"Tennessee Trails" through Bedford County

Bedford County TN Biographies

Nathan Bedford Forrest
1821 - 1877

Nathan Bedford Forrest was one of a set of twins born in Bedford County, Tenn. on July 13, 1821. He was aptly named for the County in which he was born. He and his twin sister Frances or "Fanny" would be two of twelve children born to William and Mariam Forrest. William supported his family as a blacksmith who had been part of the westward expansion across Tennessee moving from one village to another as opportunity presented itself.

At age of 13, a young N.B. Forrest and his family moved to a small farm in north Mississippi. Three years later, his father died leaving him with the tremendous responsibility of supporting his family. With only the Mississippi hill farm, Forrest began making notable changes in the family’s business affairs and helped his mother scratch out a comfortable living for the family. It wasn’t without tragedy for the Tennessee family. During this time, he had barely survived a typhoid epidemic that ravaged the region and took the lives of three of his siblings, including his twin sister. Forrest recovered from the devastating event and began thinking about his future.

The Tennessean always maintained close ties to his family and watched over them as best he could. The frontier hardships of poverty drove him to work hard and become a successful businessman in order to support his family. He had a few successes in the slave trade and through investments in business and real estate in the region.

With hardly any formal education of his own, Forrest managed to parlay the small Mississippi farm into a plantation outside of Memphis where he became an active member of the community. Forrest developed a natural ability as a leader and held many civic posts throughout his young life. He worked as a law enforcement officer, magistrate, and was elected alderman for the City of Memphis. N.B Forrest was reputed as being one of the most ethical politicians in his day and despised corrupt officials to the point of becoming a target of them. At one point in his terms, Forrest exposed a corruption scandal on the board of aldermen involving the City’s wharf on the Mississippi. The Tennessean had a temper that was legendary and, when those caught in the scandal called his reputation into question, the incident almost ended in bloodshed. The matter, however, was resolved and those involved were removed from the board.

When the State of Tennessee voted on June 8, 1861 to secede from the Union rather than raise troops to invade South Carolina, Forrest joined the thousands of his fellow countrymen and volunteered for duty in the Confederate Army. His ability with horses led him to enlist as a private in White’s Mounted Rifles on June 14. His ability as a leader and soldier quickly brought him to the attention of then-Governor Isham Harris. The forty-year-old private was asked by the Governor to return to Memphis and raise his own regiment.

At his own expense, Forrest organized a detachment and traveled undercover to Louisville, Ky. where he purchased the necessary equipment and supplies to outfit his troops. The brilliance that would start earning Forrest his reputation showed itself in the remarkable ingenuity he exhibited in getting the supplied to Memphis past Federal troops. He was attacked along the way, but 75 Kentuckians, who were monitoring the passage, came to his aid and helped beat off the assault allowing Forrest to pass through unmolested.

In 1862, Forrest got his first taste of battle at Fort Donelson. His men had virtually defeated the Union forces, but, because of the confusion within the Confederate ranks, his Commanders decided to surrender the fort to General Grant. Forrest was appalled by the decision and stated he did not bring his men to the fort to surrender. He quickly gathered his troops and, in pitch-black darkness, crossed the icy Cumberland River and rode towards Nashville.

Forrest joined the command of General Albert Sidney Johnston and led his men in the Battle of Shiloh where he distinguished himself covering the retreat of the Confederate forces to Corinth, Miss. Although painfully wounded in the battle, Forrest kept his composure and drove Union General Sherman’s troops back towards the battlefields of Shiloh. The cavalry leader went on to lead many successful assaults on the Union forces in Middle Tennessee and rose to the rank of brigadier general. His tactics on the battlefield made him regarded as one of the most feared generals in combat. Forrest used his troops creatively and followed a simplistic plan of incorporating infantry tactics with the hard charging cavalry routines that often literally pushed the enemy from the fields of battle.

In 1863, Forrest ventured into East Tennessee where he kept Union troops in check at Knoxville and led his cavalry in the Battle of Chickamauga. Following the Confederate victory that pushed Union troops into retreat towards Chattanooga, Forrest was regrouping for pursuit, but suddenly became angered when General Braxton Bragg called back the pursuit. General Forrest charged into his commander’s tent and stated his opposition to the order saying: "If you were any kind of a man, I would box your ears and dare you to resent it."

With that said, Forrest immediately wired his superiors in Richmond informing them he would not follow another order issued by Bragg and resigned his commission in protest of Bragg’s actions at Chickamauga. President Jefferson Davis, however, refused to accept Forrest’s resignation and, instead, promoted him to major general and handed him command of all cavalry in west Tennessee and north Mississippi.

In November 1864, with Union General Sherman putting the South to the torch in his infamous mach, Forrest and his men were ordered out of Corinth, Miss. and again accomplished what was thought to be impossible. Union supplies were being brought in to a supply depot called Johnsonville, after military governor Andrew Johnson. Gen. Forrest and his men rode to the banks of the Tennessee River near Johnsonville and, from horseback, captured a Union gunboat fleet and destroyed $6 million dollars worth of Union supplies sitting on the docks of Johnsonville. Although Gen. Sherman had advanced enough where the attack had little effect on his "march to the sea", the Johnsonville incident rattled his command. When the wire service reported the unbelievable assault, rumors began spreading throughout America and Gen. Forrest was reportedly sighted in Chicago and Cincinnati rallying pro-Confederate volunteers to his troop. They were just rumors, but Union Generals Grant and Sherman were forced to try and explain to President Lincoln why he was able to accomplish such unbelievable military feats.

