In this, the next in our series examining the “Great Captains” of military history, we focus on the “Wizard of the Saddle”.
Perhaps no general in America history elicits such a mix of admiration and repudiation as Nathan Bedford Forrest. While most historians admit his untutored natural genius for war, they are mindful of his unsavory activities both before and after the American Civil War.
Known as “The Wizard of the Saddle”, Forrest was not only the finest cavalry commander that America ever produced, he was a first-rate practitioner of mobile warfare and combined arms. His campaigns are reminiscent of (and presage) those of such panzer leaders as Guderian and Rommel, and his rapidly moving strike forces were combined-arms formations composed of cavalry and mounted infantry, supported by batteries of horse artillery. Forrest was born to be a soldier, as John Keats was born to be a poet. His grasp of tactics, the operational art, and ability to inspire men in battle were intuitive and self-taught, as he was without any kind of military education or experience.
Forrest’s background was that of entrepreneur and self-made millionaire. His fortune was made before the war as a land speculator, planter, slave trader, and even Mississippi Riverboat Gambler! By 1860 he had earned a reputation as a duelist and a man of extreme personal courage. His fiery temper was terrifying to subordinates and superiors alike, and on at least one occasion he threatened his superior, Braxton Bragg, with death.
A rank amateur with no military training, Forrest enlisted, along with his younger brother and son, as a private in the Tennessee Mounted Rifles when the Civil War broke out; this despite the exemption granted major planters from military service. He quickly showed his natural command ability. Upon seeing how badly equipped his fellow soldiers were, Forrest offered at his own expense to outfit a cavalry regiment. Despite having no formal military education, he was commissioned by the state’s Governor as a Lieutenant Colonel and authorized to recruit and train a regiment of Confederate Mounted Rangers. In October 1861 this unit was christened, “Forrest’s Cavalry Corps”. The elite company of this force was his own Escort Company, for which he selected the best soldiers available; and became the finest and most feared Confederate cavalry in the Western Theater of operations.
Forrest’s bold leadership and the quality of his command won early distinction; particularly at the Battle of Sacramento in December 1861, and two months later at Ft. Donelson. Here he refused to surrender his forces, and broke out of Grant’s encirclement with 4,000 men. After the surrender of Ft. Donelson, with Nashville on the verge of surrender, he evacuated machinery and key personnel from the city before it could fall into Union hands.
The day after the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Shiloh, Grant dispatched Sherman with two infantry brigades and two battalions of cavalry in pursuit of the retreating Confederate forces. At a place that came to be known as Fallen Timbers, Forrest with 300 of his horsemen charged Sherman’s vanguard. The Confederate riders charged through the Union picket line, and nearly captured Sherman himself. As more Federal infantry came up, the Confederates pulled back, except for Forrest, who found himself in the midst of an entire Union Brigade. After emptying his revolver, he laid about himself with his saber; before being shot at close range, the bullet piercing his side and lodging near his spine. Forrest effected his escape by grabbing-up a union solder and pulling him up onto the front of his saddle. Using this unfortunate as a human-shield, Forrest spurred out of the encirclement. (Throughout the war he is credited with personally killing, with his own hands, 30 enemy soldiers: the most ever by an American general. He had 29 horse killed under him throughout the war; causing Forrest to comment that he ended the war “one up”.)
In July 1862, Forrest won the First Battle of Murfreesboro, causing the defeat and surrender of some 900 Federal troops under the command of Brig. Gen. Thomas Turpin Crittenden with all their armaments. During the Vicksburg Campaign he led his cavalry deep behind the Union lines; discomfiting Grant’s plans with mobile raids behind Union lines. His greatest victory came in 1864, at the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads. Here with a mere 3,500-man force he defeated 8,500 men under Gen. Samuel D. Sturgis. Using superior tactics and mobility, he captured 16 artillery pieces, 176 wagons and 1,500 stands of small arms; inflicting on Sturgis’ force 223 killed, 394 wounded and 1,623 men missing (for a cost of only 96 Confederates killed).
Forrest spent the remainder of the war playing hit-and-run against vastly superior Union forces; causing a frustrated Sherman to call him “That devil, Forrest”. Though he never had more than a light division’s worth of troops under his command, and was constantly hampered by the orders of generals inferior to himself in ability, he ended the war as perhaps the most feared commander on either side. When asked after the war what the secret to his success was, he responded, “By getting there first with the most men.” (Not, as often quoted, “Git thar firstest with the mostest!”)
In 1866, after the end of the war, Forrest is alleged to have joined the newly formed Ku Klux Klan (KKK). It is thought that Forrest spent some two years with the KKK, before disbanding the group (though it continued on in other forms to this day). Forrest however, in testimony before Congress in 1871, denied association with the Klan. In 1875, Forrest attended a racial reconciliation meeting with black southerners; for which he was criticized by white racists. His speech, which was characterized by the New York Times as “friendly”, seems to make clear that he was at odds with the goals of the Klan then and later:
I will say to you and to the colored race that men who bore arms and followed the flag of the Confederacy are, with very few exceptions, your friends. I have an opportunity of saying what I have always felt – that I am your friend, for my interests are your interests, and your interests are my interests. We were born on the same soil, breathe the same air, and live in the same land. Why, then, can we not live as brothers? I will say that when the war broke out I felt it my duty to stand by my people. When the time came I did the best I could, and I don’t believe I flickered. I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe that I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to bring about peace. It has always been my motto to elevate every man and to oppress none. (Applause.) I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going…When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment.
Forrest died two years later, in 1877.
Forrest’s views on race or negro rights, and his connection (or not) with the KKK are still the subject of controversy. What is not in dispute is his amazing ability to discomfit his enemies by rapid maneuver and sudden and unexpected attack. He practiced lightning warfare 80 years before the German blitzkrieg; a man born generations before his time. No less a judge than his old adversary, Sherman, gave him a fitting epitaph:
“He (Forrest) was the most remarkable man our Civil War produced on either side.”
HERE IS MORE ON THE GREAT CAPTAINS OF HISTORY: