Skip to comments.Was Nathan Bedford Forrest the Best Confederate Cavalry Leader in the West?
Posted on 12/09/2007 8:55:00 PM PST by indcons
Had the Civil War not occurred when it did allowing Nathan Bedford Forrest to serve as a cavalry officer, we very likely would not be studying or even reading about him today. Of course the same could be said about Ulysses S. Grant and many other notable Civil War commanders. What separates Forrest from other successful general officers are his accomplishments despite his almost total lack of education or military background and his impoverished upbringing. His rise from private to lieutenant general was clearly earned, not gained through political influence or social standing. His military success are due to virtually every element which made up this man, but more importantly, how he conducted his martial career given his physical, mental and spiritual makeup is what arguably made him the best Confederate cavalry general during the war.
Forrest had little formal education, limited to six months, which is reflected many times when reading documents written personally by him and attempts by writers to describe his manner of speaking. Combined with this seeming handicap, he had no military training or experience prior to the Civil War, yet he became one of the best, if not the best, Confederate cavalry commanders. Forrest fought as a cavalry commander as he lived; he did not need Jomini or Clausewitz or years at West Point to show him how to fight or command, he entered the war with all the physical, mental and spiritual tools needed not only to survive but to prosper.
He rose from an impoverished background on a frontier farm where hard physical labor outdoors from sun up to sun down, and then inside by firelight, was the rule. This difficult life served to strengthen his congenitally hearty physique, but also to school him with practical knowledge about such every day things as the weather, domestic and wild animals, firearms, and horsemanship. Making do with what was at hand, inventing, improvising or modifying items to accomplish what must be done was routine; learning from these experiences was the key. But what he could not learn about resourcefulness he inherited; in addition to his strong physiognomy he showed a seeming fearlessness. This, combined with a temper often barely under control endowed the child and young man with an attitude and reputation which followed him throughout his life and marked his wartime career. He was as familiar as any small farmer with bloodshed as butchering farm animals or game was a normal part of his life. Too, he witnessed the death of several members of his family due to illness so he was inured to the transitory nature of life, human and animal. The self-reliant farm life also taught him when cooperation was needed whether it was a simple as getting a family member to help moving a heavy object to seeking neighbors' help raising a barn; he knew his limits. His life experiences and his success at overcoming routine and extraordinary obstacles by his own deeds made him realize that actions usually speak louder than words. But one of the things he did learn was that sometimes bluff, backed up by the threat of force, could succeed. Added to this he established a reputation that he saw could serve to obviate the need for physical force—the threat would suffice. But the many anecdotes about his early life show that he was not averse to use any weapons at hand to help in any affray. His childhood and early years combined with his genetic gifts predicted his wartime successes should he be able to apply them well.
His honesty and charisma undoubtedly also led to his doing well in business as well as war. To do well in business, especially slave trading, one must learn to understand and work well with people since his most lucrative business enterprise was selling humans to humans. Learning how to speak with, understand, and even manipulate and control others while observing their weaknesses and abilities are of great value to a military leader. Too, Forrest's maturity—40 years old in 1861—gave him a better vantage point than younger officers could have; his variegated life experiences for his first four decades offered a longer perspective and a plethora of events from which he could draw. However, Forrest's struggles to control his temper and his very strong sense of personal honor and integrity would hamper him throughout his military life. His strong individualistic trait and self reliance would serve to make him ofttimes a reluctant subordinate and make him shine as an independent commander.
Forrest's involvement with local and county governments enhanced his confidence in his abilities and his knowledge of organizations when, for example, he was a member of the board of Aldermen in Memphis. His successes as a planter and businessman helped his military career, initially by enabling him to pay for arms equipment to help supply his regiment, but also to bring his reputation as a businessman and citizen to allow him to raise a regiment. And he must have had no doubt as to which side he would embrace when the war began; he knew that his plantation required slave labor to be profitable and that his slave trading business would be ended if the North won, thus he and his family would have to start over should the North be victorious.
