Was the Confederacy’s Nathan Bedford Forrest history’s most comprehensively frightening general?
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.