The Southern general scared the soldiers, Confederates as well as Yankees

July 11, 1993|By Vincent D. Fitzpatrick

NATHAN BEDFORD FORREST:

A BIOGRAPHY

Jack Hurst

Knopf

434 pages; $30

"War means fightin,' " Nathan Bedford Forrest remarked memorably, "and fightin' means killin.' " Commanding the Seventh Tennessee Cavalry in the western theater during the Civil War, Forrest was wounded several times and captured about 31,000 prisoners. He estimated that he killed 30 men himself. A fellow Confederate likened Forrest to a "panther springing upon its prey," and many Yankees feared him as the devil incarnate. "Get 'em skeered," was how he explained his strategy, in characteristically homespun English, "and then keep the skeer on 'em."

This man of huge personal courage, inventiveness and baffling unpredictability seemed to have been born for war. He called his career "a battle from the start." He was the only soldier in either the Union or the Confederacy to enlist as a private and rise to lieutenant general.

He was never beaten in a battle in which he commanded the field. Moreover, he proved the last Confederate commander east of the Mississippi to surrender -- the month after the epic meeting between Lee and Grant at Appomattox CourtHouse in April 1865. As General W. T. Sherman approached Atlanta, he worried far more about Forrest in his rear than about Gen. Joseph Johnston's much larger forces in his front. Sherman acknowledged Forrest's "genius for strategy" and called his foe "the most remarkable man" of the Civil War.

On the other hand, Forrest was patently flawed, beyond argument one of the most controversial 19th-century Americans. Before the war, he made his living in part as a slave trader. During the spring of 1864, at the Battle of Fort Pillow in Western Tennessee, there were charges that he slaughtered black and white soldiers who tried to surrender. The Federal press vilified him as the "Butcher Forrest." He denied the charges repeatedly, but this accusation followed him to his grave.

He threatened to "shoot any man who won't fight," and some of his troops feared him more than they did the Federals. One subordinate objected to serving under this "tyrannical, hotheaded vulgarian." He ignored orders during battle, chafed under criticism and more than once insulted his commanders. He called the cautious Braxton Bragg a "coward." After the debacle at Harrisburg, Miss., in 1864, the self-taught Forrest told General S. D. Lee that "if I knew as much about West Point tactics as you, the Yankees would whip hell out of me every day."

After the war, this celebrated "Wizard of the Saddle" degenerated into the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. During Reconstruction, which Forrest and many other Southerners viewed as a grotesque misnomer, he explained that his quarrel was not with blacks but rather with radical Republicans, whom he scorned as "the worst men on God's earth." Even now, there are demands that statues of Forrest be removed from public places in his native Tennessee.

Jack Hurst, a Tennessean currently serving as a syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune, provides a thoroughly

researched, judicious assessment of a thorny, enigmatic subject. The longest of the book's five sections details Forrest's activities during the war. This will, I fear, prove a bit confusing to general readers unfamiliar with the fighting in the West. A chronology would have helped here, as would additional battle maps. At times, the narrative is clotted by excessive quotation, and on occasion Mr. Hurst interrupts the story to argue with previous scholars.

Far more important, however, the author moves knowledgeably among the many charges and countercharges accompanying this controversial career. "Nathan Bedford Forrest requires no apologists," Mr. Hurst explains, and the volume occupies the sensible middle ground between adulation and debunking. Much his credit, the author avoids "presentism" -- judging characters of the past by the values of the present. While acknowledging that Forrest's mistakes were "titanic," Mr. Hurst evaluates his subject "by the lights of his time and place." This is hardly an

easy task for someone writing during a fiercely egalitarian and politically correct age.

Portions of this volume resonate with the American myth of the frontier hero. Born in a log cabin southeast of Nashville, Forrest saw five siblings killed by typhoid and, at age 16, witnessed the death of his father. He had little formal education and admitted, "I never see a pen but what I think of a snake." This self-made man amassed a considerable personal fortune, gained enduring fame on the battlefield, and even acquired a seat at the 1868 Democratic National Convention in New York.

However, the biography's final section, fittingly entitled "Penitent," tells a different, poignant tale of repentance and retribution. Forrest's rage had passed, and religion replaced materialism. He renounced the Klan, honored the graves of the Union dead and called for national unity. "I have seen too much of violence," he decided. "I am the fool that built on sand," Forrest told an acquaintance.

He worked as a sharecropper on land he once owned and spent his final years in another log cabin. He suffered greatly from stomach and intestinal problems. When he died in 1877 at age 56, 500 black Americans came to view the body in one day. This huge, fierce man who had terrified the Union the decade before weighed a little more than 100 pounds.

Mr. Fitzpatrick lives in Baltimore. He is the author of "H. L. Mencken" and co-author of "The Complete Sentence Workout Book."

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