His first military forays proved that he was not averse to using unconventional and perhaps non regulation tactics such as taking hostages and threatening their lives to accomplish a mission. But his first major mounted action showed that he did have something to learn about tactics as he impetuously charged a Union line before his disorganized troopers were prepared and he was in clear danger of being killed. He was rescued by one of his subordinate officers who kept his head and did not engage in Forrest's initial wild pursuit of the Federal troopers. Forrest did, once those men came up, employ them well dismounting some and having small units go around each flank preparatory to a frontal charge which succeeded well routing the Union troopers. This action at Sacramento, Kentucky, showed Forrest that controlled aggression, using mounted and dismounted troopers, and flanking the enemy worked well. He probably also learned that headlong, wild, uncoordinated pursuits, no matter how brave, might not be the best way to attack an enemy, especially one who is prepared for the onslaught.
Forrest also learned much at Fort Donelson in February 1862. In his combined attack with part of the Orphan Brigade, the 2nd Kentucky, he saw that combining his cavalry with aggressive and well-led infantry could be more successful than either alone as these forces successfully sent W.H.L. Wallace's men and much of McClernand's division reeling, capturing cannon and many prisoners. In addition to this valuable tactical lesson, he learned from watching and speaking with the three generals in charge, Gideon J. Pillow, Simon B. Buckner, and John B. Floyd, how high rank does not confer military sagacity or even common sense as all three decided to surrender when escaping was a better option as Forrest quickly demonstrated. This pathetic display certainly enhanced his probably unconscious belief that operating as an independent commander would better suit him. Fort Donelson gave Forrest several valuable military lessons which included reinforcing to him the need to do his own scouting as false or inaccurate reports almost scuttled his escape attempt as it did for the three generals. He also found that surrendering was not part of his repertoire.
At Shiloh, Forrest's abandonment of his assigned position guarding fords at Lick Creek to join in the fighting showed that he still had not matured as a commander. As he covered the Confederate retreat to Corinth, another impetuous but initially successful charge halted the Union chase but almost resulted in his death; he was engulfed by Union infantry when his troopers wisely turned back upon seeing that they were vastly outnumbered. Forrest paid for his boldness by being seriously wounded, emphatically reinforcing this lesson. He continued to learn his trade as he later profited from watching some of his new troopers undergoing mounted drill of which he knew little. He was not afraid to learn from his subordinate officers what he did not know and taught them the hard reality of combat from his recent experiences.
His on-the-job training continued at his Murfreesboro raid which he first used his demand for surrender request and also his deploying his men so they appeared to be in great numbers. These tactics, along with hard fighting and not quitting when the battle was half won resulted in taking the entire garrison. Inflating his numbers and relying on his growing reputation while sowing misinformation served him well in all his later military adventures. Usually outnumbered, he relied on his cunning and knowledge of human nature to be his allies. He learned his earlier lessons of avoiding wild, disorganized frontal charges aptly demonstrated at Trenton, Tennessee, where once he learned that the Union was well fortified in the town, he used his artillery to good effect forcing them to surrender. Supplying his troopers with Union largesse was standard procedure by now as he tried to ensure that this, his third new command, was well-equipped.
All of his newly learned military wisdom combined with his normal aggression and fighting spirit was in evidence at Parker's Crossroads where he was in danger of being surrounded. He fought his way out aided by his desire not to surrender and the aggressive actions of his subordinate officers. That all of his lessons learned might not be sufficient was demonstrated by his actions at Fort Donelson in early 1863 which his part of the battle went poorly despite all his efforts. Forrest, who served under Joseph Wheeler in this battle, was furious perhaps at himself but his anger manifested itself by Forrest telling Wheeler he would never serve under him again. Forrest's human relations abilities failed here. That his temper was also not under constant control was shown when after the successful conclusion of the Streight raiders, he and a lieutenant he had insulted scuffled; Forrest was shot and the lieutenant died as a result of Forrest's stabbing him. Forrest's famous temper was again shown to Braxton Bragg after Bragg took some of his men and put them and Forrest under Wheeler's command. Reportedly, Forrest did everything short of challenging his commanding officer to a duel, disrespect Forrest showed to all of his commanders whom he believed were threatening him by personal attacks or by persecuting him.
