Nathan Bedford Forrest was one the Confederacy’s greatest generals. Had his superiors supported him more and allowed him more freedom in his unorthodox methods of war, the Confederacy might have won the Civil War – or at least it would have lasted longer. Forrest was not educated at West Point or any other military academy; he was just a born cavalryman who used his common sense to lead men into battle, and who used a lot of strategy and trickery to achieve his successes.
Eddy W. Davison and Daniel Foxx’s readable and intriguing biography of one of the Confederacy’s greatest generals explores his early days before the Civil War. Forrest started out poor but became one of the richest men in Memphis, Tennessee. He was not well educated, but he had the courage and gumption to succeed in life and provide for his family.
Forrest was not for secession from the Union, but once Tennessee voted to secede he fell into line and to support the Confederacy. He, his brothers and his son joined the Confederate Army as privates. Forrest began to rise in rank as his superiors noticed his talents and charisma. By the end of the war, he had reached the rank of Lieutenant General.
Many times Forrest was able to trick his enemy into thinking he had more troops than he actually did. This trickery often worked to the embarrassment of his enemies, especially when they surrendered and found out his actual numbers. Forrest had trouble controlling his short temper, which led him into trouble with his superiors and others. He was not beyond dueling with his opponents, although sometimes he would come to his senses, realize he was wrong and apologize before things got out of hand. He could also accept his opponent’s apology before they killed each other. His temper could be a good and bad thing during a battle; when he became angry during a battle, he pushed himself and his troops more to defeat the enemy. He would also become reckless but usually lucky in getting away with it.
He was known among Union commanders as “that Devil Forrest” and “the Wizard of the Saddle.” The Union commanders realized how much of a threat Forrest was even if the Confederate commanders did not. They wanted him captured or killed and sent many campaigns after him, but he was only captured when he surrendered at the end of the Civil War.
Davison and Foxx explore major controversial points of Forrest’s life and reputation. The first was the alleged massacre at the Battle of Fort Pillow of April 1864, where he has been accused of allowing his men to kill Federal troops who had surrendered; many of these troops were African-American. The authors explore both sides of the controversy. The second one is his membership in the Ku Klux Klan and that he was the leader of this secret organization. He was the leader but not a founder of the organization, recruited by the Klan and appointed leader after the first choice declined and recommended him. He and the Klan leadership dissolved the organization after it reached its goal of ex-Confederates being able to vote and hold political office. Renegade Klansmen continued to terrorize people, but were not supported by Forrest and others. Toward the end of his life, he tried to improve relations between blacks and whites.
Forrest was a natural-born cavalryman and leader. His memory would not have been as controversial if not for the Fort Pillow massacre and his leadership of the Klan. He was, though, an unorthodox man in various aspects of his life; that is what makes this man interesting.
Davison and Foxx use quotes from primary sources such as Forrest’s speeches (some of which were long and full of energy), the diaries of others, newspaper articles, and other sources. There are no illustrations, but the centerfold of the book is hand-drawn color maps of Forrest’s battles. There are endnotes, a bibliography and an index. The chapters of the book are long but worthwhile and entertaining for a history book. This book is highly recommended to Civil War enthusiasts.
Daniel Foxx earned both his bachelor and Master of Arts degrees in history at Brigham Young University and pursued doctoral studies at Arizona State University. He is now a professor emeritus of history at Ottawa University in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of several articles and of I Only Laugh When It Hurts (1996).
Eddy W. Davison is an adjunct professor of history at Ottawa University and teaches criminal justice at the International Institute of the Americas in Phoenix. He earned his undergraduate degree in history from Ottawa University in 1997. He also has a Master of Arts in history and has co-authored articles; this is his first book.