Recollections of a Virginian in the Mexican, Indian, and Civil Wars/17
During my command of the Department of the Gulf, I was constantly occupied in strengthening the defenses of Mobile and in driving out raids which were made into Mississippi and Alabama by Generals Grierson, Streight, Rousseau, Davidson, and Sherman. In each effort of mine to intercept the progress or thwart the intentions of those expeditions I was ably seconded by General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Indeed, I relied so implicitly upon his skill and judgment that I never hampered him with especial instructions. His natural qualifications as a soldier were phenomenal, and our association together was such that I am able to bear personal testimony to his great ability as a military leader, which deserves full recognition and appreciation at the hands of his people.
Forrest was born in 1821, in one of the counties of Tennessee, upon its southern border. He was the eldest of twelve children, and when his father died he was sixteen years old, and at once assumed the care of his family. He had but little opportunity for learning, because even elementary schools were rarely found in that wild country, and he scarcely read before he was a grown man. And even during the war, when he had become the greatest soldier of his time, he dictated all of his correspondence. It lacked nothing in force and clearness, however deficient he was in his syntax, and etymology. His early life was a period of privation and a hard struggle to maintain his mother and younger brothers. He went early into active life, and from the very outset evinced those extraordinary capacities for business and that wonderful self assertion which were the marked characteristics of his career. He became a horse trader and a negro trader, and made a large fortune in these avocations, while maintaining a character for strict probity and for kind and fair dealing rarely ever found in such callings.
When the war broke out, Forrest was in the prime of his mental and physical powers. Over six feet in statue, of powerful frame, and of great activity and daring, with a personal prowess proved in many fierce encounters, he was a king among the bravest men of his time and country. He was among the first to volunteer when war broke out, and it was a matter of course that he should be commander of the troopers who flocked to his standard. From the very outset he evinced his extraordinary capacity for war, and in his long career of great achievements no defeat or failure was ever charged to him.
When I first met him, the army of the West had been moved out of the lines about Corinth to offer battle to Halleck's forces, which was declined by that general. Forrest, already famous, had gone alone into one of the abandoned redoubts, whose only garrison was the chaplain of a regiment whom, with his horse, he brought out with him. I observed him with great interest, and felt the influence of his wonderful self reliance. He could never brook the dictation of any commander, and he conceived and executed his own plans, moving when and where he saw work was to be done, and reporting only the successful result, which was always surprising to his enemy and to his commander. In all his long and arduous campaigns and scores of battles, he never was surprised or attacked. His successes were achieved with forces much inferior to his enemy. With unfailing daring and circumspection, he would make his tentative attack, or, as he expressed it, "I will give 'em a dare, anyhow." He was a great poker player and illustrated some of its principles and technicalities upon the battlefield. When he found his enemy too strong for him at the point of attack, he would pull out and find a weak place, where he never failed to make in and win his fight. When once asked how it was he always succeeded in his battles, he replied, "I don't know, but I recon it's because I always get there first with the most men." Unknowingly, he had announced and illustrated Napoleon's great principle of success in battle. When he found an enemy he could not attack with any hope of success, as was once the case with a strong blockhouse garrisoned with negro troops and commanded by a stout hearted Dutchman, who firmly declined to surrender and dared him to attack, he temporized and invited a parley. Forrest knew he could not carry the place without heavy loss, and that a large reinforcement was coming on the railroad to the enemy. In twenty minutes he convinced the stout hearted colonel that he would certainly carry his works, and that if he had to do so he could not restrain his men, who would take no negro prisoners, and the whole garrison was surrendered without firing a shot. Meantime he had sent a detachment down the road, derailed the train, and took in the reinforcements.
His insubordination was only excused by the wonderful success he constantly won while having his own way. In April, 1863, General Bragg's army was up in Tennessee. General Van Dorn commanded all of the calvary, some eight thousand horse. General Forrest commanded a brigade, and captured the Federal brigade commanded by General Coborn. Bragg sent orders through Van Dorn to Forrest, to turn over all his captured horses, arms, etc., to the ordnance and quartermaster officers of the army.
