Black Confederates Were Real People, Nathan Bedford Forrest's Groom.

Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!

Rhea Cole

Nov 2, 2019
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Jim Key house & horsse.jpg

Black Confederates Were Real People, Nathan Bedford Forrest's Groom.

The only thing a nighttime sleet storm along the Tennessee Kentucky border won't do is kill you outright. That would be too easy, too painless, too not soul searing... it means to take you out one little nerve ending at a time. The garrison of Fort Donelson on the night of --get date-- had been led out on an attempted breakout in the morning. After the retreat back into the vile ditches & camps, there was nothing to do but suffer, shiver & await the dawn. Each man was, no doubt, too focused on his own misery to waste much energy hating the general officers who had led them into this catastrophe & were about to hijack steamboats & head downriver to the comforts of Nashville.

That was the kind of night that flat out sucks the very spirit out of a man. The brain goes as numb as the fingers. It takes an extraordinary amount of raw determination to overcome the numbness & act. Nathan Bedford Forrest was just such a man. He had that 4:00 A.M. courage that all great military leaders have in abundance. Famously, Forrest had stomped out of the meeting where the Curlie-Larry-Moe of the Donelson brain trust cut & ran from their commands declaring that he would not be captured. That night, Forrest was not the only man of supreme courage & intellect who chose not to be captured. Jim Key, his black groom, made the same decision, but for very different reasons.

Jim Key was a slave from Bedford County, the place that gave Forrest his middle name. Like Forrest, Key was one of the most remarkable individuals of the Civil War era. In the crazy world of the slaveholding pecking order, Forrest's dirt poor family was down the social ladder from Key's.

To put it in simple terms, Jim Key was a wizard at returning sick & injured horses back to health. A full half uncle to the present head of the white Key family, he was most uncharacteristically treated as member of the family. Key's fame as a horse doctor & social position among his white family infuriated the local slave breaker. He vowed to get his hands on Jim Key & break him, show him his rightful place in subordination to a white man. Early on in life, Key had to play a very complex game where any white man could call a pair of two's a winning hand at any time.

"Boy, one day I'm gonna get you & lick the blood out of you!"
Slave breaker's threat as remembered by Jim Key


Forrest leading his men in the breakout of Fort Donelson. NPS illustration

Key's nephews were still alive inside Fort Donelson. Forrest might want to breakout with his cavalry, but Key was going to break out with his family. In her book Beautiful Jim Key, the lost history of the world's smartest horse. Mim Eichler Rivas recounts Jim Key's extraordinary Civil War experiences. It is fascinating to contrast & compare the intertwined lives of two such iconic figures.

Forrest was a man who had fought his way into a fortune buying & selling his fellow human beings. Inevitably, that profession required a bone deep disregard for the feelings of others. It was just part of the job. I don't know how many times I have heard someone intone the mantra, 'Forrest did not break up families.' as a means to cushion the rock hard fact of what he did for a living. Just like Jim Key, people made up things about them that have been accepted as true. Sadly, "Families Will Be Sold As One Lot." did not mean that ma & pa & uncle willie & the little ones were going to be sold off together. It meant nothing of the kind.

slave auction.jpg

Slave auction. Library of Congress

Families will be sold off as one lot, appears on posters announcing the sale of slaves. It is an accepted marking term just like wench or buck. What it really meant was that mothers with babies & toddlers would be sold together. While a certain amount of simple human compassion might have colored this policy, it was grounded in cold eyed practicality.

Unless toddlers were attractive light skinned girls or boys that could be sold to the brothels in New Orleans, they weren't worth much. Separated from their mothers, they tended to pine away & die. Somebody had to look after them & it took a long time for them to mature into useful hands. Mother's separated from their children were routinely beaten on arrival at their new master's farm & put into some kind of restraints. Even the harshest of measures often failed to bring them to their duty. Even very harsh measures would not keep them from running back to their children. It just wasn't worth the trouble. Forrest quite sensibly made the right marketing decision & sold the mothers & little ones as a lot.

You can read about the recommended treatment of mothers separated from their children in slave management manuals available online. The content is not appropriate for a G rated site like this one.

Jim Key's early fame came from the far other end of the human psyche, at an early age he showed an extraordinary ability to treat horses. In fact, in his teens, he became known as Doctor William Key. That is quite extraordinary at time when part of the dehumanizing process was to only call them by given names.

th copy.jpeg

Shelbyville is the county seat of Bedford County TN. In 1860, 13,000 whites (980 of whom w slaveholders) 6,744 slaves. In the public votes that it took to get Tennessee to secede, the vote broke even or swayed one way or the other. Unlike the dark counties in West Tennessee & white counties in East Tennessee, people in Bedford county were about evenly split on secession.

