One of the most controversial Civil War Generals was Nathan Bedford Forrest of Tennessee. He was known for his tactical genius but also for being a devout racist.
He was born in 1821 in Chapel Hill, Bedford County, Tennessee.
He grew up with no education except the backwoods skills of hunting, tracking, and survival. His father was a blacksmith.
Nathan went to work for his uncle, Jonathan Forrest, at a tailor shop in Hernando, Desoto County, Mississippi. In 1845, Jonathan Forrest was killed in a street fight over a business dispute. Nathan went after the murderers, killing two and wounding two others.
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Civil War and Accolades
When war came to the South, Nathan Bedford Forrest enlisted as a private, along with two of his brothers. Soon after entering the Confederate service on June 14, 1861, as a private in White's mounted rifles, he obtained authority to raise a regiment of cavalry, the equipment of which he purchased at his private expense at Louisville.
With great ingenuity and daring, he brought these supplies to Memphis after eluding the Federal authorities and defeating a body of troops with a force of seventy-five Kentucky Confederates he had called to his aid.
With his regiment, he joined the forces at Fort Donelson and, after distinguishing himself in the conflict with the Federals, led his men through the enemy's lines when surrender was determined upon.
Joining Albert Sidney Johnston, he was in the heat of the fight at Shiloh and, though wounded, refused to leave the field until the safety of the army was assured.
Subsequently, the Federals having occupied middle Tennessee, Colonel Forrest made a series of brilliant cavalry movements into that territory that made his name famous throughout America.
Promoted brigadier-general on July 21, 1862, he hung upon Buell's flank during the movement into Kentucky, protected Bragg's retreat, and, while the army was in winter quarters, actively covered the Federal front at Nashville, continually doing damage to the enemy.
In 1863, in an effort to break Rosecrans' communications, he entered Tennessee with less than one thousand men, captured McMinnville, and surprised the garrison of 2,000 at Murfreesboro, capturing all the survivors of the fight, including General Crittenden.
General Streight, having started on a cavalry raid to Rome, Ga., was pursued and caught up with, and so impressed by Forrest's demand for surrender that he turned over his entire command, which was in such disproportion to their captors that Forrest had to press into service all the citizens in reach to assist in forming an adequate guard.
In the great battle of Chickamauga, he commanded the cavalry of the right-wing and was distinguished in the fight, but he was so dissatisfied with the incompleteness of this Confederate victory that he tendered his resignation.
Instead of its acceptance, he was promoted major-general and assigned to the command of all cavalry in north Mississippi and west Tennessee and the guardianship of the granary of the Confederacy.
With a small force, he entered west Tennessee and recruited several thousand hardy volunteers, which, with some veteran troops, he welded into the invincible body known as "Forrest's Cavalry."
In February 1864, General Smith, with seven thousand mounted men, was sent against him in cooperation with Sherman but was utterly routed at Okolona and Prairie Mound.
In return, Forrest rode through Tennessee to the Ohio River and captured Fort Pillow, Union City, and other posts with their garrisons.
In June, 8,300 Federals under General Sturgis entered Mississippi. Forrest had only 3,200 men, but at Brice's Cross Roads, he struck the straggling Federal column at its head, crushed that, and then, in detail, routed successive brigades until Sturgis had suffered one of the most humiliating defeats of the war, losing all his trains and a third of his men.
Gen. A. J. Smith renewed the invasion with 14,000 men but retreated after a desperate battle at Harrisburg, near Tupelo.
Reorganizing his beaten forces, Smith again advanced with reinforcements from Memphis, and Forrest was compelled to foil the enemy by taking half his force and making a sixty-hour ride to Memphis, the daring entry of which compelled Smith's rapid retreat.
Then, for a time, General Forrest made havoc with the Federal transportation, garrisons, and depots in Tennessee, exploits crowned by the capture and destruction of six million dollars worth of the enemy's supplies and a gunboat fleet, at Johnsonville, "a feat of arms," wrote William Sherman, "which I must confess excited my admiration."
After the fall of Atlanta, he joined Hood at Florence and fought at Franklin and Nashville. As commander of the rear guard of the retreating Confederate army, Forrest displayed his most heroic qualities, with hardly a parallel but the famous deeds of Marshal Ney while covering Napoleon's retreat from Moscow.