Forrest showed that his bluffing ability was raised to a fine art possibly exceeded his renowned fighting ability when, after chasing Abel Streight's mule-mounted infantry, he forced his surrender by multiplying his numbers by crafty marching and deploying and redeploying his artillery. But his most famous victory, Brice's Cross Roads, involved little bluffing; it combined his knowledge of the enemy's movements and composition, how he would react to Forrest's initial actions, and how to best use the terrain and weather to allow his much smaller force to defeat its larger and better equipped foe. He had to use all of his knowledge, skills and personal ability to fight the enemy to a standstill, out flank him on both flanks, while engaging him in frontal assaults during which Forrest battled from the front. Here, in sole command, his abilities shown as he and his men turned a retreat into a wonderful rout. During the rout, he again employed a tactic he often used of chasing the retreating foe by rotating his units so that he could continue the pressure incessantly by always having a rested unit in closely pursuing an exhausted enemy. Brice's Cross Roads showed that Forrest was more than just a raider.
His final success as a commander was ironically during his service as rear guard for Hood's defeated army retreating from Nashville. He performed excellent rear guard actions saving as much as possible of the remnants of the Army of Tennessee but this and subsequent actions depressed Forrest as he saw that the Union juggernaut was impossible to stop. During Wilson's Selma Campaign, Forrest performed as well as he could being heavily outnumbered suffering another wound. He knew his war was over. Though Forrest best operated independently and arguably best as a raider, he was usually always aware of general strategy. The best example of this was his desire to strike Sherman's long supply line as Sherman was chasing Joseph E. Johnston. By this stage of the war, Forrest knew that the North's manpower and supply advantages meant that direct confrontation was impossible so cutting the monster's long tail and gobbling up small outposts was the best approach. One of his last and most notable successes was his remarkable destruction of Union supplies, facilities and even boats during his late 1864 raid along the Tennessee River. Mounting his artillery on captured boats highlighted his ingenuity. The weak southern rail network which worked fairly well during the first two years of the war was failing as facilities wore out or were destroyed by Union advances and raiders. This also meant that more and more Forrest had to live off the land and supply himself from captured Union armaments and supplies. The South's ability to concentrate large armies quickly to confront Union armies was curtailed making Forrest even more necessary for any hope remaining for the South.
Unfortunately, for Southern hopes, Confederate leadership in the west and in Richmond recognized too late that Forrest and his tactics were the only hope left to salvage anything in the western theater. Undoubtedly his prickly attitude and open disparagement of commanders who he believed were either incompetent or actively seeking to thwart his personal or military endeavors did not help him. All of the lessons Forrest learned in the first years of the war could have been put to good use but for the short sightedness and less-than-aggressive attitude of many of his commanders, most notably Braxton Bragg. Forrest never had a Robert E. Lee to appreciate and exploit his talents as Lee did with Jeb Stuart. The Civil War gave Forrest the stage to fully display the life and personality which contributed so much to the Southern cause.
I like his quote above.
Ironically, according to some historians, one of Bedford’s greatest tactical military victories, Brice’s Crossroads, was, when considering the bigger picture, a victory for Sherman. Had Forrest not been tangling with Sturgis there, he might have been harassing Sherman in Georgia.
Thanks for the ping SB.
...”arguably” the best? There was no calvary commander on the confederate side fit to hold Forrest’s shorts.
Agree... and this is coming from the descendant of a Confederate Cavalry Private.
Wow thats truly an honor your ancestor must have been quite the solider.
As the article states he was also a master of deception.
Though Forrest was despised by the Union Army during the war, it was some Union officers who enabled Forrest to get his businesses going again following the war.
Forrest was also a leading political force in persuading the U.S. Congress to re-enfranchise all former Confederate veterans who lost their voting rights when the South surrendered. In the 1930's, German Army Colonel Irwin Rommel traveled to Shiloh and other military parks in the region in the course of studying Forrest's practice of mobile warfare.
Truly an intelligent, powerful and resourceful man.
The slave trading part is very distasteful though.
I’d like to think that if I had been born in that time I would have been an anti-slavery advocate....but how can any of us know for sure what we would have done?
If I had to face Forrest man to man I’d just run.
Not Many men that went from private soldier to colonel in one jump. Forrest after joining as a private outfitted a regiment of his own and was appointed a colonel by the politicians. The business that the article alluded to is slave trading. Why they chose these misstatements and omission I do not know.
Now that that stuff is out of the way Forrest was the greatest cavalry general of the civil war. He had the canny ability to ride his men hard and deploy them as infantry in strategic places to 'Hit em on the end'.
