The Life of General Nathan Bedford Forrest (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

The Life of General Nathan Bedford Forrest (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Monday, August 26


Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest is perhaps the most compelling and complicated individual that the Civil War brought to prominence. In looking at his life and military career, it quickly becomes obvious that for those who admire him, as well as those who despise him, there is no shortage of ammunition. In The Life of General Nathan Bedford Forrest (1899), John Allan Wyeth, a former Confederate soldier who briefly served under Forrest's command, narrates some of the building blocks of the Forrest legend, from his spectacular string of victories as a brave and gifted soldier to his prominent role in the founding of the Ku Klux Klan.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780760780190
Publisher: Barnes & Noble
Publication date: 08/14/2006
Series: Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading
Pages: 784
Sales rank: 351,022
Product dimensions: 8.20(w) x 5.40(h) x 1.80(d)


In a conflict marked by the oversized personalities and reputations of many of the general officers of both the Confederate and Union armies, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest has been judged by many, from General Robert E. Lee to the historian Shelby Foote, to be one of the few truly great military commanders that the American Civil War produced. His reputation as a fearless soldier and gifted tactician, one who consistently visited defeats on his more numerous and better armed opponents, has made him a revered figure to some. It is equally true, however, that his ruthless, sometimes cruel, treatment of his opponents, including charges that he at least condoned, if not actually ordered, the massacre of African-American Union soldiers after they had surrendered, as well as his role as one of the founders and first Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan (KKK), has led others to label him as a war criminal and an unrepentant racist. What is indisputable is that Forrest emerged from the Civil War as one of its most colorful and controversial figures, one whose reputation evolved in the decades after the South's surrender to near mythical status. The trajectory of his life, from a hardscrabble boyhood through a successful and lucrative career as a slave trader and plantation owner, followed by a spectacular string of victories as a brave and gifted soldier, to his prominent role in the founding of the KKK, an organization he swiftly disowned as a hindrance to what he believed was a highly desirable reconciliation between North and South, marks him as perhaps the most compelling and complicated individuals that the Civil War brought to prominence. In looking at Forrest's life and military career, it quickly becomes obvious that for those who admire him, as well as those who despise him, there is no shortage of ammunition. In The Life of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, first published in 1899, John Allan Wyeth, a former Confederate soldier who briefly served under Forrest's command, narrates some of the building blocks of the Forrest legend. It is a story whose resonance still has considerable power in the debate on race relations in the United States, as witnessed by the continued controversy over the appropriateness of a park, in the center of the heavily African-American populated city of Memphis, that bears Forrest's name and contains both his gravesite and a large equestrian statue of the general in full Confederate uniform.

It is rare for the author of a biography to have led as interesting and accomplished a life as that of his subject, but in John Allan Wyeth, who was by turns a soldier, a medical innovator, a distinguished surgeon, and a prolific author, the exception proves the rule. Wyeth was born in 1845 in Alabama and educated at the Lagrange Military Academy in his home state. At the age of seventeen, in the spring of 1862, Wyeth joined the Confederate Army as a volunteer in Quirk's Scouts, the advance guard of John Hunt Morgan's Confederate cavalry. Wyeth later served as a private in the 4th Alabama Cavalry and took part in several skirmishes and battles, some of them as part of General Nathan Bedford Forrest's command. In October 1863, Wyeth was taken prisoner during a raid on a Union wagon train. Although initially he was treated well by his captors, soldiers of the Tenth Illinois Infantry, Wyeth was subsequently transported to the Union prison at Camp Morton, Indiana. Here he was incarcerated for sixteen months in conditions he later described as ones of deep privation, suffering, and abuse. In this Union camp, thousands of captured Confederate soldiers died of disease, cold, and starvation, all symptoms of the cruelty and neglect that both sides in the Civil War all too frequently displayed towards their prisoners. After the war, however, Wyeth was heavily criticized in the North when he wrote an article in which he detailed his treatment while in Federal captivity and claimed that the suffering he and his fellow prisoners had endured was as great, and as inhumane, as those at the notorious Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, where thousands of Union soldiers also died from privation and abuse.

