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Nathan Bedford Forrest (July 13, 1821 – October 29, 1877) was a lieutenant general in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. He is remembered both as a self-made and innovative cavalry leader during the war and as a figure in the postwar establishment of the first Ku Klux Klan organization opposing the Reconstruction era in the South.

A cavalry and military commander in the war, Forrest is also one of the war's most unusual figures. Less educated and refined than his contemporaries, Forrest had made his fortune prior to the war as a plantation owner, real estate investor, and slave trader. He was one of the very few in either army to enlist as a private and end the war at the rank of general. Although Forrest lacked formal military education, Forrest discovered and established new doctrines for mobile forces, earning the nickname The Wizard of the Saddle. He was accused of responsibility for war crimes at the Battle of Fort Pillowmarker for leading Confederate soldiers in a massacre of unarmed black Union Army prisoners. After the war Forrest opposed Reconstruction policies and federal occupation by serving as the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and commander of the Grand Dragons of the Realms. In their postwar writings, both Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee stated the Confederate high command had failed to adequately use Forrest's talents.

Early life

Nathan Bedford Forrest was born to a poor family in Chapel Hill, Tennesseemarker. He was the first of blacksmith William Forrest's twelve children with wife Miriam Beck. After his father's death, Forrest became head of the family at the age of 17. In 1841 Forrest went into business with his uncle in Hernando, Mississippimarker. His uncle was killed there during an argument with the Matlock brothers. Forrest shot and killed two of them with his two-shot pistol and wounded two others with a knife thrown to him. Ironically, one of the wounded men survived and served under Forrest during the Civil War.

Forrest became a businessman, a planter - owner of several plantations, a slave owner, and slave trader based on Adams Street in Memphismarker. In 1858 Forrest, a democrat, was elected as a Memphis city alderman. Forrest provided financially for his mother and put his younger brothers through college. By the time the Civil War started in 1861, he was a millionaire and one of the richest men in the South. Forrest had amassed a personal net worth of more than $1.5 million.
Memphis City Directory entry, 1855-1856
Before the Civil War, "Forrest was well known as a Memphis speculator and Mississippi gambler. He was for some time captain of a boat which ran between Memphis, Tennesseemarker and Vicksburg, Mississippimarker. As his fortune increased he engaged in plantation speculation, and became the nominal owner of two plantations not far from Goodrich's Landing, above Vicksburg, where he worked some hundred or more slaves," according to his obituary. "He was known to his acquaintances as a man of obscure origin and low associations, a shrewd speculator, negro trader, and duelist, but a man of great energy and brute courage.


After war broke out, Forrest returned to Tennessee and enlisted as a private in the Confederate States Army. On July 14, 1861, he joined Captain J. S. White's Company "E", Tennessee Mounted Rifles.Forrest received military training at Fort Wrightmarker.

His superior officers and the state Governor Isham G. Harris were surprised that someone of Forrest's wealth and prominence had enlisted as a soldier, especially since planters were exempted from service. As a result they commissioned him as a colonel and authorized him to recruit and train a battalion of Confederate Mounted Rangers. In October 1861 he was given command of his own regiment, "Forrest's Tennessee Cavalry Battalion". Though Forrest had no prior formalized military training or experience, he applied himself diligently to learn. With strong leadership abilities and apparently an intuition for successful tactics, Forrest soon became an exemplary officer. In Tennessee, there was much public debate concerning the state's decision to join the Confederacy, and both the CSA and the Union armies were actively seeking Tennessean recruits. Forrest sought men eager for battle, promising them that they would have "ample opportunity to kill Yankees".

At six-foot, two-inches (1.88 m) tall and 210 pounds (95 kg; 15 stone), Forrest was physically imposing and intimidating, especially for the time. He used his skills as a hard rider and fierce swordsman to great effect. (He was known to sharpen both the top and bottom edges of his heavy saber.)

