American Civil War: Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest

Nathan B. Forrest
Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Public Domain

Nathan Bedford Forrest - Early Life:

Born July 13, 1821 in Chapel Hill, TN, Nathan Bedford Forrest was the eldest child (of twelve) of William and Miriam Forrest. A blacksmith, William died of scarlet fever when his son was only seventeen.  The illness also claimed Forrest's twin sister, Fanny. Needing to make money to support his mother and siblings, Forrest went into business with his uncle, Jonathan Forrest, in 1841. Operating in Hernando, MS, this enterprise proved short-lived as Jonathan was killed in a dispute four years later. Though somewhat lacking in formal education, Forrest proved a skilled businessman and by the 1850s had worked as a steamboat captain and trader of enslaved people before buying multiple cotton plantations in western Tennessee.

Nathan Bedford Forrest - Joining the Military:

Having amassed a large fortune, Forrest was elected an alderman in Memphis in 1858 and provided financial support for his mother as well as paid for his brothers' college educations.  One of the richest men in the South when the Civil War began in April 1861, he enlisted as a private in the Confederate Army and he was assigned to Company E of the Tennessee Mounted Rifles in July 1861 along with his youngest brother. Shocked by the unit's lack of equipment, he volunteered to buy horses and gear for an entire regiment out of his personal funds. Responding to this offer, Governor Isham G. Harris, who was surprised that someone of Forrest's means had enlisted as a private, directed him to raise a battalion of mounted troops and assume the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Nathan Bedford Forrest - Rising Through the Ranks:

Though lacking any formal military training, Forrest proved a gifted trainer and leader of men. This battalion soon grew into a regiment that fall. In February, Forrest's command operated in support of Brigadier General John B. Floyd's garrison at Fort Donelson, TN. Driven back to the fort by Union forces under Major General Ulysses S. Grant, Forrest and his men took part in the Battle of Fort Donelson. With the fort's defenses near collapse, Forrest led the bulk of his command and other troops in a successful escape attempt which saw them wade through the Cumberland River to avoid the Union lines.

Now a colonel, Forrest raced to Nashville where he aided in evacuating industrial equipment before the city fell to Union forces. Returning to action in April, Forrest operated with Generals Albert Sidney Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard during the Battle of Shiloh. In the wake of the Confederate defeat, Forrest provided a rear guard during the army's retreat and was wounded at Fallen Timbers on April 8. Recovering, he received command a newly-recruited cavalry brigade. Working to train his men, Forrest raided into central Tennessee in July and defeated a Union force Murfreesboro.

On July 21, Forrest was promoted to brigadier general. Having fully trained his men, he was angered in December when the Army of Tennessee's commander, General Braxton Bragg, reassigned him to another brigade of raw troops. Though his men were ill-equipped and green, Forrest was ordered to conduct a raid into Tennessee by Bragg. Though believing the mission to be ill-advised under the circumstances, Forrest conducted a brilliant campaign of maneuver which disrupted Union operations in the area, secured captured weapons for his men, and delayed Grant's Vicksburg Campaign.

Nathan Bedford Forrest - Nearly Unbeatable:

After spending the early part of 1863 conducting smaller operations, Forrest was ordered into northern Alabama and Georgia to intercept a larger Union mounted force led by Colonel Abel Streight. Locating the enemy, Forrest attacked Streight at Day's Gap, AL on April 30. Though held, Forrest pursued the Union troops for several days until forcing their surrender near Cedar Bluff on May 3. Rejoining Bragg's Army of Tennessee, Forrest took part in the Confederate victory at the Battle of Chickamauga in September. In the hours after the victory, he unsuccessfully appealed for Bragg to follow up with a march on Chattanooga.

Though he verbally assaulted Bragg after the commander's refusal to pursue Major General William Rosecrans' beaten army, Forrest was ordered to assume an independent command in Mississippi and received a promotion to major general on December 4. Raiding north in the spring of 1864, Forrest's command attacked Fort Pillow in Tennessee on April 12. Largely garrisoned by Black troops, the assault degenerated into a massacre with Confederate forces cutting down the Black soldiers despite efforts to surrender. Forrest's role in the massacre and whether it was premeditated remains a source of controversy.

Returning to action, Forrest won his greatest victory on June 10 when he defeated Brigadier General Samuel Sturgis at the Battle of Brice's Crossroads. Despite being severely outnumbered, Forrest utilized a superb mix of maneuver, aggression, and terrain to maul Sturgis' command and capture around 1,500 prisoners and a large quantity of arms in the process. The triumph threatened Union supply lines which were supporting Major General William T. Sherman's advance against Atlanta. As a result, Sherman dispatched a force under Major General A.J. Smith to deal with Forrest.

Pushing into Mississippi, Smith succeeded in defeating Forrest and Lieutenant General Stephen Lee at the Battle of Tupelo in mid-July. Despite the defeat, Forrest continued to mount devastating raids into Tennessee including attacks on Memphis in August and Johnsonville in October. Again ordered to join the Army of Tennessee, now led by General John Bell Hood, Forrest's command provided cavalry forces for the advance against Nashville. On November 30, he violently clashed with Hood after being refused permission to cross the Harpeth River and cut off the Union line of retreat before the Battle of Franklin.

Nathan Bedford Forrest - Final Actions:

As Hood shattered his army in frontal assaults against the Union position, Forrest did push across the river in an attempt to turn the Union left, but was beaten by Union cavalry led by Major General James H. Wilson. As Hood advanced towards Nashville, Forrest's men were detached to raid the Murfreesboro area. Rejoining, on December 18, Forrest ably covered the Confederate retreat after Hood was crushed at the Battle of Nashville. For his performance, he was promoted to lieutenant general on February 28, 1865.

With Hood's defeat, Forrest was effectively left to defend northern Mississippi and Alabama. Though badly outnumbered, he opposed Wilson's raid into the region in March. In the course of the campaign, Forrest was badly beaten at Selma on April 2. With Union forces overrunning the area, Forrest's department commander, Lieutenant General Richard Taylor, elected to surrender on May 8. Surrendering at Gainesville, AL, Forrest gave a farewell address to his men the following day.

Nathan Bedford Forrest - Later Life:

Returning to Memphis after the war, Forrest sought to rebuild his ruined fortune. Selling his plantations in 1867, he also became an early leader of the Ku Klux Clan. Believing the organization to be a patriotic group dedicated to repressing Black Americans and opposing Reconstruction, he aided in its activities. As KKK's activities became increasingly violent and uncontrolled, he ordered the group to disband and departed in 1869. In the postwar years, Forrest found employment with the Selma, Marion, and Memphis Railroad and ultimately became the company's president. Hurt by the Panic of 1873, Forrest spent his last years running a prison work farm on President's Island near Memphis.

Forrest died on October 29, 1877, most likely from diabetes. Initially buried at Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis, his remains were moved in 1904 to a Memphis park named in his honor. Highly respected by opponents such as Grant and Sherman, Forrest was known for his use of maneuver warfare and is often erroneously quoted as stating his philosophy was to "git thar fustest with the mostest." In the years after the war, key Confederate leaders such Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee both expressed regret that Forrest's skills had not been used to greater advantage.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Civil War: Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).