The first thing I learned about Lieutenant-General Nathan Bedford Forrest was that he had twenty-nine horses shot out from under him in battle; in my fifth-grade social studies class, I remember thinking to myself that the most dangerous thing one could be was one of Forrest’s horses. The unconquerable Tennessean was bold, severe, and uncompromising in the discharge of his duties for our Cause. He was born in direst poverty on the Duck River settlement, the son of a blacksmith, heir to, in John Wyeth’s words, “that restless race of pioneers who in search of home and fortune had followed close upon the heels of the savages, as these were driven farther and farther towards the setting sun.” From this obscurity on the frontier, Forrest attained a position of prominence in Memphis through his own determined struggle. He was animated by a rigid code of honor and was known for his fierce, yet judicious, temperament. He was seen to drink only after sustaining serious wounds; when invited to take a drink, he often declined, saying, “My staff does all my drinking.” His friends said that without any affectations of piety, “Forrest was by nature deeply reverent and religious.”
On one occasion, a lynch mob threatened the jail to kill an imprisoned murderer; Forrest interposed himself between the prisoner and the inflamed crowd, brandishing a knife and promising to kill any man who dared lay a hand on the man. He spontaneously broke into an oration, appealing to the better angels of their nature, and successfully persuaded the mob to leave and let the legal system run its course. Forrest met his beloved wife when he found her carriage stuck in the mud; at once, he assisted in extricating the carriage. There were two men standing by on horseback, doing nothing, and Forrest’s repugnance at their unchivalrous apathy was such that rather than assist his future wife back into her carriage, he confronted the two loafers. He asked them why they had not helped the damsel in distress, and added that if they did not depart forthwith, he would “give them such a thrashing [that] they would never forget it.”
Of Forrest, Wyeth asked, “By what mysterious alchemy did the elements in him combine to lift him to the stars, while we who just as earnestly…strive to reach the realms of the immortals, stumble and fall, perish and are forgotten?” What catapulted this unschooled, unlettered, and iconoclastic “left-handed scion of the American pioneer”, with no military education, into “not only…one of the most remarkable and romantic personalities of the War, but…one of the ablest soldiers of the world”? Known as the Wizard of the Saddle, “the fertile imagination of a Walter Scott could scarcely conjure up a tale more romantic” than Forrest’s ascendance to legend.
General Johnston considered Forrest to be the greatest soldier of the War. General Beauregard remarked that the man’s “capacity for war seemed only to be limited by the opportunities for its display.” Even the demonic Sherman conceded that Forrest “was the most remarkable man our War produced on either side…he had never read a military book in his life…but he had a genius for strategy that was original, and to me incomprehensible. There was no theory or art of war by which I could calculate with any degree of certainty what Forrest was up to. He seemed always to know what I was doing, or intended to do, while…I could never form any satisfactory idea of what he was trying to accomplish.” Lord Wolseley, remarking upon Forrest’s fearlessness, marveled that he, “nature’s soldier…by sheer force of character alone, became the great fighting leader…his military career teaches us that the genius which makes men great soldiers is not to be measured by any competitive examination in the science or art of war. ‘In war’, Napoleon said, ‘men are nothing; a man is everything.’”
Forrest’s maxim was that “war means fighting, and fighting means killing”; he was acutely aware of what victory would require, and was willing to achieve it at any cost. He devoted his energy and his personal fortune totally to our Cause, and would happily have lain down his life for the Confederacy. To the consummation of this end, “everything must be subordinated.” This devotion extended well beyond his own life and his own finances; his only child left college to serve under him, and was wounded. After ensuring that the wound was not grievous, Forrest ordered him to return to the front. He never lost sight of his purpose, and never let him his men forget theirs. In one address congratulating his men for driving a force thrice greater than their own from the country, he urged them to “achieve your independence or perish in the attempt.” Upon leaving Lieutenant-General Taylor’s command, Forrest told the man, “I know not how long we are to labor for that independence for which we have thus far struggled in vain, but this I do know, that I will never weary in defending our cause, which must ultimately succeed. Faith is the duty of the hour. We will succeed. We have only to work and wait.”
One address to his “unconquerable band of heroes” against the “boasted minions of despotism” captures the struggle beautifully: “Soldiers! Amid your rejoicing do not forget the gallant dead upon these fields of glory. Many a noble comrade has fallen, a costly sacrifice to his country’s independence. The most you can do is to cherish their memory and strive to make the future as glorious as you and they have made the past…You have done much, but there is still work for you to do…The enemy is again preparing to break through the living wall erected by your noble bosoms and big hearts. In the name and recollections of ruined homes, desolated fields, and the bleaching bones of your martyred comrades, you are appealed to again. The smoke of your burning homesteads, the screams of your insulted women, and the cries of starving children will again nerve your strong arms with strength. Your fathers of ’76 had much to fight for, but how little and unimportant was their cause compared with yours. They fought not against annihilation, but simply to be independent of a foreign yet a constitutional and free government. You are struggling against the most odious of all tyranny, for existence itself, for your property, your homes, your wives and children, against your own enslavement, against emancipation, confiscation, and subjugation, with all their attendant horrors…brilliant prospects…everywhere pervade our cause. The independence of the Confederate States is a fixed, accomplished, immutable fact. The ray of peace is glimmering like bright sunshine around the dark clouds. Be true to yourselves and your country a little while longer and you will soon be enabled to return to your desolate homes, there to collect together once more your scattered household gods.”
After the ruinous Nashville Campaign, his men suffering starvation and exposure, their country laid waste, men falling by the wayside “never to rise again”, Forrest took stock of their situation. Hood’s army was demoralized, Lee’s in dire straits in the war of attrition at Petersburg, Sherman’s unresisted, running amok on a grand path of murder and rapine. The devastated country was preyed upon by scavenging guerrilla depredations and marauding deserters, providing the basis of Federal justifications for further atrocities against civilians. Forrest was well aware of the hopelessness which afflicted our Cause from all sides, seeing as Belshazzar and comprehending as Daniel the writing on the wall; to Major Ellis, he admitted, “To my mind it is evident that the end is not far off; it will only be a question of time as to when General Lee’s lines at Petersburg will be broken, for Grant is wearing him out; with unlimited resources…he must ultimately force Lee to leave Virginia or surrender. Lee’s army will never leave Virginia…and that will end the war.”