In early 1865, as the war was entering its final phase, Wyeth, after suffering from a wide variety of illnesses and diseases, including measles, pneumonia, dysentery, typhoid, and malaria, was released as part of a prisoner exchange between the North and South. It was to be two years before Wyeth fully began to regain his health. In 1867, though still suffering from the after-effects of a number of the diseases he had contracted in the prison camp, Wyeth began studying medicine at the University of Louisville, where he graduated in 1869. He subsequently opened his own medical practice in Alabama. Absurd as it seems to modern eyes, his academic and professional progress was standard at that time. Provoked by the catalyst of the death of one of his patients, Wyeth, already believing that his preparations to practice medicine had been woefully inadequate, took the next step and became one of the first American doctors to wholeheartedly embrace the realization that two years at a medical college, with the strictly theoretical training that these types of schools then provided, bore little relationship to the type of education and preparation that was required for doctors to have the necessary training and skills to make the kind of life-and-death decisions that the actual practice of medicine routinely thrust upon them.

By now all too conscious of his own shortcomings as a doctor, Wyeth decided to gain a fuller knowledge of his profession before he treated any more patients. Determined to acquire the finest clinical training available, Wyeth gave up medicine and worked for three years as a riverboat pilot until he could pay the tuition to repeat his undergraduate studies at New York's Bellevue Medical College. After his graduation in 1874, and as he practiced medicine in New York, Wyeth stayed fast to his belief that there was an urgent and vital need for the medical profession to implement a system of post-graduate education and instruction to give doctors the knowledge and skills necessary to practice medicine effectively. To further that aim, in 1882, after several years of practicing medicine and performing surgery, as well as touring a number of the most famous medical centers in Europe to observe their methods and procedures, Wyeth established the New York Polyclinic Medical School and Hospital, the first post-graduate school of medicine in the United States. The new clinic provided, for the first time in America, systematic postgraduate instruction for doctors under the supervision of experienced specialists in a setting that was an integral part of a hospital where practical lessons could be learned and applied. The establishment of the Polyclinic was a major factor in giving impetus to the movement to modernize the teaching and practice of medicine and surgery in the United States. Wyeth developed into a surgeon of great skill, devising operating procedures that saved countless patients the needless suffering that older surgical methods had inflicted on them. Building on such innovations, Wyeth became a successful and prominent surgeon, and wrote a leading surgical textbook, as well as serving as president of both the New York Medical Association and the American Medical Association.

With such a storied and distinguished career behind him, Wyeth still had one last hurrah in him when, in 1917, fifty-six years after he had first donned his gray Confederate uniform, he put on the khaki drab of the American Army and embarked for the Western Front in France as a second lieutenant in the 33rd Division of the American Expeditionary Force. While at the age of seventy-three, Wyeth did not take part in actual combat, his position as a translator and member of the Divisional headquarters frequently brought him close enough to the front to be regularly subjected to shelling and aerial bombing. This experiences led Wyeth to pen poems that recounted his surroundings and to try to capture the experiences of the young soldiers he saw all around him, in particular their attitudes and brutal daily existence. Wyeth even attempted to capture in his literary and well-honed sonnets the harsh jargon and macabre slang of his fellow soldiers in a way that would be relevant and accessible to civilians and soldiers alike. Wyeth's poems, unflinching but restrained, and keenly observant of the horrors of trench warfare, reflect the cool acceptance of pain from a man who had already seen too much suffering in his life, first as a soldier, then as a prisoner of war, and finally as a doctor and surgeon, that he was unsurprised at the new terrors that modern military technology had unleashed on his long-suffering comrades in arms. Despite the advanced age at which he embarked on his second tour of duty as a soldier, Wyeth survived World War I, dying in 1922.