It has been surmised from contemporaneous records that Forrest may have personally killed more than thirty-three men with saber, pistol and shotgun.

Part of Forrest's command included his own Escort Company (his "Special Forces"), made up of the very best soldiers available. This unit, which varied in size from 40-90 men, was the elite of the cavalry. Eight of these soldiers were black men who had been his slaves before the war.

Cavalry command

Forrest distinguished himself first at the Battle of Fort Donelsonmarker in February 1862. His cavalry captured a Union artillery battery and then he broke out of a Union Army siege headed by Major General Ulysses S. Grant. Forrest rallied nearly 4,000 troops and led them across the river.

A few days after Fort Donelson, with the fall of Nashvillemarker imminent, Forrest took command of the city. Industry included millions of dollars worth of heavy ordnance machinery. Forrest arranged for transport of both the machinery and several important government officials.

A month later, Forrest was back in action at the Battle of Shilohmarker (April 6 to April 7, 1862). He commanded a Confederate rear guard after the Union victory. In an incident called Fallen Timbers, he drove through the Union skirmish line. Not realizing that the rest of his men had halted their charge when they got to the full Union brigade behind the skirmishers, Forrest charged the brigade single-handedly, and soon found himself surrounded. He emptied his Colt Army Revolvers into the swirling mass of Union Soldiers and pulled out his saber, hacking and slashing. A Union infantryman fired a musket ball into Forrest's spine with a point-blank musket shot, nearly knocking the cavalry man out of the saddle. Placing a Union infantryman on the back of his saddle to use as a shield, Forrest broke out and galloped back to his incredulous troopers. The musket ball was removed a week later without anesthesia.

By early summer, Forrest commanded a new brigade of green cavalry regiments. In July, he led them into Middle Tennessee under orders to launch a cavalry raid. On July 13, 1862, his men joined the First Battle of Murfreesboro, and Forrest is said to have won this battle.

According to a report by a Union commander:

Promoted in July 1862 to brigadier general, Forrest was given command of a Confederate cavalry brigade. In December 1862, Forrest's veteran troopers were reassigned by Bragg to another officer, against his protest. Forrest had to recruit a new brigade, composed of about 2,000 inexperienced recruits, most of whom lacked weapons. Again, Bragg ordered a raid, this one into west Tennessee to disrupt the communications of the Union forces under Grant, threatening the city of Vicksburg, Mississippimarker. Forrest protested that to send these untrained men behind enemy lines was suicidal, but Bragg insisted, and Forrest obeyed his orders. On the ensuing raid, he again showed his brilliance, leading thousands of Union soldiers in west Tennessee on a "wild goose chase" trying to locate his fast-moving forces. Forrest never stayed in one place long enough to be located, raided as far north as the banks of the Ohio River in southwest Kentuckymarker, and came back to his base in Mississippimarker with more men than he had started with. All of them were then fully armed with captured Union weapons. As a result, Grant was forced to revise and delay the strategy of his Vicksburg Campaignmarker. "He was the only Confederate cavalryman of whom Grant stood in much dread," a friend of Grant's was quoted as saying.

Confederate Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest
Forrest continued to lead his men in small-scale operations until April 1863. The Confederate army dispatched him into the backcountry of northern Alabamamarker and west Georgiamarker to deal with an attack of 3,000 Union cavalrymen under the command of Col. Abel Streight. Streight had orders to cut the Confederate railroad south of Chattanooga, Tennesseemarker, to cut off Bragg's supply line and force him to retreat into Georgia. Forrest chased Streight's men for 16 days, harassing them all the way. Streight's goal became simply to escape pursuit. On May 3, Forrest caught up with Streight's unit east of Cedar Bluff, Alabamamarker. Forrest had fewer men, but repeatedly paraded some of them around a hilltop to appear a larger force, and convinced Streight to surrender his 1,500 exhausted troops.

