 Civil War battle between Confederate cavalry leader Nathan Bedford Forrest and a garrison of Unionists and former slave artillerymen offers insight into how corruption and racism in occupied Tennessee played a role in the Confederate victory and how Forrest went on to found the Ku Klux Klan. By the author of Dark Midnight When I Rise. 30,000 first printing.

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Nathan Bedford Forrest Mutilated and Kill Black Soldiers

During the Civil war on April 12, 1864, we note the Fort Pillow Massacre. Fort Pillow is 40 miles from Memphis in Henning, Tennessee where Roots writer Alex Haley comes from. We note in 1863 President Abraham Lincoln encouraged former slaves to join the Union Army. Many of the first authorized soldiers came from Tennessee.

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Fort Pillow, a Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory

(Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War) At the now-peaceful spot of Tennessee’s Fort Pillow State Historic Area, a horrific incident in the nation’s bloodiest war occurred on April 12, 1864. Just as a high bluff in the park offers visitors a panoramic view of the Mississippi River, John Cimprich’s absorbing book affords readers a new vantage on the American Civil War as viewed through the lens of the Confederate massacre of unionist and black Federal soldiers at Fort Pillow. Cimprich covers the entire history of Fort Pillow, including its construction by Confederates, its capture and occupation by federals, the massacre, and ongoing debates surrounding that affair. He sets the scene for the carnage by describing the social conflicts in federally occupied areas between secessionists and unionists as well as between blacks and whites. In a careful reconstruction of the assault itself, Cimprich balances vivid firsthand reports with a judicious narrative and analysis of events. He shows how Major General Nathan B. Forrest attacked the garrison with a force outnumbering the Federals roughly 1,500 to 600, and a breakdown of Confederate discipline resulted. The 65 percent death toll for black unionists was approximately twice that for white unionists, and Cimprich concludes that racism was at the heart of the Fort Pillow massacre.

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Black Caucus Members Angry Over “Dishonest” Passage of Bill Mentioning Nathan Bedford Forrest

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American Massacre: Fort Pillow and the Day that Changed a War

The words of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest send a chilling message through history: “The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for 200 yards…It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that Negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.” He wrote these words in his official report to describe a battle of the American Civil War which came to be known as the Fort Pillow Massacre. American Massacre chronicles the Fort Pillow Massacre which occurred on April 12, 1864. Fort Pillow was an isolated Union fort in the backwaters of the Civil War on a bluff of the Mississippi River in west Tennessee manned by a force of about 600 black soldiers recently freed from slavery and white Tennessee Unionists. The battle remains a racially charged controversy to this day because of allegations that Confederate General Forrest ordered the massacre of black soldiers after they surrendered in order to terrorize blacks from enlisting in the Union army. This book provides an exciting, fast-paced and suspenseful narrative of the Fort Pillow Massacre and the key events leading up to it including Forrest’s raid into west Tennessee and Kentucky and first encounter with black troops in his attack on Paducah, Kentucky. Along the way it describes the struggle of African Americans for the right to serve in the Union Army while painting a vivid portrait of a divided region and its people in turmoil. Additionally, the book contains a strong element of creative nonfiction including dramatic prosecution and defense arguments for a fictional military commission war crimes trial of Nathan Bedford Forrest. A lighting rod of controversy in America to this day, slave trader, brilliant cavalry commander and Ku Klux Klan leader Forrest stands forever on the high bluff of the Mississippi River as a symbol of heroism to some and racial strife to others

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188 The Fort Pillow Massacre in 1864

This Week in US History This week at In The Past Lane, the American History podcast, we take a look at the Fort Pillow Massacre that took place April 12, 1864 during the Civil War. A Confederate force led by Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest overwhelmed the fort and when the 300 African American Union soldiers tried to surrender, they slaughtered them. It was an extraordinary war crime that was motivated by racist animosity. Not surprisingly, the movement to remove Confederate statues in recent years has taken particular aim at statues honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest, who not only perpetrated the Ft. Pillow Massacre, but after the war became the leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

In the post on Nathan Bedford Forrest, we see a person who has inflicted pain on a great portion of American citizens, yet some people insist on honoring him and people like him. Forrest made his fortune buying and selling other human beings and commanding a troop that slaughtered many people at Fort Pillow. Forrest was a general of a country (Confederated States of America) engaged in war against The United States of America.

The people honoring Forrest are honoring an enemy of the United States of America with a horrific past that is completely insensitive to the plight of Blacks. It is time to examine this meanspirited message that is conveyed to many of our citizens.

Remains of KKK leader Nathan Bedford Forrest exhumed from Tennessee park

The remains of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate army general, and the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, have been exhumed from the Health Sciences Park in Memphis, Tennessee and taken to a secret location in the western part of the state before being moved to a museum south of Nashville.

The work, carried by a group called “The Sons of Confederate Veterans” to remove the remains of the infamous slave trader began on 1 June.

While the remains were discovered on Monday, shortly after 9am, an announcement was not made until Friday in order to ensure that all artefacts had been found, Shelby County Election Commissioner Brent Taylor told reporters, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

A statue of the KKK leader was removed from the park in December 2017.

The statue and remains will be reassembled and interred at the National Confederate Museum in Columbia south of Nashville.

A “Victorian cradle” with the initials of Mr Forrest was found, leading them to the location of his remains. The graves of the general and his wife were finally found 10 feet below the park plaza. The grand wizard’s casket remained whole, but his wife’s had decayed and her remains were placed in a temporary casket.

Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner said that no discussions have yet been had on what will replace the statue.

“Let’s just let the park breathe, let’s relax a little bit and enjoy the park,” he said. “We’re going to leave it up to the Memphians and the Shelby Countians.”

The park was previously called Forrest Park and was bought by non-profit organisation Memphis Greenspace when the statue was removed in 2017.

Mr Forrest lived from 1821 to 1877. His statue was erected in 1904. His descendants were present when his remains were placed in the park in November 1904, and again generations later when the remains were removed more than 116 years later.

“We wanted this process to be respectful, to be something that healed divisions,” Mr Turner said.

“I think the Forrest family wanted the remains of their ancestor to rest in peace,” he added. “There was never going to be peace here.”

Tami Sawyer was one of the leaders behind the effort to remove the statue. She’s now one of 13 Shelby County Commissioners.

