Nathan Bedford Forrest


This essay was published as a new introduction for Lytle’s Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company and is published here in honor of Forrest’s birthday, July 13.

This is a young man’s book. To have anything more to say about a book you did fifty odd years ago brings you hard up against the matter of time. The young author shows a familiar visage, as enigmatic as the portrait of a great-grandfather “struck” in his youth, gazing into the close air of the parlor. You know you are kin, but that youth belongs to the ancestors. Therefore to redo or revise in any real sense would mean to make another book. Fifty years can change more than the use and control of language. The world may go on for a thousand years and, outwardly at least, be always the same. Then something appears out of nowhere, so sudden does it seem, and a shattering takes place; as for example when the stirrup was introduced into Russia by the Sarmations riding out of Siberia. They stopped with the conquest of Russia, but the stirrup did not stop there. The Goths took it into Rome. It ended the stalemate between the mounted archers of Parthia and the Roman legion. It had its long history in Europe. It came to an end as an instrument of military power about a hundred years ago in Alabama.

Everywhere east of the Mississippi the Confederacy lay in ruins. The great Lee had surrendered, and the Army of Tennessee, constant in defeat, workmanlike always, was stopped forever at Goldsboro. But Sherman had reported that “There will never be peace in Tennessee until Forrest is dead.” His very name, so long as his troops were intact, made all these larger victories unsure. Reports had it Davis was fleeing Richmond to join him, cross over into the Trans-Mississippi department and there carry on the war with Kirby-Smith. And then the news. Forrest had surrendered. The Wizard of the Saddle had dismounted for the last time. He had been whipped in his last fight, the one general who had always won and whose victories were always thrown away by others in higher places. The war was now indeed over. The Republic of the Founding Fathers was no more. A certain ideology used by a sectional group of new men and interests had usurped the name “Union” to undo the political union. The Numerical Majority, as Calhoun called it, had triumphed over the Federal system; and, since numbers never rule, indeed cannot, but are always manipulated by some active minority, such rule is never representative of the whole except in rare moments of pressure or emergency.

History has borne Calhoun out; it has also made his predictions seem too local and domestic. Wise as he was, it was not to be expected of anybody in the eighteen forties and fifties to foresee so quick an end to Britain’s hegemony of the world. The tragic consequences of change, and so Calhoun viewed them, would therefore involve only the internal health of the union and not foreign entanglements. For the United States to be strong enough to intervene in the quarrels of Europe and emerge the dominant power in the West, would have seemed fantasy to those politicians who saw Senator Mason rise in the Senate to deliver the dying Calhoun’s last words. And yet ten years later a war was fought and won, the ultimate consequences of which would be just this.

So in a very literal sense the Civil War was the first World War. It not only created a powerful nation of organized resources and potential military might, but the greater world wars took their pattern from the American one, even to the trench system Lee set up at Petersburg. These wars were internecine, all of them; but it was not in this that we find the crucial resemblances. In view of a common Christian culture wars within Europe would of necessity be internecine, but at least at one time there were Truces of God. What this country brought to Europe was unconditional surrender. The actual phrase was used by Roosevelt in the Second World War, but it was not his phrase. Grant had delivered it to the Confederate Command at Fort Donelson in February, 1862. Its implication is total surrender or total destruction, or slavery, or whatever. A strange alternative to be delivered by one Christian state to another; and yet it had precedent in Sherman’s harrying the lands of Mississippi and Georgia, whenever Forrest was out of the way.

The result of these wars has been the self-exhaustion of Europe, the loss of prestige before the world, and another possible shift in power from West to East. We seem to accept this with a fatalism strangely foreign to us. The battle of Lepanto was fought and won by a Christian prince. Since that time Christendom, if we can still call it such, has been free of danger-, but there is a strange resemblance between that time and this. The Christian princes were divided among themselves as in our world wars; they were threatened by their own invention, the firearm, which the Turk added to the first use of the disciplined regiment. We have only to remember Spengler’s warning as to the folly of teaching the techniques by which the West had overwhelmed the world and wonder. Will the time come when we will pray for another Lepanto? There is no Christian prince today strong enough to take a stand. This country is presumably strong enough at least to risk a defense, but to stand always on the defensive is to prepare for defeat. It was Davis’ great failure of policy to which he committed the Confederacy.

