Was Gen Nathan Bedford Forrest really great?

R Brock

Cadet
Joined
Jul 30, 2020
I was researching a Colt 22Lr. Commemorative, Frontier, Cased, Gold plated, Gen Nathan Bedford Forrest SA to find its value and stumbled on an old thread on this site titled " Why Forrest was great". A while later I found a link to his history. It's worth reading the link because it disagrees , completely in many areas, with the post and "praise" of Gen Forrest in the old thread.

Link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nathan_Bedford_Forrest

Thought it would be good history reading for those that like to see well documented information that presents another view.
 

dlofting

First Sergeant
Joined
Aug 13, 2013
Location
Vancouver, BC, Canada
As an independent cavalry raider, Forrest was probably the best that the Civil War produced. As a more traditional cavalry commander doing outpost duty, screening and reconnaissance he was not so good. He did show at the battle of Chickamauga that he could learn but either never got the opportunity or didn't have the aptitude to match someone like Jeb Stuart
 

Patrick H

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Mar 7, 2014
The answer is: "It depends."
Do you mean the Wizard of the saddle who confounded Federals in the western theater? Yes, he was great.
Do you mean the man who was a slave trader before the war? No, he was deeply flawed.
Do you mean the man who grew to understand his earlier flaws and who tried to rise above them? Yes, that man was great.

Forrest was not too much different than most of us. He was deeply flawed, but he certainly tried to rise above his flaws, and he succeeded to one degree or another, which is something we could all aspire to achieve. Don't you agree?
 

Rusk County Avengers

1st Lieutenant
Forum Host
Joined
Apr 8, 2018
Location
Coffeeville, TX
Well when looking for greatness in anyone, one must look for extraordinary feats and actions.

In Forrest's case he was born a poor farmer, used the system to become a millionaire, then put that aside to enlist as a private, and rose to the rank of Lt. General in less than four years. All the while being halfway illiterate (seriously folks should read stuff he wrote, hands down one of the worst spellers).

Anyone who can accomplish that has to be great! Its more remarkable when you realize just how class conscientious the South was, and he belonged to the two worst and lowest classes there was and he did that.

His greatness only becomes more apparent when you see his later years when he worked to repent and even drew the wrath of former Confederates and turned to the Lord.

I'd say he was among the greatest the war ever produced. No matter what side of the fence someone's on, his accomplishments shine as remarkable.
 
Last edited:

SWMODave

Sergeant Major
Forum Host
Thread Medic
Joined
Jul 23, 2017
Location
Southwest Missouri
Please let me defer to a former Medal of Honor recipient, who spent nearly forty years in the military, nearly all of it spent 'on a horse in the cavalry'.

Brigadier General Edward John McClernand was a son of a Civil War Major General, Medal of Honor recipient, US Military Academy graduate in 1870, and served 40 years in the U.S. Army. General McClernand, who served in the Spanish American War and the Philippines Insurrection, began his military career as a Lieutenant in the 2nd​ U.S. Cavary, and spent the next thirty plus years as a line officer in the U.S. Cavalry; a Major in the 12th​ U.S. Cavalry when he wrote the above book review in 1902. Also in 1902, when West Point celebrated its 100th​ birthday, five alumni were invited to speak on the second day. The five were Lt Gen Schofield, Brigadier General Wood, Major General Ruger, and from the CSA, General Alexander, all veterans of the Civil War, and then Major McClernand, veteran of the Spanish American War. He retired in 1912, died in 1926 and is buried at Arlington.

Review of the Great Commander Series release “General Forrest” by J. Harvey Mathis as printed in Journal of the Military Service Institution 1902

Great Commanders--General Forrest

This is the record of a remarkable man, during four years of war and adventure. It presents, perhaps unintentionally, the hero more in the light of a partisan than a general in a great army, and perhaps this is the true position to assign to General Forrest . There can be no question of his ability to fill either role, but his inclination seemed to have been for the first. Captain Mathes writes from the standpoint of an ardent admirer, which it is thought sometimes colors his opinions, statements and conclusions. The fact remains, however, that nothing short of positive military genius would have enabled Forrest to gain the succession of brilliant victories he did , often against considerable odds.

