Nathan Bedford Forrest Emerged as the Civil War’s Most Dreaded Cavalry Commander

This albumen photograph, purportedly the last taken of Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis before his death in 1877, sold for $7,170 at a December 2007 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1980, Frito-Lay made a strategic blunder by entering the Ready-To-Eat (RTE) cookie category where Nabisco, Keebler and a bevy of regional competitors were dominant in supermarkets. In typical Frito-Lay tradition, we went all-in. I built two new bakeries and bought Grandma’s cookies in Oregon and Jacks in Pulaski, Tenn.

Pulaski has the dubious distinction of being the home of the KKK and there were various memorials to one of my favorite Civil War generals, Nathan Bedford Forrest.

NBF was an early member of the Klan and (by some accounts) its first Grand Wizard. However, his daring exploits in the Confederate military bordered on being astonishing. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman described him as “the most remarkable man our Civil War produced … on either side.”

Forrest joined the Confederate States Army as a lowly private after an extremely successful business career as a land owner, cotton grower and slaver. His personal wealth was estimated at $1.5 million, despite being uneducated, but not illiterate. When he was quickly given command of a regiment, the 3rd Tennessee Calvary, they were so poorly equipped that Forrest used his personal wealth to buy horses and equipment for the entire battalion.

Although he also lacked a formal military education, his special talents for horsemanship and tactics earned him the nickname “Wizard of the Saddle.” His exploits in battle were legendary, even in a hotbed of politics and war like Tennessee, where 100,000 joined the Confederacy and 50,000 joined the North.

Forrest’s untutored instincts were characterized by an almost surreal ability to analyze complex situations. At the Battle of Shiloh in 1862, the Confederates were jubilant after the first day of fighting. But NBF warned everyone, “We’ll be whipped like hell in the morning.” He was uncannily correct, as the seesaw battle doomed any hopes that the war would be quickly ended … by either side.

Lieutenant General Forrest ultimately emerged as the war’s most dreaded cavalry commander. In one astonishing raid, he struck Sherman’s supply lines with a vengeance, capturing over 2,300 Union soldiers, seizing 800 horses and wrecking the Tennessee and Albany railroad so thoroughly it took Sherman’s indefatigable crews six weeks to repair it. An incensed Sherman demanded that Forrest “be hunted down and killed even if it cost 10,000 lives and bankrupts the Federal Treasury.”

It never happened.

Forrest is sometimes (erroneously?) quoted as saying, “I git thar fustest with the mostest” in describing his success. Whether or not he used this phrasing, it is a certainty that his command of mobile warfare is still a viable strategy in the 21st century.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Decision by General Lee Averted Nightmare Scenario for Nation

robert-e-lee-signed-carte-de-visite
This signed carte de visite of Confederate General Robert E. Lee sold for nearly $9,000 at a December 2006 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The Civil War was drawing to an end and the first week of April 1865 had been tough on Southern soldiers. After losses at the Battle of Sayler’s Creek, Union General Phil Sheridan wired General Ulysses S. Grant: “If this thing is pressed, I think Lee will surrender.” When President Lincoln read this, he telegraphed Grant, “Let it be pressed!”

On April 7, Grant sent a note to Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In it, he stressed the dire situation of the South and tried to convince Lee that further resistance would only result in more useless “effusion of blood.” If Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia, it could be avoided.

Both Lee and General James Longstreet read the note very carefully and finally decided … “Not yet.”

Lee sent a note back to Grant suggesting the South’s assessment was more optimistic, however, he asked Grant to elaborate on the details of a surrender. There were several more notes, but in the interim, the Confederates held one last War Council before making a decision.

A number of Lee’s top lieutenants decried any surrender, pointing out that Joe Johnston still had his entire army intact, as did Nathan Bedford Forrest in the West and Edmund Kirby Smith and John Mosby in Virginia. More importantly, they could disband into the surrounding countryside. Since they knew the terrain, a full-scale guerilla war could last indefinitely. The North would be forced to eventually give up and go home, even if it took 20 years!

This was the nightmare scenario that Lincoln, Grant and all top military minds had dreaded: a guerilla army of tens of thousands, scattered across the South, living off the land. It would be an impossible war to extinguish completely and the nation would slowly unravel. (We learned a similar lesson in Iraq and are still in the Afghanistan quagmire after 15 years and counting.)

Perhaps in his finest act, General Lee decided the restoration of the United States of America was the right thing to do, despite the bitterness of defeat, after all the sacrifices, and the destruction of their society, economy and culture. Historians credit this one single decision as the most important in the entire war.

Grant and Lee met on April 9 and the terms of surrender were very generous. Confederate officers and enlisted men could take their horses home, all arms and munitions surrendered and all troops were disqualified from the war. At Lee’s request, 25,000 rations were given to the half-starved men. The formal surrender continued for seven hours and at 4:30 p.m., Grant wired U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton a simple message: “General Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia this afternoon on terms proposed by myself.”

Yet for the promise of this day, dire questions remained about the rest of the Confederacy. The war was not over.

More tomorrow.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].