So the great change in the world this time is not technological, although there are plenty of new tools. It is obviously spiritual. Yeats’ trembling veil is at last rent. The nineteenth century abandoned God officially, and the faith of Christian communicants was absorbed into the powerful western will; and this will set out, openly at last, to know and control not only nature but the universe. In the late stages of any society there is always the aging form and the formlessness of the new pistis, but this is no new faith; it is a perversion of faith, the final and open acceptance of Machiavelli’s science of politics, the politics whose end is absolute power, whose technique is reason without any theological restraint. This prince will do anything, assume any role, to bring about his ends. Certainly Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, was the most ruthless and greedy of all the Machiavellians. There is strong circumstantial evidence that he had to do with Lincoln’s assassination, when the Northern president set in motion a peace which would bring the country back to a status quo.* It took a while for this to dominate Northern policy; but after Grant and Sherman took over the command the entire strategy became Machiavellian; any means justified the end. In the Wilderness campaign and at Cold Harbor, Grant’s slaughter of his own soldiers was not merely lack of imagination. It was the sacrifice of the individual, the humane, the personal to the force of abstract mass; for unconditional surrender, that is, absolute power was his end. And yet he was a kindly man. He almost pushed it too far, for excessive loss in an army’s manpower comes in time to shatter morale. Forrest had all the energy of the western man, his terrific will; but he was fighting for the traditional element in our society. He was able to use against the enemy his own method. He, too, asked for unconditional surrender, and added or I will put every man to the sword. But he never lost the sense that an army is composed of individuals. Nothing threw him into a temper so much as the useless loss of men. It was his care of man and beast, the thorough inspections of harness and shoes and the possibilities of entry and exit, that turned his fighting force into the most efficient body of horsemen in the South. His soldiers would follow him anywhere and did, because they knew this. He always fed them, and he always brought them out, and usually stronger than they had entered the campaign. For this and other reasons he was the crucial figure in the crucial, the Georgia campaign, and the Northern high command knew it.

Sherman said “War is Hell,” and by this he meant total war, openly carried out upon the civil population, with the shrewd understanding that if the source of supply was cut off, the armies would dwindle and perish. Partly due to Forrest he was unable to lay waste sufficient territory to dismantle the army before him, but his subordinates’ attitude toward the civil population, as is always the case, brought home to the people of the South the meaning of this un-Christian policy. It placed Forrest in the role of avenger, for he never failed to punish the enemy. The outcry in the North when Fort Pillow was so savagely reduced by him comes from the fear that the very forces the new Machiavellians had released could be returned in kind.
A circumstance in my own family bears out how this dangerous power acted in a specific instance. My grandmother as a little girl was playing outside her house with other children. A Union soldier up the street shot into the crowd of children and she was hit in the neck just short of the jugular vein. When she ran into the house to her nurse, the blood was in her shoe and covered an apple she still held in her hand. Nobody ever knew why the man shot into the group of children. He got on his horse and galloped out of town and was never seen again, and was certainly not apprehended by his own officers.

Of course this incident could have happened at any time, in peace or war, and for any number of reasons. The point to be made is the official enemy attitude toward the incident. Though she was obviously bleeding to death, a doctor was forbidden, since her father had not signed the oath of allegiance. A young officer from Kentucky took the responsibility of getting her one; but later a squad of soldiers arrested her father and took him away cursing to make him sign the oath, and later still in the night she watched the soldiers troop by her bed, staring, enormous and dark, as their bayonets scraped the ceiling. This was the image she kept as an old woman. She must have got it from her mother’s helplessness before this invasion of privacy at such a time. This was the change that was to come over the world: the helpless made to feel their helplessness. “It is well,” General Lee said at the height of his success, as Pelham’s small battery was holding up the attack of fifty thousand men at Fredericksburg, “It is well that war is so terrible. Were it not so, we should grow too fond of it.”

As the wars grew even more terrible and world-wide, and the results more abstract and inhuman, we began to feel the abyss below us. We cry for peace, not for a life of peace but from the fear of annihilation. Yet the Christian dies alone. The fact that millions may die at the same time is meaningless, for it was Christ’s promise that at world’s end each separate person would find his own body and rise up his complete self. And he would be judged as an individual among a neighborhood of individuals. This was the intrinsic meaning of Christianity; and it was new, the promise of immortality for everybody. Before Christ’s coming the East looked to some world cataclysm as we do. They feared utter annihilation, as we do, for they had no sense of the Christian individual. We have lost, although not completely, our sense of it. As our high priests, the scientists, feel they are conquering nature, the mass of individuals grows more ignorant about it and, therefore, about human nature. The public does not really comprehend the meaning of a rocket to the moon. They’ve already been there in the comic strips. This public is Calhoun’s Numerical Majority with a vengeance. And the minority of rulers has shrunk to the Supra-individuals or supermen such as Stalin and Hitler — or Roosevelt and Churchill. They have become the sources of destiny, if not of salvation, since they have had to assume, willingly or not, the power and will which was once God’s. Believing only in Machiavellian power, Stalin starved to death some millions of his countrymen. Henry II put on sackcloth and ashes and walked across England merely for his implication in the murder of Becket. But he was a Christian monarch who believed in damnation.

