Nathan Bedford Forrest was born on July 13, 1821, in rural Chapel Hill, Tennessee. He and his twin sister, Fanny, were the oldest of William and Mariam Beck Forrest’s twelve children. Forrest’s father was a blacksmith and a subsistence farmer who worked hard to scratch out a living for his family in the Tennessee backwoods. Forrest received little formal education because he spent much of his youth helping his father provide for his growing family.
In 1834, when Forrest was thirteen years old, the family moved to Marshall County, Mississippi. Three years later, his father died, and Forrest became the family’s primary breadwinner. During the next few years, Forrest profitably worked the family farm, and he became a successful horse and cattle trader. During that period, he also survived a bout with typhoid fever that claimed the lives of several of his siblings, including his twin sister, Fanny.
In 1842, Forrest accepted an offer to join his uncle’s successful mercantile business in Hernando, Mississippi. Three years later, in 1845, four assailants wounded Forrest in a gunfight that took his uncle’s life. During the melee, Forrest disabled two of his adversaries with a double-barreled pistol, before charging the other two with a bowie knife, prompting them to flee for their lives.
During the year of his uncle’s death, Forrest met Mary Ann Montgomery, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. After a brief courtship, the couple wed on September 25, 1845. Their marriage of thirty-two years produced one son and one daughter who died in infancy.
Wealthy Slave-trader and Plantation Owner
Forrest and his wife remained in Mississippi for four more years, where he continued to prosper. In 1849, the couple moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where Forrest found work as a law enforcement officer and as a riverboat captain, while he continued to speculate in livestock. While living in Memphis, he used his accumulating riches to buy and sell slaves. During the late 1850s, Forrest began purchasing cotton plantations in Mississippi, and by the end of the decade, he had become one of the wealthiest men in the South.
When the American Civil War erupted, Forrest responded to Tennessee’s call to arms. On June 14, 1861, he enlisted as a private in Captain Josiah White’s Tennessee Mounted Rifles (Seventh Tennessee Cavalry), along with his youngest brother, and his fifteen-year-old son, Willie. Tennessee Governor Isham G. Harris soon authorized Forrest to raise a cavalry regiment, which Forrest equipped at his own expense. By October 1861 he became lieutenant colonel of Forrest’s Tennessee Cavalry Battalion.
In early 1862, Forrest’s battalion took part in the defense of Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River near the Tennessee-Kentucky border. When Union troops, commanded by Ulysses S. Grant, surrounded the fort on March 15, 1862, Confederate Generals Gideon J. Pillow, Simon B. Buckner, and John B. Floyd surrendered the garrison. Infuriated by their decision, Forrest proclaimed, “I did not come here to surrender my command.” He then led his battalion out of the fort and escaped unmolested to Nashville, Tennessee. Confederate officials promptly promoted Forrest to the rank of colonel for his display of boldness.
One month later, Forrest was wounded, while his command was providing rearguard protection for escaping Confederate troops following the Battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862). During the Battle of Fallen Timbers (April 8, 1862) Forrest charged headlong into Brigadier General William T. Sherman‘s pursuing federal force. Forrest got so far out in front of his fellow troopers that he found himself alone within a few yards of the Yankee lines. A Union soldier was so close that he shot Forrest at point-blank range with a musket ball that entered the colonel’s side and grazed his spine. Despite being seriously wounded, Forrest escaped and rejoined the main Confederate force, which had retreated to Corinth, Mississippi. Forrest traveled home to recuperate but returned to action in time to take part in the Rebel withdrawal after the Siege of Corinth (April 29–May 30, 1862).
Upon returning to action, officials placed Forrest in command of a newly created cavalry brigade with orders to raid Middle Tennessee. On July 13, 1862, his force of roughly 1,400 troopers surprised the Union garrison at Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Forrest’s men overran the Federals, inflicting nearly 900 casualties and capturing Union supplies. The Rebels followed up their victory at the First Battle of Murfreesboro by destroying railroad tracks in the area. Officials subsequently promoted Forrest to brigadier general on July 21, 1862.
Forrest’s foray into Middle Tennessee was so successful that the Confederate high command continued using him in the capacity of cavalry raider and assigned him to General Braxton Bragg‘s Army of Tennessee. His lightning raids in the Western Theater throughout the rest of the war earned him the nickname of “the wizard of the saddle.” Although he lacked the formal military training of many of his contemporaries, Forrest attributed his success as a cavalry officer to his recognition, in his own words, that “War means killing.”
