Nathan Bedford Forrest:
Born: Chapel Hill, Tennessee, July 13, 1821
Died: Memphis, Tennessee, October 29, 1877
Nathan Bedford Forrest, a name that struck dread to his enemies and which was revered by his
men. He was arguably the greatest cavalryman during the War of Northern Aggression (Civil War).
There were many other notable cavalrymen, like the dashing J.E.B. Stuart, John Mosby, Wade
Hampton, John Hunt Morgan and Robert E. Lee’s nephew, Fitzhugh Lee. However, Nathan Bedford
Forrest stands alone. His exploits created a legend in both the North and the South. Northern
troopers were vexed by him time and again. Forrest was so effective that General William
Tecumseh Sherman once wrote to Secretary of War Stanton: "Forrest is the very devil, If we must
sacrifice 10,000 lives and bankrupt the Federal Treasury, it will be worth it. There will never be
peace in Tennessee till Forrest is dead." Who was the man? Was he a Hero or was he the butcher
that Northern propaganda made him out to be?
Bedford, as he was called, was born in the backwoods of Tennessee on July 13, 1821 to William
and Mariam Beck Forrest. The family was large. Besides Nathan, the eldest, there were eleven
other children, seven boys and three girls. Only six boys lived to adulthood. The frontier that
Nathan grew up in was wild and untamed. You learned to survive at an early age. Hunting and
tracking were not a sport but a necessity to survive. Bedford’s education did not come from the
classroom. While he did attend some school, he was needed at home to help his Father support
the family. Young Bedford was self educated using the wilderness and his life on the frontier as his
classroom and teacher. He learned to live by his instincts and wits. Violence was part of everyday
life and Bedford had his share, at an early age Nathan learned to fend for himself. One story has
young Bedford being intimidated by a group of young toughs at his Uncles tailor shop. The boys
seemed intent on harassing the younger boy and continued to taunt him. Finally, Nathan had
enough, grabbed a pair of shears and sprang from his seat towards his antagonist. The boys ran in
fear. This taught young Bedford a valuable lesson: He could intimidate and disarm an apparently
superior foe. During this period of his life, Bedford honed his skills in marksmanship and
horsemanship. He also enjoyed gambling. Each of these skills would benefit him greatly in the
future .Bedford married, sired children and became a successful businessman. He was a planter
and Slave trader at a time when dealing in Human’s was not only lawful, but made men wealthy.
Bedford had one desire, that his family never know the poverty in which he had as a youth. It was
reported that Bedford, whenever possible, kept slave families together . He clothed and fed them
well and gave them better than expected medical treatment.
When war broke out on April 12,1861, nobody knew what the future of the nation held. One thing
for sure was that a new history of mounted warfare was about to be written. On June 14, 1861,
Nathan Bedford Forrest walked into the office of Captain Josiah White’s Tennessee Mounted Rifles
and enlisted as a private along with his brother Jeffrey and fifteen year old son, Willie. As other
men joined the outfit and began to train, the unit evolved into what would become the famous
Seventh Tennessee Cavalry, which would fight until the end of the war under Forrest’s leadership.
He did not remain a Private for long. He became a Colonel by 1862 and before that year was out
he was a Brigadier. When the war eventually ended he was a Lieutenant General. He never led
from the rear but always from the front. At least two dozen Yankee invaders fell to his hand in
personal combat. He was wounded four times and had thirty horses shot from beneath him. His
exploits became legendary very quickly. In Early 1862 during the fighting at Fort Donnelson,
Bedford outfought and whipped Ulysses S. Grants regular army soldiers. But inept Generalship on
the part of Confederate forces allowed Bedford’s heroic actions to be wasted. The fort was
surrounded and the Confederates decided to surrender. To that Nathan Bedford Forrest retorted “
To Hell with that, I did not come here to surrender!”. He escaped with his entire command.
This type of action and attitude was what made Bedford the great General he was. Not relying on
the Confederate Government, he completely outfitted his men with his own money. During every
battle he would equip his men with captured Yankee arms, allowing his men to be some of the best
equipped men in the Confederate army. When he captured a vanquished Union army officers
sword and noticed that it was only sharp for the first couple of inches, Forrest demanded a
grindstone. When one of his military educated officers indicated that it was more for show than for
fighting, Forrest made one of his more famous quotes: “Damn such nonsense. War means fightin
and fightin means killin. Turn the grindstone.”
