The United States Army, in its doctrine, lists nine basic principles. As stated in
Field Manual 100-5 these include objective, offensive, mass, economy of force,
maneuver, unity of command, security, surprise, and simplicity. 1 Napoleon had 115
maxims, Sun Tzu had 13 principles, but Nathan Bedford Forrest’s advice was the utmost
of simplicity, “Git thar firstest with the mostest men.”2 As we look at the challenge
facing our nation’s military today, our leaders would do well to look at Forrest’s
campaigns and strategies as a guide.
. Forrest won respect for risking his life while trying to save his aging uncle.
Subsequently, Forrest won the affection of Mary Montgomery who, in 1845, became his
In 1851 Bedford moved to Memphis. He won several elections as an elderman
and prospered as a businessman. When he closed out his business in late1859 war was
eminent. He was involved in his own cotton business and was busy putting his family
affairs in order. His net worth was 11/2 million dollars and he was netting $30 thousand
a year for his cotton. While he was a slave trader during this period, Colonel Adair
described his actions as “Forrest was kind, humane, and extremely considerate of his
slaves. He seemed to exercise the same influence over them that in a greater degree he
exercised over the soldiers who served him as devotedly as if there was between them a
strong personal attachment.5
On 14 June 1861, he enlisted in Memphis as a soldier in Captain White’s
Tennessee Mounted Rifles Company.6 This unit would become a subordinate unit of the
Seventh Tennessee Calvary Regiment. Forrest was the unit’s commander when the war
ended. Friends of Forrest’s approached Governor Harris and General Polk, which
subsequently resulted in an authorization allowing Forrest to raise a battalion of
mounted rangers. By October of 1861 he had eight companies of men comprising a
total of 650. Most arrived with pistols and shotguns, as well as horses, which resulted in
Forrest still attempting to obtain rifles for them when the unit was ordered to Dover as
reinforcement for what was to be Fort Donelson. As Colonel Tate described then to
General Johnston, “Colonel Forrest’s regiment of cavalry, as fine a body of men as ever
went to the field, has gone to Fort Donelson. Give Forrest a chance and he will
For the next forty months, Forrest proved just how good Colonel Tate’s
evaluation was. As we examine his exploits as a cavalryman/raider, it is important to see
how these same skills would be valuable to today’s military leaders. When describing
Forrest, it was said “His ferocity as a warrior was almost legendary. His claim to have
slain one more enemy soldier in personal combat than the twenty-nine horses killed
beneath him only added to the legend.”8 Forrest knew what war was about. In his own
words “War means fighting and fighting means killing.” President Bush today talks about
this nation’s actions regarding terrorism as we “bring the terrorists to justice or bring
justice to them.” Forrest’s comments obviously bear consideration as our involvement in ground combat begins to escalate.
Forrest’s first combat action of the war was near Sacramento, Kentucky with a force of 300 men conducting a reconnaissance. When a scout located a Union force of 500, Forrest planned an attack and demonstrated his ability to adapt and surprise an enemy. One company provided a base of fire along his avenue of approach. While this unit drew the enemy fire, Capt. Starnes and Capt. Kelley attacked both flanks. When the Union force reacted to two new axes of attack, Forrest had his chance to fully exploit the situation. The commander led a charge at the correct moment and the Union line collapsed. While the total number of combatants may have been small, the effect was a clear Confederate victory. While many of his subordinates were concerned for Forrest’s safety, Bedford seemed to make good decisions even in the heat of battle. Reverend Kelley remarked about Forrest ” In his early battles he was so disregardful of the ordinary rules of tactics, so reckless in personal exposure, that I felt sure his career would be short. It seemed certain that whenever he should meet a skillful opponent his command would be cut to pieces. Later we became aware that excitement neither paralyzed nor misled his magnificent military genius. “9 Cavalry tactics naturally stress the principles of surprise, maneuver, and offensive action. Bedford immediately proved to his men that he knew how to lead a force by personal example.
