The Battle Never Ends–Nathan Bedford Forrest

Nathan Bedford Forrest.

There, I have said the name. Let the battle begin. Or rather, let it resume. There are so many aspects of the American (Un)Civil War Between the States that are controversial. Almost every point of contention can be found in the life, battles, and words of Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Shelby Foote considered Forrest and Abraham Lincoln to be the two most unexpected, untrained, and natural geniuses to emerge from the war. That is a fair assessment. Forrest was called, by one biographer, a wizard in the saddle. Most Civil War generals were alumni of West Point. A few others (most of whom were incompetent) were politicians. Forrest had no formal military training. He had very little formal education of any kind.

Forrest was the epitome of the frontier-born and bred, self-made, hard-scrabble, rags-to-riches, independent man. Being southern and from east Tennessee, he found his way to fortune in cotton and slaves. He was a slave trader. Even those of us nurtured on Southern history cringe at the slave trade. Having slaves is problematic. (In some circles, it is among the most ultimate of evils.) But we can often imagine ourselves being the kind of southerner who might have inherited slaves, considered them as family, worshiped, celebrated, and grieved with them, and took care of them in their old age. There were such, and many such, Southerners.

But slave trading? Whether it is Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or a host of other powerful novels or non-fiction accounts, slave trading in fiction and reality was horrible. But Forrest made a profit at that very venture.

The war came along, and Forrest, who was a community leader and a natural leader, quickly emerged as a crafty, intuitive, recklessly bold cavalry commander. One of the earliest exploits was his refusal to surrender at Fort Donaldson in north-eastern Tennessee. While the other Confederate commanders dithered and cringed at the surrounding Yankee forces, Forrest determined to take his mounted troops through the swamps and Northern encirclement and escape…to fight again.

While not flawless on the battlefield, the general inclinations of General Forrest were toward extracting a victory of sorts from every confrontation. This war was no parlor game, or gentleman’s contest, or chessboard with set pieces and limitations of movement.
Forrest rightly noted that “War means fightin’ and fightin’means killin’.” We can never know how Forrest might have functioned if he had been placed in command of a corp or an army. The Southerner who laments the loss from the Late Unpleasantness can only speculate how Forrest in command might have changed such battles as Vicksburg, Chickamagua, or Franklin. For certain, Forrest would not have had Braxton Bragg’s inability to do anything right. He would not have retreated endlessly as did Joe Johnston, nor would he have wasted troops in the way that John B. Hood did.

Several outstanding military leaders emerged from that war. When you look down through the ranks, quite a few gifted commanders emerged. Some of the names are obvious, such as Lee and Jackson, Grant and Sherman. Some are less known such as George Thomas of the Union Army and Pat Cleburne, an Irishman transplanted in Arkansas. Any list of “greats” would have to include Forrest.
But his very name is a lightening rod for controversy. The slave trade before the war taints him and his affiliation with the Klan after the war seals the condemnation for many. And like just about everything Southern, the boy with a drawl feels compelled to sing “Dixie,” wave a battle flag, and take a stand on behalf of the South and of Forrest.

Forrest was, in many respects, a protector and reasonable man with regard to black Southerners. He took a number of slaves with him into the cavalry. He told them that if the north won the war, they would be freed. But if they served with him and the south won, he would free them. The whole Klan affiliation in the immediate aftermath of the war is complicated. “Those people,” to use General Lee’s term for folks up North, scream when certain issues are even broached. There is, in fact, no discussion or dissension allowed from the party line. Watch the portion of Gone With the Wind that deals with Reconstruction. Maybe that will help set the context for secret vigilant societies in the post-war South.

Forrest came to see white Southern farmers and black Southern farmers in the same predicament. He did, on one occasion, kill a former slave in an altercation. But Forrest was actually fighting a man who was abusing his (the slain man’s) wife. Forrest, like most Southerners and Northerners, was very paternalistic toward blacks, before and after the war. He was a man of his times.

This book, The River Was Dyed With Blood: Nathan Bedford Forrest and Fort Pillow, is by Civil War historian Brian Steel Wills. It is published by the University of Oklahoma Press. Some years back, Wills wrote an excellent biography of Forrest called A Battle from the Start: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest (reprinted as The Confederacy’s Greatest Cavalryman: Nathan Bedford Forrest). In this book, he revisits the man and focuses upon a particular point of controversy–the capture of Fort Pillow. This would have and should have been a minor episode in Forrest’s military career. He attacked and captured one of the many outposts on the Mississippi River.

There were at least three aspects of this confrontation that sparked actions leading to the controversy. First, there were leaders and soldiers in the Yankee army who were Tennesseans. Sometimes, they are called Galvinized Yankees. Tennessee was, like almost every Southern state, divided politically. Many Tennessee boys joined or were pressured into fighting for the Union. Forrest considered such enemies as traitors. They riled him something fierce.

There were also African-Americans, former slaves, serving in the Union Army. In the big picture, we have to remember that both Southerners and Northerners were usually opposed to and even hostile too colored troops. This pattern continued up through World War II. (Harry Truman as President desegregated the military.) In the “best of times,” captured black troops were returned to their owners. There were cases, and Fort Pillow is the prime example, where they were killed.

The third aspect of the battle was the refusal of the leaders of the fort to surrender it when Forrest demanded their capitulation. Forrest, stealthy fighter that he was, preferred saving the lives of his men. He used bluff and bluster to end battles with as little warfare as possible. He was not shy of the harsh realities of war; rather, he knew that preservation of his army was central to ultimate victory.

Fort Pillow was surrounded and basically doomed. But there was the possibility of rescue or relief from naval craft on the Mississippi River.
In short, the battle for Fort Pillow turned intense. As the Yankee troops retreated toward the river, they were joined by civilians inside the fort who were also either Northerners or people abetting the enemy. As those retreating crowded toward the river, the ferocity of the battle increased. People tried to escape by the water. Hence, the title of the book from Forrest’s description: “The river was dyed with blood.”
As Yankee troops were falling wounded and were surrendering, the ire of the attackers was increased. Hence, some men, and particularly black soldiers, were killed while attempting to give up.

Forrest was, for a number of reasonable causes, not in the forefront of the battle. He did not promote, approve, or excuse the wanton taking of lives. The killing of prisoners and the slaughter of blacks was not part of his philosophy of war or normal actions.

Dr. Wills relates numerous accounts of battles where things got out of hand. There is a psychology of warfare that makes the death and destruction even more horrifying. War does something to the minds and reactions of men. It has happened often, and it happened at Fort Pillow.
In spite of what can be said to excuse or explain Forrest’s role in this battle, he was the commander. Some of what he said in defense of his role was ill advised. Sometimes, like the lady in Hamlet and like all too many who are implicated of wrongdoing, Forrest protested too much.

There were too many horrors and evils of the War Between the States to catalog. Yes, battles involve death, but the casualty counts among people worshiping, in many cases, the same Lord should have given pause to both sides. Along with the frontal charges, the unnecessary deaths, the accidents of war, the diseases and poor treatment of the sick and wounded, there were out and out atrocities. The white flag of surrender may or may not be noticed and honored. Prisoners of war were often victims of wrongdoing. Soldiers killed wantonly on occasion.

This book is a good study of a man, a controversy, and the necessity for inquiry and patience in history. Nathan Bedford Forrest is cleared of the worst of charges, but he was sinner whose actions tainted his gifts. Forrest became a Christian after the war. It is grace, after all, that enables any of us to find ultimate satisfaction in our struggles.


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