The property not being forthcoming, the general wrote peremptorily to Van Dorn to call on Forrest to obey the order, and explain his delay in doing so. Van Dorn sent for him to come to his office, and in a tone of authority demanded of him immediate compliance, saying,
"Why have you not turned in those captured horses?"
Forrest replied defiantly, "Because I haven't got 'em."
Van Dorn said, "That statement differs from your written report, sir."
Forrest, white with rage, said, "General Van Dorn, the time will come when your rank will not protect you, and you shall account for this outrage!" Van Dorn, with his blue eyes blazing, retorted, "General Forrest, my rank shall never protect me from any man who feels aggrieved by me, and I await your pleasure now, sir."
Forrest slowly passed his hand over his face; then he said: "General Van Dorn, I think there are Yankees enough for you and me to fight without fighting each other. I am sorry for what I said, and I respectfully ask your pardon." Van Dorn replied: "General Forrest, I am glad to hear you speak so. No man can ever doubt your willingness to fight any man or any thing, but while under my command you must obey my orders, and I have important orders to execute at once." He then ordered him to pause the raiding party of Colonel Streight, which had just passed down into Alabama.
This was the last interview between these two celebrated men, alike in their persons. Forrest, with his powerful frame, high cheek bones, light gray eyes, and straight black hair, was in physical powers superior to all men. He had probably slain more men in battle with his own hand than any man living. Van Dorn, with his light graceful figure, florid face, light waving hair, and bright blue eyes, seemed formed for love and war. Not over five feet six in stature, he would have encountered Forrest or any other man. I believe they were two of the bravest men living who stood face to face that morning. They never met again. When Forrest returned from his splendid pursuit and capture of Streight's command, General Van Dorn had fallen victim of private vengeance.
When Forrest, with about twelve hundred men, set out in pursuit of Streight, he was more than a day behind him. Streight had several hundred more men in the saddle than Forrest, and, being so far in advance, could replace a broken down horse with a fresh one from the farms through which his route lay, while Forrest, when he lost a horse, lost a soldier too; for no good horses were left for him. After a hot pursuit of five days and nights, during which he lost two thirds of his forces from broken down horses, he overhauled his enemy and brought him to a parley. This conference took place in sight of a cut off in the mountain road, Captain Morton and his horse artillery, which had been so long with Forrest, passing in sight along the road until they came to the cut off, into which they would turn, re-entering the road out of view, so that it seemed that a continuous stream of artillery was passing by. Forrest had so arranged that he stood with his back to the guns, while Streight was facing them.
Forrest, in his characteristic way, described the scene to me. He said:
"I had seen him all the time we was talking looking over my shoulder and counting our guns. Presently he said, 'Name of God! How many guns have you got? There's fifteen I've counted already!' Turning my head the other way, I said, 'I recon that's all that has kept up.' Then he said, 'I won't surrender till you tell me how many men you've got.' I said, 'I've got enough to whip you out of your boots.' To which Colonel Streight said, 'I won't surrender.' I turned to my bugler and said, 'Sound to mount! ' Then Streight cried out, 'I'll surrender!' I told him, 'Stack your arms right along there, Colonel, and march your men away down into that hollow.'
"When this was done," continued Forrest, "I ordered my men to come forward and take possession of the arms. When Streight saw they were barely four hundred, he did rare! demanded to have his arms back and we should fight it out. I just laughed at him and patted him on the shoulder, and said, 'Ah, Colonel, all is fair in love and war, you know.'"
Forrest learned after the surrender that Streight had sent off a detachment to destroy our stores and works in Rome, Georgia, not very distant from where they were, and immediately caused Streight to send a staff-officer to recall that detachment, Forrest sending one of his own staff along with him. The recall was in good time, and Rome was saved.
Hard riding had reduced Forrest's force to four hundred mounted men. Streight had lost a number in the collisions which occurred during the pursuit. I believe thirteen hundred was the number of prisoners which I forwarded with their gallant colonel to Richmond. He was a very daring and able soldier, and soon made his way out of prison and escaped with a large part of his command.
