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Civil War Articles
Movement around Pope's Army
Timothy Webster, Pinkerton Man and Spy
The Third Day at Gettysburg
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Stanley at Shiloh: A Improbable 'Indiana Jones'
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Special Order 191: Ruse of War?
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Confederate Railroad
Shenandoah Campaign
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Commanders and Censors
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Nutmeggers on Antietam Creek
Nathan Bedford Forrest
The City Point Explosion
Dalton to Atlanta-Sherman vs. Johnston
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History of 138th PA
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Want of Nail: Confederate Ironclads
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Skirmish in the East Woods
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The Mistake of All Mistakes
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6th WI at Gettysburg
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Larry Freiheit Articles
Nutmeggers on Antietam Creek
Nathan Bedford Forrest

Was Nathan Bedford Forrest the Best Confederate Cavalry Leader in the West?
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 independent commander.

Forrest's involvement with local and county governments enhanced his confidence in his abilities and his knowledge of organizations when, for example, he was a member of the board of Aldermen in Memphis. His successes as a planter and businessman helped his military career, initially by enabling him to pay for arms equipment to help supply his regiment, but also to bring his reputation as a businessman and citizen to allow him to raise a regiment. And he must have had no doubt as to which side he would embrace when the war began; he knew that his plantation required slave labor to be profitable and that his slave trading business would be ended if the North won, thus he and his family would have to start over should the North be victorious.

His first military forays proved that he was not averse to using unconventional and perhaps non regulation tactics such as taking hostages and threatening their lives to accomplish a mission. But his first major mounted action showed that he did have something to learn about tactics as he impetuously charged a Union line before his disorganized troopers were prepared and he was in clear danger of being killed. He was rescued by one of his subordinate officers who kept his head and did not engage in Forrest's initial wild pursuit of the Federal troopers. Forrest did, once those men came up, employ them well dismounting some and having small units go around each flank preparatory to a frontal charge which succeeded well routing the Union troopers. This action at Sacramento, Kentucky, showed Forrest that controlled aggression, using mounted and dismounted troopers, and flanking the enemy worked well. He probably also learned that headlong, wild, uncoordinated pursuits, no matter how brave, might not be the best way to attack an enemy, especially one who is prepared for the onslaught.

Forrest also learned much at Fort Donelson in February 1862. In his combined attack with part of the Orphan Brigade, the 2nd Kentucky, he saw that combining his cavalry with aggressive and well-led infantry could be more successful than either alone as these forces successfully sent W.H.L. Wallace's men and much of McClernand's division reeling, capturing cannon and many prisoners. In addition to this valuable tactical lesson, he learned from watching and speaking with the three generals in charge, Gideon J. Pillow, Simon B. Buckner, and John B. Floyd, how high rank does not confer military sagacity or even common sense as all three decided to surrender when escaping was a better option as Forrest quickly demonstrated. This pathetic display certainly enhanced his probably unconscious belief that operating as an independent commander would better suit him. Fort Donelson gave Forrest several valuable military lessons which included reinforcing to him the need to do his own scouting as false or inaccurate reports almost scuttled his escape attempt as it did for the three generals. He also found that surrendering was not part of his repertoire.

At Shiloh, Forrest's abandonment of his assigned position guarding fords at Lick Creek to join in the fighting showed that he still had not matured as a commander. As he covered the Confederate retreat to Corinth, another impetuous but initially successful charge halted the Union chase but almost resulted in his death; he was engulfed by Union infantry when his troopers wisely turned back upon seeing that they were vastly outnumbered. Forrest paid for his boldness by being seriously wounded, emphatically reinforcing this lesson. He continued to learn his trade as he later profited from watching some of his new troopers undergoing mounted drill of which he knew little. He was not afraid to learn from his subordinate officers what he did not know and taught them the hard reality of combat from his recent experiences.

His on-the-job training continued at his Murfreesboro raid which he first used his demand for surrender request and also his deploying his men so they appeared to be in great numbers. These tactics, along with hard fighting and not quitting when the battle was half won resulted in taking the entire garrison. Inflating his numbers and relying on his growing reputation while sowing misinformation served him well in all his later military adventures. Usually outnumbered, he relied on his cunning and knowledge of human nature to be his allies. He learned his earlier lessons of avoiding wild, disorganized frontal charges aptly demonstrated at Trenton, Tennessee, where once he learned that the Union was well fortified in the town, he used his artillery to good effect forcing them to surrender. Supplying his troopers with Union largesse was standard procedure by now as he tried to ensure that this, his third new command, was well-equipped.