Forrest served with the main army at the Battle of Chickamaugamarker (September 18 to September 20, 1863). He pursued the retreating Union army and took hundreds of prisoners. Like several others under Bragg's command, he urged an immediate follow-up attack to recapture Chattanooga, which had fallen a few weeks before. Bragg failed to do so, upon which Forrest was quoted as saying, "What does he fight battles for?" After Forrest made death threats against Bragg during a confrontation , Forrest was reassigned to an independent command in Mississippi. He was promoted to the rank of major general on December 4, 1863.

Forrest Leadership Style and Principles

Fort Pillow

On April 12, 1864, General Forrest led his forces in the attack and capture of Fort Pillowmarker on the Mississippi River in Henning, Tennesseemarker. The Battle of Fort Pillow led to great controversy about whether a massacre of surrendered African-American Union troops was conducted or condoned by General Forrest.

Forrest's men insisted that the Federals, although fleeing, kept their weapons and frequently turned to shoot, forcing the Confederates to keep firing in self defense.. The Union flag was still flying over the fort, which indicated that the force had not formally surrendered. A contemporary newspaper account from Jackson, Tennessee, states that "General Forrest begged them to surrender," but "not the first sign of surrender was ever given." Similar accounts were reported in many Southern newspapers at the time.

These denials, however, are contradicted by an account of the massacre found in the letter of a Confederate soldier who was there. Achilles Clark, a soldier with the 20th Tennessee cavalry, wrote the following in a letter to his sister penned immediately after the battle. "The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor, deluded, negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees, and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. I, with several others, tried to stop the butchery, and at one time had partially succeeded, but General Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased."

The battle remains controversial, and historians differ on the interpretations. Richard Fuchs, author of An Unerring Fire concludes that “The affair at Fort Pillow was simply an orgy of death, a mass lynching to satisfy the basest of conduct – intentional murder – for the vilest of reasons – racism and personal enmity.” Andrew Ward downplays the controversy, “Whether the massacre was premeditated or spontaneous does not address the more fundamental question of whether a massacre took place… it certainly did, in every dictionary sense of the word.” John Cimprich states “The new paradigm in social attitudes and the fuller use of available evidence has favored a massacre interpretation… Debate over the memory of this incident formed a part of sectional and racial conflicts for many years after the war, but the reinterpretation of the event during the last thirty years offers some hope that society can move beyond past intolerance.”

Brice's Crossroad

Forrest's greatest victory came on June 10, 1864, when his 3,500-man force clashed with 8,500 men commanded by Union Brig. Gen. Samuel D. Sturgis at the Battle of Brice's Crossroads. Here, his mobility of force and superior tactics led to victory. He swept the Union forces from a large expanse of southwest Tennessee and northern Mississippi. Forrest set up a position for an attack to repulse a pursuing force commanded by Sturgis who had been sent to impede Forrest from destroying Union supplies and fortifications. When Sturgis's Federal army came upon the crossroad, they collided with Forrest's cavalry. Sturgis ordered his infantry to advance to the front line to counteract the cavalry. The infantry, tired and weary and suffering under the heat of the local climate, were quickly broken and sent into mass retreat. Forrest sent a full charge after the retreating army and captured 16 artillery pieces, 176 wagons and 1,500 stands of small arms. In all, the maneuver had cost Forrest 96 men killed and 396 wounded. However the day was far worse for Union troops which suffered 223 killed, 394 wounded and 1,623 men missing. This was an especially deep blow to the black regiment under Sturgis's command. In the hasty retreat, they stripped off commemorative badges that read "Remember Fort Pillowmarker" to avoid further goading the Confederate force pursuing them.

Conclusion of the war

One month later, Forrest's first major tactical defeat came at the Battle of Tupelo. Concerned about his supply lines, Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman sent a force under the command of Maj. Gen. Andrew J. Smith to deal with Forrest. The Union forces sent Forrest from the field, but his forces were not wholly destroyed. He continued to oppose Union efforts in the West for the remainder of the war.