When Forrest, in fierce pursuit of Streight, had come near the bridge over the Estananla, a little girl of fourteen or fifteen summers appeared in the road before him and signed him to halt. She said, "The Yankees have halted at the bridge, and will fire upon you if you go within sight."
"Is there not a ford above here," asked Forrest, "where can we cross?"
"Oh, yes! A little more than a mile above is a good ford."
"Well, can't you guide me to it?"
"Yes, indeed." She said. "Take me up behind you." I know the way very well, and will show it to you."
So she got upon a stump, and sprang up behind him, and pointed out the route he must take. And so they pushed on together, that fierce warrior, gentle always with women, and the bright little girl, excited and glowing with pride in her noble action and in being of such important service to the most famous of all of the brave men of that stirring time.
After going nearly a mile she said, "Now you had better stop here. For after you pass that timber, they can see you from the ford; for by this time they may have sent some soldiers up there, and they will shoot at you if you pass that point."
So Forrest dismounted, and, accompanied by several of the officers at the head of the column, advanced to the timber, and was peering around it, when the enemy at the ford opened fire upon them. He was amazed and alarmed when the little girl darted out past him, and, spreading out her little frock, cried, "Get behind me! Get behind me!" He snatched her up, drew back to a place of safety, tenderly and laughingly too, mounted and charged the enemy, clearing the way for his column in a few minutes. The little girl was named Emma Sanson. The Legislature of Alabama gave her six hundred and forty acres of good land, and she has now been married many years to a worthy man, and is the mother, we hope, of many sons worthy of such a mother.
When retreating, Forrest would often ride back some distance in the rear of his command, in order that he might reconnoiter the enemy for himself, and form his own estimates of his progress, etc. On one of these occasions, while crossing upper Georgia, he was galloping in haste to overtake his men, when an old woman came out of a house, and, waving her sunbonnet at him, called out, "Stop, you miserable coward! Stop and fight!" adding, as he hurried past, "If Forrest was here, he'd soon stop you!"
In 1863, General Sturgis moved out from Memphis to occupy the prairie country of Mississippi, that large fertile region upon the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, where the great cotton and corn fields lay as yet un-tracked by the hoofs of the invader. Forrest fell upon him on the Tishomingo Creek, with less than twenty-five hundred horse. The army of Sturgis is estimated at about fourteen thousand men of all arms, and was completely equipped. His negro troops were in front. Upon these Confederates made a deadly charge, which completely routed them. The survivors fell back in confusion upon the advancing artillery, which was thrown into disorder, and the whole command broke up in utter panic and fled back to Memphis. Sturgis lost all of his artillery, three batteries, his wagon train, and a great number of killed and wounded. He reached Memphis without any command, and ever after held Forrest in profound respect, and when he would hear of an expedition going out to capture him would remind the commander that he once did that.
General Tecumseh Sherman, when in command of the District of Mississippi, fitted out a formidable expedition for the capture of Mobile. He moved out from Vicksburg with twenty-two thousand infantry and artillery. General Sooy Smith left Memphis with seven or eight thousand men not far from West Point. He fell upon Smith near Okolona in the open prairie, put his command to utter rout, and, like Sturgis, General Smith reached Memphis without his command. On this memorable field Colonel Forrest, brother to the general, fell, bravely leading his men. When General Forrest saw this, he sprang from his horse, caught his dead brother in his arms, kissed him tenderly, and with streaming eyes led his redoubtable bodyguard in a charge, broke the enemy, and commenced his rout. Sherman, on hearing of the destruction of Smith's column, retreated in haste to Vicksburg, pursued by the Confederates, under Stephen D. Lee, who had recently defeated Sherman in the battle of Chickasaw Bluff.
Forrest understood well how to patch the lion's with the fox's skin, and to supplement force with stratagem. In the winter of 1864, I was commanding the department of Alabama and Mississippi. Forrest, with about forty five hundred horse, was in north Mississippi, and I charged him with the defense of north Mississippi and west Tennessee, and, knowing his peculiar sensitiveness when under control, I wrote to him to this effect: "In placing you in command of this district, I wish you to feel sure I shall not interfere with your exercise of it. I will be responsible if anything miscarries, and you shall have full credit for all the successes I am sure you will accomplish. I cannot spare you a single soldier, but will promptly respond to your demands for supplies of every sort." This gave Forrest great satisfaction. It was the first time he had been so unhampered by any of his commanders, and he ever after regarded me with gratitude for the confidence this reposed in him, and with respect for my intelligence in showing that I realized he understood his business better than I did.
