Nathan Bedford Forrest

This entry is part 3 of 10 in the series The Franklin-Nashville Campaign
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Nathan Bedford Forrest

Perhaps the most daring cavalry commander on either side during the American Civil War was Nathan Bedford Forrest. In a conflict that featured a numbered of iconic cavalry commanders, such as J.E.B. Stuart, Phillip Sheridan, Judson Kilpatrick, Joseph Wheeler, George Custer, John Buford and Wesley Merritt, Forrest was the most daring of them all.

Born in Chapel Hill, Tennessee in 1821, Forrest was not a professional soldier before the war. He became the head of his family at age 17, upon the death of his father, a blacksmith. He went into business with his uncle and eventually made his fortune as a planter, real estate investor, and slave trader.

General Nathan Bedford ForrestLess well educated than his fellow officers, he was one of the few who entered the army as a private soldier and rose to the rank of general officer. Forrest enlisted as a private in Captain Josiah White’s Company “E”, Tennessee Mounted Rifles in July 1861. After seeing how badly equipped the Confederate cavalry was, he offered to pay for a regiment of cavalry.

The Governor of Tennessee, Isham G. Harris, was surprised that someone of Forrest’s wealth would enlist. They commissioned him as a Lieutenant Colonel and authorized him to recruit and train a battalion of Confederate Mounted Rangers. In October 1861 he was given command of a regiment, “Forrest’s Cavalry Corps“. Forrest posted ads to join his regiment for “men with good horse and good gun” adding “if you wanna have some fun and to kill some Yankees”.

Forrest at 6′ 2″ and 210 pounds was a physically imposing man. On horseback, swinging his sharpened cavalry saber, Forrest was especially intimidating. He was known to sharpen the top and bottom edges of his heavy saber. Historians have evaluated contemporary records to conclude that Forrest may have killed more than thirty-three enemy soldiers with saber, pistol and shotgun.

By the fall of 1864, Forrest had participated in most of the major battles in the Western Theater. At Fort Donelson in February 1862, he had successfully escaped the Union encirclement with 4,000 men. After the defeat at Shiloh, he commanded the Confederate rear guard at Fallen Timbers. It was here that he made a daring escape after being surrounded by Union troopers.

As the war progressed, he was given increasingly larger units to command. On April 12, 1864, General Forrest led his Fort Pillow Massacreforces in the attack and capture of Fort Pillow on the Mississippi River in Henning, Tennessee. Many African-American Union troops were killed in the battle. A controversy arose about whether Forrest conducted or condoned a massacre of African Americans who had surrendered there.

Southern sources claim that the Union soldiers continued to fire at them and that the flag at Fort Pillow was never lowered. Northern sources paint a diametrically opposing picture. They insist that it was a massacre ordered by Forrest himself.

A Confederate soldier, Achilles Clark, with the 20th Tennessee cavalry, wrote to his sister immediately after the battle: “The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor, deluded, negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees, and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. I, with several others, tried to stop the butchery, and at one time had partially succeeded, but General Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased.”

Forrest was the master of the cavalry raid and conducted a number of them throughout his career. During the Franklin-Nashville Campaign, he led a raid that lasted from October 16th to November 16th in West Tennessee against Union supply depots.

At the time the Union army was using the Tennessee River to ship much of its supplies, landing them at Johnsonville, Tennessee. The supplies were then shipped by wagon to Nashville. Forrest was ordered interdict the supply line and Battle of Johnsonvilledestroy as much of the supplies as they were able.

By October 24th, Forrest reached Fort Heiman on the Tennessee where he emplaced artillery. On October 29 and October 30, his artillery fire caused the capture of three steamers and two gunboats. Forrest repaired two of the boats, Undine and Venus, to use as a small flotilla to aid in his attack on Johnsonville.

On November 2nd, Forrest’s flotilla was challenged by two Union gunboats, Key West and Tawah. Venus was run aground and captured. The Federals dispatched six more gunboats from Paducah, Kentucky. On November 3rd, they engaged in artillery duels with strong Confederate positions on either end of Reynoldsburg Island, near Johnsonville. The Federal fleet had difficulty attempting to subdue these positions and were kept occupied as Forrest prepared his force for the attack on Johnsonville.

On the morning of November 4, Undine and the Confederate batteries were attacked by three Union gunboats from Johnsonville and the six Paducah gunboats. Undine was abandoned and set on fire, which caused her ammunition magazine to explode, ending Forrest’s brief career as a naval commander.

Despite this loss, the Confederate land artillery was completely effective in neutralizing the threat of the Federal fleets. Forrest’s guns bombarded the Union supply depot and the 28 steamboats and barges positioned at the wharf. All three of the Union gunboats were disabled or destroyed. The Union garrison commander ordered that the supply vessels be burned to prevent their capture by the Confederates.

Forrest’s raid on Johnsonville caused a huge amount of damage to the Union army. He reported the Union losses as 4 gunboats, 14 transports, 20 barges, 26 pieces of artillery, $6,700,000 worth of property, and 150 prisoners, against the loss of 2 killed and 9 wounded. One Union officer said that the loss in property was $2,200,000. Forrest linked up with Hood on November 16th at Florence, Alabama and proceeded with the campaign.

 

 

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