She was harassed by one of the workers exhuming the remains as she spoke to reporters. George Johnson, 46, was seen and heard singing “Dixie” and waving the Confederate flag. He called Ms Sawyer a “communist piece of s**t”.

“If you were a man, I would beat your a**,” he said, according to a police report.

He was arrested and charged with misdemeanour assault. He has since been released.

Mr Turner said the tension around the park “could have been a disaster” but that those involved were committed to working across the aisle.

“We would hope that the example showed here with the safe removal of the monuments and the safe removal of the remains will serve as an example of what we can do to move this city forward,” he added, calling it “a great day for Memphis,” according to WREG.

“We have not had the issues other cities have had,” Mr Taylor said. “We did this right.”

Applied Civil War History – Nathan Bedford Forrest and our National Character

After the Civil War Confederate General Robert E. Lee was asked his opinion as to who was the greatest commander of the war. His response was said to have been without hesitation, “A man I have never met, sir. His name is Forrest.” In a conversation after the war, Union General Sherman said essentially the same thing, “After all, I think Forrest was the most remarkable man our Civil War produced on either side.”

Nathan Bedford Forrest - Wizard of the Saddle

As the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of our greatest national catastrophe approaches, controversy is growing as to how that horrible war and its heroes and villains should be remembered and commemorated. More importantly is learning the lessons of the Civil War years and applying them to our present crises.

Few encapsulate the controversies and conundrums of the War more than Confederate General Nathan BedfordForrest – a self-schooled private and former slave trader who rose to Lt. General in the Confederate Army. Forrest’s deep Confederate patriotism, extraordinary tactical acumen, personal bravery, his relationship withblack Americans (bothnegative and positive), and his enduring appreciation for the US Constitution provide us with a mirror to our own contradictions, frustrations, and confusions.

Perhaps not since the assassination of JFK and the debacle of the Warren Commission has trust in our government been as low as it is today. Issues of race continue to rankle, and partisanship in Washington is very much alive despite President Obama’s early promises that he would eradicate it.

There is great fear and worry in the country two foreign wars, rumors of more conflicts, an ongoing economic disaster, saber rattling by intractable enemies, and consistent high unemployment are just the leading edges of a multiplicity of the many challenges we face. The challenges are devastating in their complexity and numbers – they require a fortitude, unity, and surety to successfully overcome them. All of these important traits, once found in abundance in our culture, now seem in short supply.

There is growing confusion about fundamental truths what does it mean to be American what makes our society special how tolerant must we be to those ideologies (and their followers), if at all, whose purpose is our destruction how important is our country and our future to us? The sesquicentennial of the Civil War could not have come at a better time.

General Forrest continues to elicit strong reactions, his campaigns continue to be studied. Forrest’s reputation for victory (and serious fighting) was well known to his Union counterparts during the war. Identified as a direct threat to the success of Union military efforts in the Western theater, General Sherman ordered his capture or death.

In March, 1863 two Union garrisons southof Nashville surrendered to Forrest’s smaller numbers when the Federal commander was notified that Forrest was personally leading the Confederate forces in his front and he was given a guided tour of Forrest’s positions. The two garrisons were captured by Forrest with hardly a shot fired.

An unlettered man but brilliant commander Forrest was a fiery and complex personality. At Columbia, Tennessee, Forrest was attacked and shot by an angry subordinate. All who saw the event, including Forrest himself, thought the wound was mortal. In a fury of rage, Forrest pursued his attacker, a junior artillery officer, screaming, “Get out of my way! I am mortally wounded and will kill the man who has shot me!”! Shot in the abdomen, generally a fatal wound at that time, Forrest chased his attacker down and inflicted a mortal wound on the man, a young lieutenant. (Source.)

Stories of Forrest’s brilliance and reckless courage are both famous and numerous. At the battle of Parker’s Crossroads (12/31/62) Forrest’s cavalry was engaged with a Union force when more Yankee units approached from behind. Forrest’s order was swift and clear – “We’ll charge them both ways!”

While his greatness as a commander is rarely disputed, his reputation is marred by the ugly events at Fort Pillow, April, 1864, which contemporary Union investigators and witnesses described as a massacre of black Union troops by soldiers under Forrest’s command. In their defense the Confederate soldiers reported that many in the defeated garrison had picked up their arms after surrendering and had re-entered the battle. Fort Pillow remains one of the uglier controversies of a war filled with horrors and excesses on both sides. However, Confederate antipathy toward Union black soldiers was widely known on both sides and a war-time Congressional investigation into the matter concluded (with all the attendant bias against Confederate forces) that the Fort Pillow fight had indeed been a massacre. Forrest denied that a massacre had occurred until his death. This event is one of the central controversies of the war that still remains.

Prior to the war, Forrest had earned a small fortune as a slave trader in Memphis. During the reconstruction era, Forrest served as the head of a new organization created nominally for southern self-defense, Forrest’s title was “Grand Wizard”. The organization was called the Ku Klux Klan.

As the nature of the organization changed and became overtly anti-black and increasingly bizarre and violent, Forrest ordered that the Klan be disbanded. Subsequent events show that this order was largely ignored, and Forrest’s possible continued affiliation with the group remains a subject of debate among historians. Forrest’s motives in joining, leading, and then disbanding the Klan remain controversial issues.

When Forrest died in October of 1877 several thousand black Americans attended the funeral. (Source.) There is no need to suffer any cognitive dissonance at the complexity of Forrest or the apparent changes that he went through during and after the war.

Surpassing General Lee’s final orders to the Army of Northern Virginia in thoroughness and forward thinking, Forrest set a tone of reconciliation and acceptance of the truth of Confederate defeat that would later be echoed by many former Confederate leaders including Lee. Forrest’s acceptance of the end of the war, and his orders to his soldiers to re-integrate could stem in part from his affection for the US Constitution which many Confederates believed had been abrogated by the Lincoln administration (and thus lead to secession). In an interview with a Cincinnati newspaper in 1868 Forrest said,

“I loved the old government in 1861. I loved the old Constitution yet. I think it is the best government in the world, if administered as it was before the war.

The themes of reconciliation and acceptance in Forrest’s May 9, 1865 “Farewell Address” put an end to the idea of continued fighting and set his soldiers’ hearts to home and reintegration.

