Born: Chapel Hill, Tennessee, July 13, 1821
Died: Memphis, Tennessee, October 29, 1877
Nathan Bedford Forrest: American Warrior
Nathan Bedford Forrest, a name that struck dread to his enemies and which was revered by his men. He was arguably the greatest cavalryman during the War of Northern Aggression (or what is commonly known as America’s Civil War). There were many other notable cavalrymen, like the dashing J.E.B. Stuart, John Mosby, Wade Hampton, John Hunt Morgan and Robert E. Lee’s nephew, Fitzhugh Lee. On the Union side, George Armstrong Custer, the youngest Brigadier General, was a bold and often reckless cavalryman and John Buford, who probably saved the Union Army at Gettysburg. All were great horseman who feared no danger and did great service for their respective armies. However, Nathan Bedford Forrest stands alone. His exploits created a legend in both the North and the South. Northern troopers were vexed by him time and again. Forrest was so effective that General William Tecumseh Sherman once wrote to Secretary of War Stanton: "Forrest is the very devil, If we must sacrifice 10,000 lives and bankrupt the Federal Treasury, it will be worth it. There will never be peace in Tennessee till Forrest is dead."(1). Who was the man? Was he a Hero or was he the butcher that Northern propaganda made him out to be?
Bedford, as he was called, was born in the backwoods of Tennessee on July 13, 1821 to William and Mariam Beck Forrest. His parents were simple folk. William was a Blacksmith and Mariam performed all the necessary chores and functions that kept her family fed and clothed on the wild frontier. The family was large. Besides Nathan, the eldest, there were eleven other children, seven boys and three girls. Only six boys lived to adulthood. The frontier that Nathan grew up in was wild and untamed. You learned to survive at an early age. Hunting and tracking were not a sport but a necessity to survive. Bedford’s education did not come from the classroom. While he did attend some school, he was needed at home to help his Father support the family. Young Bedford was self educated using the wilderness and his life on the frontier as his classroom and teacher. He learned to live by his instincts and wits. Violence was part of everyday life and Bedford had his share at at an early age Nathan learned to fend for himself. One story has young Bedford being intimidated by a group of young toughs at his Uncles tailor shop. The boys seemed intent on harassing the younger boy and continued to taunt him. Finally, Nathan had enough, grabbed a pair of shears and sprang from his seat towards his antagonist. The boys ran in fear. This taught young Bedford a valuable lesson: He could intimidate and disarm an apparently superior foe.(2) During this period of his life, Bedford honed his skills in marksmanship and horsemanship. He also enjoyed gambling. Each of these skills would benefit him greatly in the future .Bedford married, sired children and became a successful businessman. He was a planter and Slave trader at a time when dealing in Human’s was not only lawful, but made men wealthy. Bedford had one desire, that his family never know the poverty in which hehad as a youth. It was reported that Bedford, whenever possible, kept slave families together . He clothed and fed them well and gave them better than expected medical treatment.(3)
When war broke out on April 12,1861, nobody knew what the future of the nation held. One thing for sure was that a new history of mounted warfare was about to be written. On June 14, 1861, Nathan Bedford Forrest walked into the office of Captain Josiah White’s Tennessee Mounted Rifles and enlisted as a private along with his brother Jeffrey and fifteen year old son, Willie. As other men joined the outfit and began to train the unit evolved into what would become the famous Seventh Tennessee Cavalry, which would fight until the end of the war under Forrest’s leadership. He did not remain a Private for long. He became a Colonel by 1862 and before that year was out he was a Brigadier. When the war eventually ended he was a Lieutenant General. He never led from the rear but always from the front. At least two dozen Yankee invaders fell to his hand in personal combat. He was wounded four times and had thirty horses shot from beneath him. His exploits became legendary very quickly. In Early 1862 during the fighting at Fort Donelson, Bedford outfought and whipped Ulysses S. Grants regular army soldiers. But inept Generalship on the part of Confederate forces allowed Bedford’s heroic actions to be wasted. The fort was surrounded and the Confederates decided to surrender. To that Nathan Bedford Forrest retorted “ To Hell with that, I did not come here to surrender!”.(4) He escaped with his entire command.
This type of action and attitude was what made Bedford the great General he was. Not relying on the Confederate Government, He completely outfitted his men with his own money. During every battle he would equip his men with captured Yankee arms, allowing his men to be some of the best equipped men in the Confederate army. When he captured a vanquished Union army officers sword and noticed that it was only sharp for the first couple of inches, Forrest demanded a grindstone. When one of his military educated officers indicated that it was more for show than for fighting, Forrest made one of his more famous quotes: “Damn such nonsense. War means fightin’ and fightin means killin. Turn the grindstone.” (5)
Some of Bedford’s greatest victories came by using psychological warfare. He repeatedly used deceit to trick his foes into thinking that he had greater numbers then he actually had and would sometimes capture twice his number.
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.
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.
When all was over Nathan Bedford Forrest went back home and tried to rebuild his life. He entered into Business ventures with many of his Ex-Northern Foe’s and became successful once again. He died on October 29, 1877. His funeral turned out thousands of people including hundreds upon hundreds of African Americans who came to pay their respects. Nathan Bedford Forrest was a product of his times yet, in some ways, was way ahead of them. His tactics on the battlefield are still studied by military academies today. The great German General Erwin Rommel, George Patton and even Norman Schwarzkopf all studied this famous man’s tactics. His legend even lived on, United States Eighth Air Force General Nathan Bedford Forrest III was the great-grandson of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. He was killed in 1943 during a B-17 raid over the submarine yards of Kiel, Germany. He was regarded as one of the best and youngest Air Force Generals of his day. He was declared dead and posthumously received the Distinguished Flying Cross. After World War II, his body was recovered from Germany and he was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery - ironically on grounds once owned by his great-grandfather’s commanding officer, General Robert E. Lee.(8)
Nathan Bedford Forrest defended his homeland and never asked his men to do anything he was not willing to do himself. Controversial? Only by those who don’t take the time to study the man, his life and his time. Nathan Bedford Forrest was An American Warrior.
Essay by Rick Montes
1. Brian Steel Wills, 217, A Battle From The Start: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forest (Harper Collins, 1992)
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