Wyeth's penning his poetry on the Western Front was the culmination of a long and distinguished career as a writer. Together with his vocation as medical innovator and skilled surgeon, Wyeth earned a substantial reputation as a writer. Beyond his surgical textbook and this biography of Forrest, an undertaking to which he devoted years, Wyeth also wrote several books on topics ranging from the history of his alma mater, the La Grange Military Academy, and its corps of cadets, to a history of Oregon, to a large number of articles on a wide range of topics published in such prominent magazines as Century and Harpers. He also wrote an autobiography, With Sabre and Scalpel. The Autobiography of a Soldier and Surgeon (1914).

That Wyeth was both a Confederate cavalry trooper and even briefly served under Forrest's command gave him unique, if not wholly unbiased, insight into General Forrest's campaigns and his conduct during them. Wyeth's own active military service ended when he was captured two weeks after the South's Pyrrhic victory at Chickamauga, where Forrest's dismounted cavalry had fought with great distinction on the right flank of General Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee. When this book first appeared in 1899, it was the first major biography of Forrest to be published. It examined the military career of a Confederate general whose reputation, as both a war hero and someone who, even as the war was still being fought, had been a critic of the very generals that many in the South now held responsible for their defeat, was already revered. Given the personal history of its author, as well as the sensibility of his times, it might have been unrealistic to expect such a biography to be much more than a hagiography of a Southern hero. Wyeth, however, while obviously a partisan of his subject, does make a considerable effort to try to present a balanced assessment of Forrest. Wyeth, however, is not always successful in his attempt at objectivity, and his dismissal of the massacre of African-American Union soldiers during Forrest's capture of the Federal positions at Fort Pillow is particularly unconvincing. Wyeth uncritically repeats what was already the standard Southern apologia of the events at Fort Pillow as merely being the inevitable heavy casualties that were to be expected during particularly intensive combat. Yet it is to Wyeth's credit that, with an attempt at seriousness and evenhandedness that was highly unusual for a Southerner of his time, he does at least touch on and attempt to analyze all of the major controversies that marked Forrest's career.

In his narrative, Wyeth displays his considerable abilities as a compelling storyteller, while at the same time producing a well-written and painstakingly researched record, one that lays out in exacting detail the military aspects of Forrest's campaigns. As the basis of his biography and his detailed descriptions of Forrest's campaigns, Wyeth drew heavily on the contemporary military records and the personal papers of some of the major participants, as well as the accounts of people who served with Forrest and many others who knew him personally. Wyeth's book remains, even today, an invaluable source of primary material on Forrest and his battles. In addition to these primary sources, however, in this book, as in his other accounts of the Civil War, in particular his detailed stories about the hardships he suffered as a prisoner of war, Wyeth draws on the stories and impressions of his fellow enlisted men. It was a methodology for capturing an important aspect of historical memory that was rare among the writers and historians of his period. It was an approach that Wyeth had first adopted when he began his service in the Confederate Army, where he sought to capture his own experiences as a cavalryman and as a prisoner. In his biography of Forrest, Wyeth's attentiveness to the attitudes and activities of his fellow soldiers would enable him to provide some interesting insights into Forrest's character and his campaigns. However, this is not in any way a definitive analysis of Forrest's personality, which later historians deal with in more detail and with greater insight. The type of psychological analysis of motivations and behavior that are such a staple of modern biographical writing were almost wholly unknown to the historians of Wyeth's time. But what this book clearly demonstrates are Forrest's tactical virtuosity and operational brilliance and its narrative serves to reinforce the widely held view that Forrest was one of the best cavalry commanders ever to take the field. Wyeth provides a detailed and carefully written recitation of all of Forrest's many engagements, the actions of his subordinates and their commands, the casualties his troops inflicted and suffered, and the scope of the various operations Forrest embarked upon. Other valuable aspects of the book are the copious footnotes and wealth of references it contains.