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.

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.

As we face crises greater than those faced by the Civil War generation it is important now to appreciate the lessons of character, of personal growth, and of context and national constancy that people like Forrest and Lee help us to discern.

Though the great battles of the war are often cited, the brutality of the war itself is sometimes forgotten. From the massacre of Union soldiers by Southern guerrillas (under notorious “Bloody Bill” Anderson) at Centralia, Missouri and all the atrocities and local vendettas committed in the border states – to the horrors experienced by Union prisoners of war in the South to the Kentucky man whose sons were beheaded by Union soldiers in the border area between Kentucky and Tennessee – the Civil War was generally not an affair of “glory“.

Jack Hinson became a feared Confederate sniper after his two sons were murdered and beheaded by Union soldiers. Hinson may have killed over 100 men during the course of his private war. He was never captured.

Jack Hinson’s neutrality was shattered the day Union patrols moved in on his land, captured two of his sons, accused them of being bushwhackers, and executed them on the roadside. The soldiers furthered the abuse by decapitating the Hinson boys and placing their heads on the gateposts of the family estate. (source, source)

It seems miraculous in retrospect that the United States was able to re-unite at all after the nightmare of the Civil War years. The qualities of national character that facilitated re-unification and forgiveness after the Civil War are still in effect today.

The 9/11 atrocities, all perpetrated by Muslims following the doctrine of Islamic hatred against non-Muslims as commanded in the core religious texts of Islam did not then, nor today result in a widespread reaction against the Muslim community in the United States. Hate crime statistics for 2009 released recently by the US government show that in 2009 hate crimes against Muslims were by far lower than hate crimes against Jews.

The small number of anti-Islamic crimes (107) versus Anti-Jewish crimes (931) in 2009 would suggest that there is no rise in anti-Islamic sentiment and hate crimes in the wider American culture even after the jihad attack at Fort Hood – regardless of what some Islam apologists suggest. Muslims are statistically safer in the United States than are Jews or homosexuals (hate crimes against gays in the US for 2009: over 1000).

Anti-Semitism and anti-gay hatred still remain a serious concern in the United States. No such concern is warranted due to the negligible (in comparison) numbers of anti-Islamic hate crimes.

The low number of anti-Islamic hate crimes is a testament to the nature of our culture of inclusiveness and tolerance Americans do not blame an entire community for the actions of a few. It is clear from the statistical evidence that Americans make a strong differentiation between individual Muslims and Islam itself.

Forrest accepted the defeat of the Confederacy and ordered his soldiers to do the same just as we must accept, but do not, that an ideological and terror war is being waged against us. Our failure to acknowledge this state of affairs would be akin to Forrest or Lee denying the defeat of the South – it simply could not be done, reality would not allow it.

Our failure to acknowledge the causes underlying our difficult and challenging circumstances is nothing less than a denial of reality. Ours is a post-9/11 world and we consistently refuse to understand why.

As the sesquicentennial approaches there is no escaping the rampant Orwellian denialism and moral confusion across our culture. The definitive surety that motivated our heroes in the Civil War is now elusive as our culture denies the nature of the threat against us and refuses to give our enemy a name.

Perhaps Nathan Bedford Forrest, the lightning rod of controversy, can be a model for us today. Surrounded by controversy ourselves, the example of Forrest, and the brave men of 󈨁-65, can help us remedy the confusion that stultifies so many into inaction and defeatism.

The best parts of our national character can be seen in the faces of the bronze and stone statues of our Civil War soldiers located in every town square across the United States.

The moral confusion that drives our inability to defend ourselves against a totalitarian ideology of hatred and violence unconvincingly disguised as a “religion of peace” originates in self-doubt – that is, is the West worthy of saving? Our guilt at past indiscretions, mistakes, excesses, etc., have overturned for many the inherent value to be found in the freedoms that we enjoy under our Constitution and the promise that our country represents for the oppressed of the world.

We live in a post-911 world but rarely discuss why. National survival and the existence of the fledgling Confederacy were at stake in the Civil War, now our civilization itself is at stake.

There was much discussion about the future in Confederate leadership circles in 1865 as the outcome of the War for Southern Independence became clear. Jefferson Davis is said to have been one of the few in favor of continuing the war and fighting the North with guerrilla methods. General Forrest and Robert E. Lee’s attitudes of accepting defeat, and re-integration into the Union as good citizens were the dominant view.

Our ongoing confusion about our national importance, the value that we bring to the world, and the extraordinary achievement that is our Constitution – all worthy of protection and saving – prevents us from successfully engaging in an ideological war against an absolutist, totalitarian, and cruel enemy. This is why the sesquicentennial of the Civil War is so propitiously timed.

Next time you pass by the public square of your town look carefully at the faces of the Civil War soldier on his pedestal. There is an absolute certainty, a surety, and confidence in the right that is visible in every one, Union and Confederate. These are the classic American traits shared by both Union and Confederate soldiers and civilians that we must rediscover, quickly.

The purpose of Civil War monuments is commemorative. Perhaps more importantly, the Civil War soldiers in every American town square are there to inspire future generations – us.

Fear! Nathan Bedford Forrest

Throughout history the best generals have intimidated opponents on three levels. First as a planner and strategist. Confederate General Robert E. Lee, for example, had established such a mastery over the Army of the Potomac by 1864 that Union commander Ulysses S. Grant found himself irascibly telling his staff that Lee could not be everywhere at once. Second as a battle captain. So skilled a combat commander was Nazi Germany’s Erwin Rommel that his mere physical presence was worth a panzer division to the Wehrmacht’s Afrika Korps in 1941–43. Third, and perhaps most fearsome, as a general who leads from the front. Riding at the head of his Companion cavalry, Alexander the Great turned the tide on many a battlefield in the 4th century BC.

Most of history’s great commanders check only one or two boxes on the “feared and fearsome” chart. Trifectas are few, and among them one name stands out: Nathan Bedford Forrest, arguably history’s most comprehensively intimidating general.

The choice of Forrest is controversial because he is a controversial subject. The “gunpowder and magnolias” school of romanticized Confederate history presents him as a natural military genius, a self-made product of Southern culture and a backcountry exemplar of Southern chivalry. Detractors, not all of them Northern and not all of them black, bookend Forrest’s brutal military career with his prewar slave trading and postwar involvement with the Ku Klux Klan. As with most facets of history, the reality is more nuanced.

