Known as "the Wizard of the Saddle," Nathan Bedford Forrest was a prominent Confederate cavalry officer whose reputation was stained by accusations regarding his role in the "Fort Pillow Massacre" on April 12, 1864.
Nathan Bedford Forrest was born on July 13, 1821 in rural Chapel Hill, Tennessee. He and his twin sister, Fanny, were the oldest of William and Mariam Beck Forrest's twelve children. Forrest's father was a blacksmith and a subsistence farmer who worked hard to scratch out a living for his family in the Tennessee backwoods. Forrest received little formal education because much of his youth was spent helping his father provide for his growing family.
In 1834, when Forrest was thirteen years old, the family moved to Marshall County, Mississippi. Three years later, his father died, and Forrest became the family's primary breadwinner. During the next few years Forrest profitably worked the family farm, and he became a successful horse and cattle trader. During that period, he also survived a bout with typhoid fever that claimed the lives several of his siblings, including his twin sister, Fanny.
In 1842, Forrest accepted an offer to join his uncle's successful mercantile business in Hernando, Mississippi. Three years later, in 1845, he was wounded in a gunfight against four assailants who took his uncle's life. During the melee, Forrest disabled two of his adversaries with a double-barreled pistol, before charging the other two with a bowie knife, convincing them to flee for their lives.
During the same year as his uncle's death, Forrest met Mary Ann Montgomery, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. After a brief courtship, the couple wed on September 25, 1845. Their marriage of thirty-two years produced one son and also one daughter who died in infancy.
Forrest and his wife remained in Mississippi for four more years, where he continued to prosper. In 1849, the couple moved to Memphis, Tennessee where Forrest found work as a law enforcement officer and as a riverboat captain, while he continued to speculate in livestock. While living in Memphis, he used his accumulating riches to begin buying and selling slaves. By the late 1850s Forrest began purchasing cotton plantations in Mississippi, and by the end of the decade, he had become one of the wealthiest men in the South.
When the American Civil War erupted, Forrest responded to Tennessee's call to arms. On June 14, 1861, he enlisted as a private in Captain Josiah White’s Tennessee Mounted Rifles (Seventh Tennessee Cavalry), along with his youngest brother, and his fifteen-year-old son, Willie. Tennessee Governor Isham G. Harris soon authorized Forrest to raise a cavalry regiment, which Forrest equipped at his own expense. By October 1861 he was appointed lieutenant colonel of Forrest's Tennessee Cavalry Battalion.
In early 1862, Forrest's battalion participated in the defense of Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River near the Tennessee-Kentucky border. When Union troops, commanded by Ulysses S. Grant, surrounded the fort on March 15, 1862, Confederate Generals Gideon J. Pillow, Simon B. Buckner, Sr., and John B. Floyd decided to surrender the garrison. Infuriated by their decision, Forrest proclaimed, "I did not come here to surrender my command." He then led his battalion out of the fort and escaped unmolested to Nashville, Tennessee. Forrest was promptly promoted to the rank of colonel for his display of boldness.
One month later, Forrest was wounded, while his command was providing rearguard protection for escaping Confederate troops following the Battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862). During the Battle of Fallen Timbers (April 8, 1862) Forrest charged headlong into Brigadier-General William T. Sherman's pursuing Federal force that included the 77th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Forrest got so far out in front of his fellow troopers that he found himself alone within a few yards of the Yankee lines. A Union soldier was so close that he shot Forrest at point-blank range with a musket ball that entered the colonel's side and grazed his spine. Despite being seriously wounded, Forrest was able to escape and to rejoin the main Confederate force, which had retreated to Corinth, Mississippi. Forrest was sent home to recuperate but returned to action in time to participate in the Rebel withdrawal resulting from the Siege of Corinth (April 29–May 30, 1862).
Upon returning to action, Forrest was placed in command of a newly-created cavalry brigade with orders to raid into Middle Tennessee. On July 13, 1862, his force of roughly 1,400 troopers surprised the Union garrison at Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Forrest's men overran the Federals, inflicting nearly nine hundred casualties and capturing Union supply stores. The Rebels followed up their victory at the Battle of Murfreesboro I by destroying railroads tracks in the area. Forrest was subsequently promoted to brigadier-general on July 21, 1862.
Forrest's foray into Middle Tennessee was so successful that the Confederate high command decided to continue using him in the capacity of cavalry raider and assigned him to General Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee. His lightning raids in the Western Theater throughout the remainder of the war earned him the nickname of "the wizard of the saddle." Although he lacked the formal military of many of his contemporaries, Forrest's success as a cavalry officer is often attributed to his recognition, in his own words, that "War means killing."
