|Was Nathan Bedford Forrest
the Best Confederate Cavalry Leader in the West?
by Laurence Freiheit
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
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
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
Copyright © 2007 Laurence Freiheit.
Written by Larry Freiheit. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Larry Freiheit at:
About the author:
Larry Freiheit, a Civil War historian and author, has published an article on Jeb Stuart during the Maryland Campaign on a website dedicated to the Antietam battle, an article in the "Washington Times" about Jeb Stuart, and a book review and articles on the Military History Online website.
Freiheit retired in 2000 from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C. He is completing his master’s degree in military studies with a Civil War concentration at American Public University. Freiheit has a Bachelor of Arts degree from Central Connecticut State University and a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Connecticut School of Law. He is a member of the Society for Military History, The Society of Civil War Historians, and the Delta Epsilon Tau International Honor Society. He is a Vietnam veteran having served in the Marine Corps and also served in an Army Reserve Military Intelligence Battalion and an Army National Guard infantry battalion.
Published online: 12/09/2007.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.