Forrest led other raids that summer and fall, including a famous one into Union-held downtown Memphismarker in August 1864 (the Second Battle of Memphis), and another on a Union supply depot at Johnsonvillemarker, Tennessee, on October 3, 1864, causing millions of dollars in damage. In December, he fought alongside the Confederate Army of Tennessee in the disastrous Franklin-Nashville Campaign. He once again fought bitterly with his superior officer, demanding permission from General John Bell Hood, the newest (and last) commander of the Army of Tennessee to cross the river during the Second Battle of Franklinmarker and cut off Union Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield's army's escape route (the attempt was eventually made and defeated). After his bloody defeat at Franklinmarker, Hood continued to Nashville while Forrest led an independent raid against the Murfreesboromarker garrison. Forrest engaged Union forces near Murfreesboro on December 5, 1864, and was soundly defeated at what would be known as the Third Battle of Murfreesboro. After Hood's Army of Tennessee was all but destroyed at the Battle of Nashville, Forrest again distinguished himself by commanding the Confederate rear-guard in a series of actions that allowed what was left of the army to escape. For this, he earned promotion to the rank of lieutenant general.

In 1865, Forrest attempted, without success, to defend the state of Alabamamarker against Wilson's Raid. His opponent, Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson, defeated Forrest in battle. When news of Lee's surrender reached him, Forrest chose also to surrender. On May 9, 1865, at Gainesvillemarker, Forrest read his farewell address to his troops.

In the four years of the war, reputedly a total of 30 horses were shot out from under Forrest and he may have personally killed 31 people. "I was a horse ahead at the end," he said.

Forrest's Farewell Address To His Troops, May 9, 1865

The following text is excerpted from Forrest's farewell address to his troops. It showed an understanding of the difficulties likely in postwar years.

Civil 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; and as far as it is in our power to do so, to cultivate friendly feelings towards those with whom we have so long contended, and heretofore so widely, but honestly, differed.
Neighborhood feuds, personal animosities, and private differences should be blotted out; and, when you return home, a manly, straightforward course of conduct will secure the respect of your enemies.
Whatever your responsibilities may be to Government, to society, or to individuals meet them like men.

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. In bidding you farewell, rest assured that you carry with you my best wishes for your future welfare and happiness. Without, in any way, referring to the merits of the Cause in which we have been engaged, your courage and determination, as exhibited on many hard-fought fields, has elicited the respect and admiration of friend and foe. And I now cheerfully and gratefully acknowledge my indebtedness to the officers and men of my command whose zeal, fidelity and unflinching bravery have been the great source of my past success in arms.

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. You have been good soldiers, you can be good citizens. Obey the laws, preserve your honor, and the Government to which you have surrendered can afford to be, and will be, magnanimous.

N.B. Forrest, Lieut.-General

Headquarters, Forrest's Cavalry Corps

Gainesville, Alabama

May 9, 1865

Impact of Forrest's doctrines

Forrest was one of the first men to grasp the doctrines of "mobile warfare" that became prevalent in the 20th century. Paramount in his strategy was fast movement, even if it meant pushing his horses at a killing pace, which he did more than once. Noted Civil War scholar Bruce Catton writes:
"Forrest ... used his horsemen as a modern general would use motorized infantry.
He liked horses because he liked fast movement, and his mounted men could get from here to there much faster than any infantry could; but when they reached the field they usually tied their horses to trees and fought on foot, and they were as good as the very best infantry.
Not for nothing did Forrest say the essence of strategy was 'to git thar fust with the most men'."

Forrest is often erroneously quoted as saying his strategy was to "git thar fustest with the mostest," but this quote first appeared in print in a New York Times story in 1917, written to provide colorful comments in reaction to European interest in Civil War generals. Bruce Catton writes:
"Do not, under any circumstances whatever, quote Forrest as saying 'fustest' and 'mostest'.
He did not say it that way, and nobody who knows anything about him imagines that he did."