He was great, not only in strategy, but in battle tactics as well. A good illustration of his grasp of the latter was shown at Brice's Crossroads, and it is strikingly evident in most of his engagements. Was he as good a subordinate as he was a leader of detached forces? It is thought not. This is indicated by his differences with Wheeler and Bragg , and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that his efforts at Harrisburg in July, 1864, in support of General S . D . Lee, were not as able as his previous independent actions justified his commanding officer in expecting. The language he is said to have used to General Bragg after the battle of Chickamauga was not only insubordinate, but highly insulting, and it is not understood how Bragg could have overlooked it, either as a man or a general, unless he thought Forrest, who had rendered great service in the battle, was temporarily not himself. No matter how important an officer's services may be, a commanding general cannot permit such insubordination to go unpunished and maintain efficient discipline. His part in the said battle well illustrated his capacity to act as a subordinate when he chose, but it was as a leader of a small and independent cavalry force that he showed to the best advantage. Vigilant, brave, tremendously industrious, and filled with audacity, he was ever ready to strike and dare, and he possessed the rare quality of transmitting to his followers his own spirit of battle. He never underestimated himself, or overrated his enemy; he never thought the foe less wearied than his own men by like exertions, and these qualities have gained most of the victories recorded in history.

In view of the affair at Fort Pillow one wishes he had never made the threat he so often did, that he could not be responsible for the consequences, if his demand for surrender was not acceded to, but fortunately there is much evidence to show he was generally a kind hearted man, and his threats did not really mean what they implied.

Although his command never much exceeded 5000 men, there is no doubt he was equal to a greater one. History presents no superior as a free lance.

His services were brilliant, but it may be doubted if he was serving his cause to the best advantage in those bold and lightning like strokes in West Tennessee while the fate of the Confederacy was being decided on other fields by the main armies of the North and South.

His advice to his soldiers on their surrender at the end of the war was patriotic and noble, and worthy of his greatness.

His campaigns are a marvel of thought, rapidity and dash that may well be studied by every officer of the United States Cavalry.

E . J. MCCLERNAND.
 

CMWinkler

Colonel
Forum Host
Retired Moderator
Joined
Oct 17, 2012
Location
Middle Tennessee
Please let me defer to a former Medal of Honor recipient, who spent nearly forty years in the military, nearly all of it spent 'on a horse in the cavalry'.

Brigadier General Edward John McClernand was a son of a Civil War Major General, Medal of Honor recipient, US Military Academy graduate in 1870, and served 40 years in the U.S. Army. General McClernand, who served in the Spanish American War and the Philippines Insurrection, began his military career as a Lieutenant in the 2nd​ U.S. Cavary, and spent the next thirty plus years as a line officer in the U.S. Cavalry; a Major in the 12th​ U.S. Cavalry when he wrote the above book review in 1902. Also in 1902, when West Point celebrated its 100th​ birthday, five alumni were invited to speak on the second day. The five were Lt Gen Schofield, Brigadier General Wood, Major General Ruger, and from the CSA, General Alexander, all veterans of the Civil War, and then Major McClernand, veteran of the Spanish American War. He retired in 1912, died in 1926 and is buried at Arlington.

Review of the Great Commander Series release “General Forrest” by J. Harvey Mathis as printed in Journal of the Military Service Institution 1902

Great Commanders--General Forrest

This is the record of a remarkable man, during four years of war and adventure. It presents, perhaps unintentionally, the hero more in the light of a partisan than a general in a great army, and perhaps this is the true position to assign to General Forrest . There can be no question of his ability to fill either role, but his inclination seemed to have been for the first. Captain Mathes writes from the standpoint of an ardent admirer, which it is thought sometimes colors his opinions, statements and conclusions. The fact remains, however, that nothing short of positive military genius would have enabled Forrest to gain the succession of brilliant victories he did , often against considerable odds.

He was great, not only in strategy, but in battle tactics as well. A good illustration of his grasp of the latter was shown at Brice's Crossroads, and it is strikingly evident in most of his engagements. Was he as good a subordinate as he was a leader of detached forces? It is thought not. This is indicated by his differences with Wheeler and Bragg , and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that his efforts at Harrisburg in July, 1864, in support of General S . D . Lee, were not as able as his previous independent actions justified his commanding officer in expecting. The language he is said to have used to General Bragg after the battle of Chickamauga was not only insubordinate, but highly insulting, and it is not understood how Bragg could have overlooked it, either as a man or a general, unless he thought Forrest, who had rendered great service in the battle, was temporarily not himself. No matter how important an officer's services may be, a commanding general cannot permit such insubordination to go unpunished and maintain efficient discipline. His part in the said battle well illustrated his capacity to act as a subordinate when he chose, but it was as a leader of a small and independent cavalry force that he showed to the best advantage. Vigilant, brave, tremendously industrious, and filled with audacity, he was ever ready to strike and dare, and he possessed the rare quality of transmitting to his followers his own spirit of battle. He never underestimated himself, or overrated his enemy; he never thought the foe less wearied than his own men by like exertions, and these qualities have gained most of the victories recorded in history.

