By Greg Biggs, President, Clarksville TN CWRT
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2014, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in October 2014.
I read with interest the Dick Crews op-ed on how Shelby Foote got it wrong when he called Nathan Bedford Forrest one of the two geniuses of the Civil War. Forrest remains a controversial figure of the Civil War but he was, as Foote suggested, a true genius. With only some six months of any type of education, he rose from a private to lieutenant general by the end of his war career, only one of four American soldiers to do so. You simply do not get that high without some level of talent and, dare I say, genius. The fact that many of his raids and campaigns are still studied by military colleges also attests to his military ability.
Mr. Crews focused on the Fort Pillow raid of April 1864, but left out quite a bit of context. First, Forrest simply could not go wherever he wanted without permission of his superior. At this time, Forrest was one of two cavalry commanders in the Department of Alabama, Mississippi and East Louisiana, which was then commanded by Lt. General Leonidas Polk. Anything Forrest wanted to do had to be approved by Polk, who authorized this raid. The main objectives were to disrupt Union supply lines, in particular the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, and to recruit. Forrest had already been very successful recruiting behind Union lines in West Tennessee. Thanks to this, he now had a cavalry corps of two divisions under James Chalmers and Abraham Buford (related to the Union Gen. John Buford).
In mid-March, Forrest, with Buford’s Division moved again into West Tennessee but with an added objective: to deal with the sacking of Jackson, Tennessee (twice), by the 6th Tennessee Cavalry (U.S.) and Col. Fielding Hurst, a command whom Forrest termed, “renegade Tennesseans.” As Forrest stated, “The whole of West Tennessee is overrun by bands and squads of robbers, horse thieves and unlawful appropriations of private property.” Hurst’s style of warfare not only angered Confederates, but also members of the Union command who had Hurst arrested once and even threatened him with a court-martial. Forrest had been exchanging letters with the Union commander at Memphis over these acts and the arrest of citizens without proper trials. Many of these locations and people were related to men of Forrest’s command, which angered them.
Forrest often operated at the tail end of the Confederate supply line and this raid had one last objective: seize supplies from captured Union garrisons, a feat in which Forrest was quite adept. His raid underway, Forrest captured supplies and Union troops at Trenton and Union City, Tennessee (the 7th Tennessee Cavalry U.S. surrendering to the 7th Tennessee Cavalry C.S.). On March 25th, 1864, Forrest was at Paducah, Kentucky and sent in a surrender demand to its garrison. Stoutly held by Fort Anderson and protected by two Union gunboats, the commander refused. Forrest attacked, forcing the Federals from their outer works into the safety of the fort. Keeping them under fire, Forrest’s men then loaded up supplies and captured hundreds of horses to refit his command while fire from the gunboats smashed the town. After ten hours, Forrest withdrew his command, heading back south.
Forrest rested his command and informed Polk of his next plans, “There is a Federal force of 500 or 600 at Fort Pillow which I shall attend to in a day or two, as they have horses and supplies which we need.” One brigade was sent back to Paducah (picking up even more horses after the Union commander stated to a newspaper that Forrest had not gotten them all), while another regiment, who had already crushed Hurst near Bolivar, Tennessee, was to feint towards Memphis. On April 4, Forrest sent Polk a message stating, “It is clear that they (the Federals) are concentrating all their available force before Richmond and at Chattanooga.” As biographer Brian Wills wrote, “The more Federal troops he kept busy in Western Tennessee and Kentucky, the less the enemy could throw against…Johnston and Lee.” In fact, Forrest’s command was tying down at least two corps (four infantry divisions) and several cavalry units that could not be called to Georgia. Additionally, thousands more were tied down holding critical towns along river and railroad lines. Sherman’s stated intention was to keep Forrest tied up exactly where he was and off of his supply lines in Middle Tennessee and had ordered attacks against Forrest.