Forrest became well-known for his early use of "maneuver" tactics as applied to a mobile horse cavalry deployment. He sought to constantly harass the enemy in fast-moving raids, and to disrupt supply trains and enemy communications by destroying railroad track and cutting telegraph lines, as he wheeled around the Union Army's flank. His success in doing so is reported to have driven Ulysses S. Grant to fits of anger.

War record and promotions

Postwar years

Business ventures

After the war, Forrest settled in Memphis, Tennessee, building a house on a bank of the Mississippi River. With slavery abolished, the former slave trader suffered a major financial setback. He later found employment at the Selmamarker-based Marion & Memphis Railroad and eventually became the company president. He was not as successful in railroad promoting as in war, and under his direction the company went bankrupt.

Nearly ruined as the result of the failure of the Marion & Memphis Railroad in the early 1870s, Forrest spent his final days running a prison work farm on President's Island in the Mississippi River. There were financial failures across the country in the Panic of 1873. Forrest's health was in steady decline. He and his wife lived in a log cabin they had salvaged from his plantation.

Ku Klux Klan involvement

Early on, Forrest became a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Historian and Forrest biographer Brian Steel Wills writes, “While there is no doubt that Forrest joined the Klan, there is some question as to whether he actually was the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.” The KKK was formed by Democrats in Pulaski, Tennesseemarker in 1866 and soon expanded throughout the state and beyond. Forrest became involved sometime in late 1866 or early 1867 . A common report is that Forrest arrived in Nashville in April 1867 while the Klan was meeting at the Maxwell Hotel, probably at the encouragement of a state Klan leader, former Confederate general George Gordon. The organization had grown to the point where an experienced commander was needed, and Forrest fitted the bill. In Room 10 of the Maxwell, Forrest was sworn in as a member.

According to Wills, in the August 1867 state elections the Klan was relatively restrained in its actions. State Democrats who made up the KKK hoped to be able to persuade black voters to support their candidates without coercion and return to the social and economic racially-tiered status quo that existed before the war. Forrest assisted in maintaining order. It was only after these efforts failed that Klan violence and intimidation became widespread to regain the Democrats' power. Author Andrew Ward, however, writes, “In the spring of 1867, Forrest and his dragons launched a campaign of midnight parades; ‘ghost’ masquerades; and ‘whipping’ and even ‘killing Negro voters and white Republicans, to scare blacks off voting and running for office.’”

In an 1868 interview by a Cincinnatimarker newspaper, Forrest claimed that the Klan had 40,000 members in Tennesseemarker and 550,000 total members throughout the Southern states. He said he sympathized with them, but denied any formal connection. He claimed he could muster thousands of men himself. He described the Klan as "a protective political military organization...The members are sworn to recognize the government of the United States...Its objects originally were protection against Loyal Leagues and the Grand Army of the Republic..."

Forrest testified before the Congressional investigation on Klan activities on June 27, 1871. Forrest denied membership, but his individual role in the KKK was beyond the scope of the investigating committee which wrote:

The committee also noted, "The natural tendency of all such organizations is to violence and crime; hence it was that General Forrest and other men of influence in the state, by the exercise of their moral power, induced them to disband.”

Forrest's personal sentiments on the issue of race, however, were quite different from that of the Klan. Forrest was invited and gave a speech to organization of black Southerners called the "Jubilee of Pole-Bearers" in 1875. In this speech, Forrest espoused a radically progressive (for the time) agenda of equality and harmony between black and white Americans.

At this, his last public appearance, he made what the New York Times described as a "friendly speech" in which he called for reconciliation between the races and called for the admission of blacks into the professional classes from which they had heretofore been excluded.

Wikisource has the Text of an 1868 interview with Nathan Bedford Forrest.