This seems to be a good review of Forrest's military campaign.
I have tried to consider a couple of other perspectives on my about page.
Nathan Bedford Forrest sounds quite similar to the notable Boer General Koos de la Rey from the Anglo-Boer War.
Forrest must have had a presence about him that was terrifying. I’m paraphrasing something I read years ago.
It was after the war was over and Forrest was traveling by train in a northern border state. Some local yokels heard that he was on the train and, when the train stopped at their town, went aboard the train looking for him - to call him out for some fisticuffs. When Forrest got word of it he went looking for them. “You looking for me,” he said. Forrest didn’t even fight them, they took one look at him, sized him up, and fled.
As do long quotations that don't begin to prove one's point. :)
The park was named for General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the intrepid Confederate cavalry leader, who on November 4, 1864, attacked and destroyed the federal supply and munitions depot at (Old) Johnsonville at the mouth of Trace Creek. His operations were concentrated along the river in the vicinity of the park and the town of Eva.
In 1929 the park was dedicated to Nathan Bedford Forrest on land acquired in part from Benton County. Forrest was one of the greatest military tacticians and leaders of the American Civil War
He was the only Civil War general that was widely studied in Europe and was recognized as the only original genius produced by the war. The Russians also extensively studied the campaigns of the Union cavalry into the deep South.
If you want to read an interesting history of a Confederate cavalry regiment, try The Cracker Cavaliers by John Randolph Poole. It is really top notch.
“Get there first-est with the most-est”
Probably, but JO Shelby didn’t suck.
The Burial of Shelby’s Flag”
A July sun, in torrid clime, gleamed on exile band, who in suits of gray
Stood in mute array on the banks of the Rio Grande
They were dusty and faint with their long, drear ride, and they paused when they
came to the river side;
For its wavelets divide
With their glowing tide
Their own dear land of youth, hope, pride And comrades graves, who in vain had
died, from the stranger’s home, in a land untried.
Above them waved the Confederate Flag, with its fatal cross of stars,
That had always been
In the battle’s din
Like a pennon of potent Mars.
And there curved from the crest of their leader a plume
That the brave had followed in joy and gloom that was ever in sight
In the hottest fight
A flaunting dare for a soldier’s tomb, for the marksman’s aim and the cannons boom,
But it bore a charm from the band of doom.
Forth stepped that leader then and said to the faithful few around:
“This tattered rag
Is the only flag
That floats on Dixie ground;
And this plume that I tear from the hat I wear
Of all my spoils is my only share; and brave men! I swear
That no foe shall dare
To lay his hand on our standard there. It’s folds were braided by fingers fair, “Tis
The emblem now of their deep despair.
Its cause is lost. And the men it led on many a glorious field in disputing tread
Of invaders dread, Have been forced at last to yield
But this banner and plume have not been to blame, No exulting eye shall behold
And-——these relics so dear
In the waters here,
Before we cross, shall burial claim;
And while you mountains may bear name
They shall stand as monuments of our fame.
Tears stood in eyes that looked on death in every awful form Without dismay;
But the scene that day was sublimer than mountain storm!
“Tis easy to touch the veteran’s heart
With finger of nature, but not of art, While the noble of soul
Lose self control, When called on with flag, home and country to part, Base bosoms are ever to callous to start
With feelings that generous natures can smart.
They buried then that flag and plume in the
river’s rushing tide, Ere that fallen few
Of the tried and true had been scattered far and wide.
And that group of Missouri’s valiant throng, who had fought for the weak against the strong- Who had charged and bled where Shelby led- Were the last who held above the wave.
The glorious flag of the vanquished brave, No more to rise from its watery grave!
By Brevet Colonel Alonzo W. Slayback, Missouri State Militia, on the Rio Grande, July 4, 1865
Thanks for a great article. Forrest has always been my favorite Confederate. I also have found it interesting that he is credited with founding the Ku Klux Klan.
“Agree... and this is coming from the descendant of a Confederate Cavalry Private.”
Who was he with? I had two Great-Grandfathers with the 10th Tennessee Cavalry which I believe was formed from the remains of Napier’s Regiment and another. They were under Forrest.
That's interesting. I never knew that. I'd like to read more about that, do you have any links or book sources I could look at? Thanks.
