Lieutenant-General N. B. Forrest. Lord Wolseley's estimate of the man and the soldier. ‘I have never on the field of battle sent you where I was unwilling to go myself.’‘You have been good Soldiers—you can be good citizens.’
[From the New Orleans Picayune, April 10, 1892.]
The officer of regular troops intrusted with the duty of quickly raising levies for immediate war service is often too prone to think that his one great endeavor should be to ‘set them up’ and so instruct them in drill as to make them look as much like regulars as possible. As a matter of fact, he almost invariably fails to accomplish this aim, and in his well-meant efforts too often robs them of their only good quality—in a military point of view, I mean—the fearless dash and go so often possessed by undisciplined fighting men. Like the well-meaning missionary, who, in persuading the heathen to believe no longer in their idols, robs them of their spiritual faith without being able to induce them to accept christianity in its place, the result is usually disastrous in both cases. The troops, especially the horse, raised by Monmouth during his rebellion, are a very good illustration of what I mean. General Forrest never into any such error. He had no knowledge of military science nor of military history to teach him how he should act, what objective he should aim at, and what plans he should make to secure it. He was entirely ignorant of what other generals in previous wars had done under very similar circumstances. This was certainly a great misfortune for him, and a serious drawback to his public usefulness. But what he lacked in book lore, was, to a large extent, compensated for by the soundness of his judgment upon all occasions, and by his power of thinking and reasoning with great  rapidity under fire, and under all circumstances of surrounding peril or of great mental or bodily fatigue. Panic found no resting place in that calm brain of his, and no dangers, no risks appalled that dauntless spirit. Inspired with true military instincts, he was, most verily, nature's soldier. His force was largely composed of wild and reckless men, who all looked to him as their master, their leader, and over whom he had obtained the most complete control. He possessed that rare tact—unlearnable from books—which enabled him not only effectively to control these fiery, turbulent spirits, but to attach them to him personally ‘with hooks of steel.’ In him they recognized not only the daring, able and successful leader, but also the commanding officer who would not hesitate to punish with severity when he deemed punishment necessary. He thoroughly understood the nature and disposition of those he had to deal with, their strong and their weak points, what they could and could not accomplish. He never ventured to hamper their freedom of action by any sort of stiff barrack-yard drill, or to embarrass it by any preconceived notions of what a soldier should look like. They were essentially irregulars by nature, and he never attempted to rob them of that character. They possessed as an inheritance all the best and most valuable fighting qualities of the irregulars, accustomed as they were from boyhood to horses and the use of arms, and brought up with all the devil-may-care, lawless notions of the frontiersman. But the most volcanic spirit among them felt he must bow before the superior iron will of the determined man who led them. There was a something about the dark-grey eye of Forrest which warned his subordinates he was not to be trifled with, and would stand no nonsense from either friend or foe. He was essentially a practical man of action, with a dauntless, fiery soul and heart that knew no fear. To take my readers through his military career would be to rewrite the history of most of the war in the Southern States of the Confederacy. He was present at the eventful battle of Shiloh, a brilliant secessionist victory one day, a defeat the day after. When General Beauregard's line of battle halted on the evening of Sunday, the 6th of April, in the midst of the Federal camps which had been taken, his troops were thoroughly exhausted, and thought only of obtaining food from the captured supply wagons. Forrest on his own initiative, pushed forward his scouts to watch the enemy's doings  and soon discovered that large Federal reinforcements were being ferried over the Tennessee river. He at once perceived the gravity of the position, and did all he could to communicate this to his army headquarters, but no one knew where they were. In his search to find them he fell in with the officer commanding an infantry brigade, to whom he said, in his own rough colloquial vernacular: ‘If the enemy come on us in the morning we shall be whipped like hell.’ His prophecy was not far wrong, and by Monday night General Beauregard's army was in retreat. General Sherman pressed the retiring Confederates very hard all Tuesday, the 8th of April; upon one occasion during the day Forrest, with about three hundred and fifty men, keenly watched his opportunity for an offensive return from behind a ridge which afforded his soldiers good protection. The Federal advanced guard of two battalions of cavalry and a regiment of foot, upon reaching the ridge, at once proceeded to attack it with great spirit, but in crossing a little intervening ravine and stream, fell into some confusion. Forrest with his usual quick military perception of such an opening, at once told his bugler to sound the ‘Charge!’ and, pistol in hand, dashed in among the astonished Federals. The effect was instantaneous. The enemy's horsmen fled back panic stricken through the woods, scattering their own infantry, who quickly doubled after them. A scene of the greatest confusion ensued, and Forrest, pursuing for some distance, killed many, and took some seventy prisoners. With his usual hardihood, pushing on well ahead of his men, he soon found himself face to face with the enemy's main body, and under a galling fire from all sides. A ball struck him above the hips, and, hurting his spine, at once benumbed his right leg. His horse, though mortally wounded, still enabled him to bolt for his life through a crowd of the enemy, who shouted: ‘Kill him!’ ‘Shoot him!’ etc. An unerring shot with his revolver, he soon cleared a path for himself, and found once more at least temporary safety among his own men. It was many weeks before he was again able to take an active part in the war. The following description of this affair by General Sherman will, I think, interest my military readers: ‘The enemy's cavalry came down boldly at a charge led by General Forrest in person, breaking through our lines of skirmishers, when the infantry, without cause, threw away their muskets and fled.  The ground was admirably adapted to a defense of infantry against cavalry, being miry and covered with fallen timber. As the regiment of infantry broke, Dickey's cavalry began to discharge their carbines, and fell into disorder.’ A couple of months after the battle of Shiloh, Forrest was sent to command a cavalry brigade at Chattanooga, and bidding good by to his old regiment, set out in June, 1862, for this new sphere of action. Within a month of entering upon this new command he had taken Murfreesboro in Tennessee. It was one of the most remarkable achievements of his life. His force consisted of not more than about two thousand badly-armed men on horseback. A five days march brought him before that place at early dawn — the enemy being in entire ignorance of his presence. Surprised in their camp, and charged in the streets of the town, the place was soon taken. It was Forrest's birthday, and the evening before, when he told his men this, he begged they would celebrate it by their courage. His appeal was not in vain, for they never fought better against greater odds. After the town had fallen, there remained two camps outside in which the Federals still showed fight. Before setting out to attack them many who did not know Forrest regarded this enterprise as rash and doomed to failure; and now several of his officers urged the propriety of being content with what he had already achieved, and begged him to fall back at once with the stores and prisoners he had taken before his retreat could be interfered with. They little realized the fiery temper or the military genius of their new commander, upon whom they pressed this advice. This was the first time his new force, demoralized by previous failures, had seen him in action. They were not yet infected with the fire which burned within him, and he had not yet had time or opportunity to catch hold of their inauguration or their spirit. They had no enthusiasm for this stranger, nor any great confidence in his ability as a general. He was, however, determined they should believe in him before the day was out, as his own regiment had long done. His further operations that day showed a rare mixture of military skill and of what is known by our American cousins as ‘bluff,’ and led to the surrender of the camps attacked. The general in command and one thousand seven hundred infantry were made prisoners, a vast amount of stores were burned, and four field-guns, six hundred horses, many wagons, and a large quantity of arms, ammunition, clothing and food were taken. It was a brilliant success, and as it was his first great  foray, it at once established his reputation as a partisan and as a daring cavalry leader, to be dreaded by commanders of Federal posts and stations within his sphere of action. His raids upon the enemy's lines of communication were frequent and most successful. No rivers stopped him, and any detailed accounts of the railways and valuable military stores he destroyed and the fortified posts he captured would alone fill a volume. His pursuit of Colonel Streight's column for four days and nights in 1863 reads like an exciting novel. It ended in his saving the great arsenal and in the capture of Streight and one thousand seven hundred of his men by the six hundred troopers he then had with him. He took part in General Bragg's retreat from Tennessee, and one day, being with the tail of the rear guard, an excited old lady rushed from her house and, upbraiding him, urged him to turn round and fight. As he took no notice of her entreaties, she shook her fist at him and cried out: ‘Oh, you big, cowardly rascal, I only wish old Forrest was here; he'd make you fight!’ Such was then the public estimation in which he was held. But, as we sometimes find in all armies, his commander-in-chief did not agree with this popular opinion of his merits and ability as a soldier; for, later in the autumn, he was superseded by a very inferior man as a cavalry leader. He forthwith resigned his commission; but, instead of accepting his resignation, the central government promoted him to the rank of major-general, and assigned him to the command of North Mississippi and West Tennessee. There he had to raise, organize, arm and equip an entirely new force. With it he did great things in 1864 against large numbers of well-armed and splendly-equipped Federal cavalry. The cavalry force of about seven thousand men under General Sooy Smith, and belonging to Sherman's army, he completely defeated in a fairly open and prairie country suited for the action of regular cavalry, had either side possessed any. General Sherman officially described Smith's division as composed of ‘the best and most experienced men in the service.’ This part of the campaign had been expressly designed by that general with a view to the capture or destruction of Forrest's force. But Smith was no match for his opponent, who out-generaled him, and the result was the reverse of what Sherman had intended and anticipated. Forrest's force during these operations numbered about three thousand men, one-half of whom were raw and badly-armed recruits. General Grant says: ‘Smith's command  was nearly double that of Forrest, but not equal man to man, for lack of a successful experience, such as Forrest's men had had.’ And yet they were, as soldiers went in this war, well drilled and commanded by a regular officer, whereas Forrest's men knew little more of drill than their general, who, his friends alleged, could not at any time have drilled a company. A small brigade of about seven hundred Kentucky infantry was now handed over to him, but having found horses for these foot soldiers they were thenceforward reckoned as ‘cavalry.’ His little army now consisted of two weak divisions, with which, in 1864, he took Union City, attacked Paducah, had a most successful engagement at Bolivar, and finally captured Fort Pillow. In these operations he inflicted great loss of men, arms, horses and stores upon his enemy, largely reinforced his own command, and refitted it with captured equipments. Repeated efforts were subsequently made by General Sherman to capture or destroy Forrest's apparently ubiquitous force. He several times drew a great cordon of brigades and divisions round him, but all to no purpose; he defeated some and escaped from others. His hairbreath escapes from capture when thus closely surrounded by numerous bodies of troops, each larger in itself than his whole command, read more like the pages of romance than the history of military events. All through his operations one great secret of his success was his intimate knowledge of the enemy's movements and intentions. His campaigns were made in districts where the inhabitants were heart and soul with him, and it was therefore much easier for him than for the Federal generals to obtain useful information. His system of reconnoissance was admirable, and, for the reason just given, he could venture to push his scouts out in twos and threes to very great distances from headquarters. One Federal general was removed from his command at Memphis for having failed to do anything against this now redoubtable commander. Shortly after Forrest himself marched into Memphis, and took possession of the newly-appointed Federal general's uniform, which was found in his room. The disgraced general, in vindication of his own conduct, wittily said: ‘They removed me because I couldn't keep Forrest out of West Tennessee, but my successor couldn't keep him out of his bedroom.’1  It is not my intention to enter here into the much-vexed question of Forrest's dealing with the garrison of Fort Pillow. He reached that place at 9 A. M., the 15th of April, 1864, after a ride of about seventy-two miles since 6 P. M., the previous evening, and having surrounded the place, he duly summoned the commandant to surrender with his garrison as prisoners of war. Negotiations followed, which occupied some time, but led to no result. The signal for assault being then given, the place was quickly taken. There was a heavy loss on both sides, but all things considered, including the intense ill-feeling then existing between the men of Tennessee who fought on one side and those on the other, I do not think the fact that about one-half of the small garrison of a place taken by assault was either killed or wounded evinced any very unusual bloodthirstiness on the part of the assailants. The unexpectedness of this blow, and the heavy loss in killed and wounded it entailed, served much to increase Forrest's reputation as a daring cavalry leader, and to intensify the dread in which his name was held far and near among his enemies. An officer who knew Forrest well gives me the following description of the force under his command about this time: The two friends had breakfasted together on the every-day food of the negro—corn meal and treacle—as they sat side by side on the bank of the Tennessee to watch Forrest's troops pass over that great river. His command then consisted of about ten