Forrest enlisted in the Southern army as a private in June 1861, a week after his native Tennessee voted to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy. But he was discharged (released from service) a short time later so that he could recruit his own battalion of cavalry (a military division that rides on horseback to conduct raids and scout enemy movements). Using his own money to provide his troops with needed supplies, Forrest quickly assembled a cavalry force of about six hundred men. The Confederate Army then promoted him to lieutenant colonel so that he could formally command them.
Forrest first attracted national attention in February 1862 for his actions at Fort Donelson in Tennessee. The fort had been targeted for capture by Union forces led by Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885; see entry). As Grant's troops advanced on the stronghold, Confederate brigadier general Gideon J. Pillow decided to surrender. But Forrest refused to admit defeat. Even as thirteen thousand rebel soldiers surrendered to Grant's troops, Forrest's cavalry escaped from the area by taking an unguarded road that had flooded.
Two months later, Forrest again proved his worth to the Confederate cause at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. The clash ended with Confederate forces in full retreat, hounded by pursuing Union troops. But Forrest's cavalry stepped in and slowed the Union pursuit with a series of quick strikes against Federal forces. This brilliant performance brought Forrest even more attention, especially since he had led his cavalry even after suffering a serious bullet wound.
After recovering from his wound, Forrest returned to the field. Forrest's superiors were eager to make use of his aggressive style and strategic abilities, so they decided to grant him a great deal of independence from other Confederate military operations. This decision proved to be a good one, as Forrest used his cavalry to torment Union patrols and supply centers. In mid-July 1862, for example, Forrest completed an extended raid of Union positions in middle Tennessee by bluffing (purposely mislead) the Union commander at Murfreesboro into surrendering. Forrest thus seized more than one thousand Union soldiers and hundreds of thousands of dollars in Union supplies.
Forrest continued to strike against Union forces with great effectiveness for the next eighteen months. Ranging from western Tennessee to the Ohio River, his cavalry moved at a speed that frustrated all Northern pursuers. His most dramatic triumph during this period came in Alabama in the spring of 1863, when he fooled a Union commander into surrendering to him, even though the Union leader had three times as many soldiers. But Forrest also led dozens of other effective raids that did not receive as much publicity. "[Forrest] was probably the best cavalry leader in the entire war," wrote Bruce Catton in The Civil War. "Forrest simply used his horsemen as a modern general would use motorized infantry. He liked horses because he liked fast movement, and his mounted men could get from here to there much faster than any infantry could; but when they reached the field they usually tied their horses to trees and fought on foot, and they were as good as the very best infantry."
Forrest's cavalrymen admired their leader's bravery and leadership. But his reputation as a violent man with a terrible temper made them fear him, too. The most famous example of Forrest's ruthlessness was a controversial clash that took place at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, in April 1864. In this incident, known as the Fort Pillow Massacre, hundreds of Union troops were killed. Many of these Union soldiers, which included both black soldiers and white soldiers from Tennessee, were apparently killed while trying to surrender. The correspondence of some members of Forrest's command indicates that their leader approved of the
Forrest's Unlucky Horses
During the course of the Civil War, Nathan Bedford Forrest reportedly had twenty-nine horses shot out from under him in battle. In addition, the cavalry leader suffered several serious wounds during the war. The most unusual of Forrest's war injuries came in June 1863, when he was shot by an angry Confederate aide named Andrew W. Gould. Forrest survived the attack by killing Gould with a penknife.
None of Forrest's injuries kept him out of the saddle for very long, however. Fearless and grimly determined to fight for the Southern cause, Forrest hated being away from the action. This attitude made him a deadly foe on the field of battle. By the end of the war, he claimed that he had taken revenge for every horse he lost by personally killing thirty Union soldiers. Some people viewed this boast as yet another sign of his callous (unfeeling) attitude toward human life. But Forrest usually responded to such accusations by saying that "war means fighting and fighting means killing."
massacre. "The slaughter was awful," wrote Confederate cavalryman Achilles V. Clark. "Words cannot describe the scene. . . . I with several others tried to stop the butchery and at one point had partially succeeded—but Gen. Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued." Today, the Fort Pillow Massacre remains the biggest blemish on Forrest's war record. "Whether Forrest ordered [the massacre] or not, and that is still debated, he certainly watched as the slaughter went on," wrote historian Brian Pohanka.
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