Notwithstanding this darkness, he did not allow the light to fail, and thus addressed his command: “If your course has been marked by the graves of patriotic heroes who have fallen by your side, it has, at the same time, been more plainly marked by the blood of the invader. While you sympathize with the friends of the fallen, your sorrows should be appeased by the knowledge that they fell as brave men battling for all that makes life worth living for…During [this] respite prepare for future action…by a remembrance of the glories of your past career, your desolated homes, and, above all, by the memory of your dead comrades, to…buckle on your armor anew…Bring with you the soldier’s safest armor- a determination to fight while the enemy pollutes your soil; to fight as long as he denies your rights; to fight until independence shall have been achieved; to fight for home, children, liberty, and all you hold dear. Show to the world the superhuman and sublime spirit with which a people may be inspired when fighting for the inestimable boon of liberty. Be not allured by the siren song of peace, for there can be no peace save upon your separate, independent nationality. Be patient, obedient, and earnest, and the day is not far distant when you can return to your homes and live in the full fruition of freemen around the family altar.” Forrest urged steadfast faith to the Cause and to the women and children relying so fully upon their efforts; when rumors of Lee’s surrender began to circulate, he implored his men to “preserve untarnished the reputation you have so nobly won, and leave results to Him who in wisdom controls and governs things.”
As the Reverend Kelley, one of Forrest’s officers, remembered, it was “his single will, impervious to argument, appeal, or threat, which was ever to be the governing impulse in their movements. Everything necessary to supply their wants, to make them comfortable, he was quick to do, save to change his plans, to which everything had to bend.” Forrest had enlisted as a private, but influential citizens of Memphis petitioned to obtain a command; when he took charge, his men were woefully underprepared, with a majority of them armed only with the shotguns they had brought from home. Forrest used his own fortune to secure the necessary supplies, and marshalled his indomitable will to whip his troops into shape. Lord Wolseley noted that “he always knew what he wanted, and consequently there was no weakness or uncertainty in his views or intentions, nor in the orders he gave to have those intentions carried out.”
Forrest was born to lead, never to follow; from childhood, he had depended entirely on his own action. As such, he occasionally butted heads with his inferior commanders. Before a second attack on Fort Donelson to capture the Dover garrison, he raised objections before General Wheeler; he had had a premonition of catastrophe. He made his protestations known to his chief-of-staff, instructing him that, “If I am killed in this fight, you will see that justice is done me by officially stating that I protested…that I am not willing to be held responsible for any disaster that may result.” After the predicted disaster materialized, resulting in a dismal defeat, Forrest approached General Wheeler and told him that “nothing you can now say or do will bring back my brave men lying dead or wounded and freezing around that fort tonight. I mean no disrespect…you can have my sword if you demand it, but…I will be in my coffin before I will fight again under your command.”
Wheeler and Forrest healed their breach, but Forrest held General Bragg in nothing but well-deserved disdain. En route to a conference with President Davis, Forrest openly stated “that he would not serve longer under Bragg…not competent to command any army.” After Chickamauga, Forrest saw the opportunity to pursue the demoralized Federals and capture them. He sent multiple couriers to Bragg and received no reply, then rode to see Bragg himself, finding him asleep. Forrest urged pursuit, and Bragg obfuscated with nonsensical comments regarding supplies; Forrest immediately dispelled these concerns, and Bragg “made no reply”. Disgusted, Forrest made his departure.
To refer to Forrest as a rigid disciplinarian would be quite an understatement. A common refrain to his subordinates was the order, “Shoot any man who won’t fight!” There was nothing that he held in greater ignominy than cowardice. Unfamiliar with the artillery manual, he mistook one soldier’s movement for a retreat: “Get back to where you belong, or by God I’ll kill you!” When he realized his mistake, however, he apologized just as promptly. Before the retreating men of Armstrong’s brigade, Forrest “threw himself in front of the frightened, panic-stricken men, and ordered them to halt and fall in line”; when his orders were paid no heed, “he seized a double-barrel shotgun from one of his men, and emptied both barrels into a squad of dismayed troopers.” This measure turned them around at once. On a reconnaissance of Murfreesboro, the infantry panicked and ran; amidst the stampede, Forrest rode in, up and down the lines to restore order, crying, “Rally, men! For God’s sake, rally!” He ordered a fleeing color-bearer to halt, and, when his command was not obeyed, “drew his pistol and shot the retreating soldier down. Dismounting, Forrest took the colors, remounted his horse, and, riding in front of the soldiers, waved the colors at them and finally succeeded in rallying them to their duty.”
General Chalmers recounted a time when, seeing a fleeing soldier, Forrest “checked up his horse, dismounted quickly, threw the bridle-reins to [an] orderly…and, rushing at the demoralized soldier, seized him by the collar, threw him down, dragged him to the side of the road, and, picking up a piece of brush that was convenient, proceeded to give him one of the worst thrashings I have ever seen a human being get.” After the beating, Forrest turned the man back in the proper direction and thundered, “Now, damn you, go back to the front and fight: you might as well be killed there as here, for if you ever run away again you will not get off so easy.” The tale of this incident spread far and wide, eventually appearing in illustrated form in a Northern paper, under the title, “Forrest breaking in a conscript.”
Near Blountsville, a scout told Forrest that a heavy detachment of Yankee cavalry was nearby. Forrest asked if the scout had seen this with his own eyes, and he replied that the information was secondhand; he had “scarcely delivered himself of this piece of information when Forrest, with both hands, seized the astonished soldier by the throat, dragged him from his horse, and, shoving him against a tree near the roadside, proceeded to bump his head vigorously against the rough bark of the trunk. Having sufficiently punished the unreliable scout…[he] said: ‘Now, damn you, if you ever come up to me again with a pack of lies, you won’t get off so easily!’”