Nathan Bedford Forrest was not an evenly split kind of guy. At first call, he went straight to one of the training camps that were springing up across Tennessee. So did Jim Key's white nephews Merit & Alexander Key left home intent on enlisting at Camp Trousdale, near the Kentucky border. Jim Key was given a horse by their parents & set off in hot pursuit of the boys. Their parents pleaded with him to talk sense into the boys. They also told Jim that he could keep the horse & cross the Kentucky border to freedom.

Jim found the boys filthy, hungry & not a little confused as to what they had done to themselves. On June 11, 1861 they were mustered into Company F, 18th Tennessee Volunteer Infantry. They were fortunate to have Colonel Joseph Palmer as their commander. No matter how sweet the temptation to run to freedom, Jim Key allowed family loyalty & his love of his nephews to make him stay.

"I loved my young masters. I was afraid they would get killed o not have anything to eat, so I went with them."
Jim Key

As he explained to his white business partner many years later; yes, he had been with the Rebels. What some people today would call a Black Confederate. However, he also assisted the Yankees. He was a guide on the Underground Rail Road. He used his peerless skill to doctor horses & men from both sides. When conditions were right, he was also a spy. Perhaps most notably, he was also a military engineer.


Fort Donelson had been built on a gigantic scale. If you have ever visited the National Park, you have taken in the hubristic overreach of the construction.

January 1862 found General Forrest, Jim Key, his nephews & the neighbor boys of the 18th shivering, sloshing up to their ankles in freezing mud & barely getting enough to eat inside Fort Donelson. Outsided, U.S. Grant & a fleet of City Class gunboats maneuvered in for an attack.

Both Jim & Nathan would have agreed with one of my mentors when he said that the men inside of Fort Donelson were led by the Three Stooges. Stooge number one was Albert Sydney Johnston. Throughout his life, when confronted with a complex problem, Johnston would focus on one to the exclusion of all others. He had convinced himself that the real threat was an advance out of Central Kentucky on his headquarters in Bowling Green. The reports of Grant's advice on Forts Henry & Donelson were dismissed out right. Stooge number two, Gideon Pillow, might just be the most egomaniacal incompetent to ever wear general's stars. In a you can't dream this stuff up moment, Pillow's commander, General Polk had his pants blown off & his wits disordered for weeks by the explosion of a cannon named after his wife. However that affected his judgment, he had ordered Pillow to take over a command at Fort Donelson.He arrived just before Grant did. To complete the triangle, the hapless committee in command of the garrison will have to share Stooge number three honors. Born realists, both Forrest & Key began to plan a way out & away tp where the Stooge's incompetence could no longer threaten them.

Of the 19,000 casualties in the Battle of Fort Donelson, 80% of them were Confederates. You can call Jim a seeker or you can call him a realist, but before he could be listed amongst the 80% he took measures to see to it that he & the boys survived. Key began to scout for a place to dig in & sit out the siege. As a civilian camp steward, he could wander around unimpeded. Fort Donelson is huge, the terrain convoluted, but Jim found just the spot he was looking for.

"Yes, sir, that became the famous for that the soldiers called Fort Bill"
"It was only a small place dug in the ground & covered with logs to keep the bullets out."

Jim Key

At first his nephews & some neighbor boys were reluctant to join Jim in his hole. However, the astonishing volume of projectiles flying in all directions soon overcame their manly scruples.

""When Fort Donelson was captured in the night, I stole out & found a place unguarded & took my young masters out, with important papers, & we escaped."
Jim Key

Great minds think alike. Jim & the boys soon caught up with Colonel Forrest. Brilliant as he was, Forrest was functionally illiterate. When he found out that Merit & Alexander Key were well educated & had saved important paper from capture, he mad Alexander an officer. Doc Key's unusual abilities with horses was well known. Forrest had him care for his own horses. He also accompanied the boys on scouting missions, acting as a guide. Forrest was so pleased with Jim's performance by giving him a pass that allowed him to go through Confederate lines at will.

Go through Confederate lines at will he certainly did. What sentry or junior officer was going to question anybody carrying a pass signed by Forrest himself? Jim happily spent the next few months guiding self-liberating people through both Confederate & Union lines. He made contact with the Union officers in Shelbyville & brought Union soldiers through the lines. When he heard that Forrest was headed south to someplace called Pittsburg Landing with the nephews, he headed back to catch up with them.

Jim encountered Merit, Alexander & Forrest as the rear guard entered a place called Fallen Timbers. Imagine his anxiety when Alexander dismounted to engage the 4th Illinois Cavalry as they charged into the rear guard. Alexander & Jim made it out unscathed, Forrest did not. Jim & Nathan shared a lifelong puffery that embellished & fantasized abuot their actions.

