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Recently published military histories of the American Civil War continue to extol the virtues of Nathan Bedford Forrest with such quotes as “arguably the most capable cavalryman produced by the war” and “undoubtedly the most outstanding combat commander in the war,” perpetuating a myth of military effectiveness that has made the Southern cavalryman an enduring icon of the lost cause. By examining Forrest’s later military career, including his inability to work effectively with his peers and the devolution of his military command into a loosely organized society of armed raiders, it is possible to offer a reappraisal of Forrest’s military career that will overturn the false narrative that still dominates both popular and scholarly histories of the war. Despite whatever untutored tactical genius and magnetic personal attraction Forrest may have possessed, he undoubtedly failed at the operational and strategic levels of war, and his brutal treatment of his captured opponents, coupled with the damaging legacy he left for future military leaders, make him a strong contender for the title of worst military commander ever.
An analysis of Forrest’s military career brings to light a familiar dilemma for those responsible for assessing and selecting military talent. Certainly, competence is an essential attribute for higher command: Officers must have mastered their craft and demonstrated the professional ability to successfully lead and accomplish assigned tasks. Raw talent and professional competence are the bedrock of many successful military careers, from Alexander to Napoleon to Eisenhower; but talent, as the saying goes, will only get one so far. Alongside professional competence, there are the personal intangibles that also contribute to the career of a successful leader. Most critical among these are the interpersonal skills demanded for harmonious working relationships with peers, supervisors, and subordinates. Often, leaders who possess great technical competence develop a hubris that blinds them to their flaws, causing them to become a prima donna, guilty of “drinking their own bathwater.” Senior commanders seem to expect a modicum of vanity when selecting subordinates, as self-confidence remains a highly valued virtue. But commanders also know that an officer who alienates peers, berates subordinates, and infuriates superiors will be a hindrance rather than a help to any military organization, no matter how talented the officer is personally. The argument against Forrest’s greatness rests on three legs: his personal failings as a man, his inability to provide the Confederacy with capable military leadership above the tactical level, and the flawed example he set for future generations, thereby inflicting continuing and sustained damage to his nation.
Nathan Bedford Forrest was born in the summer of 1821 in a rugged area of Middle Tennessee 30 miles south of Nashville. The recently settled frontier, and the clannishness of Forrest’s Scots-Irish ancestry, ensured that the young Southerner’s life was filled with violence. The frontier lacked established and stable social institutions, leading to frequent recourse to violence rather than litigation to settle disputes, occasionally in the form of duels. This fostered an intense pride and loyalty, both to family members and those perceived as fellow members of the clan, as well as a heightened sensitivity to any slights to its honor. Of Hernando, Mississippi, Forrest’s first home in the Memphis area, Forrest’s biographer Brian Steel Wills wrote, “Violence and honor continued to be much a part of daily life. Men fought over real and imagined grievances in the streets, usually settling their differences by blood.”
On March 10, 1845, four men came to settle a score with Forrest and his uncle and mentor Jonathan, with whom he had entered into a business partnership in Hernando. The altercation turned violent, with Jonathan falling mortally wounded from a bullet intended for his nephew. Forrest continued the struggle, shooting and killing two of his attackers, and, with his ammunition exhausted, chasing the other two off with a bowie knife. The act was so within the norms of Southern upcountry society that the townspeople later made Forrest both constable and coroner, as well as a lieutenant in the state militia. In 1851 he relocated to Memphis and moved naturally from trading livestock to selling real estate and enslaved people. Memphis was then ideally situated between the enslaved people of the upper South who were “sold down the river” from their “Old Kentucky Home” to the hellish cotton and sugar plantations in the Delta, and Forrest prospered, socially and financially, from the increasing demand. Throughout his antebellum career, which included a term as a Memphis city alderman, Forrest’s ambition, popularity, business acumen, lack of formal education, and temper were all on full display. They remained so during Forrest’s apparently successful but ultimately failed military career.