Crossing the Tennessee River, one lieutenant “took no part in the labor”; when Forrest asked the man why he did not pick up an oar or pole and do his fair share, he replied that that sort of work was below his station. As Forrest himself was rowing at this time, “he flew into a rage, and, holding the pole in one hand, with the other he gave the unfortunate lieutenant a slap on the side of the face which sent him sprawling over the gunwale and into the river. He was rescued by catching hold of the pole held out to him and was safely landed in the boat, when the irate general said to him: ‘Now, damn you, get hold of the oars and go to work! If I knock you out of the boat again, I’ll let you drown.’” This sense of duty extended after the War as well; when his train, bound for Jackson, Mississippi, derailed, he took charge of the repairs. Some passengers stayed on the train, not deigning to help or even to exit the cars, and Forrest shouted, “If you damned rascals don’t get out of here and help get this car on the track, I will throw every one of you through the windows.”
He was, however, not without mercy. At Chickamauga, Forrest whipped out his six-shooter to ‘take care’ of a frightened private in flight, when Major Anderson intervened, asking him to think. Forrest thought, lowered his pistol, and let the man go; years later, Anderson quipped that had he directly told Forrest not to do it, “he would have killed the man without a doubt, and I might have gotten a turn too.” In his Western Tennessee command, twenty malcontents attempted to desert under cover of darkness; the men were captured, condemned, seated upon coffins, and driven to their open graves. Just as the firing squad was assembled, “Forrest rode to the spot and announced to the offenders that if they would promise to serve as faithful soldiers of the Confederacy, he would pardon them…but that if any further desertion or disobedience of orders occurred…he would not again show such leniency.”
Forrest shed tears over dying men, and fastidiously served as the guardian of, in Wyeth’s words, “female virtue and the sanctity of dependent homes and unprotected families”; these are those to whom Forrest’s mercy was always extended. When a close friend was found guilty of indecency with a woman, Forrest immediately dismissed him, stating, “I will not have any man about me who will be guilty of such conduct to a woman.” His ruthless blitzkrieg was nothing but the highest expression of his love and mercy for his Southron brethren. On his forty-first birthday, Forrest captured Murfreesboro, demanding unconditional surrender “as prisoners of war, or I will have every man put to the sword.” He led the rescue after a Federal prison guard set fire to the prison, attempting to burn the Confederate prisoners alive; Forrest asked the men to “point out” the men who treated them so inhumanly. Captain Richardson pointed out the arsonist, and when roll was called a few hours later, no one answered when the guard’s name was called. Forrest said, “Pass on, it’s all right.”
No one-eyed jack, the two sides of Forrest’s face were the same. His tenderness and his brutality were both expressions of the love that suffused his soul, just as the First Crusaders theorized violence as expressions of charitable love, or agape, for their beleaguered Christian brethren. When angered, Forrest’s face turned scarlet in a savage gaze, whereby “everything that was suggestive of kindly feeling or tenderness seemed to vanish from his nature as thoroughly as if his heart had never throbbed with human sympathy”, his eyes smoldering “like those of a panther about to spring upon its prey.” Yet it is the same man who, when the ladies of Huntsville, Alabama, presented him with a fine horse, spoke softly and tearfully of “his confidence in his mother’s prayers”. Near Franklin, Tennessee, the Fourth U.S. Cavalry took Forrest’s Captain Freeman captive and then shot him down in cold blood when he couldn’t keep up the desired pace; a bitter Forrest knelt over Freeman’s body and cried, “Brave man; none braver!”
During Sherman’s Meridian Expedition, at the Battle of Okolona, Colonel Jeffrey Forrest, the youngest of Bedford Forrest’s brothers, was killed with a shot through his neck. Jeffrey had been born four months after the death of their father, and Forrest, by Wyeth’s account, “looked upon him as his special charge. Naturally of a gentle and affectionate disposition, exhibiting to those in pain or distress the tenderness of a woman, he had cared for this child with the most loving attention. As…the clouds of poverty began to break, when the hope of plenty for all he loved and struggled for became a reality, and Bedford Forrest was a man of fortune, he saw to it that at least this member of his family should have the advantages…of which he and the others had been deprived.” When Forrest saw his young brother felled from his horse, he was overwhelmed with bottomless grief; he dismounted, and, kneeling over Jeffrey’s body, “held the lifeless form in his arms, and called him several times by name…choking with anguish…he kissed him on the forehead, laid him gently down again upon the earth…and with tears in his eyes asked his faithful adjutant to take charge of his brother’s remains.” Even in this slough of despond, in the abysmal rage of grief, he made sure that a petrified mother and her six children were escorted to safety.
Forrest’s men knew that love lay underneath all of his actions; for this, they were wholly devoted to him, and, according to Wyeth, “seemed never to tire in speaking of his kind treatment of them, his sympathetic nature as a man, his great personal daring, and especially of his wonderful achievements.” His exacting discipline paid massive dividends; upon entering Western Tennessee, a majority of his men were armed with nothing but flintlock muskets, shotguns, and squirrel rifles; when his expedition was ended, “every soldier of his command had a modern and effective weapon, with abundant ammunition, and was well supplied…furnished by the enemy.” Forrest, to the great consternation of the quartermaster, always ensured that his men, who made the captures, secured “the best guns and equipment for themselves”, turning over only the discarded remnants.
On one raid, Forrest collected and organized the scattered remnants of sixteen different commands, and, in the words of one Northern paper, he, “with less than four thousand men, has moved right through the Sixteenth Army Corps, has passed within nine miles of Memphis, carried off a hundred wagons, two hundred beef cattle, three thousand conscripts, and innumerable stores; torn up railroad-tracks, destroyed telegraph-wires, burned and sacked towns, ran over pickets with a single derringer pistol, and all in the face of ten thousand men.” During Sherman’s Meridian Expedition, Forrest, “with a command which at no time in action exceeded three thousand newly organized and insufficiently armed troops, confronted, defeated, and pursued for more than fifty miles seven thousand of the best cavalry in the Union army, backed by twenty pieces of artillery, and equipped with Colt’s repeating rifles and pistols and modern carbines, the most effective weapons then known to warfare.”
Forrest imparted some of his own relentlessness into his men; at Tishomingo Creek, after Brice’s Cross-Roads, his artillery, suffered so intensely from thirst that “they drank the blackened, powder-stained water from the sponge-buckets, which were being used to cleanse and cool the guns, rather than send one needed man away. Even…the wounded refused to go to the rear.” As one lieutenant recalled, “We had that confidence in him which I imagine the Old Guard had in Napoleon. On one occasion, while we were supposed to be in a very dangerous position, with the enemy all about us, we were ordered to go into camp for the night…some new recruits…said, ‘You don’t expect to lie down and go to sleep with the enemy all around you, do you?’ The answer was: ‘Of course we do; General Forrest told us to do it.’”