Two months later, when Union forces moved against Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, Forrest would save his command. Union gunboats bombarded Fort Henry into virtual submission, but Grant arrived too late with his blocking force and the Confederates retreated successfully. Forrests cavalry battalion was reinforced and he was leading a force of 1300 cavalry and infantry when he was ordered to stop Grant’s advance toward Fort Donelson. Grant’s force outnumbered the Confederates and the line was barely being held. General Floyd, a politician from Virginia with little military experience, looked for a way out. On February 15th, Forrest led a force to break through the encircling Union lines. Despite great valor and a retreat by the Union force the breakout was halted. General Floyd, citing lack of food and ammunition and Grant’s troop strength wanted to surrender. Floyd passed command to Pillow who in turn passed command to Buckner. Buckner planed to surrender the next morning. Forrest before leaving stated he would “get out of this place.. or bust hell wide open”.10 Despite a severe winter storm, Forrest led his men through a gap in the federal force and escaped towards Clarksville and then Nashville. While the force had to escape across Lick Creek, which was three feet deep, it did so in a snowstorm that morning. It was a tragic loss that Floyd and Buckner believed that their men could not escape through the gap that Forrest’s scouts had found. Forrest offered to protect their rear, but they refused his offer. In retrospect, Floyd knew that ammunition was enroute from Clarksville by boat at the same time he cited a lack of ammunition as an excuse for surrender. Pillow escaped by boat and Floyd left his troops to escape with Forrest. Floyd also cited a lack of food yet General Grant reported he seized enough food to feed his men for the next twenty-four days (Official Records, Vol. vii, p.334). General Bushrod Johnson stated that, in regard to the men who left after being told of the plans for surrender “I have not learned that a single one who attempted to escape met with any obstacle.”11
There is no doubt that this defeat had an effect on the entire war. As a result of this surrender, Grant was able to take Nashville and the entire western flank of the Confederacy was open to attack. Forrest salvaged as much as he could in Nashville, but had to threaten the local citizens with drawn sabers to regain order. During this period Floyd was the acting military commander in the area. Forrest’s refusal to surrender at Fort Donelson would ensure his men’s loyalty for the rest of the war. It should be noted that while Fort Donelson was a major military victory for the Union forces and Grant, MG Halleck was so disgusted with Grant’s performance and personal conduct during and after the battle that he wanted to relieve him. He did place BG Smith in command after the surrender when Grant simply disappeared. Numerous historians see the surrender at Fort Donelson as a key turning point in the war. They point to the loss of ten thousand excellent troops, the war supplies lost at Donelson and Nashville, and the open route for invasion as a defeat the Confederacy never completely recovered from. Had this surrender not occurred, Shiloh might never have occurred, or had an entirely different outcome.
Forrest’s regiment fought gallantly at Shiloh, but the Confederate force arrived late, was poorly led, and lacked the reinforcements that Grant received. The outcome was inevitable. In July, Forrest led a three pronged attack on Murfreesboro. By hitting the Union force at three points, the defenders failed to coordinate their defense of the city. The result was that all three forces, each thinking they were fighting the main force, surrendered. Forrests regiment was too small to hold Murfreesboro and was not reinforced, so they returned to their main mission of harassing and raiding against Grant’s forces. General Buell on several occasions urged his commanders to “Destroy Forrest if you can!” and lamented that “Our guards are gathered up by the enemy as easily as he would herd cattle.”12
Throughout early 1863, Forrest’s cavalry fought in Tennessee and Alabama. The best recorded was his campaign against Streight who was himself conducting raids with his “Mule Brigade”. Forrest’s relentless pursuit and daring attacks resulted in Streight’s surrender near Gadsden, Alabama. At one point Forrest enlisted the help of a young girl, Emma Sansom, to find a ford in a river he needed to cross to trap Streight. He young girl rode with Forrest on his horse to show him the best place to ford the river and avoid the bridge that Union troops were defending. 13
Forrest fought gallantly at Chicamauga, but when General Rosencrans’ forces began to retreat, General Bragg would not let him pursue. Both Generals Polk and Forrest favored pursuit and the chance to retake Chattanooga. In a letter to President Davis (after Polk accused Bragg of “criminal negligence”), Forrest in reference to Bragg said, “You have played the part of a damned scoundrel and are a coward and if you were any part of a man I would slap your jaws.” Forrest requested to be removed from under Bragg and would spend the rest of the war in the western theatre. When Bragg eventually engaged an emplaced Union force at Chattanooga, Grant pursued him in retreat.
