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General Ulysses S. Grant considered Nathan Bedford Forrest "about the ablest cavalry general in the South." (Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, 2: p. 346) while General William Tecumseh Sherman called him "that devil Forrest", who must be "hunted down and killed if it costs ten thousand lives and bankrupts the Federal treasury." (OR, I:78, pp.121, 142) Forrest, himself, in the last days of the war, "reflectively declared that he had not the advantage of a military education, and knew but little as to the art of the war, but he always made it his rule 'to get there first with the most men.'"(Piatt p. 599.)

A man of contradiction, Forrest never wavered when it came time to fight. Without a doubt, when there was fighting to be done, he fought. For example, before the Battle of Shiloh, April 6 7, 1862, he was assigned to guard the extreme Confederate right at Lick Creek. None of the Union troops advanced to that sector and by 11:00 a. m. of the first day of battle, he felt he had to get into the action. "Boys, do you hear that musketry and that artillery?" he yelled. "It means that our friends are falling by the hundreds at the hands of the enemy, and we are here guarding a damned creek. Let's go and help them. What do you say?" With that they moved toward the battle and asked Gen. Benjamin F. Cheatham for permission to charge. Upon Cheatham's hesitation, Forrest replied: "Then I'll charge under my own orders." (OR, I:10(2), p. 437) And that he did. Forrest and his cavalrymen charged right into the advancing Union infantry troops crossing a small stream. The Federals taken by surprise and under fire from as close as twenty paces dropped their weapons and fled back towards the Union General Sherman's rallying forces. Forrest, reckless as he was, continued to charge leaving his men behind gathering up the prisoners they had taken, and found himself alone in the midst of the men he had been chasing and being fired upon from all sides. One ball struck him in the left side and another mortally wounded his horse. Turning to get himself out of the mess he had gotten himself into, he grabbed a Union soldier, swung him up behind him to act as a shield only to be dropped when they were out of range.

On April 12, 1864, Forrest, with about 2500 men, attacked Fort Pillow, manned by 295 white Tennessee troops and 262 U.S. Colored Troops. Fort Pillow was a Confederate built earthen fort with a Union built inner redoubt. Forrest took the outer works and surrounded the Union troops within the redoubt. The gunboat New Era was unable to provide support to the Federals because of the rugged terrain, which meant the soldiers in the fort were on their own. The Union troops were unable to lower their artillery enough to protect the approaches to the fort and to make things worse, Rebel sharpshooters located on the surrounding knolls wounding and killing them.

By 11:00 a.m. the Confederates began an intensified attack and Forrest demanded unconditional surrender. The Union commander asked for an hour to consult with his troops but Forrest gave them twenty minutes. The Federals refused surrender and the Confederates resumed the attack, which resulted in catching fleeing Federals in a deadly crossfire. Casualties were high with only sixty-two U.S. Colored Troops surviving. Of the Union forces, 231 were killed, with a large number of them being black troops, 100 were wounded and of the 226 taken prisoner only 58 of them were black troops. Confederate casualties numbered 14 killed and 86 wounded. The Confederates gained little from this attack; they evacuated the fort the same evening only temporarily disrupting Union operations. The Union, however, rallied after this and became determined to see the war through to the bitter end.

Through all the violence, sentiment crept in. For instance, he left a lock of hair for the Emma Sanson, the young girl who risked her life to lead him back to the ford over which he crossed the Big Black, and he wept over the dying, Lieutenant Gould, whom he had mortally wounded after being provoked. Lieutenant Gould, disgruntled over Forrest's assessment of him as being cowardly, met with Forrest asking for an explanation. After a heated conversation, Forrest abruptly ended the interview by turning away. In that instant, Gould approached Forrest with a pistol and shot him in the left side to which Forrest quickly reacted by holding Gould's pistol hand and stabbed him in the stomach with a penknife he had been toying with. While Gould fled, Forrest had a precursory examination of his wound and when told the wound may be fatal, he swore "No damned man shall kill me and live!" With that he chased after Gould, who had taken refuge in a tailor shop and was being tended to. When Forrest stormed into the shop Gould ran out into an alley only to be followed by Forrest. Gould finally collapsed in a patch of tall weeds while bystanders convinced Forrest that Gould was dying. It was only then that Forrest agreed to have his wound attended to. When he found out that the bullet hadn't hit anything vital, he exclaimed, "It's nothing but a damned little pistol ball! Let it alone and go get Lieutenant Gould. Take him to the Nelson House and make him as comfortable as you can. Spare nothing to save him. And, by God, when I give an order like that I mean it!" (Nashville Banner, April 29, 1911.) Frank A. Smith one of four young boys who witnessed all this gave his account to the Nashville Banner in 1911.

Nathan was a complex man with many sides, quick to anger but sentimental, impetuous and unpredictable but caring and gentle. Before the war he was a slave owner who presumably promised his slaves their freedom if they went to fight with him and yet ironically, after the war he became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. There are differing opinions about whether Forrest disbanded the Klan and the time of disbandment. Forrest, himself in testimony in 1871 to the Joint Select Committee of Congress, said that he had disbanded the Klan anywhere from late 1867 to late 1868. One opinion is that after the re-election of De Witt C. Senter, as governor of Tennessee in 1869, Forrest ordered the disbanding and destroying of all records and regalia. So dates between the fall of 1867 and the fall of 1869 are held to be when the Klan was disbanded. Reportedly, some of the sub-units didn't hear the news so didn't disband and other people who were not of the Klan adopted the dress and practices of the Klan and kept the violence alive.

If you go to www.civilwarhome.com/forrestpillow.htm you'll find an excerpt from Robert Selph Henry's book "First with the Most, Forrest" which gives a view of the Fort Pillow Massacre.

And if interested, you can read Forrest's farewell speech to his troops on May 9, 1865 at billslater.com/nbf_bye.htm

And if you are really interested, there is a poem by Virginia Frazer Boyle called The Wizard of the Saddle.

What I've given you is just the tip of the iceberg, a very interesting man.

NOTE: Portions of the above were taken from the following website:

www.civilwarhome.com/ftpillow.htm: Internet.


Henry, Robert Selph, "First With the Most, Forrest", Indianapolis, Bobbs Merrill, 1944. Undated Konecky & Konecky reprint.

Nashville (Tennessee) Banner

Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (New York, 1885), Vol. II

Piatt, Donn and H. V. Boynton. "General George H. Thomas: A Critical Biography." Cincinnati: Robert Clarke, 1893.

Ramage, James A. "Rebel Raider, The Life of General John Hunt Morgan." Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1986.

U. S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, 1889). Noted in text as OR.


I just read the novel, "Shiloh", by Shelby Foote and one of the sections was about Nathan Bedford Forrest. If you're of a mind to have a good read, it's a very interesting book and very well written.

© 2006 Winifred Ledoux