Forrest reciprocated by ceaselessly defending his men from all reproach. When a jealous General Van Dorn accused Forrest’s staff of writing honorific articles in the press, Forrest furiously challenged, “I know nothing of the articles you refer to, and I demand from you your authority for this assertion. I shall hold him responsible and make him eat his words, or run my sabre through him; and I say to you as well, that I will hold you personally responsible if you do not produce the author.” Though he did place the utmost faith in his men, he also gave careful scrutiny to all aspects of each operation to maintain efficiency, even going so far as to personally ensure that the horses were treated properly. If a scout did not provide enough detail, Forrest would say, “Is that all you know? Then I’ll go there and find out for myself.”
His strict regimen did not sit well with at least one artillerist; after holding the man responsible for the loss of his guns at Day’s Gap, Forrest transferred him out of his command. The artilleryman, a lieutenant, met with Forrest weeks later in Columbia, Tennessee. The lieutenant demanded that Forrest, who was providentially twirling a small penknife in his hand, reinstate him, and upon his stern refusal, drew a pistol. Forrest reacted instantly, but the pistol was fired into him before he could grasp it. As Wyeth recounts, “With his left hand, he grasped the right hand of his assailant, in which the pistol was held, and thus prevented a second shot. Deliberately with the right hand he carried the penknife to his mouth, and, holding the handle between his fingers, with his teeth he opened the largest blade and quickly thrust it into the abdomen of his assailant…inflicting a mortal wound.” The wounded lieutenant fled, and Forrest staggered onto the street, seizing a pistol. He vowed, “Get out of my way; he has mortally wounded me, and I intend to kill him before I die…damn him, he has killed me, and I am determined he shall die too.” Over the following days, Forrest recovered, and the lieutenant faded; on his deathbed, he requested to see Forrest. He came, and, again in Wyeth’s recitation, “the officer took the general by the hand…saying, ‘General, I shall not be here long, and I was not willing to go away without seeing you in person and saying to you how thankful I am that I am the one who is to die and that you are spared to the country. What I did, I did in a moment of rashness, and I want your forgiveness.’ Forrest leaned over…told him he forgave him freely, and that his own heart was full of regret that the wound he had inflicted was fatal…Forrest wept like a child.” One observer noted that “it was the saddest of all the sad incidents of the long and bitter War I witnessed.”
Forrest pointed to a childhood incident as the source of the lesson by which he had “learned…the value of a bold attack, even when he knew he was inferior in strength to the enemy.” An unbroken colt had tossed the young Forrest into the yard of two ferocious dogs; fully expecting that he would be torn to shreds, he leapt up when he hit the ground and ran. To his surprise, “the dogs had fled and left him master of the field. The animals…were evidently taken with panic at having such a thing as a boy of this size hurled at them through the air, and had sought safety in flight.” Forrest’s offensive “brag and bluff” philosophy was similar to Jackson’s: “Whenever you meet the enemy, no matter how few there are of you or how many of them, show fight. If you run away, they will pursue and probably catch you. If you show fight, they will think there are more of you, and will not push you half so hard.” Another of Jackson’s maxims that Forrest emulated: “Always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy if possible. When you strike and overcome him, never give up the pursuit as long as your men have strength to follow; for an army routed, if hotly pursued, becomes panic-stricken, and can then be destroyed by half its number.”
As Yankee General Hurlbut said, Forrest “will lead his men farther than anyone I know.” Pursuing Streight’s raiders at Sand Mountain, Forrest’s orders were to “shoot at everything blue, and keep up the scare.” At Black Creek, the sixteen-year-old Emma Sansom led Forrest to an unguarded ford, thereby facilitating his capture of Streight; Sansom recalled that “he quickly stepped between me and the Yankees, saying: ‘I am glad to have you for a pilot, but I am not going to make breastworks of you.’” Through four consecutive all-night marches in perpetual motion over one hundred and fifty miles, with no sleep and less food, he ran Streight’s men ragged such that they fell asleep in line of battle; even the rebel yell could not arouse them from their slumber. As Streight said, “The man of iron had worn them out.”
Attacking the stockade at the Harpeth railroad bridge, Forrest demanded unconditional surrender, or “I’ll blow hell out of them in five minutes and won’t take one of them alive if I have to sacrifice my men in storming their stockade.” His reputation preceded him on one of his rare retreats; as Bragg fell back from Chattanooga, Forrest’s cavalry passed through Cowan, Tennessee, to a gap in the Cumberland Mountains. As Wyeth recounts, “As the general, among the last in retreat, was passing a house, he noticed a woman who was berating his soldiers for not turning on the Yankees and ‘whipping them back.’ Shaking her fist at Forrest, the stars on whose collar she was too angry to observe or too near-sighted to see, she shrieked out: ‘You great big cowardly rascal; why don’t you turn and fight like a man, instead of running like a cur? I wish old Forrest was here, he’d make you fight!’ The general, unable to control himself, burst into a laugh…when telling this incident, he said that he would rather have faced a battery than that fiery dame.”
Forrest practiced precisely what he preached. As the Reverend Kelley recalled, he was so daring, so disregardful of his life, so “reckless in personal exposure”, that the men initially thought him insane. They quickly learned, however, that “his genius in action rose to every emergency; he always did what the enemy least expected him to do, and when…others would have counted defeat, he was more fertile in resources, more energetic in attack, more resistless in his fiery onset than when the action began.” When notified of the commanding general’s unnecessary capitulation at Fort Donelson, early in the War, Forrest’s answer was, “I cannot and will not surrender my command or myself.” At Shiloh, when his superior hesitated to order a charge, Forrest replied, “Then I’ll do it.” At Chickamauga, General Ector sent two consecutive messengers to Forrest, expressing concern over the right, and then the left, flanks; he sent the messenger back on his way: “Tell General Ector that, by God, I am here, and will take care of his left flank as well as his right.” At Parker’s Cross-Roads, a worried Colonel Carroll notified Forrest that “we are between two lines of battle. What shall we do?” His answer: “We’ll charge them both ways.”