Forrest’s last famous campaign was at Brice’s Crossroads. Confederates were trying to disrupt General Sherman’s supply lines, and General Sturgis had a force of 8,000 men to prevent this. Forrest when briefing his plan said “I know they greatly outnumber the troops I have at hand, but the road along which they march is muddy. They will make slow progress.”14 Forrest planned to attack the advance guard of cavalry and fix the battle. He knew that they could be surprised and defeated before the following infantry could run thee to five miles forward to reinforce them. Union forces, unsure of their opponent, called for the infantry as expected. Forrest’s troops attacked them from both flanks as they charged forward. Once the infantry charged forward, they were attacked in the rear as well and they were forced to retreat. Buford lead the pursuit himself for almost 50 miles. The pursuit ended when Buford, asleep in the saddle, was knocked unconscious when his horse hit a tree.15 Union casualties were 2,165 while Forrest suffered 492. Sherman, discussing “that devil Forrest”, urged Grant to “follow Forrest to the death if it costs 10,000 lives and breaks the treasury. There will never be peace in Tennessee until Forrest is dead.”16
As we look back at Nathan Bedford Forrest’s contributions and legacy, we have to appreciate how valiantly his troops fought when the opportunity came to hurt the enemy. Forrest picked his battles well, used his forces well (economy of force), and always sought to press the attack. He understood that cavalry is ideally suited to surprise the enemy, attack from unexpected directions in unknown strength, and not only defeat but also demoralize an enemy. That seems to be exactly what our forces want to do today in Afganistan. In point of fact the forces of the Northern Alliance were charging Taliban positions on horseback this week. Isn’t it a shame that Forrest died in 1877? We sure could use him as an advisor today. Forrest certainly knew how to lead a cavalry charge and could “keep the skewer to em”.
1.Maurice Matloff, General Editor, American Military History. (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Military History, United States Army 1969), 6-7.
3. John A Wyeth, MD, Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest. (Dayton, Ohio: Morningside Bookshop 1979, reprint of 1899 ed.), 5
4. Ibid., 17
5. Ibid., 20
6. Ibid., 23 from History of the Seventh Tennessee Cavalry by J.P. Young
7. Ibid., 27
8. Richard N. Current, Editor in Chief, Encyclopedia of the Confederacy. (New York: Simon ; Schuster), Volume 2, 607.
9. Wyeth, 27.
10. Robert E Corlew, Tennessee, A Short History. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press,1989), 307
11. Wyeth. 61.
12. Ibid., 100-101.
13. Ibid., 184.
14. Edwin C. Bearss, Forrest at Brice’s Cross Roads. Dayton, Ohio: Morningside Bookshop, 1979), 28
15. Thomas Jordan & J.P.Pryor, The Campaigns of Lieutenant General N.B.Forrest. (New Orleans, 1868),
16. Wyeth, 241.
Bearss, Erwin C. Forrest at Brice’s Cross Roads. Dayton, Ohio: Morningside Bookshop, 1979
Brasher, Justin “Forrest’s Headquarters” and “NBFHQ” 2001 (a website)
Corlew, Robert E. Tennessee: A Short History. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989
Current, Richard N. Encyclopedia of the Confederacy. New York: Simon ; Schuster, 1985.
Jordan, Thomas and Pryor, J.P. The Campaigns of Lieutenant General N.B. Forrest .New Orleans, 1868.
Matloff, Maurice, General Editor, American Military History. Washington D.C.: Office of the Chief of
Military History. United States Army, 1969.
Wyeth, John A. MD, Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Dayton, Ohio: Morningside Bookshop, 1975 reprint
of 1898 ed.
The writer, son and grandson of retired army officers and brother of a currently serving air cavalry officer acknowledges their input and opinions. I could not have fully understood what I was researching without their help.