Forrest died in Memphis in October 1877, reportedly from acute complications of diabetes. He was buried at Elmwood Cemeterymarker. In 1904 his remains were disinterred and moved to Forrest Park, a Memphis city park named in his honor.

Posthumous legacy

Many memorials were erected to Forrest in Tennessee. Obelisks in his memory were placed at his birthplace in Chapel Hillmarker and at Nathan Bedford Forrest State Parkmarker near Camden. A statue of General Forrest was erected in Memphis's Nathan Bedford Forrest Park. A bust sculpted by Jane Baxendale is on display at the state capitol building in Nashville. The World War II Army base Camp Forrest in Tullahoma, Tennesseemarker was named after him. It is now the site of the Arnold Engineering Development Center.

A massive but strange statue of Forrest on horseback stands south of Nashville. Here his face takes on a comical growl, and his over sized silver body sits atop an undersized bronze mount. Both detractors and admirers of Forrest dislike this rendering intensely; it is reported that in 2002 someone shot at it.

Tennessee has dedicated 32 historical markers linked to Nathan Bedford Forrest, more than are dedicated to the three Presidents who came from the state—Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and Andrew Johnson. Finally, the Tennessee legislature established July 13 as "Nathan Bedford Forrest Day."

A monument to Forrest in the Old Live Oak Cemetery in Selmamarker, Alabamamarker, reads "Defender of Selma, Wizard of the Saddle, Untutored Genius, The first with the most. This monument stands as testament of our perpetual devotion and respect for Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest. CSA 1821-1877, one of the south's finest heroes. In honor of Gen. Forrest's unwavering defense of Selma, the great state of Alabama, and the Confederacy, this memorial is dedicated. DEO VINDICE." As armory for the Confederacy, Selmamarker provided most of the South's ammunition.

A monument to Forrest in the Myrtle Hill Cemeterymarker in Rome, Georgiamarker, was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1909 to honor his bravery for saving Rome from Colonel Abel Streight and his cavalry.

High schools are named for Forrest in Chapel Hill, Tennessee, and Jacksonville, Floridamarker. On November 3, 2008 the Duval County School Board voted 5-2 against changing the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School in Jacksonville. The two votes for changing the name were cast by the Board's only black members. The school was named for Forrest in 1959 at the urging of the Daughters of the Confederacy because they were angry over the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. At the time the school was all white, but now more than half the student body is black [7987] Leaders in other localities have tried to remove or eliminate Forrest monuments, with mixed success.

In 2005, Shelby Countymarker Commissioner Walter Bailey started an effort to move the statue over Forrest's grave and rename Forrest Park. Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, who is black, blocked the move. Others have tried to get a bust of Forrest removed from the Tennessee House of Representatives chamber.

At Middle Tennessee State Universitymarker, the ROTC building was named after Forrest. The building's name has become more controversial in recent years. The name "Blue Raiders" MTSU's Mascot name, relates to the name given to those who rode with Forrest.

Forrest City, Arkansas, was named in his honor and a private K-12 school operated there during the 1970s. The school named Nathan Bedford Forrest Academy was closed in 1981 due to declining enrollment and poor financial performance.

Forrest's great-grandson, Nathan Bedford Forrest III, pursued a military career, first in cavalry, then in aviation, and attained the rank of brigadier general in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. On June 13, 1943, N. B. Forrest III was killed in action while participating in a bombing raid over Germanymarker, the first U.S. general to be killed-in-action in World War II. His family was awarded his Distinguished Service Cross (second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor) for staying with the controls of his B-17 bomber while his crew bailed out. The plane exploded before Forrest could bail out. Tragically, by the time German air-sea rescue could arrive, only one of the crew was still alive in the freezing water.

In popular culture

In the PBS documentary The Civil War by Ken Burns, historian Shelby Foote states that the Civil War produced two authentic geniuses: Abraham Lincoln and Nathan Bedford Forrest.