About this time a heavy corps was sent out from Memphis to occupy the State of Mississippi, under the command of General A. J. Smith. The rains and the roads were very heavy, and Smith's army could move but slowly. Forrest kept a large force close in his front, while he, with two thousand men, remained quietly about West Point, getting his horses in good order upon the fine forage there.
Farragut was bombarding Fort Powell, with the intention, as I anticipated, of getting an army and fleet into Mobile Bay. Forrest telegraphed me in cipher to this effect: "The enemy has twenty seven thousand men; has more cavalry than my whole force; I cannot check him, but with your permission will pass behind him into Memphis and destroy his stores, and thus compel him to retreat." I replied: "Go, but come back quick. You are all I depend upon for the safety of north Mississippi."
It was more than a week before he moved. He then made a rapid march across to Oxford, and with his whole force drove back the enemy's advance, and at 4 P.M. Friday, dashed off to Memphis with two thousand horse and four guns. Saturday I first knew of his movements from the telegraph operator at Senatobia in about these words: "General Forrest has passed here at a gallop, bound for Memphis." At dawn, Sunday, came this: "Heavy cannon-firing about Memphis." He had marched ninety four miles in thirty six hours. Three rivers were out of their banks. He tore down houses and fences near by and bridged them and crossed his guns safely over. At crack of day, Sunday, he dashed into Memphis, and occupied the city. The commanding general fled in his night clothes from his bed, leaving his uniform, sword, etc., to the Confederates. The garrison of infantry threw themselves into the Irving Block, a strong building, from which they could not be dislodged without loss of many men. Forrest's object was fully accomplished by destroying stores and by spreading panic throughout the city, which was soon communicated by telegrams and couriers to the whole department and the army of General A. J. Smith, who, on hearing that Forrest had occupied Memphis, threw up his hands, crying, "We are gone up!" and at once retreated out of Mississippi. Forrest drew his men out of the place, and by 4 P.M. was ready to go back to his own country.
In telling me of this, he said that a fine looking staff officer came to him, requesting the restoration of his general's uniform, with the assurance that its return would be acknowledged by a present of a bolt of the finest gray cloth to be found in Memphis. The major, whom Forrest described as a very "sassy fellow," said, "General W. desired me to say he will catch you before you get back." "You may tell the general from me," rejoined Forrest, "that I am going back by the same road I came by, and if we meet, I promise to whip him out of his boots." -- "When I told him that," continued Forrest, "I allowed he would not believe me, and would send all of his forces to intercept me and attack me on the other road; but after the major had gone off with this message, I began to think he might believe me and attack me on the homeward road, and I got scared, and ran back as fast as I came." The Federal general did as Forrest hoped he would, disbelieved him, and made all of his arrangements to catch him where he wasn't. Thus again he had saved the State of Mississippi, and this time by his finesse and energy alone.
When I wrote him my acknowledgment of this great service, I told him he should come down to Mobile and take a few day's rest, and asked him to send me one of his brigades; for I thought that the enemy on hearing, as he surely would, that Forrest and his command were in Mobile, would delay the attack then under consideration. My wife wished to entertain him, and gave him a dinner, inviting some lady friends who were desirous of meeting this great hero. His natural deference to the sex gave them all much pleasure. He was always very courteous to women, and in their presence was very bright and entertaining. He had for women that manly courtesy and respect that marks the truly brave man. Under all circumstances he was their defender and protector from every sort of wrong. His wife was a gentle lady, to whom he was careful in his deference.