Forrest was undoubtedly impressive: At 6 feet 2 inches and nearly 200 pounds, broad-shouldered and barrel-chested, he attracted notice at a time when men were generally shorter and slighter than they are today. One officer who witnessed him in combat remarked that his eyes “glared like those of a panther about to spring.” At the April 1862 Battle of Shiloh, Forrest—surrounded by Union troopers, a bullet lodged near his spine—pulled a Yankee up onto his saddle, rode to safety, then released his human shield. It was a feat worthy of Sir Walter Scott, but for Forrest almost commonplace.

Forrest was formidable with both pistol and blade. Critiqued once for sharpening both edges of a saber on a grindstone, he is said to have replied, “War means fighting, and fighting means killing.” His personal kill tally was somewhere over 30, all in close combat. Most Civil War generals had cavalry escorts, a company or so for display and security. Forrest had a shock troop. Nothing like his Escort Company had existed since the household knights of medieval Europe’s warrior kings.

The unit comprised around 85 select men, a fighting elite under Forrest’s direct control. British Field Marshal Sir Garnet Wolseley rode with Forrest and wrote of the experience. No mean judge of manhood, Wolseley described the escorts as possessing the spirit and fighting power of frontiersmen, while recognizing the superior will and skill of the man who led them. According to some accounts their number included several of Forrest’s prewar slaves.

These were no mere bushwhackers, like those who operated along the Kansas-Missouri border. From the beginning Forrest recognized the importance of discipline—an attribute learned in part from his own experiences as custodian of a fierce temper.

Forrest did not rise from frontier hayseed to millionaire plantation owner and businessman without learning self-control. In a hard-drinking age he was abstemious. He was neither hothead nor brawler. His outbursts were fewer than legend allows, usually brief and often followed by apologies. His wartime lapses in self-control were nonetheless spectacular—he brandished his sword at one fellow general during a blowup over regulations and reportedly drew a pistol on another who disputed his troopers’ right of way. In a time and place when one was expected to defend his honor personally and immediately, Forrest’s behavior did not put him beyond the pale, as it might have in the Army of Northern Virginia.

Even when conscription agents resorted to scraping the bottom of the Confederacy’s barrel, Forrest could always raise men. Enlisting as a private and soon commissioned a lieutenant colonel, he successively recruited a battalion, then a regiment and ultimately an entire corps. While convalescing from his injuries at Shiloh, Forrest ran a recruiting advertisement in the Memphis Daily Appeal with the stirring phrase, “Come on, boys, if you want a heap of fun and to kill some Yankees.”

While the training his men received was often marginal and occasionally nonexistent, Forrest compensated for it by his strict insistence on camp discipline. Leaves and passes were restricted. “Hoorahing”—the frontier practice of galloping about on horses and firing guns indiscriminately— was a court-martial offense. Forrest sentenced his own son and fellow transgressors to several hours of carrying fence rails on their shoulders for breaking camp discipline. In the field the commander strictly forbade straggling and looting.

The key to Forrest’s skill as a tactician was his innate ability to read a fight. He understood how best to balance mounted and dismounted action, defense and attack, commitment and pursuit. Whatever his issues of self-control behind the lines or in personal combat, Forrest never let emotion overcome him in conducting a battle.

His defining approach involved maintaining pressure, harassing enemy forces before an engagement, engaging them at all points during a fight and giving them no time to rally. “Whenever you see anything blue, shoot at it and do all you can to keep up the scare,” was his injunction during one skirmish. The best illustration of his tactics came on June 10, 1864, at Brice’s Crossroads, Miss.

Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman had dispatched Brig. Gen. Samuel Sturgis and 8,100 men to finish Forrest once and for all. Forrest had less than half as many troops, but he made excellent use of the wooded, broken terrain. He utilized his men’s ability to shift from foot to horse and back again he slowed and confused the Union advance by repeated counterattacks he brought up his reinforcements on the enemy flanks and dispatched his Escort Company to strike at their rear.

At the climax of the fight he led a column against Sturgis’ center—directly supported, for one of the few times in the Civil War, by an unlimbered artillery battalion advancing alongside in the manner of Napoléon. Canister shot at 60 yards, revolvers against bayonets and the presence of Forrest himself—looking, recalled one observer, like “a very god of war”—sent the Union troops reeling. Forrest’s men pursued the fleeing Yankees for two days across 50 miles, inflicting 2,200 casualties and capturing more than 200 loaded supply wagons.

As well as the valor of the lion, Forrest possessed the cunning of the serpent. Bluff and deception played major roles in his tactics. Releasing prisoners with disinformation, deploying along trails and secondary roads, simulating larger forces by using small detachments in now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t fashion, marching the same troops repeatedly across the same space—all standard ploys, but consistently effective in intimidating outposts and small garrisons.

Forrest usually bolstered demands for an enemy’s surrender with a warning that were an assault required, responsibility for the consequences rested with the defenders. This was a spin-off of the rules of war developed in early modern Europe, under which refusing surrender when facing almost certain defeat meant quarter should not be expected. The idea was to save useless bloodshed by negotiating the inevitable. The effect was often persuasive to enemies composed of mediocre troops, men usually posted somewhere in the back of beyond and not inspired to fight to the death. On one occasion a surrendered Union colonel, seeing the actual numbers of his opponents, demanded his arms back and a fair fight. Forrest replied that all was fair in love and war.

The jest had a darker implication. On the morning of April 12, 1864, Forrest and 2,500 men approached Fort Pillow, on the Mississippi River. Its garrison comprised 600 men, split evenly between white Tennessee Unionists and black artillerymen. Forrest, contemptuous of both, enveloped the post, observed the defenses and demanded the defenders’ unconditional surrender. He promised to treat the garrison as prisoners, but warned he would not be responsible for the consequences of refusal. What happened over the next few hours remains a subject of spirited controversy. Essentially, the Union commander refused to surrender, and the Confederates carried the fort in a ferocious assault. Forrest’s men killed almost half the garrison in the fighting and afterward, many as they tried to surrender.

