Nathan Bedford Forrest

April 12, 1864: Fort Pillow

Fort Pillow

Northern casualties were more than 63 percent, and the number of black soldiers killed was disproportionately high. There is no doubt there was a massacre of some kind. But I think he (Forrest) did everything he could to stop it. Next day, when the Federals came in and shelled the place, he sent a captured Union captain and a Confederate soldier back with a white flag to tell ‘em to stop shootin’ their own wounded men because that’s all that was left at the fort.

Civil War historian Shelby Foote on Fort Pillow

 

 

Easily the most controversial engagement of the Civil War, the storming of Fort Pillow by forces under Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest and what happened in the aftermath have been hotly contested for the past one hundred and fifty years.  Fort Pillow was a Union fort on the Mississippi 40 miles north of Memphis, Tennessee.  It was garrisoned by around 600 Union troops, equally divided between blacks and whites.  The black units were the 6th United States Regiment Heavy Artillery and the 2nd United States Colored Light Artillery.  The whites were recent recruits of the 14th Tennessee Cavalry consisting of  Tennessee Unionists.  Both groups had every reason to fear falling into Confederate hands.

Forrest, commanding about 1500 men, summoned the garrison to surrender at 3:30 PM:

“The conduct of the officers and men garrisoning Fort Pillow has been such as to entitle them to being treated a prisoners of war. I demand the unconditional surrender of the entire garrison, promising that you shall be treated as prisoners of war. My men have just received a fresh supply of ammunition, and from their present position can easily assault and capture the fort. Should my demand be refused, I cannot be responsible for the fate of your command.”

This was a typical demand for surrender by Forrest, promising good treatment if the force surrendered and indicating that he could not guarantee good treatment if the fort was taken by storm.  This was common practice, with commanders understanding that if a fort was taken by storm it was not unusual for the storming force, maddened by sustaining what they usually perceived as unnecessary casualties, exacting vengeance upon the garrison.  The Union commander refused, and the fort was taken by storm about 5:00 PM. Continue reading

February 22, 1864: Battle of Okolona

Okolona Campaign

It is quite easy to assume that of the many victories won by General Nathan Bedford Forrest during the Civil War, the saddest for him was that of Okolona where his brother Colonel Jeffrey Forrest was killed leading a charge of his brigade.  As General Forrest himself observed:  War means fighting and fighting means killing.

As part of Sherman’s drive to take Meridian, Mississippi, read about that campaign here,  Major General William Sooy Smith led 7,000 cavalry out of Memphis to rendezvous with Sherman at Meridian.  But Smith got off to a late start, and Sherman, waiting for Smith for five days at Meridian, marched out of Meridian on February 20, 1864.  Smith, learning of this, headed back north towards Okolona, Mississippi, pursued by Forrest.  The pursuit was classic Forrest.  Outnumbered three to one, and short of ammunition, it was of course Forrest who was pursuing Smith!    Late on February 20, Forrest skirmished with Smith’s force at Prairie Station and Aberdeen, which hastened Smith’s retreat.

At dawn on February 22, on the prairie south of Okolona, Forrest opened the attack on Smith’s force, which had dismounted and prepared field fortifications.  Forrest’s frontal attack and flank probes quickly cause the Union troopers to retreat, abandoning five cannon.  The Federals reformed on a ridge, where Colonel Forrest received his mortal wound.  Forrest rushed to his brother, and cradling him in his arms cried “Jeffrey! Jeffrey!”.   He then told his adjutant to look after his brother’s body, and led the charge which swept the Union cavalry into headlong retreat, Forrest personally killing three Union soldiers in close combat.  Forrest pursued the retreating Federals for eleven miles.

The defeat was considered a vast humiliation for the Union Army and General Smith resigned from the Army before the year was out.   Here is the report of Forrest on the battle: Continue reading

April 21, 1863: Streight’s Mule Raid Begins

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In reviewing the history of this ill-fated expedition, I am convinced that had we been furnished at Nashville with 800 good horses, instead of poor, young mules, we would have been successful, in spite of all other drawbacks; or if General Dodge had succeeded in detaining Forrest one day longer, we would have been successful, even with our poor outfit.