For Forrest, as for other Southern secessionists such as William Lowndes Yancey, any threat to slavery was a personal attack to his prosperity and threatened to return Southerners to the poverty that was never far from their doors. When the South seceded, Forrest volunteered his services as a private but quickly earned a commission as a colonel in his own regiment. His famous temper, resulting in an almost immediate and uncontrollable rage that he later regretted, led him to abuse the men under his command. Even Forrest’s more sympathetic biographers relate accounts where Forrest bashed a scout’s head against a tree for bringing him false information, slapped a lieutenant into a river because he would not roll up his sleeves and join his men in building a bridge, knocked another out of a boat with an oar for refusing to help paddle across the Tennessee River, beat a soldier with a branch, and shot a color-bearer for fleeing a rout.
In one of the clearest examples of Forrest’s “inharmonious” relationships with his subordinates, on June 14, 1863, Lt. Andrew Gould, who had served as an artillery commander during Forrest’s successful pursuit of Streight’s raid across northern Alabama, requested an audience with Forrest at his headquarters in Columbia, Tennessee, where Gould confronted the general about his transfer from Forrest’s command. Unhappy with Gould’s performance during the Battle of Day’s Gap, Forrest had relieved him from command and selected him for reassignment. The confrontation became heated and, although the sequence of events is unclear, Forrest emerged with a bullet from Gould’s pistol in his abdomen while Gould suffered a stab wound that penetrated his lung and proved fatal. Regardless of who launched the first blow, allowing a conflict with a subordinate to escalate to the point where one either kills or has to take another life in self-defense is not a hallmark of effective military leadership. Forrest’s defenders circulated accounts that he had been “attacked,” either verbally or physically, to justify the general’s actions, and Forrest retained his command, but his quick temper and willingness to use violence against his own men both undermined his claims to innocence in the confrontation with Gould and seriously and repeatedly compromised his ability to lead effectively. In some cases, men and officers who disapproved of Forrest’s profligacy with their lives and brutal treatment of prisoners refused to serve under him. One even claimed, “I object to a tyrannical, hotheaded vulgarian’s commanding me.”
Forrest’s relationships with his peers were equally squally. On Feb. 3, 1863, Forrest cooperated with Gen. Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry in an attack on the town of Dover, Tennessee, adjacent to Fort Donelson. In the action, Wheeler ordered Forrest’s command in an ill-advised attack on the strongly defended town, resulting in heavy casualties among Forrest’s men. After the battle, Forrest told Wheeler that he would “be in my coffin before I will fight again under your command.” During the retreat from Nashville, Forrest allegedly threatened Gen. Benjamin Cheatham with a pistol in a dispute over whose troops would cross a ford first. In April 1863 Forrest cooperated with Gen. Earl Van Dorn in a raid on Thompson’s Station, Tennessee, but during the raid Forrest felt that Van Dorn had failed to provide adequate support. In keeping with Forrest’s nature, the dispute became heated and led to the men challenging each other to a duel, before the situation was eventually defused. A jealous husband killed Van Dorn a month later, suggesting further character flaws on Van Dorn’s part, but the incident became yet another in a pattern of behavior that made it more difficult to excuse Forrest’s many transgressions as isolated incidents.
Worse, the interactions had a significant effect on future operations. During the summer and autumn of 1863, when Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg depended on his cavalry to keep him apprised of Union Gen. William Rosecrans’ movements, Forrest’s and Wheeler’s inability to effectively support the army with accurate and timely intelligence led indirectly to the loss of Chattanooga, one of the South’s strategic rail centers. As Bragg’s army retreated into north Georgia, he repeatedly tried to take advantage of Rosecrans’ dispersed formations in the mountains to surround and destroy one of the isolated commands, but could never secure sufficient intelligence of Union dispositions and intentions in a timely fashion, preventing an effective counterblow. In the ensuing battle along the banks of Chickamauga Creek, Forrest clearly failed in his role as a corps commander of cavalry, allowing himself to be sucked into the whirling fray of combat to the detriment of his duties in locating the Union lines and pursuing the defeated force, thus assisting the Union Army’s escape into the defense of Chattanooga.