In view of the affair at Fort Pillow one wishes he had never made the threat he so often did, that he could not be responsible for the consequences, if his demand for surrender was not acceded to, but fortunately there is much evidence to show he was generally a kind hearted man, and his threats did not really mean what they implied.

Although his command never much exceeded 5000 men, there is no doubt he was equal to a greater one. History presents no superior as a free lance.

His services were brilliant, but it may be doubted if he was serving his cause to the best advantage in those bold and lightning like strokes in West Tennessee while the fate of the Confederacy was being decided on other fields by the main armies of the North and South.

His advice to his soldiers on their surrender at the end of the war was patriotic and noble, and worthy of his greatness.

His campaigns are a marvel of thought, rapidity and dash that may well be studied by every officer of the United States Cavalry.

E . J. MCCLERNAND.

I think this is both a fair and accurate assessment of Forrest as an officer.
 

Borderruffian

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 4, 2007
Location
Marshfield Missouri
As a Raider NBF had few if any peers Confederate or Union in the western theater as a Straight Cavalry Commander he was at many times lack luster, but remember he often used his formation except the Escort as mounted infantry. He evolved as IMO to the preeminant raider in hid TAOR, he was great at what he did and his men loved him.
 

wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
He fought several successful battles far from the center of the enemies operational zone. He often won battles that were in the wrong place. He cost the United States armies a good deal of money, but he never disrupted a major campaign. His efforts, when successful, nevertheless were using up horses at a rapid rate. Neither the Confederacy nor the US were truly nomadic and horses were in short supply. They were costly to obtain and costly to sustain.
 

wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
Grant, Grierson, Wilder, Sheridan, Wilson, all knew that Forrest was tactically correct. Imitation is the sincerest form of factory. Grant especially knew that cavalry was capable of rapid disruptive raids. The war ended with multiple cavalry incursions into what remained of the Confederacy. If the same money and effort had been spent on the plains, the Indians would have more clearly seen their inevitable defeat.
 

RoadDog

Corporal
Joined
May 29, 2008
Location
The Great Midwest
Definitely did not play well as a subordinate of anybody.

Has there ever been an article written lately about the removal of a Forrest bust or statue that didn't mention him as being KKK?

--RoadDog
 

Scott1967

Sergeant
Joined
Jul 11, 2016
Location
England
Horrid man who had a rough upbringing he didn't suffer fools lightly but as others have said as an independent cavalry commander their were few better.

He found god in the end but the gates were closed.
 

uaskme

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 9, 2016
Location
SE Tennessee
Well, Forrest did some good. Only he Knows if the Gates were closed or Not. If Sherman or Grant made it, he had Hope.

Forrest Learned on the job. At Chickamauga he had never commanded a Corps before. Bragg sent for him to replace Joe Wheeler. Wheeler refused to use his Troopers to probe Rosecrans. Bragg should of cashiered Wheeler and kept Forrest. Forrest was aggressive and improved. Wheeler never did. Highly unprovable that Forrest dressed down Bragg. Great story but no proof it happened.
 

Sgt. Tyree

Private
Joined
Apr 29, 2020
Location
Wyoming Territory
The war ended with multiple cavalry incursions into what remained of the Confederacy. If the same money and effort had been spent on the plains, the Indians would have more clearly seen their inevitable defeat.

I'm going a little off topic but the above statement is interesting to me.

The point of most of these Union cavalry incursions was to "drive old Dixie down" by the destruction of material and infrastructure and not the engagement and tactical defeat of Confederate units, correct? What was the equivalent of this in the plains campaigns? For the most part, it was the destruction of the horse and buffalo herds. This was done.

For instance, Ranald Mackenzie and his 4th U.S. Cavalry killed about 2000 Indian horses at Palo Duro Canyon (and there are other examples). The buffalo herds, while not directly targeted by the Army, were eliminated by the hide hunters with Army consent and in some cases Army support.

Of course, these efforts were on a smaller scale that the Union cavalry raids and the subjugation of the plains tribes took much longer than the defeat of the Confederacy. But post ACW, did the United States even have the resources to commit to the effort on a larger scale for faster results?
 
Top