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].

After Civil War, Challenge Was Putting Pieces of Nation Back Together

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A set of four cartes de visite of William Tecumseh Sherman, including this image of the general posed like Napoleon, sold for $2,868 at a December 2006 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

After Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, the issue of the remaining Confederate armies was now only a question of time. However, the next anticipated surrender of General Joe Johnston and his army of 22,000 soldiers did not go smoothly.

On April 14, General William Tecumseh Sherman received a surprise communique from Johnston asking for a meeting to discuss terms for “exterminating the existing war.” This was a relief for Sherman since he had been concerned about a “guerilla war” and knew how Spain had foiled Napoleon using similar tactics.

Sherman answered immediately and suggested they meet on April 17 halfway between their two armies. However, tragedy struck before the meeting when President Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre. When Sherman received the news via coded message, he quickly realized this could escalate into a major disaster. Lincoln’s death was calamitous per se, but it also had the potential to plunge the North into a vengeful bloodbath against a prostrated and fearful South. They would, in turn, fight back the only way they had left: chaos, disorder and continued violence. The war could drag out for a long time.

To Sherman it seemed imperative that he reach a prompt accommodation with Johnston and quell any acts of vengeance.

When they finally met, Sherman had apparently misunderstood the limits of his authority. He offered overly generous terms to Johnston and Confederate States Secretary of War John Breckinridge (who had been vice president for President James Buchanan pre-War). Then all hell broke loose in Washington, D.C., when new President Andrew Johnson and his cabinet learned the conditions of surrender. They canceled the armistice, ordered Sherman to resume hostilities and dispatched Grant to modify the terms of surrender.

Fortunately, there was no more fighting and Grant was able to effect the formal surrender. Sherman was infuriated, primarily because Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had insulted him and questioned his motives and loyalty. Things quieted down, but Sherman and Stanton were bitter enemies for the rest of their lives.

Now all that was left to do was to put all the pieces of the nation back together. Some cynics think this work is still under way.

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].

After Civil War, Centralization of Government Changed Fabric of Society

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This Texas Confederate “Bonnie Blue” flag, carried by the 3rd Texas State Cavalry, is one of the rarest Confederate flags in existence. It realized $47,800 at a June 2007 Heritage auction

By Jim O’Neal

On May 10, 1865, President Andrew Johnson announced that armed resistance to the federal government had officially ended. However, on May 12-13 in the Battle of Palmito Ranch, a modest force of several hundred Union cavalry attacked a Confederate outpost on the banks of the Rio Grande, 12 miles from Brownsville, Texas.

Confederate troops had done nothing to break an unofficial truce with the Union forces, but after two days of fighting, they forced Union soldiers to first withdraw and then retreat. The skirmish is generally recognized as the final battle of the Civil War.

Before all the Union Army went home, there was a Grand Review in Washington on May 23-24 when Johnson and General Ulysses S. Grant watched the march of the triumphant Union armies down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol. This great procession of 150,000 men would take two full days, while thousands hoisted flags, hummed patriotic songs and showered the troops with flowers. Here was the titanic armada of the United States, the mightiest concentration of power in history. The first day was dominated by the Army of the Potomac, Washington’s own army. At 9 sharp the next day, General William Tecumseh Sherman’s great army took its turn. They were sunburned and shaggy in stark contrast to the crisp and well-kept group from the previous day.

The demobilization was completed very effectively. Within two months, more than 600,000 troops had been discharged and a year later, the million-man army was down to a mere 65,000 men. Further, the number of warships was reduced from 500 to 117 by the end of 1865. Thus, the armed forces did not remain a permanent power and the mustered-out military readjusted to civilian life quite easily. This was much different from those returning from World War II or Vietnam, or the 3 to 4 million still rotating from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria (some on their fifth and sixth deployments in this l-o-n-g war).

Still, life after the Civil War was profoundly different. Aside from the human carnage and dismal impoverishment of the South, the centralization of the government changed the fabric of society. Until 1861, the only direct contact with the federal government was usually the postal service. Now, the War Department controlled state militias, direct taxes were imposed, national banking instituted, and federal money printed or minted.

The most radical change was naturally in the South. All seceded states were under martial law, an occupation force maintained law and order, and 4 million blacks were neither slaves nor citizens. The North imposed no organized vengeance; no Confederates were tried for treason – the only Southern war criminal was Henry Wirz, commander of the prisoner-of-war camp near Andersonville, Georgia, who was hanged in November 1865. And a military court dispensed swift justice to the Abraham Lincoln assassination conspirators, with four hanged at the Old Penitentiary on July 7.

However, reconstruction of the pre-war Union of the United States was under way and Lincoln’s most fervent prayer – reunification – finally a reality despite the horrendous loss of life involved. Peace had been restored.

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].

Hitler Used Unrest to Decimate Rivals, Set Europe On Path to War

By 1941, Adolf Hitler (“The Mad Merchant of Hate”) and his Axis allies occupied most of Europe and North Africa. This copy of Daredevil Comics #1 (Lev Gleason, 1941) sold for $41,825 at an August 2007 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On June 28, 1919 – exactly five years after Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand – Germany reluctantly signed the Treaty of Versailles that ended their participation in World War I. The terms of the treaty were so punitive that the German people were stunned. After all, the treaty had been signed without any of their borders being crossed and many believed the army had been betrayed by politicians. There was even talk of restarting the war as crowds demonstrated in the streets.