On Sept. 18, a stout Union defense at Alexander’s Bridge and Reed’s Bridge provided Rosecrans early warning of Bragg’s attempt to turn his left flank, pushing him away from his base at Chattanooga and potentially leading to his destruction on one of the mountain coves of northern Georgia. Bragg had ordered Forrest to screen the advance and secure the crossing, but Forrest had singularly failed to do so, instead transferring most of his available force to meet an imagined threat farther north. As a result, Confederate infantry had to fight for the crossings, costing precious time and enabling Rosecrans to shift more units to the threatened sector. That night Forrest again failed to effectively screen the army’s right flank and gather information about Union dispositions, intelligence that would have revealed a yawning gap in the Union lines. According to David Powell, this was “the most significant intelligence oversight of the entire battle.”
The following day Forrest initiated a major engagement in the same area, commandeering rebel infantry and feeding them, along with his own cavalry, into an imbalanced fight piecemeal, wrecking several regiments. The fighting further delayed Bragg’s planned counterstroke and gave additional time to strengthen the Union center. Powell judged that Forrest continued to perform as if he were still a brigade or division commander rather than a corps commander in charge of Bragg’s entire right flank. He made little or no effort to send out more extensive patrols that might report on the overall Union dispositions, a mistake that would affect Bragg’s subsequent decision-making.
On Sept. 20 Confederate reinforcements from Lee’s army in Virginia and an incredibly poorly timed Union shift opened a hole at the exact moment and location of Bragg’s attack, enabling him to split Rosecrans’ army and drive it from the field. A stout defense by Gen. George “Pap” Thomas on Snodgrass Hill covered the Union retreat, but Forrest’s lack of aggression enabled the strung-out columns to reach the safety of Chattanooga without serious pressure. Leading from the front often ensured that Forrest was absent from his headquarters and unavailable for consultation with his superiors or subordinates, and unable to direct actions on distant parts of the field. As Powell found, “Forrest struggled to meet the rigorous challenges of his increased responsibilities. … Too often, Forrest found himself in the thick of the action and unable to avoid making tactical decisions better left to others” because “Forrest was too often unable or unwilling to resist the lure of personal adventure and/or delegate minor missions.”
Forrest was undoubtedly a skilled and inspirational tactical leader, but he had been promoted out of his depth. He could not adapt to the increased responsibility of command at higher levels and thus deprived a more competent commander of a vital post with the Confederate forces defending Tennessee and Georgia. While conventional wisdom has heaped blame on Braxton Bragg for the incomplete Confederate victory, recent reappraisals of Bragg, especially Earl Hess’, highlight just how often Bragg’s subordinates failed him, either through direct insubordination and intrigue, or indirectly by failing to perform assigned tasks or collect essential intelligence and relay it in a timely manner. Chickamauga was perhaps the most notable of those examples. Though relieved of his command and sent back to western Tennessee to resume his raiding and raise new formations, Forrest escaped greater censure only because Bragg’s other cavalry commander, Gen. Joe Wheeler, had performed even worse. But, in a classic case of the Confederacy’s inability to manage its poor crop of commanders, Wheeler earned a promotion and command of most of Forrest’s units, leaving the latter embittered.
After the Confederate concentration and victory at Chickamauga, Bragg sent his cavalry north in an attempt to sever Rosecrans’ constrained supply lines leading into Chattanooga, but Forrest allowed his command to be pulled off in the direction of Knoxville, permitting the Union forces to retain control of the city. After this incident, Bragg reportedly said, “He is nothing more than a good raider,” and arranged for Forrest’s transfer to western Tennessee, where Forrest could use his personal popularity to attract new recruits to his banner. Before leaving Bragg’s command, Forrest allegedly confronted Bragg in his tent and told him,
I have stood your meanness as long as I intend to. You have played the part of a damned scoundrel, and are a coward, and if you were any part of a man I would slap your jaws and force you to resent it. You may as well not issue any orders to me, for I will not obey them.
The story is probably apocryphal, as the evidence is poorly supported in the literature, but Forrest’s admirers and supporters repeated it in their flattering biographies, often with Forrest’s approval, suggesting that it was an accurate reflection of Forrest’s opinion of Bragg.