As he drove his horse through the melee, he was shot in the side by a musket at point blank range. Somehow, he stayed on his horse & lived to fight another day. Years later a fanciful piece of fiction embellished Forrest's escape by including a Yankee being pulled up behind Forrest to shield him form bullets. Rationally, nobody who has ever tried to stay on a horse going full tilt across broken ground knows how hard it is to stay in the saddle. I have a scar to remind me. The apocryphal story has become ubiquitous, even Shelby Foote repeated it. The true story was good enough, it really needs no fanciful embellishments.

The last day of 1862 found Jim Key once again in the right/wrong place as the Battle of Stone's River raged into life. I always describe it to visitors as a major college stadium with a full house of 80,000 men who spend three days murdering each other in just about every way they could. When Bragg's exhausted & bloody regiments drug themselves to Shelbyville, Jim Key found himself in a new situation.

The Emancipation Proclamation took effect Even though the wartime measure did not legally include Tennessee, the writing was on the wall. 22,000 of Forrest's former sale items & Jim's friend joined the United States Colored Troops. That was a bit too restrictive for Jim's taste. When he turned himself in to Union pickets, Jim explained himself this way:

"I was tired of the Rebels & I wanted to be free."
Jim Key

He began smuggling self-liberating people through Bedford County on a full-time basis. All went well until it didn't.

"I undertook to get another darkie through the lines but was caught by the guard, the sixth Indiana, & accused of being a spy."

He was denounced by one of the Shelbyville whites that so resented his privileged place & sent to the jain in Nashville. He was going to be tried & likely hanged as a spy. He was there about six weeks when he heard that General Negley, in command in Nashville, was looking for a cook. Getting the guard's attention he told them:

"They call me the best cook in Tennessee, if you don't believe me ask anyone form my home."

After confirming Jim's claim with prisoners from Shelbyville. An interview with Captain Prather, commander of the jail & General Negley was arranged. Instead of being hanged a spy, Jim became Prather's cook with the proviso that Negley be a regular guest. Any normal person would have thanked their lucky stars & served out the war nice & safe in Prather's kitchen. After a decent pause to let things settle a bit. Jim casually mentioned to Prather that he liked to play cards.

"In six weeks I owned everything Prather had; he owed me over a thousand dollars. He gave me a pass to go home for the debt."
Jm Key

Albert Rogers, Jim Key's white business partner said that he never saw Jim loose at cards. He seemed to have an occult knowledge of what was in his opponent's hand. Jim went home to more adventures. He saved the family farm; put the nephews through Harvard; he sent his third wife to medical school at Howard University; invented Keystone Horse Liniment that was sold nation wide. He made a fortune & gave much of it away.

Of course, at that same time Bedford Forrest was doing his best to recoup his family fortune. Unfortunately, he allowed himself to be drawn into an anti-free black organization that he did his best to disband. Despite his clearly stated belief in good relations between the races, the damage was done. In death he & the organization he disbanded became universal symbols of hatred & intolerance. The battle flag he carried has become the emblem of every hate group on the planet, even including hyper violent motorcycle gangs in Russia. None of that was Forrest's doing, but that is the way it is.

Jim Key began a second life after Forrest died. He bought a famous trotting horse, long past her prime. She was covered by one of the greatest trotters of all time. Like everything in Jim Key's life, nothing came out as anybody would have planned. The great trotters' offspring was a goofy looking colt that could hardly walk around the paddock with getting his legs tangled. Out of a sense of self deprecating humor, Jim called the horse after himself. It turned out to be a good choice.


The tangle footed colt became a known as the Beautiful Jim Key. The human Jim Key taught him to spell word people's names on demand, do math, make change & change the world. Jim Key, man & horse were essential elements in the humane movement that changed the way people treated animals to this day. That, however is a story for another day.


My many greats grandad was one of Forrest's farriers. So, he might have known Jim Key. Like Jim, family lore had it that he also shod Yankee horses & those of guerrilla bands that plagued Middle Tennessee.

A member of the 13th USCT reenacting group has a trunk full of Jim Key tickets, posters etc from the Saint Louis World Fair & the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in 1897 where the two jim Keys became world famous. You may have seen him on the PBS Antiques Road Show.

An excellent public TV program was made about the Keys. People with both a living & a family memory of them were interviewed.

Morgan Freeman has agreed to star in a movie based on Mim Eichler Rivas' book, Beautiful Jim Key, The Lost History of the World's Smartest Horse.

Jim was buried in the white cemetery in Shelbyville, just down the hill form the family that published Confederate Veteran Magazine. Jim Key the horse & his doggy stable mate Mock have a nice memorial stone that you can also visit.

Last edited:
Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!