Nathan Bedford Forrest Essay

This essay has a total of 2325 words and 13 pages.

Nathan Bedford Forrest

The United States Army, in its doctrine, lists nine basic principles. As stated in

Field Manual 100-5 these include objective, offensive, mass, economy of force,

maneuver, unity of command, security, surprise, and simplicity. 1 Napoleon had 115

maxims, Sun Tzu had 13 principles, but Nathan Bedford Forrest's advice was the utmost

of simplicity, "Git thar firstest with the mostest men."2 As we look at the challenge

facing our nation's military today, our leaders would do well to look at Forrest's

campaigns and strategies as a guide.

. Forrest won respect for risking his life while trying to save his aging uncle.

Subsequently, Forrest won the affection of Mary Montgomery who, in 1845, became his


In 1851 Bedford moved to Memphis. He won several elections as an elderman

and prospered as a businessman. When he closed out his business in late1859 war was

eminent. He was involved in his own cotton business and was busy putting his family

affairs in order. His net worth was 11/2 million dollars and he was netting $30 thousand

a year for his cotton. While he was a slave trader during this period, Colonel Adair

described his actions as "Forrest was kind, humane, and extremely considerate of his

slaves. He seemed to exercise the same influence over them that in a greater degree he

exercised over the soldiers who served him as devotedly as if there was between them a

strong personal attachment.5

On 14 June 1861, he enlisted in Memphis as a soldier in Captain White's

Tennessee Mounted Rifles Company.6 This unit would become a subordinate unit of the

Seventh Tennessee Calvary Regiment. Forrest was the unit's commander when the war

ended. Friends of Forrest's approached Governor Harris and General Polk, which

subsequently resulted in an authorization allowing Forrest to raise a battalion of

mounted rangers. By October of 1861 he had eight companies of men comprising a

total of 650. Most arrived with pistols and shotguns, as well as horses, which resulted in

Forrest still attempting to obtain rifles for them when the unit was ordered to Dover as

reinforcement for what was to be Fort Donelson. As Colonel Tate described then to

General Johnston, "Colonel Forrest's regiment of cavalry, as fine a body of men as ever

went to the field, has gone to Fort Donelson. Give Forrest a chance and he will

distinguish himself."7

For the next forty months, Forrest proved just how good Colonel Tate's

evaluation was. As we examine his exploits as a cavalryman/raider, it is important to see

how these same skills would be valuable to today's military leaders. When describing

Forrest, it was said "His ferocity as a warrior was almost legendary. His claim to have

slain one more enemy soldier in personal combat than the twenty-nine horses killed

beneath him only added to the legend."8 Forrest knew what war was about. In his own
words "War means fighting and fighting means killing." President Bush today talks about

this nation's actions regarding terrorism as we "bring the terrorists to justice or bring

justice to them." Forrest's comments obviously bear consideration as our involvement in
ground combat begins to escalate.

Forrest's first combat action of the war was near Sacramento, Kentucky with a force of 300
men conducting a reconnaissance. When a scout located a Union force of 500, Forrest
planned an attack and demonstrated his ability to adapt and surprise an enemy. One company
provided a base of fire along his avenue of approach. While this unit drew the enemy fire,
Capt. Starnes and Capt. Kelley attacked both flanks. When the Union force reacted to two
new axes of attack, Forrest had his chance to fully exploit the situation. The commander
led a charge at the correct moment and the Union line collapsed. While the total number of
combatants may have been small, the effect was a clear Confederate victory. While many of
his subordinates were concerned for Forrest's safety, Bedford seemed to make good
decisions even in the heat of battle. Reverend Kelley remarked about Forrest " In his
early battles he was so disregardful of the ordinary rules of tactics, so reckless in
personal exposure, that I felt sure his career would be short. It seemed certain that
whenever he should meet a skillful opponent his command would be cut to pieces. Later we
became aware that excitement neither paralyzed nor misled his magnificent military genius.
"9 Cavalry tactics naturally stress the principles of surprise, maneuver, and offensive
action. Bedford immediately proved to his men that he knew how to lead a force by personal

Two months later, when Union forces moved against Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, Forrest
would save his command. Union gunboats bombarded Fort Henry into virtual submission, but
Grant arrived too late with his blocking force and the Confederates retreated
successfully. Forrest‘s cavalry battalion was reinforced and he was leading a force of
1300 cavalry and infantry when he was ordered to stop Grant's advance toward Fort
Donelson. Grant's force outnumbered the Confederates and the line was barely being held.
General Floyd, a politician from Virginia with little military experience, looked for a
way out. On February 15th, Forrest led a force to break through the encircling Union
lines. Despite great valor and a retreat by the Union force the breakout was halted.
General Floyd, citing lack of food and ammunition and Grant's troop strength wanted to
surrender. Floyd passed command to Pillow who in turn passed command to Buckner. Buckner
planed to surrender the next morning. Forrest before leaving stated he would "get out of
this place.. or bust hell wide open".10 Despite a severe winter storm, Forrest led his men
through a gap in the federal force and escaped towards Clarksville and then Nashville.
While the force had to escape across Lick Creek, which was three feet deep, it did so in a
snowstorm that morning. It was a tragic loss that Floyd and Buckner believed that their
men could not escape through the gap that Forrest's scouts had found. Forrest offered to
protect their rear, but they refused his offer. In retrospect, Floyd knew that ammunition
was enroute from Clarksville by boat at the same time he cited a lack of ammunition as an
excuse for surrender. Pillow escaped by boat and Floyd left his troops to escape with
Forrest. Floyd also cited a lack of food yet General Grant reported he seized enough food
to feed his men for the next twenty-four days (Official Records, Vol. vii, p.334). General
Bushrod Johnson stated that, in regard to the men who left after being told of the plans
for surrender "I have not learned that a single one who attempted to escape met with any

There is no doubt that this defeat had an effect on the entire war. As a result of this
surrender, Grant was able to take Nashville and the entire western flank of the
Confederacy was open to attack. Forrest salvaged as much as he could in Nashville, but had
to threaten the local citizens with drawn sabers to regain order. During this period Floyd
was the acting military commander in the area. Forrest's refusal to surrender at Fort
Donelson would ensure his men's loyalty for the rest of the war. It should be noted that
while Fort Donelson was a major military victory for the Union forces and Grant, MG
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