Some of Bedford’s greatest victories came by using psychological warfare. He repeatedly used
deceit to trick his foes into thinking that he had greater numbers then he actually had and would
sometimes capture twice his number. His battle at Brice’s Cross Roads, where he defeated a foe
much larger than his own, is still studied today . The Yankee propaganda tried to label his victory at
Fort Pillow an atrocity but he was exonerated after the war of any wrong doing. People forget, this
was a war that pitted brother against brother, Father against Son, Neighbor against Neighbor.
Southerners who became Yankee sympathizers could expect no mercy. During an interview after
the War with the Cincinnati Commercial, Bedford was quoted as saying: “ When I entered the army I
took forty-seven Negroes into the army with me, and forty-five of them were surrendered with me. I
told these boys that this war was about slavery, and if we lose, you will be made free. If we whip the
fight and you stay with me you will be made free. Either way you will be freed. These boys stayed
with me, drove my teams, and better confederates did not live”. They were protecting their
homeland. The Sherman’s and Sheridan’s were the ones who should have been tried for war
crimes, but the North won the war. Battle after battle, Nathan Bedford Forrest defeated the
Yankees who had invaded his homeland. He fought bravely and valiantly to the end. His farewell
address to the troops was honorable:
By an agreement made between Lieut. Gen. Taylor, commanding the Department of
Alabama. Mississippi, and East Louisiana, and Major-Gen. Canby, commanding United
States forces, the troops of this department have been surrendered.
I do not think it proper or necessary at this time to refer to causes which have reduced us to this
extremity; nor is it now a matter of material consequence to us how such results were brought
about. That we are BEATEN is a self-evident fact, and any further resistance on our part would
justly be regarded as the very height of folly and rashness.
The armies of Generals LEE and JOHNSON having surrendered. You are the last of all the troops
of the Confederate States Army east of the Mississippi River to lay down your arms.
The Cause for which you have so long and so 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. Fully realizing and feeling that such is the case, 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 throughout the land.
The terms upon which you were surrendered are favorable, and should be satisfactory and
acceptable to all. They manifest a spirit of magnanimity and liberality, on the part of the Federal
authorities, which should be met, on our part, by a faithful compliance with all the stipulations and
conditions therein expressed. As your Commander, I sincerely hope that every officer and soldier of
my command will cheerfully obey the orders given, and carry out in good faith all the terms of the
Those who neglect the terms and refuse to be paroled, may assuredly expect, when arrested, to be
sent North and imprisoned. Let those who are absent from their commands, from whatever cause,
report at once to this place, or to Jackson, Miss.; or, if too remote from either, to the nearest United
States post or garrison, for parole.
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.
When all was over Nathan Bedford Forrest went back home and tried to rebuild his life. He entered
into Business ventures with many of his Ex-Northern Foe’s and became successful once again. He
died on October 29, 1877. His funeral turned out thousands of people including hundreds upon
hundreds of African Americans who came to pay their respects. Nathan Bedford Forrest was a
product of his times yet, in some ways, was way ahead of them. His tactics on the battlefield are still
studied by military academies today. The great German General Erwin Rommel, George Patton
and even Norman Schwarzkopf all studied this famous man’s tactics. His legend even lived on,
United States Eighth Air Force General Nathan Bedford Forrest III was the great-grandson of
Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. He was killed in 1943 during a B-17 raid over the
submarine yards of Kiel, Germany. He was regarded as one of the best and youngest Air Force
Generals of his day. He was declared dead and posthumously received the Distinguished Flying
Cross. After World War II, his body was recovered from Germany and he was laid to rest in
Arlington National Cemetery - ironically on grounds once owned by his great-grandfather’s
commanding officer, General Robert E. Lee.
Nathan Bedford Forrest defended his homeland and never asked his men to do anything he was
not willing to do himself. Controversial? Only by those who don’t take the time to study the man, his
life and his time. Nathan Bedford Forrest was An American Warrior.
H.C.C. Florida Governor, Clay Johnson