In the 1994 motion picture Forrest Gump, the eponymous Tom Hanks character stated that he was named after his ancestor General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Due to the character's low IQ, he did not know of the Klan as a racist group, but rather a "club" that rode horses and "dressed up as ghosts". He then continued to explain he was called that to remind himself that people can do things that "just don't make no sense."

In the 1967 independent film In The Woods the ghost of Nathan Bedford Forrest appears and says he is "Happy to have founded the Ku Klux Klan". In the alternative history/science fiction novel The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove, Forrest runs for president of the Confederacy in its 1867 election. John Grisham refers to Forrest in his book The Summons.

The song "The Decline and Fall of Country and Western Civilization" by Lambchop begins with the lines: "I hate Nathan Bedford Forrest / He's the featured artist in the Devil's chorus."

In 1952 the Bobbs-Merrill Company published "Bedford Forrest: Boy on Horseback" by Aileen Wells Parks as part of their Childhood of Famous Americans series, designed to show that Americans children knew from history had once been boys and girls, like themselves. This book is generally hagiographic.

In 1918 the B.F. Johnson Publishing company of Richmond, Virginia published "The Life of Nathan B. Forrest" by H.J. Eckenrode.

In addition to Forrest City, Arkansasmarker being named after Gen. Forrest, Forrest County, Mississippimarker (Hattiesburgmarker) was also named for the general in 1908.

The Fort Pillow Massacre

On October 30, 1877, The New York Times reported that "General Bedford Forrest, the great Confederate cavalry officer, died at 7:30 o'clock this evening at the residence of his brother, Colonel Jesse Forrest."

But The Times also reported that it would not be for military victories that Forrest would pass into history:
"It is in connection with one of the most atrocious and cold-blooded massacres that ever disgraced civilized warfare that his name will for ever be inseparably associated. "Fort Pillow Forrest" was the title which the deed conferred upon him, and by this he will be remembered by the present generation, and by it he will pass into history. The massacre occurred on the 12th of April, 1864. Fort Pillow is 65 miles above Memphis, and its capture was effected during Forrest's celebrated raid through Tennessee, a State which was at the time practically in possession of the Union forces. ..."

"Late in March (Forrest) passed into that State, and the route of his advance was marked by outrages and brutalities of the most cold-blooded character. He captured most of the small garrisons on his line of march, in each case summoning the defenders to surrender under a threat that if he had to storm the works he would give no quarter. On the 12th of April he appeared before Fort Pillow. This fort was garrisoned by 500 troops, about half of them colored. Forrest's force numbered about 5,000 or 6,000. His first attack was a complete surprise, and the commanding officer was killed early in the engagement. Still the defenders fought so gallantly that at 2 o'clock the enemy had gained no material advantage. Forrest then sent in a flag of truce, demanding unconditional surrender. After a short consultation, major Bradford, on whom the command had devolved, sent word refusing to surrender. Instantly the bugles sounded the assault. The enemy were now within 100 yards of the fort, and at the sound they rushed on the works, shouting. The garrison was seized with a panic: the men threw down their arms and sought safety in flight toward the river, in the neighboring ravine, behind logs, bushes, trees, and in fact everywhere where there was a chance for concealment. It was in vain. The captured fort and its vicinity became a human shambles."

"Forrest reported his own loss at 20 killed and 60 wounded; and states that he buried 228 Federals on the evening of the assault. Yet in the face of this he claimed that the Fort Pillow capture was "a bloody victory, only made a massacre by dastardly Yankee reporters." The news of the massacre aroused the whole country to a paroxysm of horror and fury."...

This northern newspaper obituary further stated:
"Since the war, Forrest has lived at Memphis, and his principal occupation seems to have been to try and explain away the Fort Pillow affair. He wrote several letters about it, which were published, and always had something to say about it in any public speech he delivered. He seemed as if he were trying always to rub away the blood stains which marked him."