There is no question Forrest lost control of his men at Fort Pillow. The killing, however, was neither premeditated nor wholesale. Forrest and his senior officers intervened to stop it—in Forrest’s case, at pistol point. From his perspective killing “deluded” blacks was a wasteful mistake it was far better to return them to slavery, an option he later offered garrisons in similar situations. Fort Pillow nevertheless confirmed a reputation for ruthlessness that contributed heavily to the third element of fear Forrest inspired: as a raider.

Historians generally dismiss Civil War cavalry raids as producing results rarely commensurate with their costs. Yet Forrest comprehended the fundamental issues of strategic raiding, namely focus and objective. He understood, more clearly than his fellow senior combat officers, that the Confederate heartland lacked mid-level choke points like Nashville and possessed only rudimentary road and rail networks. The implication was that once out of direct range of the Mississippi-Ohio river network, Union offensives must depend for supplies on wagon convoys routed through a sparsely settled countryside best described as an internal frontier district.

Forrest made his mark as a raider in the second half of 1862 with a series of small-scale forays that left his opponents confused and embarrassed and generated his famous explanation of one victory, “I just got there first with the most men.” In December he took a newly recruited brigade on his first major operation, a raid against Union supply lines in West Tennessee along the Mobile and Ohio Railroad. In three weeks he covered 300 miles, disrupted Grant’s plans to open the Mississippi River and won the latter’s praise as an able leader, the best officer in either army at the kind of warfare he practiced.

In the process Forrest also persuaded his nominal commander, Maj. Gen. Braxton Bragg, that he was more than a glorified guerrilla. Yet only when freed from Bragg’s command a full year later did Forrest truly come into his own as a raider. In March 1864 Forrest, now a major general, again rode into West Tennessee, recruiting, gathering supplies and creating enough havoc that Sherman sent a major expedition to destroy him. The tactical outcome of that was Brice’s Crossroads. Its operational consequence was to fix in place along the Union lines of communication large forces that otherwise might have reinforced Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign. Strategically, it prompted Sherman’s commitment of the equivalent of a small corps under one of his best generals, A.J. Smith, with orders to “follow Forrest to the death, if it costs 10, 000 lives and breaks the treasury.”

Smith’s operation cost neither hecatombs nor millions. At Tupelo, Miss., on July 14–15 Smith even inflicted one of the few defeats Forrest had suffered to date. Though wounded, Forrest continued to baffle Smith, swinging north to attack Memphis, then returning successfully to his own lines. In mid-September the man Sherman called “that devil Forrest” once more entered Tennessee, in strategic support of Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood’s offensive toward Nashville. For three weeks Forrest’s troopers overran isolated garrisons, cut telegraph wires and disrupted rail communications as much by their presence as their demolitions.

With Sherman’s main army on its way to Savannah, Northern rumor mills had Forrest sighted everywhere from Canada to Chicago. Even Sherman conceded that the Confederate raider’s latest exploits “excited my admiration.” Before Forrest could mount his next raid, however, superiors ordered him to join Hood in the disastrous Franklin-Nashville Campaign.

Forrest finished the war vainly seeking to keep Union forces from capturing the Confederacy’s last arsenal, at Selma, Ala. But as a raider he consistently confounded the Union’s two best generals and spread dismay behind their lines. With weapons in hand, as a battle captain, and at the strategic level, Nathan Bedford Forrest was rightly a commander to be feared.

For further reading Dennis Showalter recommends The Myth of Nathan Bedford Forrest, by Paul Ashdown and Edward Caudill, and The Confederacy’s Greatest Cavalryman: Nathan Bedford Forrest, by Brian Steel Wills.

Originally published in the January 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.

Postwar years [ edit | edit source ]

Business ventures [ edit | edit source ]

After the war, Forrest settled in Memphis, Tennessee, building a house on a bank of the Mississippi River. With slavery abolished, the former slave trader suffered a major financial setback. He later found employment at the Selma-based Marion & Memphis Railroad and eventually became the company president. He was not as successful in railroad promoting as in war, and under his direction the company went bankrupt.

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.

Ku Klux Klan involvement [ edit | edit source ]

Early on, Forrest became a member of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Civil War historian, author and Forrest biographer Brian Steel Wills writes, “While there is no doubt that Forrest joined the Klan, there is some question as to whether he actually was the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.” ⎰] The KKK (the Klan) was formed by Democrats in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1866 and soon expanded throughout the state and beyond. Forrest became involved sometime in late 1866 or early 1867. A common report is that Forrest arrived in Nashville in April 1867 while the Klan was meeting at the Maxwell House Hotel, probably at the encouragement of a state Klan leader, former Confederate general George Gordon. The organization had grown to the point where an experienced commander was needed, and Forrest fitted the bill. In Room 10 of the Maxwell, Forrest was sworn in as a member. ⎱]

According to Wills, in the August 1867 state elections the Klan was relatively restrained in its actions. State Democrats who made up the KKK hoped to persuade black voters that a return to their state of repression and near-slavery, as it existed before the war, was in their best interest. Forrest assisted in maintaining order. It was only after these efforts failed that Klan violence and intimidation escalated and became widespread. ⎲] Author Andrew Ward, however, writes, “In the spring of 1867, Forrest and his dragons launched a campaign of midnight parades ‘ghost’ masquerades and ‘whipping’ and even ‘killing Negro voters and white Republicans, to scare blacks off voting and running for office.’” ⎳]

In an 1868 interview by a Cincinnati newspaper, Forrest claimed that the Klan had 40,000 members in Tennessee and 550,000 total members throughout the Southern states. He said he sympathized with them, but denied any formal connection. He claimed he could muster thousands of men himself. He 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. " Forrest dissolved the first incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan in 1869, although many local groups continued their activities for several years. ⎴]

Forrest testified before the Congressional investigation on Klan activities on June 27, 1871. Forrest denied membership, but his individual role in the KKK was beyond the scope of the investigating committee which wrote:

The committee also noted, "The natural tendency of all such organizations is to violence and crime hence it was that General Forrest and other men of influence in the state, by the exercise of their moral power, induced them to disband.” ⎶]

Forrest's personal sentiments on the issue of race, however, were quite different from that of the Klan. Forrest was invited and gave a speech to an organization of black Southerners called the "Jubilee of Pole-Bearers" in 1875. In this speech, Forrest espoused a radically progressive (for the time) agenda of equality and harmony between black and white Americans. ⎷]

At this, his last public appearance, he made what the New York Times described as a "friendly speech" Ε] in which he called for reconciliation between the races and called for the admission of blacks into the professional classes from which they had heretofore been excluded. [citation needed]

Death [ edit | edit source ]

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.

