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A Different Kind of Hero

Who was Nathan Bedford Forrest, the man now lauded as the top hero of neo-Confederate activists? A military genius? A brutal bully? Or both?

Nathan Bedford Forrest:
A Biography

By Jack Hurst
New York: Vintage Books, 1994, $15.95 (paperback)

For the better part of the last century and a half, the quintessential white Southern hero has been regarded as Civil War Gen. Robert E. Lee, the man who surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. Lee was widely admired in both North and South for his undeniable grace, his Christian humility, his wisdom and his many exemplary qualities as a leader of men.

He was a moderate, warning early on against the war that became America's bloodiest conflagration and only reluctantly joining the battle out of loyalty to his home state of Virginia. He had relatively enlightened ideas about slavery, describing it in 1856 as a "moral and political evil" even as he criticized abolitionists for trying to hurry along God's plan.

At the close of the Civil War, Lee called on Southerners to remain in the land of their birth, to acquiesce to the verdict of history, and to "promote harmony and good will" in the reborn Union.

In the last decade or so, however, Lee's star has gone into decline, and especially so among the many activists of the so-called neo-Confederate movement. Today, it is a different Civil War general who is lauded as the greatest hero of the South.

In the last several years, statues have gone up from Selma to Nashville to honor this man. His face dominates t-shirts, coffee mugs and a slew of other products.

Nathan Bedford Forrest, for better or for worse, is the man of the hour.

Who was this semi-literate "Wizard of the Saddle," this cavalry general who personally slew at least 30 men in hand-to-hand fighting in addition to ordering the death of any Confederate soldier who fled the field?

Was he the acme of homespun Southern genius, as neo-Confederate activists today would have us believe? Or was he a homicidal bully, a brutal man whose entire life was drenched in blood?

The answers, or as close to answers as it seems possible to get, are found in Jack Hurst's first-rate biography of Forrest. Although the work is over a decade old (the first edition was published in 1993), and despite several competing Forrest biographies, Hurst's book succeeds like no other in laying out Forrest's life.

While he sometimes seems reluctant to reach conclusions suggested by his own research — and more than once appears to read the evidence as favorably toward Forrest as possible — Hurst still presents the fullest picture of his subject available.

Of Forrest's military genius there can be no doubt. Unlettered, contemptuous of West Point formal training, and given to insubordination, Forrest nonetheless was a brilliant horseman and tactical thinker — and the only soldier on either side to go from private to lieutenant general during the course of the war.

Above all, his tactic was the charge, and he frequently overcame Union forces that vastly outnumbered his own as he personally led his troops. (Forrest suffered four major wounds during the war, and had 29 horses shot out from under him.)

Union Gen. William Sherman, no slouch himself, described him as a "devil" who should be "hunted down and killed if it costs 10,000 lives and bankrupts the treasury."

But there was more to Forrest than that. He was renowned for a terrifying temper that transformed him into something resembling a blood-engorged beast. He personally shot his own men if they tried to shirk a battle. He was given to duels and furious arguments, oversaw savage whippings of recalcitrant slaves, shaded the truth in his own behalf repeatedly, and once wrongly shot innocent "deserters."

The severest of the criticism of Forrest — subjects studiously avoided by today's neo-Confederate activists — centers on three indisputable facts:

  • Forrest was a Memphis slave trader who acquired fabulous wealth before the war;

  • He commanded the troops who carried out an 1864 massacre of mostly black prisoners; and

  • He led violent resistance to Reconstruction as the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

As Hurst points out, friendly Forrest biographers have attempted to describe him as a kindly slave trader, a man who cared for his charges and always avoided separating families.

But a Civil War newspaper account described whippings in which four slaves held the victim stretched out in the air while Forrest personally administered the bullwhip. Women were allegedly stripped naked and whipped with a leather thong dipped in salt water.

Such accounts were later backed up by former slaves who described terrifying brutality and the break-up of their families.

Forrest despised blacks who fought for the Union, and was accused by one Union general of personally shooting a captured free mulatto who was a servant of a Federal officer. A Confederate cavalryman once recounted how Forrest "cussed [him] out" for failing to execute a captured black Union soldier.

But it was the slaughter of Union forces at Fort Pillow, Tenn., that was the most damning episode of all.

After surrounding the fort, Forrest demanded surrender from the 580 men within or, he said, "I cannot be responsible for the fate of your command."

While this demand was being negotiated under the white flag, Forrest illegally improved his position, according to later Union allegations. In any event, the Union commander refused to surrender, and soon Forrest's men were pouring over the ramparts.

"The slaughter was awful," a Confederate sergeant later wrote his family. "I with several others tried to stop the butchery and at one time partially succeeded, but Gen. Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs, and the carnage continued."

There were numerous similar accounts from Union soldiers, several of whom said they heard Confederate officers saying Forrest had ordered them to "kill the last God damn one of them."

Eventually, Forrest sympathizers produced a Union officer who said there had been no slaughter of men trying to surrender — an officer who later said that he gave a false statement under duress while in rebel captivity.

Later, as the war came to a close, Forrest found a man and a boy without papers near Selma, Ala., where he was about to lead a last-ditch defense. Although the two said they were innocent, they were executed on the spot and a sign, "shot for desertion," set above their bodies. Forrest ordered the bodies left out for two days before burial. It later turned out that they had, in fact, been innocent.

After the war, Forrest returned to Memphis. He quickly became associated with hard-line resistance to Reconstruction and, secretly, he became the first leader of the national Ku Klux Klan.

Although he repeatedly denied membership — even lying to Congress — Forrest in fact led the Klan through one of its most violent and successful periods, when robed terrorists succeeded in rolling back Reconstruction. He even told one newspaper reporter that while he was no member, he "intend[ed]" to kill radical Republicans. He added that he could raise 40,000 men in four days.

Forrest sympathizers have long claimed that he disbanded the Klan when it became violent. In fact, it had been extremely violent for years under Forrest, and was only disbanded when its work was essentially done — blacks and Republicans had been terrified into not voting — and when it came under intense criticism.

Nathan Bedford Forrest was certainly one of the most intriguing and colorful characters of the Civil War, and Hurst does him justice in his wide-ranging and well-written biography. But Forrest was no Robert E. Lee, and the fact that this often brutal and thuggish man has come to be lionized by today's neo-Confederate right is remarkable indeed.

Where nostalgia for the Lost Cause was once presented in the rosy light of Lee's personality, today it is a man who was a slave trader, an apparent party to war crimes and a brutal Klan boss who represents that movement.