Lt. General Nathan Bedford Forrest
An American Warrior
(Based on the Essay by Rick Montes titled Nathan Bedford Forrest: American Warrior with additional research by Larry McCluney)
Born: Chapel Hill, Tennessee, July 13, 1821
Died: Memphis, Tennessee, October 29, 1877
A few miles near Tuscumbia, Alabama, the Confederate Army marched along the Memphis and Charleston Railroad. Private Phillip D. Stephenson, loader of piece No. 4, 5th Washington Artillery, Army of Tennessee, had fallen behind. It was as if the hunger in his belly had moved down to his legs and feet, hollowing out the muscles and sapping his strength. His attention was suddenly diverted by a group of soldiers gathered around a wrecked train which lay in a culvert. His hunger momentarily forgotten, he stopped to watch, as did others, the animated movements of the horse soldiers moving about the wreckage. Stephenson had to smile in amusement. These troopers, with their huge boots, sabers, spurs and short jackets seemed almost comical to the infantrymen who stood looking on. Someone whispered the name "Forrest" and all eyes turned, soldiers craning their necks to glimpse at the celebrated "Wizard of the Saddle," Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. Stephenson recalled his first encounter with Forrest well.
"A tall, lithe, straight figure with the look and tread of an Indian passed swiftly by me, his right arm extended and gesticulating energetically to his men, and his tongue 'keeping time to it,' in a loud, high, harsh voice, every accent full of a commanding will that made his men jump to obedience....Forrest was in full uniform, faded but complete, except the head gear. He wore a home-made, bell-crowned, low, black, beaver hat, wide brimmed. Not very pretty. No man had more right to care for appearances than he, noted Stephenson. Forrest was a handsome man with a face, figure, movement, and bearing that no one, once seeing, was apt to forget. You felt that he was a combination of enormous activity, endurance, and strength. That's what he was! Grace too! Forrest was no country gawk nor awkward man, as rough hewn self made men are apt to be." (1)
Private Stephenson had four encounters with Forrest, during and after the war, which caused him to sum up the general in his memoirs thusly: "In camp or off duty he was one of the mildest of men in manners and appearance. His voice was soft, his expression gentle, his eyes impassive. When angered, he was terrible, his face was awful to look upon. In battle his rage and excitement was like the frenzy of a madman. Yet the testimony is indisputable that never did he lose his head. His appalling excitement seemed to make his brain work clearer."(2)
Nathan Bedford Forrest, a name that struck dread to his enemies and which was revered by his men. He was arguably the greatest cavalryman during the War of Northern Aggression (or what is commonly known as America’s Civil War). There were many other notable cavalrymen, like the dashing J.E.B. Stuart, John Mosby, Wade Hampton, John Hunt Morgan and Robert E. Lee’s nephew, Fitzhugh Lee. On the Union side, George Armstrong Custer, the youngest Brigadier General, was a bold and often reckless cavalryman and John Buford, who probably saved the Union Army at Gettysburg. All were great horseman who feared no danger and did great service for their respective armies. However, Nathan Bedford Forrest stands alone. His exploits created a legend in both the North and the South. Northern troopers were vexed by him time and again. Forrest was so effective that General William Tecumseh Sherman once wrote to Secretary of War Stanton: "Forrest is the very devil, if we must sacrifice 10,000 lives and bankrupt the Federal Treasury, it will be worth it. There will never be peace in Tennessee till Forrest is dead. (3) Who was the man? Was he a Hero or was he the butcher that Northern propaganda made him out to be?
3. Brian Steel Wills, A Battle From The Start: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forest (Harper Collins,
1992) [hereafter referred to as Willis], p. 217; John A. Wyeth, Life of General Nathan Bedford
Forrest (New York, 1899) [hearafter referred to as Wyeth], p. 634; War of the Rebellion: A
Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, D.C.,
1890-1891) [hearafter referred to as O.R.], ser. 1, vol. 39, pt. 2, p. 121.
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