When war broke out on April 12,1861, nobody knew what the future of the nation held. One thing for sure was that a new history of mounted warfare was about to be written. On June 14, 1861, Nathan Bedford Forrest walked into the office of Captain Josiah White’s Tennessee Mounted Rifles and enlisted as a private along with his brother Jeffrey and fifteen year old son, Willie. As other men joined the outfit and began to train the unit evolved into what would become the famous Seventh Tennessee Cavalry, which would fight until the end of the war under Forrest’s leadership. He did not remain a Private for long. He became a Colonel by 1862 and before that year was out he was a Brigadier. When the war eventually ended he was a Lieutenant General. He never led from the rear but always from the front. At least two dozen Yankee invaders fell to his hand in personal combat. He was wounded four times and had thirty horses shot from beneath him. His exploits became legendary very quickly. In Early 1862 during the fighting at Fort Donelson, Bedford outfought and whipped Ulysses S. Grants regular army soldiers. But inept Generalship on the part of Confederate forces allowed Bedford’s heroic actions to be wasted. The fort was surrounded and the Confederates decided to surrender. To that Nathan Bedford Forrest retorted “ To Hell with that, I did not come here to surrender!”. (6) He escaped with his entire command.
This type of action and attitude was what made Bedford the great General he was. Not relying on the Confederate Government, He completely outfitted his men with his own money. During every battle he would equip his men with captured Yankee arms, allowing his men to be some of the best equipped men in the Confederate army. When he captured a vanquished Union army officers sword and noticed that it was only sharp for the first couple of inches, Forrest demanded a grindstone. When one of his military educated officers indicated that it was more for show than for fighting, Forrest made one of his more famous quotes: “Damn such nonsense. War means fightin’ and fightin means killin. Turn the grindstone.” (7)
Some of Bedford’s greatest victories came by using psychological warfare. He repeatedly used deceit to trick his foes into thinking that he had greater numbers then he actually had and would sometimes capture twice his number. His battle at Brice’s Cross Roads, where he defeated a foe much larger than his own, is still studied today . The Yankee propaganda tried to label his victory at Fort Pillow (See Fort Pillow Report for Official Report from Forrest) an atrocity but he was exonerated after the war of any wrong doing. People forget, this was a war that pitted brother against brother, Father against Son, Neighbor against Neighbor. Southerners who became Yankee sympathizers could expect no mercy. During an interview after the War with the Cincinnati Commercial, Bedford was quoted as saying: “When I entered the army I took forty-seven Negroes into the army with me, and forty-five of them were surrendered with me. I told these boys that this war was about slavery, and if we lose, you will be made free. If we whip the fight and you stay with me you will be made free. Either way you will be freed. These boys stayed with me, drove my teams, and better confederates did not live”. (8) They were protecting their homeland. The Sherman’s and Sheridan’s were the ones who should have been tried for war crimes, but the North won the war. Battle after battle, Nathan Bedford Forrest defeated the Yankees who had invaded his homeland.
Though Forrest admittedly concluded the South had lost the war eighteen months prior to it's official end, he continued to fight with the same determination and spirit right up to the surrender of his command at Cahaba on April 8th 1865. His farewell address to the troops was honorable:
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
I do not think it proper or necessary at this time to refer to causes which have reduced us to this extremity; nor is it now a matter of material consequence to us how such results were brought about. That we are BEATEN is a self-evident fact, and any further resistance on our part would justly be regarded as the very height of folly and rashness.
The armies of Generals LEE and JOHNSON having surrendered. you are the last of all the troops of the Confederate States Army east of the Mississippi River to lay down your arms. The Cause for which you have so long and so manfully struggled, and for which you have braved dangers, endured privations, and sufferings, and made so many sacrifices, is today hopeless. The government which we sought to establish and perpetuate, is at an end. Reason dictates and humanity demands that no more blood be shed. Fully realizing and feeling that such is the case, it is your duty and mine to lay down our arms -- submit to the “powers that be” -- and to aid in restoring peace and establishing law and order throughout the land.
The terms upon which you were surrendered are favorable, and should be satisfactory and acceptable to all. They manifest a spirit of magnanimity and liberality, on the part of the Federal authorities, which should be met, on our part, by a faithful compliance with all the stipulations and conditions therein expressed. As your Commander, I sincerely hope that every officer and soldier of my command will cheerfully obey the orders given, and carry out in good faith all the terms of the cartel. Those who neglect the terms and refuse to be paroled, may assuredly expect, when arrested, to be sent North and imprisoned. Let those who are absent from their commands, from whatever cause, report at once to this place, or to Jackson, Miss.; or, if too remote from either, to the nearest United States post or garrison, for parole.
Civil war, such as you have just passed through naturally engenders feelings of animosity, hatred, and revenge. It is our duty to divest ourselves of all such feelings; and as far as it is in our power to do so, to cultivate friendly feelings towards those with whom we have so long contended, and heretofore so widely, but honestly, differed. Neighborhood feuds, personal animosities, and private differences should be blotted out; and, when you return home, a manly, straightforward course of conduct will secure the respect of your enemies. Whatever your responsibilities may be to Government, to society, or to individuals meet them like men.
The attempt made to establish a separate and independent Confederation has failed; but the consciousness of
having done your duty faithfully, and to the end, will, in some measure, repay for the hardships you have undergone.
In bidding you farewell, rest assured that you carry with you my best wishes for your future welfare and happiness. Without, in any way, referring to the merits of the Cause in which we have been engaged, your courage and determination, as exhibited on many hard-fought fields, has elicited the respect and admiration of friend and foe. And I now cheerfully and gratefully acknowledge my indebtedness to the officers and men of my command whose zeal, fidelity and unflinching bravery have been the great source of my past success in arms.
I have never, on the field of battle, sent you where I was unwilling to go myself; nor would I now advise you to a course which I felt myself unwilling to pursue. You have been good soldiers, you can be good citizens. Obey the laws, preserve your honor, and the Government to which you have surrendered can afford to be, and will be, magnanimous. (9)
When the Mississippi Governor, Charles Clark and Isham Harris (exiled Governor of Tennessee) approached him to discuss joining unsurrendered Confederates in Texas, Forrest interrupted, "Men" he said, "you may all do as you damn please, but I'm a-going home...To make men fight under such circumstances would be nothing but murder. Any man who is favor of a further prosecution of this war is a fit subject for a lunatic asylum." (10)
And the great cavalry leader did just that, his fame firmly ensured to be written with bold strokes of the pen in our history books. As in his military career, Forrest continued to be surrounded by controversy for the remainder of his life.
6. Michael R. Bradley, Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Escort And Staff (Pelican 2006) [hereafter referred to as Bradley],
p. 25; Hurst, p. 84; O.R. ser. 1, vol. 7, p. 295.
7. Bradley, p. 31.
8. Cincinnati Commercial, August 28, 1868
9. John W. Morton, The Artillery of Nathan Bedford Forrest's Cavalry (Nashville, TN 1909), pp. 316-319; Wyeth,
10. Dan T. Carter, When the War Was Over, (Baton Rouge, LA, 1985) [hereafter referred to as Carter], p. 9, refering
to Jason Niles Diary, Southern Historical Collection, May 6, 1865.