Battle of Dover
On February 3, 1863, Forrest’s brigade served under General Joseph Wheeler at the Battle of Dover (also known as the Second Battle of Fort Donelson). When Wheeler withdrew his forces after failing to dislodge a much smaller federal garrison at Dover, Tennessee, Forrest denounced his commanding officer, vowing to never serve under Wheeler again.
Battle of Day’s Gap
Three months later, Forrest scored a magnificent victory over a Union cavalry force commanded by Colonel Abel Streight. In late April 1863, Streight led roughly 1,500 Federal troopers into northern Alabama, intent on destroying portions of the Western & Atlantic Railroad and disrupting the Army of Tennessee’s supply lines. Forrest’s troopers dogged Streight’s command for several days until surrounding the Northerners near Cedar Bluff, Alabama. As Forrest demanded Streight’s surrender, he ordered his 500 horsemen to ride in circles around the much larger Union force, creating the illusion that his command was more sizable than it was. Convinced that Forrest’s men outnumbered him, Streight surrendered his entire command to the much smaller Rebel force on May 3, 1863.
Failed Assassination Attempt
On June 14, 1863, Forrest averted death at the hands of would-be assassin Lieutenant Andrew W. Gould. Gould was disgruntled after Forrest ordered the lieutenant’s transfer for poor performance during the pursuit of Streight’s forces. Gould subsequently received an audience with Forrest when the latter visited Columbia, South Carolina. An argument ensued, and Gould pulled a pistol, firing a shot at point-blank range into the left side of Forrest’s abdomen, just above the hip. Forrest responded by grabbing the revolver with one hand while using his teeth to open a pocket knife secured in his other hand. He then stabbed his assailant, inflicting a wound that proved fatal two days later. Although an attending physician informed Forrest that his gunshot wound was probably mortal, the general recovered and returned to his command in time to take part in Braxton Bragg’s retreat from Tennessee during the Tullahoma Campaign (June 24–July 3, 1863).
Battle of Chickamauga: Dispute with Braxton Bragg
At the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19-September 20, 1863), Forrest’s cavalry won accolades for dismounting and fighting alongside the infantry on the Confederate right flank. When the Yankees withdrew toward Chattanooga, Tennessee, Forrest unsuccessfully implored General Bragg to pursue the enemy.
Outraged by Bragg’s refusal to give chase to the retreating Federals, Forrest openly criticized the commanding general. Bragg responded with a message to Forrest, stating that “The commanding general desires that you will without delay turn over the troops of your command, previously ordered, to Major General Wheeler.” Forrest, who had vowed never to serve under Wheeler again, confronted Bragg and announced that he refused to serve under Wheeler or Bragg.
At that point, Confederate President Jefferson Davis intervened. Fully aware of Forrest’s importance to the Rebel cause, Davis had Forrest transferred to an independent command in Mississippi in November 1863. Just a few weeks later, on December 4, Confederate officials promoted Forrest to the rank of major general.
Battle of Okolona
Forrest spent the winter of 1863–1864 recruiting and raiding near the Mississippi–Tennessee state line. By February, he had created a mounted force that he referred to as the Cavalry Department of West Tennessee and North Mississippi. On February 22, 1864, he defeated a force of over 7,000 Union cavalrymen commanded by Brigadier General William Sooy Smith at the Battle of Okolona, in Northern Mississippi.
Fort Pillow Controversy
In mid-March 1864, Forrest led 3,000 troopers on a cavalry raid into western Tennessee and Kentucky to recruit soldiers, capture supplies, and create havoc behind Union lines. On March 25, Forrest’s men forced the federal garrison at Paducah, Kentucky to retreat to the safety of Yankee gunboats on the Ohio River. After doing considerable damage to the town and fort, Forrest turned his attention to Fort Pillow, on the Mississippi River, about forty miles north of Memphis, Tennessee.
The garrison of 600 men at Fort Pillow included approximately 300 members of the 6th U.S. Regiment Colored Heavy Artillery and a part of the 2nd U.S. Colored Light Artillery, many of whom were former slaves. Forrest’s 2,500 cavalrymen began assaulting the earthen fortification on the morning of April 12, 1864. After seizing the outer defenses, Forrest forwarded a message to the defenders stating:
The conduct of the officers and men garrisoning Fort Pillow has been such as to entitle them to being treated a prisoners of war. I demand the unconditional surrender of the entire garrison, promising that you shall be treated as prisoners of war. My men have just received a fresh supply of ammunition, and from their present position can easily assault and capture the fort. Should my demand be refused, I cannot be responsible for the fate of your command.