On February 3, 1863, Forrest's brigade served under General Joseph Wheeler at the Battle of Dover (also known as the Second Battle of Fort Donelson). When Wheeler withdrew his forces after failing to dislodge a much smaller Federal garrison at Dover, Tennessee, Forrest denounced his commanding officer, vowing to never serve under Wheeler again.
Three months later, Forrest scored a magnificent victory over a Union cavalry force commanded by Colonel Abel Streight. In late April 1863, Streight led roughly 1,500 Federal troopers into northern Alabama, intent on destroying portions of the Western & Atlantic Railroad and disrupting the Army of the Tennessee's supply lines. Forrest's troopers dogged Streight's command for several days until surrounding the Northerners near Cedar Bluff, Alabama. As Forrrest demanded Streight's surrender, he ordered his five hundred horsemen to ride in circles around the much-larger Union force, creating the illusion that his command was more sizable than it actually was. Convinced that he was outnumbered, Streight surrendered his entire command to Forrest's much smaller force on May 3, 1863.
A few weeks later, on June 14, 1863, Forrest averted death at the hands of would-be assassin Lieutenant Andrew W. Gould. Gould was disgruntled after Forrest ordered the lieutenant's transfer for poor performance during the pursuit of Streight's forces. Gould subsequently received an audience with Forrest when the latter visited Columbia, South Carolina. An argument ensued, and Gould pulled a pistol, firing a shot at point-blank range into the left side of Forrest's abdomen, just above the hip. Forrest responded by grabbing the revolver with one hand while using his teeth to open a pocket knife secured in his other hand. He then proceeded to stab his assailant, inflicting a wound that proved fatal two days later. Although an attending physician informed Forrest that his gunshot wound was probably mortal, the general recovered and returned to his command in time to participate in General Braxton Bragg's retreat from Tennessee during the Tullahoma Campaign (June 24–July 3, 1863).
At the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19-September 20, 1863), Forrest's cavalry won accolades for dismounting and fighting alongside the infantry on the Confederate right flank. When the Yankees withdrew toward Chattanooga, Tennessee, Forrest unsuccessfully implored General Bragg to pursue. Outraged by Bragg's refusal to give chase to the retreating Federals, Forrest openly criticized the commanding general. Bragg responded with a message to Forrest, stating that "The commanding general desires that you will without delay turn over the troops of your command, previously ordered, to Major-General Wheeler." Forrest, who had vowed never to serve under Wheeler again, confronted Bragg and indicated that he refused to serve under Wheeler or Bragg. At that point, Confederate President Jefferson Davis intervened. Fully aware of Forrest's importance to the Rebel cause, Davis arranged to have Forrest transferred to an independent command in Mississippi in November 1863. Just a few weeks later, on December 4, Forrest was promoted to the rank of major general.
Forrest spent the winter of 1863–1864 recruiting and raiding in the vicinity of the Mississippi–Tennessee state line. By February, he had created a mounted force that he referred to as the Cavalry Department of West Tennessee and North Mississippi. On February 22, 1864, he defeated a force of more than seven thousand Union cavalrymen commanded by Brigadier-General William Sooy Smith at the Battle of Okolona, in Northern Mississippi.
In mid-March 1864, Forrest led three thousand troopers on a cavalry raid into western Tennessee and Kentucky to recruit soldiers, to capture supplies, and to create havoc behind Union lines. On March 25, Forrest's men forced the Federal garrison at Paducah, Kentucky to retreat to the safety of Yankee gunboats on the Ohio River. After doing considerable damage to the town and fort, Forrest turned his attention to Fort Pillow, on the Mississippi River, about forty miles north of Memphis, Tennessee.
The garrison of six hundred men at Fort Pillow included approximately three hundred members of the 6th U.S. Regiment Colored Heavy Artillery and a part of the 2nd U.S. Colored Light Artillery, many of whom were former slaves. Forrest's 2,500 cavalry men began assaulting the earthen fortification on the morning of April 12, 1864. After seizing the outer defenses, Forrest forwarded a message to the defenders stating:
The conduct of the officers and men garrisoning Fort Pillow has been such as to entitle them to being treated a prisoners of war. I demand the unconditional surrender of the entire garrison, promising that you shall be treated as prisoners of war. My men have just received a fresh supply of ammunition, and from their present position can easily assault and capture the fort. Should my demand be refused, I cannot be responsible for the fate of your command.
Major William F. Bradford, who had taken command of the fort after Confederate sharpshooters killed Major Lionel F. Booth, refused to surrender. Forrest then ordered his sharpshooters to resume firing as his cavalry charged the inner works. The panicked defenders turned and ran toward the river.