Colonel Abel Streight

Streight's_Raid_route

One of the more unsuccessful raids of the Civil War, Colonel Abel Streight’s Mule Raid was filled with high drama and low comedy.  Go here for a first rate video presentation of the raid.

A bookseller in Indianapolis at the beginning of the war, Streight was Colonel of the 51rst Indiana Infantry in 1863.  He hit upon the idea of a raid through Northern Alabama.  With Union loyalist Alabamians as guides, Streight planned to drive through Northern Alabama and on into Northern Georgia to destroy the rail hub of the Western & Atlantic Railroad, which would have cripple the ability of the Confederates to supply their forces in Tennessee.  The raid was not intended as a cavalry raid, most of Streight’s force to consist of mounted infantry, their mounts being used for transportation and not to be fought from.  Streight was given command for his raid of a brigade of 1700 men, consisting of  two companies of the First West Tennessee and First Alabama Cavalry regiments, and the Third Ohio, Fifty-First Indiana and Eightieth Illinois Infantry regiments.

Signs that the expedition was ill-fated began when most of the men were mounted on temperamental, is there any other type?, mules.  Riding a mule can be a trial even for a skilled rider, and most of Streight’s men were novices.  Confederates during the expedition had great fun laughing at the “Jackass Cavalry” as Streight’s men were deemed, and Union morale suffered as a result.  The constant braying of the mules made finding the raiders an easy task for the Confederates during the raid, as well as getting on the nerves of their unfortunate riders.  The slow pace of the mules made certain that any Confederate force mounted on horses was going to be much faster.  Streight recognized the problem with the mules from the outset, and objected to them prior to the raid, to no avail.  To make the fiasco complete, about 200 of Streight’s men had no mounts at all at the beginning of the raid. Continue reading

April 3, 1862: Johnston Begins His March to Shiloh

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It is rare for any soldier to attain the rank of general, but Albert Sidney Johnston managed that feat in three armies:  rising from private to brigadier general in the army of the Republic of Texas, brevet brigadier general in the United States Army, and full general in the Confederate States Army.  On April 3, 1862 he led his newly created Army of Mississippi out of the town of Corinth, Mississippi and began the march which would end in the surprise Confederate attack in the early morning of April 6, 1862, the beginning of the two day mammoth battle known to history as Shiloh.

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The battle would result in the death of Johnston, his dying caused probably by his act of mercy in dispatching his personal surgeon to attend a wounded Union officer and none of his remaining staff having the presence of mind to fashion a tourniquet to stanch Johnston’s bleeding after he was wounded, and the fighting would inflict over 23,000 total Union and Confederate casualties, exceeding in two days all of the battlefield casualties in all of America’s wars prior to the Civil War.  Shiloh told the nation, North and South, that this was going to be a very grim war, and that their adversary would fight it with all the strength and will that they could muster.  After Shiloh the myth of a quick victorious war died on both sides. Continue reading

Nathan Bedford Forrest and Racial Reconciliation

 

Easily the most controversial figure in the Civil War, probably the most controversial figure in American history, Nathan Bedford Forrest has always been the subject of fierce debate.  Self-made millionaire who rose from poverty with much of his money made as a slaver trader;  a semi-literate whose tactics and strategies as the most successful cavalry commander of the  Civil War are still studied at military academies around the world;  a brilliant general celebrated by the South and condemned by the North as the perpetrator of a massacre at Fort Pillow;  a man who killed in combat 31 Union soldiers in the War but who after the War constantly had former Union soldiers visit him to shake his hand; and  a racist who helped found the Ku Klux Klan after the War, but who also made a remarkable speech near the end of his life.

In 1875 Forrest was invited to address a meeting of the Independent Order of Pole Bearers, an early black civil rights organization in Memphis, at their Fourth of July barbecue on July 5.  Forrest was told by many whites that he should not accept, but Forrest went.  Just before he spoke he was presented a bouquet of flowers by Miss Flora Lewis, a daughter of one of the members of the Pole Bearers.   Here is Forrest’s speech. Continue reading

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