Early KKK leader Nathan Bedford Forrest's remains removed from Memphis park

Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader, has been successfully exhumed from his longtime grave in Memphis, Tennessee, along with the remains of his wife, Mary Forrest.

Shelby County officials and a spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans revealed during a press conference Friday that excavators quietly discovered the remains on Monday this week and removed them.

Crews had begun digging for the remains a week earlier but were unsure how long it would take. The couple had been interred there for more than a century beneath a monument later erected above their grave.

Brent Taylor, the Shelby County Election Commissioner and a licensed funeral director overseeing the exhumation, said news of the discovery was delayed to make sure no additional artifacts were uncovered.

“We went through paint-staking detail to ensure that we could collect the remains and do it in a dignified way,” Mr. Taylor said during the press conference.

Forrest and his wife died in 1877 and 1893, respectively. He was originally buried in a Memphis cemetery, but the remains of both him and his wife were relocated in 1904 to a city park then named in his honor.

Memphis sold the former Forrest Park in December 2017 to a local nonprofit, and work began immediately afterward to remove the monument, which featured a bronze statue depicting the general on horseback.

Descendants of Forrest sued Memphis after the monument was removed, prompting a legal battle that ultimately resulted in a settlement that would allow the remains of their relatives to be safely removed.

“We would hope that the example shown here with the safe removal of the monuments and the safe removal of the remains will serve as an example of what we can do to move this city forward,” said Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner, the president of Memphis Greenspace, Inc., the nonprofit that owns the park. “The reality of it is if we don’t come together we won’t have the city that we all love.”

Lee Millar, a spokesperson for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, added his group and the Forrest family were both happy with the arrangement and glad they were able to resolve the issues the way they did.

“The Forrest family is pleased that we were able to do this. The remains are in an undisclosed location right now and they will then be transferred later on to their new resting place which will be closer to his boyhood home, his birthplace, in middle Tennessee,” Mr. Millar said in a press conference. The new grave there will resemble the former Forrest Park and include the equestrian monument, he added.

Forrest and his wife are expected to ultimately be reinterred at the National Confederate Museum at Elm Springs in Columbia, Tennessee.

Once he is reinterred, Forrest will have been buried three times in three centuries, Mr. Millar noted.

Forrest was born in Tennessee in 1821. He served as a general for the Confederate Army during the American Civil War and was elected the first “grand dragon” of the Ku Klux Klan shortly after it ended.

Mr. Turner said “there was never going to be peace” at what is now called Health Sciences Park as long as Forrest remained buried there. Work to fully dismantle the monument is expected through June.

Raids in the western theater

In the fall of 1863, Forrest was transferred to the war's western theater (the area west of the Appalachian Mountains). He wasted no time in making his presence felt. In the months following his arrival, his cavalry conducted damaging raids on Union positions throughout northern Mississippi and western Tennessee.

Beginning in June 1864, Forrest launched a series of raids against the supply lines of Union general William T. Sherman, who had begun a major invasion of the Confederacy's western region earlier in the year. Sherman responded by ordering a force of eighty-five hundred Northern troops to find Forrest and stop him. Instead, Forrest launched a surprise attack on his pursuers. This clash, which took place at Brices Cross Roads, Mississippi, on June 10, resulted in one of the greatest Confederate cavalry victories of the war. Despite being outnumbered by almost a two-to-one margin, Forrest pushed his foes into a wild retreat. By the end of the day, his cavalry had captured two thousand soldiers, sixteen cannons, and hundreds of supply wagons.

Forrest's cavalry continued to strike against Union troops and supply lines through the rest of 1864 and into early 1865. But the Union Army's growing dominance over its Confederate foes elsewhere in the South made these raids seem less and less important. In addition, Forrest's cavalry operated during this period under the same shortages of food and supplies that were weakening other Confederate armies. On April 2, 1865, Forrest's fading cavalry was disabled once and for all when it absorbed a terrific beating outside Selma, Alabama, at the hands of Union cavalry forces led by Major General James H. Wilson (1837–1925).

Military career [ edit | edit source ]

Forrest returned to Tennessee after the war broke out, enlisted in the Confederate States Army (CSA) and trained at Fort Wright in Randolph, Tennessee. ⎗] On July 14, 1861, he joined Captain Josiah White's Company "E", Tennessee Mounted Rifles as a private along with his youngest brother and fifteen-year-old son. Upon seeing how badly equipped the CSA was, Forrest offered to buy horses and equipment with his own money for a regiment of Tennessee volunteer soldiers. ⎘] ⎙]

His superior officers and the state Governor Isham G. Harris were surprised that someone of Forrest's wealth and prominence had enlisted as a soldier, especially since major planters were exempted from service. They commissioned him as a Lieutenant Colonel and authorized him to recruit and train a battalion of Confederate Mounted Rangers. In October 1861 he was given command of a regiment, "Forrest's Cavalry Corps". Though Forrest had no prior formal military training or experience, he had exhibited leadership qualities and soon exhibited a gift for successful tactics.

Public debate surrounded Tennessee's decision to join the Confederacy. Both the CSA and the Union armies recruited soldiers from the state. More than 100,000 men from Tennessee served with the Confederacy (more per capita than any other state), and 50,000 served with the Union. ⎚] Forrest posted ads to join his regiment for "men with good horse and good gun" adding "if you wanna have some fun and to kill some Yankees". ⎛]

At six feet, two inches (1.88 m) tall and 210 pounds (95 kg 15 stone), Forrest was physically imposing and intimidating, especially compared to the average height of men at 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.)

Historians have evaluated contemporary records to conclude that Forrest may have killed more than thirty enemy soldiers ⎜] with saber, pistol and shotgun. Not all of Forrest’s feats of individual combat involved enemy troops. Lt. A. Wills Gould, an artillery officer in Forrest’s command, was being transferred presumably because cannons under his command were spiked by the enemy during the Battle of Day's Gap. ⎝] On June 14, 1863, Gould confronted Forrest about his transfer, which escalated into a violent exchange. Forrest was shot in the hip while Gould was mortally stabbed.