In February 1865, he was promoted lieutenant-general and given the duty of guarding the frontier from Decatur, Ala., to the Mississippi. With a few hundred hastily gathered men, he made his last fight at Selma, and on May 9, he laid down his arms.
Nathan Bedford Forrest's family can be summed up in two words: rough and tragic.
His father died young, which left many of his young children without his leadership. His mother was a strong woman, but in 1841, the Forrest family was struck with another tragedy when three of her daughters and two of her sons died of typhoid. (This number could be more, but I only saw the names of five children.)
By the time of the Civil War, the remaining Forrest brothers were slave traders, plantation owners, and rough men. They were built for fighting, and that is what they did.
These boys would be known for their aggression, and Nathan was known for his tactical genius as a cavalry commander.
After the war, they continued to live a rough life. Nathan Bedford Forrest was an early member of the Ku Klux Klan and a noted racist who pushed back against reconstruction.
Each of these boys died young, but they left descendants to carry on their bloodline.
Family Tree Chart
William B. Forrest (1801 - 1837) - He married and had many children. Unfortunately, he died young and did not leave much to his oldest son, who had to become the head of the household.
Miriam Beck (1802 - 1867) - She endured much tragedy with the loss of her husband and many of her children to disease. She married a second time, and by the time of his death, she ran a plantation. She died of blood poisoning.
Mary Ann Montgomery (1826 - 1893) - After properly introducing himself, Bedford asked permission to call on Mary Ann. Impressed with his gallantry, Mrs. Montgomery agreed. Bedford and Mary Ann were married six weeks later, on September 25, 1845. The two would have two children, and she would survive Nathan by 16 years.
William Montgomery Forrest (1846 - 1908) - He would fight in his father's Cavalry Division. After the war, he and his wife had a son and continued to live in Memphis, Tennessee, until his death.
Frances Ann Forrest (1849 - 1854) - She was born and was the youngest sibling in the Forrest family. She unfortunately died at the age of 5, which no doubt devastated her family.
Frances Forrest (1821 -1841) - She was the twin of General Nathan Bedford Forrest. She was among the many Forrest siblings who died of fever.
Mary Forrest (1826 - 1841) - She, along with other siblings, died of typhoid fever around the same time.
Aaron H. Forrest (1828 - 1864) - He served with his brother during the Civil War. He died in 1864, toward the end of the Civil War. In Memphis, Aaron was a partner with his older brother at “Forrest & Maples” as a dealer in slaves. By 1858, Aaron had his own slave business in Vicksburg.
John Nathaniel Forrest (1829 - 1867) - He moved with his family to Tippah County, Mississippi, in 1834. His father died in 1837. In 1841, two of his brothers and all of his three sisters died of Typhoid Fever. He and other brothers, with his mother, cleared swampland for farming. When the Mexican War broke out, he enlisted as a private in Company C of the Battalion of Mississippi Rifles.
William Hezekiah Forrest (1831 - 1871) - He was a fierce soldier who it was said was the only person Nathan Bedford Forrest was afraid of. He served with his brother during the Civil War. His obituary reads, "Capt. Bill Forrest, brother of Gen. N. B. Forrest, died in Memphis, Tenn., a few days ago. The deceased was a noted desperado, having killed at least five or six men in frays. A few years ago, in Marion, Alabama, he killed Col. Smith, who we believe was his last victim. But, Capt. Forrest was a brave man and never took undue advantage of any enemy. However - he was so dangerous that society will be better off because off his death."
Mildred Forrest (1831 - 1841) - She was among the daughters who died of typhoid fever.
Jesse Anderson Forrest (1833 - 1889) - He fought in the Civil War with his older brother Nathan Bedford Forrest. He survived longer than any of his other Forrest brothers. He was also an owner or sales agent of slaves in Memphis.
Bedford Forrest (1834 - 1841) - He died young of typhoid fever.
Isaac Forrest (1835 - 1841) - He died young of typhoid fever
Jeffrey Edward Forrest (1837 - 1864) - He enlisted at the beginning of the war as a private. By 1864, however, he was commanding a brigade of cavalry under his brother. At the battle of Okolona, fought on February 22, 1864, Jeffrey was shot in the throat while leading a charge against a Union position on the Pontotoc Road near Prairie Mount. Seeing him fall, Nathan Bedford Forrest rushed to his brother's side and ‘dropped to his knees and held his head in his arms' before he died.