All of his newly learned military wisdom combined with his normal aggression and fighting spirit was in evidence at Parker's Crossroads where he was in danger of being surrounded. He fought his way out aided by his desire not to surrender and the aggressive actions of his subordinate officers. That all of his lessons learned might not be sufficient was demonstrated by his actions at Fort Donelson in early 1863 which his part of the battle went poorly despite all his efforts. Forrest, who served under Joseph Wheeler in this battle, was furious perhaps at himself but his anger manifested itself by Forrest telling Wheeler he would never serve under him again. Forrest's human relations abilities failed here. That his temper was also not under constant control was shown when after the successful conclusion of the Streight raiders, he and a lieutenant he had insulted scuffled; Forrest was shot and the lieutenant died as a result of Forrest's stabbing him. Forrest's famous temper was again shown to Braxton Bragg after Bragg took some of his men and put them and Forrest under Wheeler's command. Reportedly, Forrest did everything short of challenging his commanding officer to a duel, disrespect Forrest showed to all of his commanders whom he believed were threatening him by personal attacks or by persecuting him.

Forrest showed that his bluffing ability was raised to a fine art possibly exceeded his renowned fighting ability when, after chasing Abel Streight's mule-mounted infantry, he forced his surrender by multiplying his numbers by crafty marching and deploying and redeploying his artillery. But his most famous victory, Brice's Cross Roads, involved little bluffing; it combined his knowledge of the enemy's movements and composition, how he would react to Forrest's initial actions, and how to best use the terrain and weather to allow his much smaller force to defeat its larger and better equipped foe. He had to use all of his knowledge, skills and personal ability to fight the enemy to a standstill, out flank him on both flanks, while engaging him in frontal assaults during which Forrest battled from the front. Here, in sole command, his abilities shown as he and his men turned a retreat into a wonderful rout. During the rout, he again employed a tactic he often used of chasing the retreating foe by rotating his units so that he could continue the pressure incessantly by always having a rested unit in closely pursuing an exhausted enemy. Brice's Cross Roads showed that Forrest was more than just a raider.

His final success as a commander was ironically during his service as rear guard for Hood's defeated army retreating from Nashville. He performed excellent rear guard actions saving as much as possible of the remnants of the Army of Tennessee but this and subsequent actions depressed Forrest as he saw that the Union juggernaut was impossible to stop. During Wilson's Selma Campaign, Forrest performed as well as he could being heavily outnumbered suffering another wound. He knew his war was over. Though Forrest best operated independently and arguably best as a raider, he was usually always aware of general strategy. The best example of this was his desire to strike Sherman's long supply line as Sherman was chasing Joseph E. Johnston. By this stage of the war, Forrest knew that the North's manpower and supply advantages meant that direct confrontation was impossible so cutting the monster's long tail and gobbling up small outposts was the best approach. One of his last and most notable successes was his remarkable destruction of Union supplies, facilities and even boats during his late 1864 raid along the Tennessee River. Mounting his artillery on captured boats highlighted his ingenuity. The weak southern rail network which worked fairly well during the first two years of the war was failing as facilities wore out or were destroyed by Union advances and raiders. This also meant that more and more Forrest had to live off the land and supply himself from captured Union armaments and supplies. The South's ability to concentrate large armies quickly to confront Union armies was curtailed making Forrest even more necessary for any hope remaining for the South.

Unfortunately, for Southern hopes, Confederate leadership in the west and in Richmond recognized too late that Forrest and his tactics were the only hope left to salvage anything in the western theater. Undoubtedly his prickly attitude and open disparagement of commanders who he believed were either incompetent or actively seeking to thwart his personal or military endeavors did not help him. All of the lessons Forrest learned in the first years of the war could have been put to good use but for the short sightedness and less-than-aggressive attitude of many of his commanders, most notably Braxton Bragg. Forrest never had a Robert E. Lee to appreciate and exploit his talents as Lee did with Jeb Stuart. The Civil War gave Forrest the stage to fully display the life and personality which contributed so much to the Southern cause.

* * *

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.
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