The enjoyment of our dinner was enhanced by young Colonel Aleck Chalmers, one of Forrest's regimental commanders. He was a handsome young fellow, as gallant as he looked, and full of a sense of humor. He described for our great amusement the descent of his command upon the Gayoso House at Memphis. At dawn of the morning, they rode right into the great hall at the office, dismounted there, and clattered up the broad stairway to the corridors above, where they found the first class boarders, officers and their families. He said: "We went along the hall knocking at the doors with our sabres or pistol butts. The doors would fly open and the occupants of the beds come forth accoutered as they were. Sometimes it would be a man, sometimes a woman, sometimes both, and all in appropriate costume. One beautiful young lady sprang from her bed, threw her arms around my neck, and begged 'For God's sake, sir, don't kill me!' 'Not for worlds, madam' said I, returning tenderly her embrace." Which he illustrated with the proper gestures. He was a fine young fellow, and survived the war, to die after of the swamp fever of the country.
General Frank Armstrong was much with Forrest, and was an able cavalry commander, one of the very ablest in the Confederate service. He says Forrest was never disconcerted by any event in battle. On one occasion Forrest, with Armstrong's and Starnes' brigades, was operating in Tennessee against Gordon Granger's command. Armstrong was in front, with his skirmishes pressing Granger's skirmish line, when two couriers came galloping from the rear, yelling at the tops of their voices, "General Forrest! General Stanley has cut in behind you, has attacked Starnes' brigade, has captured the rear guard battery, and is right in Armstrong's rear!" Forrest immediately shouted so that all could hear him, "You say he is in Armstrong's rear, do you? Damn him! That's just where I have been trying to get him all day, and I'll be in his rear directly. Face your battle lines about! Armstrong, push your skirmishers forward -- crowd 'em both ways! I'm going to Starnes. You'll hear from me in about five minutes!"
Off he dashed with his bodyguard, and in a few minutes loud cheering was heard. He recaptured the battery, recovered all of the prisoners lost by Starnes, and captured a large number of the enemy, driving his forces back. To this day Armstrong's men believe Forrest had laid a trap for the Federals, into which they fell; whereas Forrest was as near frightened as he could be in battle, and Armstrong believed "they were all gone up."
Forrest knew nothing about tactics -- could not drill a company. When first ordered to have his brigade ready for review, he was quite ignorant, but Armstrong told him what commands to give, and what to do with himself. He had an excellent memory, -- remembered everything exactly, -- and was so pleased with his success that he often afterwards had reviews.
I once asked him about the charge so often preferred against him of the murder of his prisoners at Fort Pillow. He said the negroes brought it all upon themselves; that after the white flag had been raised, and while it was flying, they continued to shoot his men, who, much infuriated, shot the negroes; that he stopped it as soon as he could, but not before many had been shot. It created a great terror of him ever after among the negro troops. He knew this and, as in the case of the Dutch colonel, he used it as a caution against resistance, and an incentive to prompt surrender when dealing with the commanders of negro troops.
Sometimes, on the eve of a battle, convalescents and released prisoners would join him and he would say, "I have no arms for you yet, but fall in here behind, and you shall have plenty of good Yankee arms presently." He told me he had twenty eight horses shot under him. He was shot only three times, which is quite remarkable when we remember how many battles he fought, and how he continually exposed himself to danger.
In his last fight at Selma, he was in the telegraph office with General Dan Adams, when a little boy came running in and said, "The Yankees are coming!" They ran to their horses, which we tied to the fence. The enemy, led by a big yellow haired Dutchman, were close upon them. Forrest said: "Dan Adams was on a smart horse and got off. The big Dutchman closed upon me, and had a smarter horse than mine, and he kept cutting me over the head and arms with his sword, which wasn't sharp, but it made me mighty mad, and I kept dodging it, for my pistol got hitched, and I could not get it out till he had hit me several times. When I did draw it, I dropped my reins, caught him by his long hair, and fired two loads right into him!"
One evening we were sitting together in the veranda of my headquarters at Meridian, when his bodyguard came by on their way to water. I said, "General Forrest, that is a fine troop of men and horses." "Yes, it is; and that captain is the eighth captain who has commanded it. The other seven have all been killed in battle!" Such was the influence of his success and fame, that there were always daring applicants for vacancies in Forrest's bodyguard.