1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Forrest, Nathan Bedford
FORREST, NATHAN BEDFORD (1821–1877), Confederate cavalry general in the American Civil War, was born near Chapel Hill, Tennessee, on the 13th of July 1821. Before his father’s death in 1837 the family had removed to Mississippi, and for some years thereafter it was supported principally by Nathan, who was the eldest son. Thus he never received any formal education (as witnessed by the uncouth phraseology and spelling of his war despatches), but he managed to teach himself with very fair success, and is said to have possessed considerable ability as a mathematician. He was in turn a horse and cattle trader in Mississippi, and a slave dealer and horse trader in Memphis, until 1859, when he took to cotton planting in north-western Mississippi, where he acquired considerable wealth. At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 he volunteered as a private, raised a cavalry battalion, of which he was lieut.-colonel, and in February 1862 took part in the defence of Fort Donelson, and refusing, like Generals Floyd and Pillow, to capitulate with the rest of the Confederate forces, made his way out, before the surrender, with all the mounted troops there. He was promptly made a colonel and regimental commander, and fought at Shiloh with distinction, receiving a severe wound. Shortly after this he was promoted brigadier-general (July 1862). At the head of a mounted brigade he took a brilliant part in General Bragg’s autumn campaign, and in the winter of 1862–1863 he was continually active in raiding the hostile lines of communication. These raids have been the theme of innumerable discussions, and on the whole their value seems to have been overrated. At the same time, and apart from the question of their utility, Forrest’s raids were uniformly bold and skilful, and are his chief title to fame in the history of the cavalry arm. Indeed, next to Stuart and Sheridan, he was the finest cavalry leader of the whole war. One of the most remarkable of his actions was his capture, near Rome, Georgia, after five days of marching and fighting, of an entire cavalry brigade under Colonel A. D. Streight (April 1863). He was present at the battle of Chickamauga in September, after which (largely on account of his criticism of General Bragg, the army commander) he was transferred to the Mississippi. Forrest was made a major-general in December 1863. In the winter of 1863–1864 he was as active as ever, and in the spring of 1864 he raided as far north as Paducah, Ky. On the 12th of April 1864 he assaulted and captured Fort Pillow, in Tennessee on the Mississippi; U.S. negro troops formed a large part of the garrison and according to survivors many were massacred after the fort had surrendered. The “Massacre of Fort Pillow” has been the subject of much controversy and there is much conflicting testimony regarding it, but it seems probable that Forrest himself had no part in it. On the 10th of June Forrest decisively defeated a superior Federal force at Brice’s Cross Roads, Miss., and throughout the year, though the greatest efforts were made by the Federals to crush him, he raided in Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama with almost unvarying success. He was once more with the main Confederate army of the West in the last disastrous campaign of Nashville, and fought stubborn rearguard actions to cover the retreat of the broken Confederates. In February 1865 he was made a lieut.-general, but the struggle was almost at an end and General James H. Wilson, one of the ablest of the Union cavalry generals, rapidly forced back the few Confederates, now under Forrest’s command, and stormed Selma, Alabama, on the 2nd of April. The surrender of General Forrest and his whole command, under the agreement between General Richard Taylor and General E. S. Canby, followed on the 9th of May. After the war he lived in Memphis. He sold his cotton plantation in 1867, and for some years was president of the Selma, Marion and Memphis Railroad. He died at Memphis, Tennessee, on the 29th of October 1877.
The military character of General Forrest, apart from questions of his technical skill, horsemastership and detail special to his arm of the service, was admittedly that of a great leader. He never commanded a large force of all arms. He was uneducated, and had neither experience of nor training for the strategical handling of great armies. Yet his personality and his natural soldierly gifts were such that General Sherman considered him “the most remarkable man the Civil War produced on either side.” Joseph Johnston, the Confederate general whose greatness lay above all in calm and critical judgment, said that Forrest, had he had the advantage of a thorough military training, “would have been the great central figure of the war.”
See the biographies by J. A. Wyeth (1899) and J. H. Mathes (1902).