The treaty was a long, extensive document that included extraordinarily high reparations (the “War Guilt” clause) covering everything from lost farmland to veteran pensions and anything in between. The French were especially eager to punish the Germans since over 1 million Frenchmen had been killed, mostly within their country. However, the Allies were also vindictive and determined to render Germany incapable of ever starting another war.

The German delegation had attempted to mitigate the harsh terms with a 400-plus page counter-proposal, but it was a futile effort and they were forced to accept the Allies’ conditions verbatim. What had been intended to cease all hostilities, ironically, merely extended them by the crushing burden imposed on the German people.

The implications turned out to be significant.

For the next two to three decades, Germans harbored deep resentment over such an unfair agreement and were susceptible to radical ideas for revenge. Further, the slowing European economies made everyday life difficult for broad swaths of people everywhere. Extremist fascist and communist ideologies seemed to offer solutions to national problems in Spain, Italy and Russia.

The National Socialist (or Nazi) Party was founded in Germany with racism as a formal guiding principle. The gradual disintegration of formal government structures cleared the way for Adolf Hitler to become chancellor. In 1933, when fire broke out at the Reichstag – the German parliament building – Hitler claimed it was a communist plot. This was all he needed as an excuse to decimate his rivals, assume an absolute dictatorship and set Europe back on the path to war.

However, it was the seeds that were planted in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles that sprouted into the conflagration that would become another war. Sadly, the whole world again would join the war, and we still bear the scars of our involvement.

William Tecumseh Sherman was right when he declared that war is hell, a lesson that every generation seems to need to learn for themselves.

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].

By Making War as Harsh as Possible, Sherman Waged Battle on Minds of the South

This albumen photograph of “Sherman and his Generals,” published by Matthew Brady in 1865, realized $4,182.50 at a December 2006 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

“Well, you might as well attempt to put out the flames of a burning house with a squirt gun!”

This was William Tecumseh Sherman’s sarcastic reaction to President Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation on April 15, 1861, for 75,000 three-month volunteers to quell the secession of Southern states from the Union.

Exactly four years later on April 15, 1865, Lincoln would be among the last of the 620,000 to die attempting to stop the war of secession.

Sherman had earlier warned: “You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization …” He thus very accurately described the four years of hell that would rain down on the United States as the country descended into war.

For several generations of Americans, and probably yet today, the name William Tecumseh Sherman would conjure up fear and pure hatred, especially among those familiar with his famous March to the Sea. Also known as the Savannah Campaign, it started after the burning of Atlanta (so vividly depicted in Gone With the Wind) and lasted from Nov. 15 to Dec. 21, 1864. It was viewed as an act of savage brutality, with burning cities, ransacked plantations and terror-stricken women and children.

But it did help to bring the senseless war to an earlier end.

By forcing non-combatants to feel the “hard hand of war” and making the war as harsh as possible, it succeeded in undermining Confederate morale, triggered a wave of desertions and proved to the rebels their cause was hopeless and unwinnable. By using war against the minds of his opponents, the fear Sherman created was more powerful than his acts of destruction. The Confederacy was to be no more.

On Dec. 25, 1864, Sherman telegraphed Lincoln: “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns and plenty of ammunition and about 25,000 bales of cotton.”

A few weeks after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Southern General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered his three armies to Sherman at Bennett Place near Durham, N.C. The fighting would soon come to an end.

Sherman had succeeded Grant as Commander of the Western Front and when Grant became president, Sherman became Commanding General of the Army. When asked about his relationship with Grant, Sherman famously said, “General Grant was a great General. He stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk. And sir, we will stand by each other forever.”

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].

James Garfield Unique Among American Presidents

This autographed James Garfield cabinet card, dated a month before the president’s assassination, realized nearly $4,500 at a June 2010 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

James Garfield was the last of the Log Cabin Presidents (meaning he was born in one), and in 1880 he was simultaneously a member of the House, a senator-elect and the president-elect. He remains the only person to ever have this unique distinction.

However, he had not gone to the 1880 Republican convention seeking the nomination. Instead, his specific intent was to nominate John Sherman, who was President Rutherford B. Hayes’ Secretary of the Treasury. In fact, Garfield made the formal nominating speech and waited while Ulysses S. Grant and James G. Blaine battled it out. After 35 ballots, Garfield himself became the consensus candidate … and then won the election.

Sherman was eager to become president, but after three failed attempts he gave up. His brother was William Tecumseh Sherman, the general who made the famous “March to the Sea” from Atlanta to Savannah in a scorched earth (total war) campaign that was devastating to Georgia and the Confederacy. His telegram to Abraham Lincoln on Dec. 25, 1864 – “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah …” – was literally the death knell of the Confederacy and ended the Civil War four months later.

General Sherman was far less political than his brother and at the 1884 convention declared if drafted he would not run; if nominated he would not accept; and if elected he would not serve. We still hear variations of this declaration yet today some 130 years later.

P.S. Garfield was ambidextrous and could write Latin with one hand while writing Greek with the other. Since he favored his left, he is considered the first left-handed president.

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].