Nathan Bedford Forrest was born on 13 July 1821 in Bedford County, Tennessee, to an impoverished backwoods family. Although he received no formal education, Forrest amassed a considerable personal fortune as a planter and slave dealer before the war, and by its end Ulysses S. Grant had come to regard Forrest as “an officer of great courage and capacity” and “about the ablest cavalry general in the South.” Many military historians rank him as the most effective cavalry officer ever produced on the North American continent, and he is certainly among the most controversial.
The outbreak of the Civil War coincided with the advent of long-range rifles, and every commander should have realized that the massed, knee-to-knee saber charge of Waterloo had passed and that mounted infantry, utilizing horses for rapid transportation but armed and trained to fight on foot, was the future of the cavalry. Nevertheless, many officers on both sides of the conflict failed to grasp rifles’ significance and continued to employ horse soldiers in the traditional Napoleonic mode. But, wrote Maj. Gen. Dabney H. Maury, “the rigorous intellect of Forrest, unclouded by precedents or the dogmas of military critics,” made him a prophet of modern mobile warfare. His philosophy was best summed up in his perhaps apocryphal dictum, “Get there first with the most men.”
As lieutenant colonel of the 7th Tennessee Cavalry, Forrest first gained public acclaim by cutting his way out of the encircling Union ranks at Fort Donelson to join Albert Sidney Johnston’s army at Corinth. He fought with distinction as colonel of the 3rd Tennessee Cavalry at Shiloh, earning promotion to the command of a cavalry brigade with the rank of brigadier general on 21 July 1862. In that capacity he operated against Grant’s communications in western Tennessee. Among the most daring of his exploits during this period was his capture of Col. Abel D. Streight’s raiders. From 11 April through 3 May 1863, Forrest’s six hundred troopers chased Streight’s two thousand mule-mounted Union infantrymen across northern Alabama, finally forcing their surrender near Lawrence.
In May 1863 he rejoined the Army of Tennessee, then under Gen. Braxton Bragg, with command of a cavalry division. Following Bragg’s failure to pursue and crush William S. Rosecrans’s defeated army after the Confederate victory at Chickamauga, however, Forrest quarreled bitterly with his commander, calling him “a damned scoundrel” and “a coward” and offering to “slap [Bragg’s] jaws.” Forrest demanded and received a transfer to an independent command in northern Mississippi, where he conducted a series of brilliant raids into western Tennessee and Kentucky. These actions disrupted William Tecumseh Sherman’s communication network and captured prisoners far in excess of Forrest’s numbers, earning him a promotion to major general on 4 December 1863 and causing Sherman to declare that “Forrest is the very devil” and to vow to hound him “to death, if it cost 10,000 lives and break the Treasury.”
As the defender of northern Mississippi, Forrest conducted a number of small but classic set-piece battles, among them his rout of Brig. Gen. William Sooy Smith’s seven-thousand-man cavalry command at Okolona on 21–22 February 1864 and his flawless performance at Brice’s Cross Roads on 10 June 1864, which virtually annihilated Maj. Gen. Samuel D. Sturgis’s twelve-thousand-man column at Tishomingo Creek near Tupelo.
More problematic was Forrest’s 12 April 1864 capture of Fort Pillow, Tennessee, which involved the deliberate massacre of the largely African American garrison. Reassigned to the Army of Tennessee to accompany Gen. John Bell Hood’s ill-starred invasion of Tennessee, Forrest’s cavalry corps undertook rearguard actions that were almost solely responsible for saving the remnant of Hood’s shattered army after its defeats at Franklin and Nashville. Although he was promoted to lieutenant general on 28 February 1865, Forrest’s command was finally overwhelmed at Selma, Alabama, in April 1865.
Following the war, he returned to his Memphis plantation and for a time served as president of the Selma, Marion, and Memphis Railroad. During the Reconstruction period, Forrest was active in and served as the imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
Forrest was an ardent believer in the restoration of home rule to the occupied southern states and was certainly an advocate of the destruction of the Republican Party in the former Confederacy—by violence, if necessary. Forrest died in Memphis on 29 October 1877, probably of diabetes. A colossal equestrian statue was built at his grave during the Jim Crow era in 1904. After years of protests, city officials sold the land to a nonprofit group in December 2017, and that group removed the Forrest statue.
- Dabney H. Maury, in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, vol. 5, ed. Peter Cozzens (2002)
- Brian Steele Wills, A Battle from the Start: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest (1992)