After Shiloh, Forrest usually fought on foot, horses merely a means of transportation by which he could “throw his men on the enemy before they dreamed of his proximity”. In hand-to-hand combat, he killed or disabled over thirty Yankees; as Lieutenant-General Taylor put it, “I doubt if any commander since the days of the lion-hearted Richard killed as many enemies with his own hand.” On one occasion, Forrest found himself surrounded by six slashing Federals, and fought them off with nothing but one six-shooter. He was typically the first horseman of the line, and, according to Colonel Barteau, “one of his many peculiarities was that in battle he never seemed to touch his saddle, but stood up in his stirrups, an attitude which gave him the appearance of being a foot taller than he actually was.” As Forrest was over six feet tall, this must have made quite the scene. As Wyeth recounts, one of his most incredible exploits occurred as Forrest moved toward Chattanooga with an advance-guard of Armstrong’s brigade. When Armstrong and Forrest encountered Federal rear-guard cavalry, Forrest challenged, “Armstrong, let’s give them a dare.” As he charged at full speed, his horse was shot in the neck, and “the blood spurted from the divided vessel, seeing which Forrest leaned forward from the saddle, inserted the index-finger of his hand into the wound, and thus, stanching the hemorrhage, the animal was still able to carry his rider onward with the troops pursuing the Federals. As soon as the field was cleared, Forrest, removing his finger from the wound, dismounted, when his noble charger sank to the earth and was soon lifeless.”
Forrest mystified the Enemy by always doing “what was least expected”. He successfully obscured his location and plans with an unparalleled system of scouts; his hand-picked escorts often ‘deserted’ to ‘give themselves up’ and give false reports. His brilliance, however, was not appreciated by the authorities at Richmond until it was too late. As Christ tells us in Mark 6:4, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house. No less than President Davis himself admitted this at Forrest’s funeral, acknowledging, “I saw it all after it was too late.” The depraved Sherman and the butcher Grant, along with their superiors at Gehenna, gave Forrest more of his due than the men at Richmond. Union War Secretary Stanton was perpetually “anxious” to ascertain Forrest’s whereabouts, as were officers as far afield as Cincinnati; a ubiquitous refrain, “what have you from Forrest?” Never able to locate him, Sherman constantly received wildly irreconcilable reports, including such from Cincinnati: “Forrest has been in disguise alternately in Chicago, Michigan City, and Canada…at midnight, he will seize…Chicago, release prisoners there, arm them, sack the city, shoot down all Federal soldiers, and urge concert of action with Southern sympathizers.”
Grant asserted that “neither army could present a more effective officer.” To Sherman, he was “that devil Forrest”. He offered a Major-General’s commission to any brigadier that could kill Forrest, urging that “it must be done, if it costs ten thousand lives and breaks the Treasury”. Consistently surprised at Forrest’s ability to rout troops vastly superior in both numbers and equipment, Sherman sighed, “Forrest is the devil, and I think he has got some of our troops under cower…there will never be peace in Tennessee until Forrest is dead! We must destroy him.” Sherman ordered the Tupelo Expedition solely “to pursue Forrest on foot, devastating the land over which he has passed, or may pass, and to make the people of TN and MS feel that although a bold, daring, and successful leader, he will bring ruin and misery on any country where he may pass or tarry. If we do not punish Forrest and the people now, the whole effect of our vast conquest will be lost.”
Our Cause was inestimably diminished by the Confederacy refusing to listen to Forrest’s many brilliant plans and by hampering him with a small force; he should have been placed in command of the Army of the Tennessee. One such unfulfilled scheme was a masterful strategy to close the Mississippi River to Grant; the incompetent General Bragg refused to sign off on it, and thus it was dismissed by President Davis. They did not comprehend the incredible damage Forrest would have inflicted if left to his own devices, and the opportunity was lost forever; After Chickamauga, Davis eventually did grant Forrest his independent command in Western Tennessee, but far too little and far too late.
Perhaps the greatest blunder of the entire War, though, was committed when Davis did not accede to the requests of Generals Johnston, Wheeler, and Cobb, as well as Georgia Governor Brown, that Forrest be given command of the Army of the Tennessee’s cavalry to wreak havoc of Sherman’s supply and communication lines. Eventually Davis gave the green light, but yet again, a day late and a dollar short. If this had been done in time, Forrest might have destroyed Sherman’s entire army; more importantly, however, Forrest would have hamstrung Sherman such that the satanic March to the Sea would have been staved off or even canceled. So, had Davis given Forrest his due, one of the greatest war crimes in human history might never have been allowed to happen. That indelible, ineradicable scar upon the Southern psyche, our cities annihilated, our farms fallowed and forests eviscerated, our animals slaughtered, and our wives, mothers, and daughters unspeakably violated and traumatized, might never have happened. One wonders if, had this ultimately demoralizing this coup de grâce never happened, our Cause might never have been lost.
One of Forrest’s paramount triumphs, perhaps his greatest achievement, was the capture of Fort Pillow. Characteristically, Forrest, despite his utmost confidence in his men, reconnoitered the topography and the fort himself; Major Anderson begged him to dismount, to which Forrest replied that he was “just as apt to be hit one way as another.” He “was after success first, and with the smallest possible loss of men. Hard fighter as he was, and even reckless of all when occasion demanded, he took infinite pains to shield his faithful soldiers when he could.” Forrest moved his men into position, surrounding the fort. He had flags of truce raised, and demanded that the fort surrender. Steamers were spotted coming upstream toward the front, and, informed that they were Federal reinforcements, Forrest took the precaution of moving two detachments back to previously secured positions. The steamers showed no signs of halting, nor of seeing or respecting the flags of truce. Fort Pillow itself still had the Union flag raised, and did not signal to the steamers, loaded with artillery and infantry, to desist.