Forrest's command included his Escort Company (his "Special Forces"), for which he selected the best soldiers available. This unit, which varied in size from 40-90 men, was the elite of the cavalry.

Cavalry command [ edit | edit source ]

Forrest distinguished himself first at the Battle of Fort Donelson in February 1862. His cavalry captured a Union artillery battery and then he broke out of a Union Army siege headed by Major General Ulysses S. Grant. Forrest rallied nearly 4,000 troops and led them across the river.

A few days after Fort Donelson, with the fall of Nashville imminent, Forrest took command of the city. Local industries had several millions of dollars worth of heavy ordnance machinery. Forrest arranged for transport of the machinery and several important government officials to safe locations. ⎞]

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 the Union victory. In the battle of Fallen Timbers, he drove through the Union skirmish line. Not realizing that the rest of his men had halted their charge when reaching the full Union brigade, Forrest charged the brigade single-handedly, and soon found himself surrounded. He emptied his Colt Army revolvers into the swirling mass of Union soldiers and pulled out his saber, hacking and slashing. A Union infantryman fired a musket ball into Forrest's spine with a point-blank musket shot, nearly knocking him out of the saddle. Forrest grabbed an unsuspecting Union soldier, hauled him onto his horse to use as a shield, dumped the man once he had broken clear and was out of range, then galloped back to his incredulous troopers. ⎟] A surgeon removed the musket ball a week later, without anesthesia, which was unavailable. Forrest would likely have been given a generous dose of alcohol to muffle the pain of the surgery. ⎠]

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, he led them into the First Battle of Murfreesboro, which Forrest is said to have won. ⎡]

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. ⎢]

Promoted in July 1862 to brigadier general, Forrest was given command of a Confederate cavalry brigade. ⎣] In December 1862, Forrest's veteran troopers were reassigned by Gen. Braxton 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 such untrained men behind enemy lines was suicidal, but Bragg insisted, and Forrest obeyed his orders. On the ensuing raid, he showed his brilliance, leading thousands of Union soldiers in west Tennessee on a "wild goose chase" to try to locate his fast-moving forces. Never staying in one place long enough to be attacked, Forrest led his troops in raids as far north as the banks of the Ohio River in southwest Kentucky. He returned to his base in Mississippi with more men than he had started with. By then all were fully armed with captured Union weapons. As a result, Union general Ulysses S. Grant was forced to revise and delay the strategy of his Vicksburg Campaign. "He [Forrest] was the only Confederate cavalryman of whom Grant stood in much dread," a friend of Grant's was quoted as saying. ⎤]

Confederate Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest

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 defend against an attack of 3,000 Union cavalrymen commanded by Colonel Abel Streight, with a force far smaller in number. 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 changed to escape the pursuit. On May 3, Forrest caught up with Streight's unit east of Cedar Bluff, Alabama. Forrest had fewer men than the Union side, but he repeatedly paraded some of them around a hilltop to appear a larger force, and convinced Streight to surrender his 1,500 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, upon which Forrest was quoted as saying, "What does he fight battles for?" ⎧] After Forrest made death threats against Bragg during a confrontation, ⎨] Bragg reassigned him to an independent command in Mississippi. On December 4, 1863, Forrest was promoted to the rank of major general. ⎩]

On March 25, 1864, Forrest was at Paducah, Kentucky where he unsuccessfully demanded surrender of U.S. Col. Stephen G. Hicks:

. if I have to storm your works, you may expect no quarter. ⎪]

Fort Pillow [ edit | edit source ]

On April 12, 1864, General Forrest led his forces in the attack and capture of Fort Pillow on the Mississippi River in Henning, Tennessee. Many African-American Union soldiers were killed in the battle. A controversy arose about whether Forrest conducted or condoned a massacre of African Americans and white Tennessee Unionists and Confederate deserters who had surrendered there. The surrender never occurred according to reports filed by Federal Captain Goodman, stated that upon the surrender of the fort both white and "negroes" would be treated as prisoners of war. General Forrest sent additional communiques to Major Lionel F Booth demanding total surrender. Unbeknownst to General Forrest, Major Booth had been fatally shot in the battle and the command of Fort Pillow had already been assumed by Major William F Bradford. The delayed reply to Forrest's demands still bore the name of Major Booth asking for more time to decide about surrendering the fort and the gunboat Olive Branch. General Forrest replied that the gunboat wasn't expected to be surrendered but the fort alone. Hours later during the truce, after many communiques the federals sent their answer--"a brief but positive refusal to capitulate". ⎫]

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. ⎬] Confederates said 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, stated 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 statements, however, were contradicted by Union survivors, as well as the letter of a Confederate soldier who recounted a massacre. Achilles Clark, a soldier with the 20th Tennessee cavalry, wrote to his sister 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." ⎮]

Ulysses S. Grant, in his Personal Memoirs, says of the incident: "These troops fought bravely, but were overpowered. I will leave Forrest in his dispatches to tell what he did with them. 'The river was dyed,' he says, 'with the blood of the slaughtered for two hundred yards. The approximate loss was upward of five hundred killed, but few of the officers escaping. My loss was about twenty killed. It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.' Subsequently Forrest made a report in which he left out the part which shocks humanity to read." ⎯]

Historians have differed on interpretation of events. Richard Fuchs, author of An Unerring Fire, concludes, “The affair at Fort Pillow was simply an orgy of death, a mass lynching to satisfy the basest of conduct – intentional murder – for the vilest of reasons – racism and personal enmity.” ⎰] Andrew Ward downplays the controversy, “Whether the massacre was premeditated or spontaneous does not address the more fundamental question of whether a massacre took place. it certainly did, in every dictionary sense of the word.” ⎱] John Cimprich states, “The new paradigm in social attitudes and the fuller use of available evidence has favored a massacre interpretation. Debate over the memory of this incident formed a part of sectional and racial conflicts for many years after the war, but the reinterpretation of the event during the last thirty years offers some hope that society can move beyond past intolerance.” ⎲]

Brice's Crossroads [ edit | edit source ]