And there was a wealth of events and personalities for Wyeth to chronicle. Despite a lack of any formal military training, Nathan Bedford Forrest, who enlisted as a private in the Confederate Army in 1861, went on to become a Lieutenant-General and one of the most daring and successful cavalry commanders of the Civil War. Born in Tennessee in 1821, Forrest had built a successful career as a slave trader and plantation owner and was already a wealthy man when the war broke out. Although he had joined the cavalry as an enlisted man, his great wealth-variously estimated at up to U.S. $1,500,000-meant he was quickly asked by his state's authorities to raise a cavalry unit and equip it at his own expense, a common mustering technique for the South in the early days of the conflict. After arming his troopers, he led his cavalry regiment in skirmishes with a variety of Union troops. Next, the by now Colonel Forrest found himself and his command as part of the Confederate force besieged by U. S. Grant at Fort Donelson. Having rendered distinguished service during the siege, and after a mass Confederate breakout attempt from the besieged fort had failed, Forrest won renown by refusing the instructions of his superiors to accept the unconditional surrender terms Grant had imposed on the garrison. Instead he chose to lead his own command, along with a number of other individual Confederate soldiers who did not wish to enter Union captivity, on a breakout that took them through Grant's lines. It was an action that brought Forrest great public renown throughout the South, even as he struggled with the difficult and unglamorous task of participating in the rearguard of the Confederate army as it retreated from Nashville.

Joining Albert Sidney Johnston's newly organized Army of the Mississipi, Forrest played an important part in the bloody battle at Shiloh, although the brutal face-to-face pounding that characterized the battle gave scant opportunity for the effective use of cavalry and his regiment fought dismounted, finally forming the Confederate's rear guard as the army retreated, having failed repeatedly to break Grant's lines. During the disengagement, Forrest was wounded, although he continued to exercise command until he was sure that the army had gotten away cleanly from the still disorganized Union pursuers. After serving during the siege of Corinth, Forrest was promoted to brigadier general, and he raised a brigade with which he launched a raid that captured the Union base at Murfreesboro, along with its garrison of 2,000 men and large stocks of badly needed supplies. Despite the fact that both armies were now hunkered down in winter quarters, the ever-aggressive Forrest actively probed the Federal front at Nashville, continually raiding and doing damage in order to keep the enemy unbalanced. As 1862 turned to 1863, Forrest continued to harry the Union forces in Western Tennessee with his raids, deprecations that were so successful that they helped force Grant to abandon his campaign in central Mississippi.

But despite his increasing military skill and fame, Forrest proved to be a poor subordinate, headstrong and unwilling to follow orders with which he did not agree. Always serving in the Western theatre, Forrest never had the opportunity to serve under the great Confederate generals, such as Lee or Jackson, who might have garnered his respect and obedience. Instead he served under a succession of commanders whose poor to mediocre performance he was quick to recognize and criticize, and under whose orders he chafed. In what was to become a regular pattern, Forrest clashed with his commanding officer, General Joseph Wheeler, and swore he would never serve under him again after a failed attack on the Union forces at Fort Donelson. And while Forrest continued to score successes on the battlefield, including the capture of a large Union raiding column in the spring of 1863, he continue to attract controversy, as when he was shot and wounded by a disgruntled subordinate, whom he then knifed to death. Recovering from his wound, Forrest commanded with distinction the cavalry on the right wing of the Confederate line at the battle of Chickamauga. Disgusted by the achievement of only a partial victory in a battle he believed should have led to the rout of the Union forces, Forrest again clashed with his superiors, in particular the famously abrasive Confederate commander General Braxton Bragg, a confrontation that became so heated that Forrest threatened to kill Bragg if they ever again crossed paths. After this blow-up, Forrest tried to resign his commission, but his resignation was rejected and instead a compromise was reached that recognized his superb military skills, but which also took account of his willful and truculent character. Forrest was promoted to the rank of major general and given command of the Confederacy's mounted troops in north Mississippi and west Tennessee.