There were conflicting reports about what happened at Fort Pillow. Only 90 out of approximately 262 US Colored Troops survived the battle. Casualties were also high among white defenders of the fort, with 205 out of about 500 surviving. Bedford's Confederate forces were accused of subjecting captured soldiers to brutality, with allegations that some were burned to death.

Forrest's men were alleged to have set fire to Union barracks with wounded Union soldiers inside. The report of Union Lieutenant Daniel Van Horn said that act was due to orders carried out by Union Lieutenant John D. Hill. Van Horn also reported that, "There never was a surrender of the fort, both officers and men declaring they never would surrender or ask for quarter."

These claims were directly disputed in letters written by Confederate soldiers to their own families, which describe wanton brutality on the part of Southern troops.

Following the cessation of hostilities, Forrest transferred the 14 most seriously wounded United States Colored Troops (USCT) to the U.S. Steamer Silver Cloud. He sent 39 USCT taken as prisoners to higher command.

See also



  • Bailey, Ronald H., and the Editors of Time-Life Books, Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East, Time-Life Books, 1985, ISBN 0-8094-4773-8.
  • Cimprich, John, and Mainfort, Robert C., Jr., eds. "Fort Pillow Revisited: New Evidence About An Old Controversy", Civil War History 4 (Winter, 1982).
  • Clark, Achilles V., "A Letter of Account", ed. by Dan E. Pomeroy, Civil War Times Illustrated, 24(4): 24-25, June 1985.
  • Dupuy, Trevor N., Johnson, Curt, and Bongard, David L., Harper Encyclopedia of Military Biography, Castle Books, 1992, 1st Ed., ISBN 0-7858-0437-4.
  • Eicher, John H., and Eicher, David J., Civil War High Commands, Stanford University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8047-3641-3.
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative - II: Fredericksburg to Meridian, Random House, 1963, ISBN 0-394-74621-X
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative - III: Red River to Appomattox, Random House, 1974, ISBN 0-394-74622-8
  • Hurst, Jack. Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography, 1993.
  • Ward, Andrew. River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War. Viking Penguin: 2005.

Further reading

  • Bearss, Edwin C. Forrest at Brice's Cross Roads and in North Mississippi in 1864. Dayton OH: Press of Morningside Bookshop, 1979.
  • Bearss, Ed. Unpublished remarks to Gettysburg Collegemarker Civil War Institute, July 1, 2005.
  • Bradshaw, Wayne. The Civil War Diary of William R. Dyer: A Member of Forrest's Escort, BookSurge Publishing, 2009, ISBN 1439237727.
  • Carney, Court, "The Contested Image of Nathan Bedford Forrest", Journal of Southern History. Volume: 67. Issue: 3., 2001, pp 601+.
  • Harcourt, Edward John. "Who Were the Pale Faces? New Perspectives on the Tennessee Ku Klux", Civil War History. Volume: 51. Issue: 1, 2005, pp: 23+.
  • Henry, Robert Selph. First with the Most, 1944.
  • Horn, Stanley F., Invisible Empire: The Story of the Ku Klux Klan, 1866–1871, Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith Publishing Corporation, 1939.
  • Lytle, Andrew Nelson. Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company, 1931, Reprint by Ivan R. Dee, 2002, ISBN 9781879941090.
  • Tap, Bruce. "'These Devils are Not Fit to Live on God's Earth': War Crimes and the Committee on the Conduct of the War, 1864-1865," Civil War History, XLII (June 1996), 116-32. on Ft Pillow.
  • Williams, Edward F. Fustest with the mostest; the military career of Tennessee's greatest Confederate, Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest Memphis, Distributed by Southern Books, 1969.
  • Wills, Brian Steel. A Battle from the Start: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest, 1992, ISBN 0060168323.
  • Wyeth, John Allen. That Devil Forrest, 1899 (original) republished in 1989 by Louisiana State University Press.

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