The world over which Forrest’s men rode and fought was closer to Henry II’s than it is to ours. They are centuries apart; yet those centuries knew the orderly return of the seasons, saw the super¬natural in the natural, moved about by foot, by horse and at sea by the wind. We have put our faith in the machine. This is the concrete showing of the nature of our change. We view the technology of its laws as if they were as automatic as nature’s. But the machine is not nature. It is man-conceived but not man-controlled; hence the monstrousness in serving it. The machine was meant to ease and speed up man’s business a little, not change the look of nature. If it keeps up, it will change the nature of man, for we are moving so fast nobody is still long enough to see what is before him. The highways which are supposed to connect communities are becoming the community. In certain states the wilderness is growing again, but this time it is owned by paper corporations. The one image to clarify and define our state of being is the tons of trees growing, to be chewed up, to make paper, to advertise Lydia Pinkham’s female tonic. In the beginning was the Word. Is it to end a flux of printed matter offering nostrums at a price?

It may, for we are losing that immediate and substantial sense of our surroundings which remind us of our humanity. Our last frontier is the heavens. Our pioneers are already there, and the world looks no more familiar than it does on a map. In the old wilderness a man was sometimes by himself, but he was never alone. He made a slow progress. To camp on the wilderness trail, compared to our travels, was almost to settle. And he did indeed settle each night; his eyes made the flora and fauna about him a familiar hiding place. He might go astray or become bewildered, but he was never lost. He knew where he was, because he knew who he was and where he wanted to go. And this was always forward. Between stations he would “remove,” as he said, further on. His descendent wants to leave the world altogether. What a man hanging to a ball in space will learn remains to be seen. But whatever, he will be the man quite without location.

Location is that other force in our inheritance which balances our need for movement. It is the family which represents it and maintains it. The family does not flourish among abstract ideas. It is substantial, concrete, sensible. There was no Augustinian here separating psyche and physic. Flesh and spirit moved the one in the other, confined by the internal mystic form of belief. It was the basic unity of the Christian community, and hence the state. It carried authority. No matter what talents an individual might have, the family was always greater than he. It was this kind of a community that Forrest surrendered in 1865, but it was not delivered until over a hundred years later. It was the community into which I was born and in which memory called Forrest the great hero.

The hero saves not only by his prowess; he saves by the divinity within himself. Indeed his prowess depends upon this divinity. The hero’s most perfect image is, of course, Christ the man-god. There is no hero unless the odds are overwhelmingly against the thing he stands for, or the rescue which takes him upon his quest. They are the powers of darkness; they show in the brutal weight of matter, the seemingly irresistible forces of mass. Since fear and desire make all of us tremble, the first quest of the hero is triumph over himself; and afterwards he follows the quest, a selfless and devoted individual on the way of becoming an archetype. Indeed because he is devoted, he is fearless. We do not know all the circumstance of Forrest’s triumph over himself. We know it only in his actions and because of one statement; he bought a one-way ticket to the war; that is, he had committed himself without reservation of goods or person. This is of the very quality of heroism, because it is a triumph over death. It is also the secret of his triumph over great odds. Never thinking of himself, he is free to think of the enemy; and so he finds the weakness which will topple all the weight and mass. There was never a greater half-truth than the statement that God is on the side of the biggest battalions. Moscow and Napoleon’s retreat stand for refutation of this.

But in the end the hero always fails. He either dies as Roland dies; or the cause for which he fought is lost; or he wins the fight and the calculators who take over gamble it away, as with Forrest. Never in the world are the powers of darkness finally overcome, for they inhabit matter; nor, without the conflict of the cooperating opposites of light and dark, good and bad, would life as we know it be. What the hero gives us is the image of his devotion and selflessness and the knowledge that he can save us from the powers of darkness — at times. Forrest had shown himself to be the hero who could save absolutely, or so the young man thought who wrote this book.

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