Union General Sherman became so frustrated with the Tennessean that he issued an official proclamation saying: "Forrest should be caught and hanged at all costs. Even if it means losing 100,000 men and bankrupts the U.S. Treasury." Confederate authorities were late in seeing what they had in Forrest, but did promote him to lieutenant general in 1865 and gave him command of the entire Confederate forces in the western territories. Although he continued to engage the Union in brilliant fashion on the battlefields, he was finally forced to surrender his command on May 9, 1865– making him the only man in military history to enlist as a private and surrender as a Lieutenant General. Forrest returned to civilian life and tried to rebuild the fortunes he had lost in the war. In the years following the conflict, Forrest fought to overcome the corruption of Reconstruction. Those years became as controversial as his career in the Confederate Army. He lent his name and supported the anti-Reconstruction movement in Tennessee that was first known as "Cuculo" and bastardized into the local vernacular as Ku Klux, which became known as the Ku Klux Clan. The original organization as well as the Red Shirts, the Knights of the White Camelia, and others created in the aftermath of the War Between the States were folded and disbanded. Their targets during their existence had been aimed more at the corrupt Northern whites who were seizing properties and virtually buying local governments to further their own fortunes. N.B. Forrest even testified before Congress that the criminal elements which had infiltrated and commandeered the group were the reasons he fought for its demise.

Nathan Bedford Forrest continued to work and rebuild his fortunes. He was struck with an emaciating illness a couple of years later many have said was diabetes and passed away in his beloved Memphis on Oct. 29, 1877.

Source: Tennessee History Classroom


Confederate general, was born July 13, 1821 to William and Mariam (Beck) Forrest. At the time of his birth he was in Bedford County, Tennessee, but later new lines were drawn, placing his birthplace in Marshall County. His father worked as a blacksmith in Tennessee until 1834, when he moved the family to Mississippi. He died in 1837, leaving the responsibility of the family up to sixteen-year-old Forrest. He work as a farm hand, and a horse and cattle dealer, then moved up to dealing in slave trade and real estate. He grew wealthy from cotton plantations he owned in Mississippi and Arkansas, and in 1845 married Mary Ann Montgomery. In 1849 he moved to Memphis, and was an alderman for a short time. Even though he was not well educated Forrest was considered an extremely intelligent man. Yet this was not evident in his writings because he never learned to spell well, and he wrote with a dialect, using words like mout for might, and fit for fought. It was also thought that he had a talent for math, but never had the opportunity to develop it.

In 1861 Forrest enlisted as a private in the Confederate Army, but after he raised a mounted service battalion and equipped it at his own expense he was named lieutenant-colonel. At Fort Donelson in northwest Tennessee he and his troops fought bravely, and when their leadership proposed surrender he presented another plan. Forrest led 1,500 men through a gap in the line of Union troops, and saved the fort. Afterward he was promoted to colonel. Later Forrest was wounded at the retreat from Shiloh, and in 1862 he was promoted to brigadier-general.

At that point Forrest began the series of calvary raids that made him famous. He consistently led successful raids against Union communications or posts in Tennessee and Kentucky. He even broke up a Union raid against a Confederate post, in which he pursued the Union troops for five days and captured an entire calvary brigade near Rome, Georgia. In 1863 a junior officer, upset about an assignment, shot Forrest and he was assumed to be dead. Then he rose up again and killed the young officer, and recovered in time to play a prominent role in the Chickamauga campaign.

After that battle Forrest got in a serious argument with General Bragg, and Jefferson Davis transferred him to Mississippi, appointing him major-general. Forrest continued his raids, traveling as far north as Paducah, Kentucky. In 1864 he recaptured Fort Pillow on the Mississippi River in Tennessee, and his men proceeded to massacre the black troops stationed there. It is still unclear if the men were acting on their own or if Forrest had ordered the killings. One of Forrest's greatest victories was defeating forces under General Sturgis at Brice's Cross Roads in Mississippi, which were considered to be superior to his. Another battle with General A.J. Smith in Tupelo, Mississippi, was considered by some to be a Union victory, while others call it a draw. Forrest was wounded again in that battle, but he continued to lead, riding in a buggy until he was able to ride a horse. Back in Nashville he was placed in chief command of the Confederate cavalry, and in February of 1865 he was made lieutenant-general. He fought his final battle in Selma, where he was defeated in April of 1865. He surrendered in May, and returned to his cotton plantations. Even though he had a short temper, Forrest was considered to be one of the clearest thinking and strategically brilliant generals of his time. It is said that during his years in the military 29 horses were shot underneath him. After his return Forrest was thought to be involved in the early activities of the Ku Klux Klan, but his association with them apparently did not last long. He served as president of the Selma, Marion and Memphis Railroad for many years, a project which ended in bankruptcy. He died October 29, 1877 in Memphis, Tennessee.
Tennessee Biographical Dictionary By Jan Onofrio

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