thousand mounted men, well provided with blankets, shoes and other equipment, everything being legibly stamped with ‘U. S.,’ showing whence he had obtained them. His artillery consisted of sixteen field pieces—also taken from the Northern army—each drawn by eight horses. The train numbered two hundred and fifty wagons, with six mules or horses each, besides fifty four-horse ambulances. He had himself enlisted, equipped, armed, fed, and supplied with ammunition all this force, without any help from his own government. For the two previous years he had drawn absolutely nothing from the quartermasters' or commissariat departments of the Confederate States. Every gun, rifle, wagon and ambulance, and all the clothing, equipment, ammunition and other supplies then with his command he had taken from the Northern armies opposed to him. His was, indeed, a freebooter's force on a large scale, and his motto was borrowed from the old raiders on the Scottish border: ‘I shall never want as long as my neighbor has.’ His defeat of General Sturgis in June, 1864, was a most remarkable achievement, well worth attention by the military student. He  pursued the enemy from the battle for nigh sixty miles, killing numbers all the way. The battle and this long pursuit were all accomplished in the space of thirty hours. When another Federal general was dispatched to try what he could do against this terrible Southerner, the defeated Sturgis was overheard repeating to himself, as he sat ruminating in his hotel, ‘It can't be done, sir; it can't be done!’ Asked what he meant, the reply was, ‘They c-a-n-'t whip old Forrest!’ General Sherman's report, in cipher, of this battle was: ‘He (Forrest) whipped Sturgis fair and square, and now I will put him against A. J. Smith and Mower, and let them try their hand.’ In these operations Forrest was again badly wounded; but, notwithstanding this misfortune, he took the field once more early the fallowing August. Unable to ride, he followed in a buggy. He struck at Sherman's line of communication, tore up railroads, destroyed bridges and viaducts, captured gunboats, burned transports and many millions of dollars worth of stores and supplies of all sorts. Well justified, indeed, was Sherman when he wrote to Grant in November, 1864: ‘That devil Forrest was down about Johnsonville, making havoc among the gunboats and transports.’ He took part in General Hood's disastrous Nashville campaign, and covered the retreat of that general's army from Columbia. This most trying of duties he discharged with his usual daring, ability and success. No man could have done more than he did with the small force then at his disposal. Throughout the winter of 1864-65 everything looked blacker for the Confederacy day by day, until at last all hope faded away and the end came. It was a gallant struggle from the first, and, as it were, a pitched battle between a plucky boy and a full-grown man. The history of both armies abounds in gallant and chivalrous deeds done by men who fought for their respective convictions and from a sincere love of country. If ever England has to fight for her existence, may the same spirit pervade all classes here as that which influenced the men of the United States, both North and South. May we have at the head of our government as wise and far-seeing a patriot as Mr. Lincoln, and, to lead our mounted troops, as able a leader as General Forrest! A man of Forrest's characteristics is only possible in a young and partially-settled territory, where English human nature has been able to show its real solid worth, untrammeled by Old World notions of conventionality and propriety—where men do what they deem right, but not because of laws enacted for the benefit and protection of the community, or of policemen kept to enforce those laws in the maintenance  of order. Acts of cruelty and violence are often perpetrated in a border community, such as that in which Forrest passed his youth. Rough, but, on the whole, fairly even-handed justice is administered, though occasionally the inhabitants take the law into their own hands when the ordinary process of law is deemed too slow in its methods, or those who administer it too weak or too timid to enforce it. But it is a great nursery where the right-minded, able and courageous boy grows into the strong, determined man—into the citizen most suited to the social wants and requirements of the wild and self-willed community he has to live in. Forrest possessed all the best qualities of the Anglo-American frontiersman. He was a man of great self-confidence, self-reliance and reticence; a man of quick resolved and prompt execution, of inexhaustible resource, and of ready and clever expedients. He had all the best instincts of the soldier, and his natural military genius was balanced by sound judgment. He always knew what he wanted, and consequently there was no weakness or uncertainty in his views or intentions, nor in the orders he gave to have those intentions carried out. There was never any languor in that determined heart, nor weariness in that iron body. Panic and fear flew and hid at his approach, and the sound of his cheer gave courage to the weakest heart. It has always seemed to me that the great distinctive difference between