Within the Fort, filled with mixed but predominantly black soldiers alongside many Unionist local traitors avoiding conscription, the situation was positively bacchanal. Major Booth had been killed hours before by a sharpshooter, and his successor, the scandalously inept Major Bradford, had allowed the garrison free rein with the liquor stores. As a result, nearly all of the Yankees were supremely inebriated. They replied to Forrest’s demand by requesting an hour to consider, and signed the request as the deceased Booth; this was subterfuge, designed to allow the reinforcement boats to arrive. While this message was being drafted, the drunken troops of Fort Pillow were obscenely abusive, shouting at and cajoling the Confederates. Forrest replied to the request for one hour by offering twenty minutes; to this, the Fort declined, refusing to surrender. With respect to the boats, Forrest ordered his men to “shoot everything blue betwixt wind and water until their flag comes down.”
He ordered the charge on the fort. Gaus blew his battered bugle, riddled with bullet holes, and the rebel yell erupted, rending the air. Forrest’s men were “no ordinary marksmen, these grandsons of the backwoods riflemen who played such havoc with the British at New Orleans.” The marvelous scene, a testament to the indomitable Southron spirit, a paean to the animating spirit of our Cause, was epic; by Wyeth’s account, “to rush through a blaze of musketry and cannon and gain that ditch, jump into it and clamber out, halt for a minute on the base of the embankment, and in one solid line from all sides spring over the parapet ablaze with the flash of powder from the very muzzles of the muskets of the garrison, still reserving their fire, then to leap in among them and grapple hand to hand in mortal combat, took these daredevil horsemen less time to do than it takes to tell of it.”
The garrison at Fort Pillow had determined to die rather than surrender; likewise, the Confederates were there to capture the fort or perish in the attempt. As grey overcame blue, the gunboats deserted their men and the besotted Yankees lost their minds. Some of them attempted to surrender, while intermingled with these poor men were those who, driven by drink to be “reckless and indifferent to danger or death”, continued to fire long after their situation became untenable. Consequently, some who attempted to surrender were killed; as Wyeth gathered from all eyewitness accounts, “but for the insane conduct of their drunken and desperate comrades, a great many of those who perished would have escaped.” Colonel Barteau swore that “some, even, who had thrown down their arms, took them up again and continued firing.” Part of the blame for the suicidal behavior of the garrison lies with the incompetent Yankee commanders, whom the prisoners freely indicted; many of them told Barteau that “they had been led to believe that if they surrendered they would be killed by Forrest, and they were surprised and gratified at their humane treatment.” Colonel McCulloch did “not hesitate to say we never made a more manly or fairer fight.” As soon as Forrest was sure that the fort was taken, he ordered a ceasefire; in fact, the Union flag might still have been flying when the order was given. Only one soldier was found to have fired after the ceasefire, and this man was promptly arrested.
Forrest placed McCulloch in charge of the Federal prisoners, and the prisoners were tasked with burying their dead. If, as Yankee propaganda alleged, any of the wounded were buried alive, they were buried so by their own men, perhaps being so intoxicated as to appear lifeless. The Confederates quickly departed, a rear-guard encamped two miles away; thus, if any of the fabricated and outlandish Yankee allegations of atrocities did occur, these excesses were committed after dark “by guerrillas, robbers, and murderers, with which this section…was then infested, and who, following in the wake of either army like hyenas, preyed without mercy upon the weak and defenseless.” No Confederates were nearby at the time these supposed excesses occurred, and eighteen of the seventy-eight ‘witnesses’ called by the Yankee Congress to ‘testify’ were nowhere in the vicinity of the fort; the most harrowing ‘testimony’ came from among these. Moreover, given that Sherman and Grant initiated no retaliation, even after conducting their own investigations, it is clear that the ‘Fort Pillow massacre’ never happened.
Had Forrest intended a merciless massacre, there were no obstacles to prevent him from doing so. Forrest himself had no racial animus to speak of. He was known in Memphis for his kind treatment of his slaves; he went to great lengths to ensure families were never separated. His policy favored the return of blacks to their owners, not killing them. Those who were killed at Fort Pillow died because they were either firing or caught among the alcohol-fueled last stands of comrades that “even after escape was hopeless continued to fire”. The operation must be contextualized; there was never an official surrender, the Federal flag was not stricken, and Yankees continued firing even after ‘surrendering’. Forrest had promised that no quarter would be given were there no surrender; one cannot reason with desperately inebriated men who have taken leave of their senses. In the previous days, members of Forrest’s cavalry had been arrested, tortured, and murdered; one of these men had been, in Forrest’s own words, “left to die after cutting off his tongue, punching out his eyes, [and] splitting his mouth on each side to his ears.” Widespread horrors were being perpetrated against the civilian population, and other war crimes committed against prisoners, such as Sherman’s use of Confederate prisoners to explode torpedoes. The United States refused to exchange prisoners, “thus condemning to a lingering death those of its own and the enemy’s soldiers.”
The civilians within the fort had been given the opportunity to leave, so it must be assumed that those who remained did so in order to fight. Women and children were removed under escort. Colonel Wisdom, noting that Forrest ordered the ceasefire while the Union flag still flew, remarked that “it seems strange that the man who took most pains to secure the surrender of this garrison without loss of life, guaranteeing protection…as prisoners of war before storming the fort, and who took such prompt measures to compel his troops to stop shooting after the success of the assault was assured, even when their flag was still flying…should have been assailed as a murderer and a barbarian; and this, too, in the face of his treatment of the negro troops captured 60 days later at Brice’s Cross-Roads, who had on their knees at Memphis taken an oath to show no quarter to Forrest’s men.”
Forrest ordered every building burnt but the hospital, even leaving a Federal surgeon with the wounded men, whom he paroled, along with a week’s worth of medicine and provisions. Even the maniacal Sherman attested that he was told “by hundreds of our men…that he was usually very kind to them.” It was invidious and vile Yankeedom that treated its prisoners to a regimen of starvation and violence; Forrest, according to one of his prisoners, treated them “as a true soldier would”. One Federal chaplain, captured by Forrest and sure he would be executed, was surprised when the general invited to him to ask the blessing, later releasing him with an escort. Sending the chaplain off, Forrest said, “Parson, I would keep you here to preach for me if you were not needed so much more by the sinners on the other side.” After Forrest’s cavalry raided his native Memphis, his younger brother, Lieutenant-Colonel Jesse Forrest, captured Yankee Major-General Washburn’s uniform and personal effects, giving them to his elder brother as a trophy. Under flag of truce, Forrest had them returned; as a thanks, Washburn sent him by courier “a handsome suit of Confederate gray which had been made by Forrest’s old tailor in Memphis”.