During the ensuing campaign in western Tennessee, Forrest’s troops, either under his orders or because of his failure to restrain them, massacred over half of the Black Union garrison at Fort Pillow, killing most after they had surrendered. The affair followed a bloody repulse at Paducah, Kentucky, when soldiers of the U.S. Colored Troops, or USCT, successfully held a fort near the town and inflicted heavy casualties on Forrest’s command. To prevent the loss of men in costly frontal assaults, Forrest often resorted to bluff or bluster, suggesting that if he was forced to storm a defense work, he could not be responsible for the actions of his men in the heat of combat. The affair at Fort Pillow lent weight to his threats, though he never repeated them, and thus he had much to gain from the affair. Though Forrest apologists repeatedly claim that the astronomical Union casualties, which fell disproportionally among the UCST troops defending the post, were somehow consistent with taking a fortress by storm, every reputable analysis has clearly demonstrated that a massacre did indeed occur.
Forrest’s men retained a reputation for atrocities against both formerly enslaved people and Southern Unionists in the U.S. Army, murdering one of the surrendered commanders of a loyal Tennessee cavalry regiment and returning captives to slavery in violation of the Articles of War. Black soldiers earned a measure of revenge during the retreat from the Battle of Brice’s Cross Roads in June 1864, when they inflicted heavy casualties on Forrest’s command and prevented a rout of the Union column, permitting another foray into northern Mississippi a month later. As Tom Parson has demonstrated, Forrest did not perform well at the Battle of Tupelo, likely sulking because Gen. Stephen D. Lee had been placed in overall command. Forrest led an ill-advised charge against strong Union defenses at Tupelo, then suffered a serious wound in another futile personal attack on the Union rearguard. Though his defenders cited his personal bravery and willingness to “mix” with his foes, these are attributes best displayed among senior enlisted men and junior officers, not men in high command responsible for large formations. Robert E. Lee, despite his many failings, at least had the good sense not to lead “Pickett’s Charge” in person.
By virtue of his having been banished to essentially an independent command, Forrest was unable to coordinate his efforts directly with the Confederate defense of Atlanta. At a point when Confederate cavalry raids could have disrupted Gen. William T. Sherman’s vulnerable rail logistics through Tennessee, Forrest found himself fending off, successfully in most cases, a series of expeditions from Memphis organized with the sole purpose of keeping him occupied. In reporting his actions to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Sherman wrote, “I will order them to make up a force and go out and follow Forrest to the death, if it cost 10,000 lives and breaks the Treasury. There will never be peace in Tennessee until Forrest is dead.”* By the time Forrest finally disengaged in early September and marched into northern Alabama and southern Tennessee, Atlanta was already in Sherman’s hands, though the threat did influence Sherman’s decision to send part of his army back to Nashville and bring the rest on a highly publicized “March to the Sea.” Forrest’s inability to effectively disrupt Sherman’s supply line during the 1864 Atlanta campaign, coupled with his ineffectual defense of the now-worthless interior of Mississippi, was a major contributing factor in the defeat of Confederate arms in the decisive year and theater of the war. If the South had any chance of victory, it was in using its hard-riding cavalrymen to disrupt Union supply lines, as they had successfully done in 1862, to stymie the efforts of the North’s superior arms. But Forrest’s failure to adapt led directly to Southern defeat.
In September 1864, after recovering from his wounds and finally disengaging from the wasteland of northern Mississippi, Forrest led another of his patented raids designed to disrupt Union supply lines and keep his famished and underequipped command supplied. Crossing the Tennessee River near Florence, Alabama, he surrounded Athens and again bluffed the Union commander into surrendering, profiting from his earlier actions at Fort Pillow by claiming not to be able to restrain his men if they had to attack a fort garrisoned largely by Black soldiers. Another Union outpost at Sulphur Creek Trestle did not succumb so easily, forcing Forrest to expend much of his valuable artillery ammunition before surrendering, ensuring that the raid could not penetrate deeply into Tennessee. Though he did cut one of the two rail lines leading from Nashville to Chattanooga, he was unable to seriously threaten the other, meaning that Sherman’s army in Atlanta remained adequately supplied.