Major William F. Bradford, who had taken command of the fort after Confederate sharpshooters killed Major Lionel F. Booth, refused to surrender. Forrest then ordered his sharpshooters to resume firing as his cavalry charged the inner works. The panicked defenders turned and ran toward the river.
What happened next has remained a source of considerable controversy. Northerners, including eyewitnesses, claim that the Confederates murdered Union soldiers who tried to surrender or who had thrown down their arms and were fleeing from the Rebel fire. Evidence shows that the Rebels directed their hostility toward the black soldiers in particular; only sixty-two of the U.S. Colored Troops survived the fight. A highly partisan investigation by the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War soon after the event termed the battle a “massacre.” Still, decades of study have failed to determine if Forrest ordered the wanton killing that probably occurred, as some have argued, or whether he ordered an immediate halt to the atrocities as soon as they came to his attention. Whatever the case, the event stained Forrest’s reputation for the rest of his life.
Battle of Brice’s Cross Roads
Two months after the Battle of Fort Pillow, Forrest achieved near perfection as a battlefield commander. In early June, he was threatening Major General William T. Sherman’s supply lines supporting the Northern armies in Georgia. Sherman dispatched a division of 8,500 Union cavalry and infantry, commanded by Brigadier General Samuel D. Sturgis, to deal with “that devil Forrest.” On June 10, 1864, as Sturgis neared Forrest’s much smaller command of approximately 2,500 troopers, the Rebel leader surprised the Yankees with an assault at Brice’s Cross Roads in Northern Mississippi. The attack started a full-blown battle that lasted nearly the entire day. Toward the end of the engagement, Forrest’s men enveloped both federal flanks. They then smashed the Union line, forcing the Yankees to retreat to Memphis. By the time the fighting ended, Sturgis suffered over 2,200 casualties including roughly 1,500 men taken prisoner. In addition, Forrest captured sixteen cannons, 1,500 stands of small arms, 300,000 rounds of ammunition, and all the Bluecoats’ baggage and supplies. The Confederate victory came at a cost of ninety-six killed and 396 wounded, for a total of 492 casualties.
Throughout the rest of 1864, Forrest continued his successful raids in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama, prompting General Sherman to declare:
that devil Forrest must be hunted down and killed if it costs 10,000 lives and bankrupts the federal treasury.
In late November 1864, Forrest’s cavalry joined the Army of Tennessee to support General John Bell Hood‘s Franklin-Nashville Campaign (September 18-December 27, 1864). Forrest’s men took part in the Confederate losses at the Battle of Franklin (November 30, 1864) and the Battle of Nashville (December 15-16, 1864). They then served as a rearguard as Hood’s broken army retreated to Tupelo, Mississippi during the last weeks of December.
Battle of Selma and Surrender
On February 28, 1865, officials promoted Forrest to the rank of lieutenant general and placed him in charge of the cavalry in the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana. On April 2, 1865, Major General James H. Wilson’s Union force defeated Forrest’s greatly out-manned command at the Battle of Selma. A few weeks later, on May 9, 1865, Forrest addressed his command at Gainesville, Alabama, and announced that “By an agreement made between Liet.-Gen. Taylor, commanding the Department of Alabama. Mississippi, and East Louisiana, and Major-Gen. Canby, commanding United States forces, the troops of this department have been surrendered.” Forrest’s men were among the last to surrender at the end of the Civil War.
Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard
After the war, Forrest sold his plantations and moved to Memphis to enter private business, but he never regained the fortune he enjoyed prior to the rebellion. His membership in the Ku Klux Klan soiled his post-war reputation. Forrest joined the secret organization around 1866 and the members elected him as the Grand Wizard one year later. By 1869, however, he reportedly became disenchanted by the group’s increasingly violent nature and renounced his membership. Some people claim that Forrest never joined the Ku Klux Klan and definitely did not serve as the group’s leader, but most scholars accept Forrest’s membership as historical fact.
Financial Ruin and Death
Like many Americans, the Panic of 1873 ruined Forrest financially. He spent the last years of his life running a prison work farm on President’s Island near Memphis. Suffering from diabetes, Forrest died at his brother’s home in Memphis on October 29, 1877, at age fifty-six. Jefferson Davis delivered a eulogy at Forrest’s funeral, which thousands of mourners attended. Forrest’s body was originally buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis. In 1905, he and his wife were re-interred in downtown Memphis, in a park that had, until 2013, been named in Forrest’s honor.