Forrest's greatest victory came on June 10, 1864, when his 3,500-man force clashed with 8,500 men commanded by Union Brig. Gen. Samuel D. Sturgis at the Battle of Brice's Crossroads. Here, his mobility of force and superior tactics led to victory. He swept the Union forces from a large expanse of southwest Tennessee and northern Mississippi. Forrest set up a position for an attack to repulse a pursuing force commanded by Sturgis, who had been sent to impede Forrest from destroying Union supplies and fortifications. When Sturgis's Federal army came upon the crossroad, they collided with Forrest's cavalry. ⎳] Sturgis ordered his infantry to advance to the front line to counteract the cavalry. The infantry, tired and weary and suffering under the heat, were quickly broken and sent into mass retreat. Forrest sent a full charge after the retreating army and captured 16 artillery pieces, 176 wagons and 1,500 stands of small arms. In all, the maneuver cost Forrest 96 men killed and 396 wounded. The day was worse for Union troops, which suffered 223 killed, 394 wounded and 1,623 men missing. The losses were a deep blow to the black regiment under Sturgis's command. In the hasty retreat, they stripped off commemorative badges that read "Remember Fort Pillow", to avoid goading the Confederate force pursuing them. ⎴]

Conclusion of the war [ edit | edit source ]

One month later, while serving under General Stephen D. Lee, Forrest experienced tactical defeat at the Battle of Tupelo in 1864. Concerned about Union supply lines, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman sent a force under the command of Maj. Gen. Andrew J. Smith to deal with Forrest. The Union forces drove the Confederates from the field and Forrest was wounded in the foot, but his forces were not wholly destroyed. He continued to oppose Union efforts in the West for the remainder of the war.

Forrest's raid into Memphis

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 (the Battle of Johnsonville), causing millions of dollars in damage. In December, during the disastrous Franklin-Nashville Campaign, he fought alongside General John Bell Hood, the newest (and last) commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee in the Second Battle of Franklin. Forrest argued bitterly with Hood (his superior officer) demanding permission to cross the river and cut off the escape route of Union Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield's army. He made the belated attempt but was defeated.

After his bloody defeat at Franklin, Hood continued to Nashville. Hood ordered Forrest to conduct an independent raid against the Murfreesboro garrison. After success in achieving the objectives specified by Gen. Hood, Forrest engaged Union forces near Murfreesboro on December 5, 1864. In what would be known as the Third Battle of Murfreesboro, a portion of Forrest's command broke and ran. After Hood's Army of Tennessee was all but destroyed at the Battle of Nashville, Forrest 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. A portion of his command, now dismounted, was surprised and captured in their camp at Verona, Mississippi, on December 25, 1864, during a raid of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad by a brigade of Brig. Gen. Benjamin Grierson's cavalry division.

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 he received news of Lee's surrender, Forrest also chose to surrender. On May 9, 1865, at Gainesville, Forrest read his farewell address.

Forrest's farewell address to his troops, May 9, 1865 [ edit | edit source ]

Cannon in front of the Nature Center & Veteran's Memorial in Covington. Marker in the background cites Nathan Bedford Forrest's last speech. (2007)

The following text is excerpted from Forrest's farewell address to his troops:

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
Gainesville, Alabama
May 9, 1865 ⎵]

Impact of Forrest's doctrines [ edit | edit source ]

Forrest was one of the first men to grasp the doctrines of "mobile warfare" ⎶] that became prevalent in the 20th century. Paramount in his strategy was fast movement, even if it meant pushing his horses at a killing pace, which he did more than once. Noted Civil War scholar Bruce Catton writes:

"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. ⎷]

Forrest is often erroneously quoted as saying his strategy was to "git thar fustest with the mostest." Now often recast as "Getting there firstest with the mostest," ⎸] this misquote first appeared in print in a New York Tribune article written to provide colorful comments in reaction to European interest in Civil War generals. The aphorism was addressed and corrected by a New York Times story in 1918 to be: "Ma'am, I got there first with the most men." ⎹] Though a novel and succinct condensation of the military's Principles of mass and maneuver, 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.

Remains of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife removed from Memphis park

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The remains of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife have been removed from Health Sciences Park in Memphis, where they had been interred since the early 20th century.

The remains were discovered Monday, June 7 at 9:01 a.m., said Van Turner with Memphis Greenspace.

“We would hope that the example showed here with the safe removal of the monuments and the safe removal of the remains will serve as an example of what we can do to move this city forward,” said Turner, a Shelby County commissioner who called it “a great day for Memphis.”

They are currently in an undisclosed location, said Lee Millar with the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Members of the Forrest family were present for the removal, and a licensed funeral director was in charge of the process. A public announcement was not made.

“We wanted to do this in a very reverent manner to honor the general and his wife,” Millar said.

Van Turner (center) and Lee Millar (left) announce that Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s remains have been removed from a Memphis park.

Memphis Greenspace, the nonprofit that was granted ownership of the former city-owned Forrest Park, along with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which is taking responsibility for the remains and monument, joined city officials to make the announcement Friday.

A large statue of Forrest was removed from the park at 9:01 p.m. on Dec. 20, 2017 after the city transferred ownership of the park to a nonprofit. The pedestal supporting it remained until workers began removing it several days ago.

About eight feet under the pedestal were the tombs of the former Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader, along with his wife. Forrest died in 1877 and was originally buried in Elmwood cemetery before the remains were moved and the monument built on Union Avenue in the early 20th century.

The remains will be relocated to Columbia, Tennessee.

A group of protesters speaks in front of the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue in Memphis on Aug. 12, 2017.

Removal was complicated both by COVID-19, which held up the legal process because courts were closed, and because no one knew precisely where the remains were buried. Old burial records were used to find the location.

“From there it became more like an archaeological excavation site, so that we could preserve the remains and get them removed safely and in a dignified way,” said funeral director Brent Taylor.

Forrest’s casket was intact his wife’s had deteriorated so a new casket was provided. A Victorian cradle was also found.

Turner said the park, formerly known as Forrest Park, will host a Juneteenth Festival in a few days. He said the plan for the park is for it to be “just a park” for now, without any symbolism.

Memphis Greenspace also removed a monument to Confederate President Jefferson Davis from Memphis Park downtown.


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