Late in the war, Confederate supply difficulties and logistics failures meant that Forrest’s command often had to meet its subsistence needs by frequent requisitions from the Confederate homefront, which undoubtedly affected support for the war, and by raiding Union outposts for military supplies. One of the most successful examples came in October 1864, when Forrest took his mounted force into Tennessee and emplaced his artillery along the western bank of the Tennessee River in an attempt to interrupt steamboat traffic to Johnsonville on the opposite bank. From that point, the newly constructed Nashville and Northwestern Railroad brought supplies into the city, circumventing the low water on the Cumberland River at that time of year and augmenting the capacity of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. Forrest’s men captured one supply ship, appropriating a large quantity of uniforms and equipment to meet their needs, and succeeded in inducing a conflagration at Johnsonville that destroyed millions of dollars’ worth of Union property destined for Thomas’ army at Nashville. But the raid served only to replenish Forrest’s command. The temporary logistics interruption and previous stockpiles meant that the raid had no effect on Thomas’ ability to repel John Bell Hood the following month, and Forrest’s independent raid actually delayed Hood’s advance into Tennessee, facilitating Thomas’ ability to concentrate his force and oppose the invasion. While Forrest effectively cooperated with Hood’s attack on Nashville in December 1864, by then the depleted Confederates had little prospect of success, and Hood’s army left Tennessee virtually destroyed. Yet again, self-serving raiding and poorly coordinated operations had been costly for the Confederacy.
In a final command, in defense of the vital Confederate manufacturing and logistics centers at Selma, Alabama, and Columbus and Macon, Georgia, Forrest signally failed to protect the cities from a massive Union cavalry column led by Maj. Gen. James Wilson. Though a numerical disparity diminished the likelihood of success, Forrest could not prevent Wilson from isolating his dispersed columns, sealing Selma’s fate. Again, Forrest demonstrated commendable personal bravery at Ebenezer Church, personally killing an attacking Union cavalryman, but while he was “mixing,” he was not directing the defense of Selma, and the powerful Union column rode into the city almost unopposed the following day and leveled the vital Confederate factories and warehouses.
Tactically, Forrest fared much better in a number of smaller engagements, but even here he showed his vulnerabilities. His victory at Murfreesboro in the summer of 1862 had been a close-run affair, and he wasted time and lives attacking troops barricaded in buildings in the town. At Parker’s Crossroads, faulty reconnaissance almost caused his command to be crushed between two converging forces before he barely made his escape. And many of his victories relied on bluff or inferior or untrained opponents, which masked his command’s vulnerabilities. An untutored officer, Forrest apparently never bothered to learn the cavalry manual of arms, leaving such “minor details” to his subordinates. His vaunted tactical acumen stemmed largely from a personal aggressiveness and often violated sound military concepts.
Additionally, the majority of Forrest’s most notable victories—including his raid on Murfreesboro in July 1862, the skirmishes at Lexington and Thompson’s Station, Tennessee, in 1863, and the battle at Brice’s Crossroads in Mississippi in the summer of 1864—came in minor actions that had little influence on the larger course of the war. He was undoubtedly a skilled tactical commander but had little success in translating these operational victories into strategic successes.
Forrest’s actions at Fort Pillow foreshadowed both a postwar episode where he personally killed one of his hired freedmen with an ax handle, and his future sponsorship and support of nightriding Ku Klux Klansmen, an organization in which Forrest played a prominent, if secretive, role, at one point even threatening to call the organization out to battle the Tennessee State Militia. Though he later issued an order for the organization to disband, this was most likely an attempt to disassociate himself from its activities, which continued unabated. Forrest apologists have pointed to his “final order,” issued at the close of the war, in which he advised his men to submit to Union authority and work to rebuild the nation, as evidence that Forrest did not advocate for continued resistance against federal authorities. In that directive Forrest lectured his men to “submit to the ‘powers that be’ and to aid in restoring peace and establishing law and order throughout the land,” and to “obey the laws” of the “Government to which you have surrendered.” But, at the time, he could hardly have done otherwise. The Confederacy was defeated and prostrate, and further resistance, at that time, would have been futile and only led to more bloodshed. But, as Radical Reconstruction proceeded and ex-Confederates sought to resist Black enfranchisement and equality, Forrest offered his support in opposition to these programs mostly through his surreptitious support of the Ku Klux Klan. Whether he served as “Grand Wizard” of the secretive organization or not (though the evidence suggests that he did), he was undoubtedly a member, and worked to further the organization’s goals of terrorizing Black Americans and suppressing both their vote and their role in helping to rebuild the shattered region.