Even with the promotion, the reality was that Forrest had been placed in charge of what, at best, could be described as a shadow command, given the small force of horsemen that was actually available for service. Despite the small force at his command, however, Forrest's orders were expansive, no less than to protect at all costs this vital food-producing area from Union assault. Aggressive local recruitment helped supplement his small force and such was Forrest's confidence that he unhesitatingly shifted from the defensive to the offensive, constantly and successfully skirmishing with much larger Federal forces, resulting in the local Union commander, the always belligerent William T. Sherman, demanding an all-out effort be undertaken to destroy Forrest and his increasingly effective horsemen, by then simply labeled as "Forrest's Cavalry." It was during this period that one of the biggest black marks on Forrest's career occurred when his command stormed and captured Fort Pillow, a Union fortress, resulting in what has subsequently been widely held to be a massacre of the fort's largely African-American garrison. But it was also the time of one of Forrest's greatest victories when, with a force of only 3,200 men, he defeated 8,300 Federals under General Samuel D. Sturgis at Brice's Crossroads. Forrest showed his great tactical skill in this encounter by attacking the head of the straggling Federal column, defeating it, and then routing each successive Union brigade in detail, killing one-third of the Union force and capturing the Federal supply column.

Forrest scored further tactical victories against a succession of Union attacks into middle Tennessee and Mississipi in the fall of 1864, but these successes did little to alter the strategic realities of the situation of the Confederacy in the Western theater. Always the Cinderella of the Confederate Army, the Army of Tennessee constantly found itself starved of resources that went instead to the more famous and more consistently successful Army of Northern Virginia. While Forrest continued to raid successfully behind Union lines, destroying Federal transportation links, capturing garrisons and burning depots throughout Tennessee, the reality was that as Sherman pushed into Georgia, Forrest's cavalry was too weak to stop equally devastating Union raids on the Confederacy's irreplaceable logistical heartland in Alabama and Georgia. After briefly serving under General Hood following the destruction of Atlanta, in the final months of the war Forrest was promoted to lieutenant general and given his final assignment, to defend a front that ran from Decatur in Alabama all the way to the Mississippi. It was just as well that the main Union force largely ignored this area since protecting such a breadth of territory was an impossibility with the small force under his command and Forrest finally surrendered, with a few hundred men, on May 9, 1865, a month after Lee surrendered at Appomattox.

Paroled like other Confederate soldiers, Forrest found himself all but penniless. Despite this setback, his essentially positive nature reasserted itself and he resumed farming, as well as taking a sinecure as the president of the Selma, Marion & Memphis Railroad. Forrest, however, was not content simply to look to his own welfare, and he helped found the Ku Klux Klan shortly after the war, as what he saw as a self-protection force for Southerners ravaged by a brutal army of occupation and their rapacious henchmen, both white and black. Forrest, however, relatively quickly came to the opinion that the widespread and increasingly horrific violence being perpetrated by the masked riders he had helped organize was counter-productive to what he saw as the vital necessity of getting the South back on its feet economically. In 1869, he left the vicious and highly destructive movement he had helped create to others more interested in the racial politics of Reconstruction rather than the economics of rapprochement with the North.

Forrest, despite his all too obvious shortcomings as an individual, remains a much-revered military icon, whose tactics have been copied by everyone from Erwin Rommel to George S. Patton. Forrest himself summed up his entire tactical doctrine in the pithy, though ungrammatical phrase: "Get there firstest, with the mostest." Seizing the advantage, and bringing the maximum force to bear as quickly as possible, remains one of the most important cornerstones of modern military thinking. Forrest, who died in 1877, would recognize his principles at work on many modern battlefields.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

The Life of General Nathan Bedford Forrest (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It's unfortunate that history has been so unkind to NBF. His loose ties to the KKK in its early days have overshadowed his true military genius. Read this book to find out about the man, and then make a judgement. Can't wait to read some newer books with more recently discovered information!
AClarion More than 1 year ago
Great biography that follows the life and times of a misunderstood patriot and warrior. Highly recommended.
Anonymous 3 months ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is well written and uses writtings from several of Forrest's men. This book has become the definitive souce for anyone researching Bedford Forrest. The only shortcomings are that this book was written some time ago and there is newer information that is not included. Check the bibliography of any book on this man and this book will be listed there.