Mr. Crews indicts Forrest for missing his chance to raid Sherman’s lines of supply and accuses him of waging a personal war rather than playing as a team member of the Confederate Army. Nothing could be further from the truth. From his base in Mississippi, Forrest actually started on a raid into Middle Tennessee in early June 1864. He made it into Alabama, linking up with units there before being recalled by his new boss, Lt. Gen. Stephen D. Lee. The Federals were on the move from Memphis, and Forrest’s cavalry corps was the primary defender of that department (the bulk of whose troops had been sent to Georgia in May under Polk), which was also a primary food and industrial region for the Confederacy. This led to the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads on June 10th, where Forrest crushed the Union army in a fight that indeed showed true genius, as well as the later Battle of Tupelo and his raid on Memphis. Forrest won most of these fights, costing Sherman far more men than he liked, but it kept Forrest tied up exactly as planned.
The military reason to attack Fort Pillow, supplies and horses, is quite apparent. I refer the reader to an essay that I sent to this Roundtable some time back, which discusses in detail the racial aspects of Fort Pillow and is on your web site (Fort Pillow and Ball’s Bluff: A Response). Forrest supplied his troops mostly from captured Federal stocks as he would for most of the war, and Fort Pillow had such stocks. Forrest was a team player who worked for superior officers and fought his command according to their will and plans. He indeed, with permission from his superiors, began a raid on Sherman’s supply lines. It remains open to debate how effective Forrest would have been on these rail lines with the massive preparations that were in place for their defense and rebuilding (Col. William Wright’s Railroad Brigade).
Lastly, Mr. Crews is completely wrong about Forrest starting the Ku Klux Klan. That organization was begun in Pulaski, Tennessee by six former Confederate soldiers, none of whom were named Forrest. There is a historical marker on the building where this took place in that town, and the formation is accounted in at least two books on the KKK and its history. John Morton, Forrest’s former chief of artillery, brought Forrest into the Klan later on as it had no charter and no leadership. Under Forrest, the Klan was anti-carpetbagger and dealt with the state government of William “Parson” Brownlow, who hated former Confederates with a passion (as well as President Andrew Johnson, a fellow Tennessean). One must understand the complexity of Tennessee politics at this time and the internecine warfare that had gone on. When the Klan turned racial in nature, Forrest ordered its disbandment and walked away. Every one of the considerable number of biographies on Forrest offers details of his Klan involvement, and all of them say the same. Forrest was a control freak and he could not control the Klan.
Shelby Foote remains quite correct.
About the author: Greg Biggs is a long-time friend of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable. He spoke to our group in December 2007, led our field trip to Forts Henry and Donelson in 2012, and regularly corresponds with us on Civil War points of interest and controversy with the modern historical view of Nathan Bedford Forrest being a favorite topic.
Gregg Biggs is a Civil War author, editor, researcher, and tour guide specializing in the war fought in the western theater – in particular Sherman’s Atlanta campaign, the battle for Fort Donelson, and CSA General Nathan Bedford Forrest. He has held executive positions with several Civil War Roundtables and preservation and historical societies, including the Western Ohio Civil War Roundtable, the Ohio Civil War Association, the Clarksville, TN Civil War Roundtable, and the Montgomery County Civil War Preservation Society, and is a member of the Advisory Board of the Center for the Study of the Civil War in the West at Western Kentucky University.
As an author, Mr. Biggs’ Civil War articles have appeared in Blue & Gray Magazine (where he also served as an Associate Editor), Civil War Regiments, Citizen’s Companion, American Vexillum Magazine, and the Flags Of The Confederacy website. He has authored or co-authored several books including, Tattered Banners: Alabama’s Civil War Flags, I Go To Illustrate Georgia: Civil War Flags Of Georgia Troops, and Tennessee’s Civil War Flags. Mr. Biggs has also contributed research to the Civil War works of authors Larry Daniel, Robert Maberry, Gordon Rhea, Russell Brown, John Coski, Wiley Sword, John Sexton, Eric Wittenberg, and Andrew Johnson as well as to artists Don Troiani, John Paul Strain, and Dale Gallon.