Most generals in the Civil War were trained at West Point. That training, along with experiences in the Mexican-American War and skirmishes with Indians, taught them how to lead men into battle. One Civil War general stands out in bold contrast to what he called the “P’inters.” That was Nathan Bedford Forrest.
His military skills grew out of the rugged experiences of life in frontier western Tennessee, and his leadership skills grew out of his inborn commanding, even frightening, personality.
Forrest enlisted in the Confederate army, alongside his fifteen-year-old son, as a private. He was quickly made a cavalry officer and rose to the rank of Lieutenant General during the war.
He never wrote a book on military practices and likely never read one on that topic. As far as formal schooling was concerned, he had only about six months of it. In his own manner and by his example, he displayed a military prowess and innate genius that ranked him among the best generals of that war and of all times.
His sayings bear witness to his personality and style, but also capture the essence of a natural born leader of men in battle.
“When you see anything blue, shoot at it, and do all you can to keep up the skeer.”
“Always git the most men thar fust, and then, if you can’t whup ’em, outrun ’em.”
“Whenever you meet the enemy, no matter how few there are of you or how many of them, show fight.”
“The way to whip an enemy is to git ’em skeered, and then keep the skeer on ’em.”
When recruiting soldiers from among Tennessee boys, he told them, “I wish none but those who desire to be actively engaged,” and then no doubt with a gleam in his eye, he added, “Come on, boys, if you want to have a heap of fun and kill some Yankees.”
To the Confederates, he was known as “the Wizard in the saddle,” but to the enemy, he was called “that devil Forrest.” Union General William Sherman said he was “the most remarkable man our Civil War produced.” The Union Secretary of War Stanton said, “There will never be peace in Tennessee until Forrest is dead.”
At least twenty-nine horses were killed out from under him, but he took consolation in having personally killed at least that many Union soldiers. He even killed one of his own subordinates in a fight after Forrest implied the officer was a coward. Forrest himself was wounded in that skirmish, which was just one of at least three times he was shot during the war.
For all of his aggressiveness, Forrest was quite adept at winning battles by stealth and deception. When parlaying with enemy officers, he would have troop movements going on in sight of the enemy officers giving the impression that his forces were larger than they really were. When one Yankee complained after surrendering that he had been deceived, Forrest replied, “Ah, Colonel, all is fair in love and war you know.” At other times, when surrounding an enemy stronghold, Forrest would warn them that unless they surrendered, “I will have every man put to the sword.” His reputation for ruthlessness caused many an enemy to bow before such threats.
When the occasion called for direct attack and battle, Forrest was always up to the task, both personally and as the commander. Finding himself having ridden into the middle of a group of Yankee soldiers at the Battle of Shiloh, Forrest began lashing right and left with his sword. A Yankee soldier put a gun in Forrest’s side and fired, lifting him up out of the saddle. Forrest continued fighting and then grabbed a Yankee soldier by the neck and used him as shield until he escaped from the enemy.
When Forrest’s cavalry found itself surrounded at the Battle of Parker’s Crossroads, he gave the command, “Charge them both ways.” Once again, his boldness and unorthodoxy in battle paid off. Until the very end of the war when he told his men, “You may do as you damn please, but I’m a-going home,” Forrest fought to win. This fighting spirit not only undid the courage of his opponents, it often put him at odds with the Confederate higher command.
Early in the war, Forrest’s cavalry found itself surrounded along with other Confederate troops at Fort Donelson in northwestern Tennessee. The other generals met to talk about how to go about surrendering to U. S. Grant’s surrounding forces. Forrest fumed at their decision. “I did not come here to surrender my command.” Taking his men and others who could ride along behind them, Forrest’s cavalry, which he called his “Critter Company,” broke through the lines and escaped.
Much later in the war, when General Braxton Bragg refused to pursue the fleeing Yankee army after the Battle of Chickamauga, Forrest reached his limits of serving under Bragg. Then when portions of his command were taken away, Forrest confronted Bragg personally. After calling him a coward and a liar, Forrest concluded his verbal attack on Bragg by telling him, “You have threatened to arrest me for not obeying your orders promptly. I dare you to do it, and I say to you that if you ever again try to interfere with me or cross my path it will be at the peril of your life.”
It would be the independent commands, and especially raids on enemy forts, where Forrest excelled as a commander. When Forrest was cut loose from the larger army units and command structure and was given free rein to disrupt supply lines and harass the enemy from the rear, he excelled. One of his staff officers said, “He was unfit for command under a superior; he was like a caged lion on the field of battle where he was not himself commanding.”
Forrest himself summed up his accomplishments by noting that he and his Critter Company had fought in some 50 battles, inflicting 16,000 casualties on the Union, had captured or destroyed some 300 wagons and 67 artillery pieces, had dismantled some 200 miles of railroad, and had cost the United States at least $15 million.
It is no wonder that Nathan Bedford Forrest has been viewed as one of the great military leaders of the war. It is not surprising that his name sent shivers into the hearts of his enemies. At the same time, Southerners took comfort in hearing the pounding of the hoofs of Forrest’s cavalry as it rode throughout middle Tennessee and other parts of the Confederacy.