For political purposes, the U.S. Congress gave the Battle of Fort Pillow “a bloody coloring”; its ‘investigative’ committee was a war measure, fueled by embellished, fabricated, and self-contradictory ‘testimony’. As Wyeth astutely concludes, “Forrest had become a man of great importance in the mighty struggle the South was making. The opportunity [that] now presented itself to injure his reputation and blacken his character and that of his men was not to be lost…to further excite the indignation of the Northern people and of the civilized world…and further to impress upon the minds of the negroes who were then flocking to the ranks of the Union army that in future battles they could not expect quarter, and must therefore fight with desperation to the last.” Forrest saw things as they were, lamenting that his “bloody victory [was] made a massacre only by dastardly Yankee reporters.”
The capture of Fort Pillow was a glorious achievement, one that deserves to be hallowed in the great annals of our history alongside Pickett’s Charge; it was simply astounding “for a small force of cavalry, one-half of whom were recruits of four months’ service, and badly armed, to storm a stronghold deemed impregnable, the garrison of which was thoroughly well equipped with the most modern and effective small arms, with six pieces of artillery, and these aided by a gunboat…So perfectly secure did this garrison feel that, during the truce, while the surrender was being demanded, they jeered and laughed at the Confederates for their presumption in thinking their capture possible.” As Wisdom declared, it was a marvelous accomplishment that the fort, “considered at that time impregnable [was] stormed by the Confederates with unsurpassed bravery, and no stain should rest upon their gallant leader.” It should stand as an heroic memory, but the Yankees have successfully tarnished it with a shadow that has yet to be shed light upon and cast away; for just one of the innumerable examples, the third paragraph of Forrest’s Wikipedia page states, “In April 1864, in what has been called ‘one of the bleakest, saddest events of American military history’,troops under Forrest’s command massacred Union troops who had surrendered, most of them black soldiers along with some white Southern Tennesseans fighting for the Union, at the Battle of Fort Pillow. Forrest was blamed for the massacre in the Union press and that news may have strengthened the North’s resolve to win the war.”
Informed of both Lee and Johnston’s surrenders, as well as Taylor’s negotiations to follow suit, Forrest persuaded his men to do the same: “That we are beaten is a self-evident fact, and any further resistance…would be justly regarded as the very height of folly and rashness…The cause for which you have so long and manfully struggled, and for which you have braved dangers, endured privations and sufferings, and made so many sacrifices, is today hopeless. The government which we sought to establish and perpetuate is at an end. Reason dictates and humanity demands that no more blood be shed…it is your duty and mine to lay down our arms, submit to the powers that be, and to aid in restoring peace and establishing law and order…war, such as you have just passed through, naturally engenders feelings of animosity, hatred, and revenge. It is our duty to divest ourselves of all such feelings…to cultivate friendly feelings…The attempt made to establish a separate and independent confederation has failed, but the consciousness of having done your duty faithfully and to the end will in some measure repay for the hardships you have undergone…I have never on the field of battle sent you where I was unwilling to go myself, nor would I now advise you to a course which I felt myself unwilling to pursue…preserve your honor, and the government to which you have surrendered can afford to be and will be magnanimous.”
Forrest did not speak idly; he, as per usual, practiced what he preached. General Maury notified him that Admiral Semmes had been arrested, his parole disregarded, and urged Forrest to flee to Europe. Rather than tuck tail, he calmly presented himself to authorities and inquired as to whether plans existed for his arrest. En route to the 1868 Democrat Convention, a local ruffian boarded the train and challenged Forrest; rather than run, he approached the buffoon, saying, “I am Forrest. What do you want?” The bully took one look at him and fled. Forrest worked toward reconciliation, toward the healing of the grievous wounds, including the racial divide, that still oozed during Reconstruction. In his last will, “he bequeathed his sword to his son with the expressed wish that, should occasion offer, he, as his father would have done, would use it under the Stars and Stripes with the same devotion and earnestness that it had been wielded for the Southern Confederacy.” He never forgot his men; for the rest of his days, and then those of his wife, what little money remaining to his name was spent to alleviate the crushing misery of wounded and destitute Confederate veterans, as well as their widowed and orphaned families.
When Forrest urged his men to surrender and integrate themselves once more into the country that they had just lost the War to, he could not have known how mistaken he was in assuming the magnanimity of the Federal conquerors. He could not have known of the dark despotism that would suck the lifeblood from the South, the depredations of the tyrannical black Republicans, or the carpetbaggers, scalawags, and Union Leagues that would run roughshod over the liberties of a people already reduced to rubble. Little did Forrest know the demons that Reconstruction would unleash, whose ramifications echo to this day in the death of the America that our fathers built. Had he known, we must imagine that he would agree with General Lee’s remark to Texas Governor Stockdale: “Governor, if I had foreseen the use those people designed to make of their victory, there would have been no surrender at Appomattox Courthouse; no sir, not by me. Had I foreseen these results of subjugation, I would have preferred to die at Appomattox with my brave men, my sword in my right hand.”
When the horrors of Reconstruction were made manifest, Forrest did take action for the defense of his prostrate country. Against a backdrop in which United Confederate Veterans meetings were decried, as if the War was to erupt again were veterans allowed to congregate, Forrest joined the Ku Klux Klan to restore law and order in the vacuum inculcated by a terrorist ruling class. General John Gordon, seeking a strong leader for the decentralized organization, approached Lee, but in his failing health, Lee recommended Forrest for a leadership position; independently, Forrest had approached his former artillerist, Captain John Morton.
Wyeth correctly describes Forrest’s involvement with the early Klan as stemming from his yearning “to relieve his people from the terrible and oppressive conditions under which they so grievously suffered”. The Klan was “created to counteract and hold in some sort of check the insolence of the Loyal League…and the unscrupulous greed of the carpetbaggers. Secret associations of this character do not exist without some real and strong reason…they never trouble communities in which law is impartially administered and the rights of all citizens respected. No candid man who is familiar with the…conditions then obtaining in the Southern States will deny that [the Klan] was perfectly justified, or that the evils such abnormal conditions were producing could be met or remedied in any other way…the Southern whites-with the exception of that renegade class which was more vicious and virulent than the carpetbaggers themselves- were deprived of all rights, civil and political, and subjected, with no means or hope of legal protection, to every outrage and oppression the malice of their opponents could devise. Such a people would never tamely submit…and, in the absence of every other method of redress, naturally-indeed, inevitably- employed force.”