So why has Forrest had such an enduring appeal, especially among professional military officers? One possible explanation is Forrest’s reputation as an “untutored genius” in a military culture that fosters rampant anti-intellectualism. Forrest himself is said to have claimed, “I ain’t no graduate of West Point, and never rubbed my back up against any college.” ln a 1934 paper at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Capt. Neil S. Edmond, an infantry officer whose family lived in Alabama during the Civil War, wrote a paper extolling the virtues of Forrest’s military leadership. In alleging that Forrest possessed military vision, he argued it was “strange that an unlettered unmilitary man could see where experts, so called, were blind” and that “finished education is not always essential where the dominant traits [of leadership] are present.” Edmond believed that, during World War I, “officers for high command were selected by reputations made in the class room and in many instances with disastrous results.” Comments such as these highlight the frequent use of Forrest’s military career to assert that education and the effort of serious and sustained study were somehow unnecessary for a career as a successful military officer, if one possessed innate qualities of command, providing a shortcut past the hard work of military professionalism. It is not surprising that these observations were most often advanced by adherents to the “Myth of the Lost Cause,” who, not coincidentally, might find their academic background deficient when compared with that of their peers from other sections of the country.
The Worst Military Leaders in History
Edited by John M. Jennings and Chuck Steele. Reaktion Books.
While certainly a dynamic leader, and, Brian Steel Wills has argued, an expert cavalryman, perhaps even the Confederacy’s best, Forrest was certainly not a great commander. He was more than capable of inspiring his fellow rough-hewn backwoodsmen to join his command and leading them into battle, often to their detriment, but great leadership is only one aspect of command. Forrest was certainly a skilled tactician, but great commanders must have strategic vision or some semblance of how their tactical victories translate into successful operations (known as “operational art”) and, ultimately, into strategic victory. Otherwise, the commander runs the risk of falling into the same traps set for American commanders in Vietnam and Iraq: winning an unbroken string of tactical victories but never translating these successes into the strategic conditions necessary for a decisive victory. Thus Forrest best fits the description of a warrior (in Carney’s words, a “warrior-king of the ‘plain people’ ”), befitting his ancestors who led their clans in the Scottish Highlands and others who have fought in resistance movements around the globe. But, as critics have argued, historically the great warriors have all been defeated by professional militaries—including the English forces that broke the power of the Scottish clans—led by skilled and capable commanders. And so it was with Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Forrest’s military career, despite personal courage and tactical acumen, is, at best, a mixed bag of success in unimportant battles and failure in those that proved decisive. But Forrest’s actions and legacy, as a flawed exemplar who has continued to do damage to his nation well after his passing, places him firmly in the category of “failed military leaders.” By lending his name and considerable prestige to the founding of an organization that continues to do as much as any other to encourage racial strife and violence in the South, and by providing a flawed example for future military officers charged with the defense of their nation, Forrest has continued to do harm to the nation whose banner he lived under for 52 of his 56 years, despite that nation providing an unlettered son of the frontier with the opportunity for substantial social and economic advancement. Forrest’s misguided sense of duty and honor to a false and treasonous regional authority rather than the nation of his birth, and his remarkable ability to persuade others to do likewise, helped plunge the nation into its bloodiest conflict, and his postwar career, despite his protestations to the contrary, provided additional obstacles to sectional reconciliation and progress. Viewed holistically, Nathan Bedford Forrest’s failed military career offers a strong case for the title of “worst military commander in history.”
Correction, March 7, 2021: This piece originally misidentified Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war as Henry M. Stanton. His name was Edwin M. Stanton.
“Nathan Bedford Forrest” by Christopher M. Rein, reprinted with permission from The Worst Military Leaders in History, edited by John M. Jennings and Chuck Steele, Reaktion Books Ltd. © Reaktion Books 2022. All rights reserved.