men of action, between the great and insignificant, the strong and the limp, is the possession or the lack of determination, and of the energy necessary to make that determination felt at all times and under all circumstances. No amount of talent will make a two-legged creature a real man without it. General Joe Johnston, one of the most celebrated of the Confederate leaders, had a very high opinion of Forrest, and regarded him as one of the ablest soldiers whom the war had produced. He is still often referred to in the South as “the greatest revolutionary leader,” on the Confederate side. And although I for one cannot indorse that opinion, I feel that he was a heaven-born leader of men. An uneducated slave dealer, he achieved great things during the war, and would, I am sure, have achieved far greater had he been trusted earlier and given the command of armies instead of the weak regiments and brigades which for so long were alone confided to him. The war over, Forrest at once recognized the necessity of patriotically accepting the fact that the North had won, and that the South must accept whatever terms the humane Mr. Lincoln might dictate. He published an address to the gallent men who had so long followed  his plume in battle, and who were not only personally devoted to him, but thoroughly believed in him as a skillful and an eminent leader. He reminded his men that the terms granted by Mr. Lincoln were satisfactory, and manifested ‘a spirit of magnanimity and liberality on the part of the Federal authorities.’ ‘Whatever your responsibilities may be to government, to society, or to individuals, meet them like men. The attempt made to establish a separate and independent confederation has failed; but the consciousness of having done your duty faithfully, and to the end, will, in some measure, repay you for the hardships you have undergone.’ The last paragraph of this famous order was as follows: ‘I have never on the field of battle sent you where I was unwilling to go myself; nor would I now advise you to a course which I felt myself unwilling to pursue. You have been good soldiers; you can be good citizens.’ Forrest had fought like a knight-errant for the cause he believed to be that of justice and right. No man who drew the sword for his country in that fratricidal struggle deserved better of her; and as long as the chivalrous deeds of her sons find poets to describe them and fair women to sing of them, the name of this gallant, though lowborn and uneducated general, will be remembered by every Southern State with affection and sincere admiration. A man with such a record needs no ancestry, and his history proves that a general with such a heart and such a military genius as he possessed, can win battles without education. Like most of the planters who had become soldiers, the end of the war found him financially ruined. But with that pluck and energy which characterized every action of his life, he at once set to work to retrieve his fortune. He went back to his plantation, and from it he extracted enough to keep him from want. He also embarked as a contractor upon some of the railways then being pushed over the Western plains, and although he was never rich again, his gains placed him above poverty. He died about twelve years after the close of the war, from the effects of the wound near the spine, which he received at the battle of Shiloh. He had been four times wounded, and had had eighteen horses killed and ten others wounded under him during his four years of war service. What a record! It would be difficult in all history to find a more varied career than his—a man who, from the greatest poverty, without any learning, and by sheer force of character alone, became a great fighting leader of fighting men—a man in whom an extraordinary military instinct  and sound common sense supplied to a very large extent his unfortunate want of military education. When all the disadvantages under which the South fought are duly considered, it is wonderful what her soldiers achieved. But soldiers who believe in themselves and have absolute faith in their leaders are very difficult to beat in war, where success depends so largely upon the firm inner conviction of military superiority over your enemy. Victories gained over him early in a war engender that feeling of self-confidence which is, in fact, the twin brother of success. Little by little this feeling grew in the force under Forrest, and he knew well how to foster it among the wild and restless spirits who followed him.
‘So much the weight of one brave man can do.’His military career teaches us that the genius which makes men great soldiers is not to be measured by any competitive examination in the science or art of war, much less in the ordinary subjects comprised in the education of a gentleman. The reputation of a schoolboy depends greatly upon his knowledge of books, but that of a general upon what he has done when holding independent command in the field. And it is thus we must judge Forrest's claim to military fame. ‘In war,’ said Napoleon, ‘men are nothing; a man is everything.’ And it would be difficult to find a stronger corroboration of this maxim than is to be found in the history of General Forrest's operations.