What happened next has remained a source of considerable controversy. Northerners, including eyewitnesses, claim that the Confederates murdered Union soldiers who tried to surrender or who had thrown down their arms and were fleeing from the Rebel fire. Evidence indicates that the Rebels directed their enmity towards the black soldiers in particular; only sixty-two of the U.S. Colored Troops survived the fight. A highly partisan investigation by the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War soon after the event termed the battle a "massacre." Still, decades of study have failed to determine if Forrest ordered the wanton killing that probably occurred, as some have argued, or whether he ordered an immediate halt to the atrocities as soon as they came to his attention. Whatever the case, the event stained Forrest's reputation for the remainder of his life.
Two months after the Battle of Fort Pillow, Forrest achieved near perfection as a battlefield commander. In early June, Forrest was threatening Major General William T. Sherman's supply lines supporting the Northern armies in Georgia. Sherman dispatched a division of 8,500 Union cavalry and infantry, commanded by Brigadier-General Samuel D. Sturgis, to deal with "that devil Forrest." On June 10, 1864, as Sturgis neared Forrest's much smaller command of approximately 2,500 troopers, the Rebel leader surprised the Yankees with an assault at Brice's Cross Roads in Northern Mississippi. The attack precipitated a full-blown battle that lasted nearly the entire day. Toward the end of the engagement, Forrest's men enveloped both Federal flanks. They then smashed the Union line, forcing the Yankees to retreat to Memphis. By the time the fighting ended, Sturgis suffered over 2,200 casualties including roughly 1,500 men taken prisoner. In addition, Forrest captured sixteen cannons, 1,500 stands of small arms, 300,000 rounds of ammunition, and all of the Bluecoats' baggage and supplies. The Confederate victory came at a cost of ninety-six killed and 396 wounded, for a total of 492 casualties.
Throughout the remainder of 1864, Forrest continued his successful raids in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama, prompting General Sherman to declare "that devil Forrest must be hunted down and killed if it costs ten thousand lives and bankrupts the federal treasury."
In late November 1864, Forrest's cavalry joined the Army of Tennessee to support General John Bell Hood's desperate Franklin-Nashville Campaign (September 18-December 27, 1864). Forrest's men participated in the Confederate losses at the Battle of Franklin (November 30, 1864) and at the Battle of Nashville (December 15-16, 1864). They then served as a rearguard as Hood's broken army retreated to Tupelo, Mississippi during the last weeks of December.
On February 28, 1865, Forrest was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general and placed in charge of the cavalry in the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana. On April 2, 1865, Major General James H. Wilson's Union force defeated Forrest's greatly outmanned command at the Battle of Selma. A few weeks later, on May 9, 1865, Forrest addressed his command at Gainesville, Alabama and announced that "By an agreement made between Liet.-Gen. Taylor, commanding the Department of Alabama. Mississippi, and East Louisiana, and Major-Gen. Canby, commanding United States forces, the troops of this department have been surrendered." Forrest's men were among the last to surrender at the end of the Civil War.
After the war, Forrest sold his plantations and moved to Memphis and entered private business, but he never regained the fortune he enjoyed prior to the rebellion. His post-war reputation was soiled by his membership in the Ku Klux Klan. Forrest joined the secret organization around 1866 and was elected as Grand Wizard one year later. By 1869, however, he reportedly became disenchanted by the group's increasingly violent nature and renounced his membership. Some people claim that Forrest never joined the Ku Klux Klan and definitely did not serve as the group’s leader, but most scholars accept Forrest’s membership as historical fact.
Like many Americans, Forrest was ruined financially by the Panic of 1873. He spent the last years of his life running a prison work farm on President's Island near Memphis. Suffering from diabetes, Forrest died at his brother's home in Memphis on October 29, 1877 at the age of fifty-six years. Jefferson Davis delivered a eulogy at Forrest's funeral, which thousands of mourners attended. Forrest's body was originally interred in Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis. In 1905, he and his wife were reinterred in downtown Memphis, in a park that had, until 2013, been named in Forrest's honor.
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"Nathan Bedford Forrest," Ohio Civil War Central, 2020, Ohio Civil War Central. 5 Aug 2020 <http://www.www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1051>
"Nathan Bedford Forrest." (2020) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved August 5, 2020, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1051
- 77th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
- Army of the Tennessee
- Battle of Chickamauga
- Battle of Fort Donelson
- Battle of Franklin
- Battle of Nashville
- Battle of Selma
- Battle of Shiloh
- Braxton Bragg
- Edward Canby
- Franklin-Nashville Campaign
- Gideon Johnson Pillow
- Jefferson Davis
- John B. Floyd
- John Bell Hood
- Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War
- Joseph Wheeler
- Ohio Volunteer Infantry
- Siege of Corinth
- Simon B. Buckner
- Tullahoma Campaign
- Ulysses S. Grant
- William Sooy Smith
- William T. Sherman
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