...thanks guys...this was a good article....sadly, I think Forrest’s legacy will slowly be destroyed....it will be done by Southern politicians/leaders who pander to the black vote...they are slowly undermining our Confederate heritage.... I’ll give you an example:
.....one of my g.grandfathers spent 4 years in the saddle as 1st Sgt of G company, 6th Texas Cavalry....Sullivan Ross commanded 6th Texas...Ross was an excellent commander and a fine man....after the war he went on to be Governor of Texas and after that president of Texas A&M....it was under Ross’ leadership that the university grew into the modern institution it is now....today it is a campus rule there that any student displaying a Condederate flag or Nazi flag will be expelled....they hold the Confederate South equal to the Nazis!...what an insult.
LOL My wife had an uncle a general under Bragg who also had a strong dislike for Bragg too. He was court martialed by him. Forrest was a much greater planner than Bragg as were other Confederate generals and it showed.
bump for later
Wheeler would later help lead forces into Cuba during the Spanish-American War
He was also helped a lot by incompetent Union leaders who thought cavalry was for conveying messages and protecting supply lines. Until Sheridan, there was no 'real' Union cavalry, and any that Forrest ran into was easy pickings.
His brilliance was the ability to improvise mobile warfare from his saddle. Had he the resources of the North, there is no telling what he could have accomplished.
If you look at his actions in a number of encounters, you will see the same type of tactics used in engagements from Chateau-Thierry to the Gulf conflicts.
Forrest was the innovator, the rest, imitators.
If you had a time machine and were to go back in the hopes of advancing the cause of the South as much as possible, it's a good tossup as to whether the better recipient of a well-placed pistol ball would be Bragg, or John Bell Hood.
Either choice would have at least temporarily saved the lives of hundreds, prpbably thousands of lives, on both sides.
"The life of a Calvary officer is always intense."
Not a bad avancement for one who began his career as a private of Cavalry in July of 1861.
I presume you know who the tutor for the adolescent George S. Patton was, and that the texts used were Thomas Jordan and J. P. Pryors The Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. N. B. Forrest and John A. Wyeths Life of General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Not quite aged enough; NBF began his military career at age 40. Though Estevez was born in 1962, he seems younger...though the beard might help somewhat.
You are invited to consider this comparison:
I always felt that James Coburn resembled Forrest.
Are Armstrong’s tactics studied in War College as are Forrest’s?
Hey, J. E. B. Stuart was a pretty good calvary commander! Give him some credit.
“Wheeler would later help lead forces into Cuba during the Spanish-American War”
Where he was quoted as telling his troops fighting the Spanish: “Come on, we’ve got the damn Yankees on the run!”
Armstrong’s problem was that he wasn’t as imposing of a character as Forrest and a lot of his contemporaries, as well as his superiors at times took credit for his actions...
Forrest and his horse King Phillip. A print of this hangs in the little museum at Fort Pillow. Not sure who the artist is. And by the way, don't mess with his horse:
In August, 1866, a troop of Federal cavalry was riding by Forrest's place, as much out of curiosity to see him as for any more definite reason. Forrest's war horse, King Phillip, was grazing in the front lot. As the blue-clad cavalry filed into the lot on the way up to the house, King Phillip's training in many a melee reasserted itself, and he rushed the bluecoats, teeth bared and front feet flailing. When some of the soldiers, astonished at his onslaught, struck at him, Forrest's wartime body servant Jerry- whom the other Negro's in the Forrest command had referred to, and obeyed, as "the Gin'ral"- rushed out to defend the horse. After Forrest himself had come out and the horse was back in the stable and things had quieted down, the Federal captain observed, "General, now I can account for your success. Your negroes fight for you, and your horses fight for you." [Source]
Vengance at Okolona by John Paul Strain. Note the raised pistols of the cavalry. Reminds me of a scene in Gods and Generals.
That Devil Forrest by John Paul Strain. More raised pistols.
Order out of Chaos by Mort Kunstler. This is Forrest and his troops at Nashville February 1862 when he saved needed supplies.
Forrest at Owen's Ford, 1864 by Mort Kuntsler. Forrest and troops in the snow.
Forrest comes home by David Wright.
Forrest leading a charge by John Paul Strain.
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