Whatever became of the Klan, we must acknowledge that Forrest’s Klan was not responsible for the excesses and brutalities committed by lawless criminal gangs that exploited the situation. Nature, after all, abhors a vacuum. Forrest’s Klan was made up of prominent citizens, all of whom were veterans, and its animating mission called for “chivalry, humanity, mercy, and patriotism…to relieve and assist the injured, oppressed, suffering, and unfortunate, especially the widows and orphans of Confederate veterans…and to support the United States Constitution.” Rapine and plunder, both by marauding bands of freedmen and government agents, ravaged the already wasted land; state Treasuries were looted and land expropriated, with unaccountable military tribunals (having replaced the dissolved civilian governments) giving color of law to the genocidal reign of terror against the plain folk of Dixie.
Women were assaulted in broad daylight, the night full of darker terrors still. In Chicot County, Arkansas, Forrest personally witnessed a black gang brutalize and rob a white family and torch their home at gunpoint; he received dozens of letters every day, detailing outrages perpetrated by military authorities and criminals, often one and the same, against the innocent men and women that he had pledged his sword to protect. Tennessee Governor Brownlow, a rampant carpetbagger, declared, “I am one of those at the South who believe this War has closed out two years too soon! The rebels have been whipped, but not whipped enough. The loyal masses constitute an overwhelming majority of the people in this country, and they intend to march again on the South, and [this] second war shall be no child’s play. The second army of invasion will, as they ought to do, make the entire South as God formed the earth, without form or void…as for the rebel population, let them be exterminated.” When the Klan had restored order, maintaining peace until Southrons recaptured control of their state governments, Forrest disbanded the original Klan, denouncing any criminal elements that had coopted the loose organization.
What would Forrest do today, were he to see the wretched fate that has befallen his beloved country, were he to know that that selfsame stranglehold of an ancient evil chains his people in thralldom once more as it did so long ago? The answer seems clear. The only difference is in the extreme intensification of the power and the determination of our emboldened Enemy. Lord Wolseley eulogized that “Forrest had fought like a knight-errant for the Cause he believed to be that of justice and right. No man who drew the sword for his country…deserves better of her; and as long as the chivalrous deeds of her sons find poets to describe them and fair women to sing of them, the name of this gallant general will be remembered with affection and sincere admiration. A man with such a record needs no ancestry.” After the battle at Old Town Creek at Harrisburg, Forrest lamented the losses his command had sustained: “In unselfish devotion to the Cause and high courage they leave no superiors among men. Their noble natures and ardent patriotism, it is to be hoped, will find in the soldier’s grave that peace for which their country has thus far struggled in vain, and for the achievement of which they have sacrificed their lives. Future generations will never weary of hanging garlands upon their graves.”
Forrest’s own Memphis has fallen, just as every single one of our once-great Southern cities have. Our imploded civilization, if one may call it by such a name, has forced the Sons of Confederate Veterans to disinter Forrest and his wife, moving them to the grounds of the new National Confederate Museum, where they will be safe from desecration. Though sad that it has come to this, we must rejoice that there are still those of us who will honor him. I hope to see you all there. The New South devoured the Old. The Global South consumed the New. The Solid South is no more, just as America is no more. Our South still exists, and not only in our own hearts; dotted throughout the former Confederacy lie pockets of that Edenic idyll our ancestors fought so bitterly to preserve. Accessible by backroad, I can still go back to my mother’s childhood church, to the graves of my lineage, to primeval wilderness and unsullied waters. The salon where my mother got her hair done as a little girl still stands, as do the dirt roads that she raced her Mustang on. Confederate battle-flags still fly on many homes.
But what little of this South that remains to us is receding, vanishing, unable to withstand the onslaught. Realizing Forrest’s worst nightmares, we have wearied in hanging garlands upon our forebears’ vaunted graves; the graveyard is defiled and vandalized, a stumbling-block in the path of Progress. My grandmother’s pecan tree has been cut down, as has the hundreds-of-years-old tree guarding her church. All of the industry that once supported her town has sold out to the Babel of globalism. Methadone clinics, boarded-up windows, and bail bondsmen have taken the place of the burger joint and the movie theater. The groves where I walked and dreamed with my first love have been razed, made way for the interstate. The hills that I hiked have been blasted, the land gouged and poisoned. The cancer of Leftism, a scourge extinguishing faith and family from our lives, has infiltrated every one of our communities. Across from the defaced Confederate monument on our town square stand glittering, trendy restaurants, tattooed and pierced genderfluid hipsters manning the bars. Deracinated children follow not after their fathers, but after ephemeral will-o’-the-wisps glimmering in outer darkness; they have been told that they must leave their benighted and provincial homes behind to seek individuated misery in the putrid squalor of the city, that they must sign away their birthrights in exchange for the sumptuous luxury of studio apartments with flickering lights, festering fast food wrappers, and hypodermic needles.
As Forrest told Taylor, “Faith is the duty of the hour. We will succeed. We have only to work and wait.” Just as time has proven the righteousness of our Cause, so too shall we be vindicated. The South is dying, not dead; as President Putin once retold a Russian adage, “There’s always hope, until they wheel your body into the graveyard.” But even then, there is still hope; the South may yet survive, with more hope for success than the United States presently have. We will overcome. We know and trust in God that we will prevail. We have only to “keep up the scare”, and “be not allured by the siren song of peace, for there can be no peace” save upon the consummation of the independence that our forefathers fell short of achieving. We must gird our loins, for it will not be easy. Our Revolutionary ancestors took up arms against the greatest army the world had ever seen, and triumphed. Their Confederate grandchildren and great-grandchildren marched exultantly into the mouth of Hell, crying a full-throated rebel yell. What have we to lose? As Christ tells us in Luke 9:62, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.