Dark shadows: Nathan Bedford Forrest & Fort Pillow, 1864

Considered by many the finest cavalry officer of the American Civil War, Nathan Bedford Forrest was also responsible for one of its worst atrocities. Edmund West examines a troubling legacy.


Nathan Bedford Forrest is remembered as one of the Confederacy’s most brilliant cavalry officers. He was born in 1821 in a log cabin. His father was an illiterate blacksmith, who died when he was 16, leaving him to look after 11 siblings. By the start of the American Civil War in April 1861, he had grown wealthy by selling land, cotton, horses, and slaves. Worth an estimated $1.5 million, he was now one of the richest men in the Confederacy, and the owner of two and a half cotton plantations. Without prior military training, he joined the Confederate army as a private, then raised a cavalry battalion with his own money. By the end of the war in 1865, he had become a lieutenant general commanding the cavalry of the Army of Tennessee – the only person in the war to rise so far in rank.

Nathan Bedford Forrest at the time of the American Civil War. Image: Alamy

Famously tough, Forrest is known today for several reasons. He is reputed to have had 30 horses shot from under him and to have personally killed 31 men in hand-to-hand combat – more than any other Civil War general. ‘I was a horse ahead at the end,’ he reflected of this tally. In February 1862, he refused to surrender his cavalry battalion at the Battle of Fort Donelson, breaking out of the siege headed by Major General Ulysses S Grant, and leading his men to safety across an icy river. Two months later, at Shiloh, one of the war’s major battles, he would lead the last cavalry charge covering the Confederate retreat, even using a Northern soldier as a shield until he was out of sight.

He summed up his military doctrine in just seven words: ‘Get there first with the most men’, and is renowned for his use of such hard-bitten phrases as ‘Put the skeer on ’em’, and ‘Hit ’em on the end’ – in other words, turn the enemy’s fear to your advantage, and surprise them on the flank. He adopted what are known as ‘combined arms’ tactics – using horses for rapid movement, then tying them to trees once they were in position, so that his men could act like infantry. In this way, his cavalry were more like mounted dragoons.

At the Battle of Fort Donelson in February 1862, Forrest refused to surrender to Union forces under Ulysses S Grant. Instead, he broke out of the siege, leading his men to safety across an icy river.
One of the richest men in the Confederacy,
Forrest grew wealthy partly as a result of his
slave-dealing activities.

One of his opponents, the Union Army general William Tecumseh Sherman, said of him: ‘I think Forrest was the most remarkable man our Civil War produced on either side… He had never read a military book in his life, knew nothing about tactics, could not even drill a company, but had a genius of strategy which was original, and to me incomprehensible.’

It seems that the only time Forrest was surprised militarily was at the Battle of Parker’s Cross Roads, Tennessee, on 31 December 1862 – where he was caught while out raiding by two Federal units attacking on each side. This time, he ordered his officers to split up and charge both ways, and again successfully escaped.

But there is a darker shadow that also looms over the reputation of a man described by the journalist Shelby Foote as one of the two ‘authentic geniuses’ produced by the Civil War (the other being Abraham Lincoln). For Nathan Bedford Forrest is also infamous for becoming the first imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and for presiding over an event remembered as one of the bleakest in all American history: the killing of nearly 300 mostly black prisoners at the Battle of Fort Pillow on 12 April 1864. It was a massacre that would prove a catastrophe for the Southern cause.

Fort Pillow

Fort Pillow was built by the Confederates on a bluff above the Mississippi River, 40 miles north of Memphis, Tennessee. It had been abandoned to the North on 4 June 1862. By July 1863, with the fall of Vicksburg and Port Hudson, the North controlled the whole river except for periodic cavalry raids. The fort was protected by six guns, three semicircular trenches and a four-foot-thick, seven-foot-high parapet surrounded by a ditch. It was badly designed, however, as soldiers had to mount the parapet and expose themselves in order to fire on the enemy. The parapet also blocked the fort’s guns from firing at a low angle.

Fort Pillow was garrisoned by 600 Unionist soldiers under the command of Major Lionel F Booth (who had himself arrived only a fortnight earlier). These were divided roughly equally between black troops – mostly ex-slaves belonging to the 6th US Regiment Colored Heavy Artillery and part of the 2nd Colored Light Artillery – and white troops, Unionist Tennesseans from Major William Bradford’s Battalion. Together, they were pitted against around 2,000 Confederate cavalry under Forrest. The fort’s women, children, and sick were evacuated before the battle began.

Forrest arrived at 10am, and surrounded the fort with sharpshooters, one of whom killed Major Booth. Major Bradford took command. By 11am, the Confederates had taken the two barracks on the south side of the fort. At 3.30pm, Forrest wrote: ‘The conduct of the officers and men garrisoning Fort Pillow has been such as to entitle them to being treated as 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.’

Bradford asked for an hour to surrender. Forrest said no more than twenty minutes. Bradford refused.

The Battle of Fort Pillow, on 12 April 1864, saw the massacre of nearly 300 mostly black prisoners, many of whom were bayoneted by Confederate soldiers despite having surrendered.

The Confederates attacked. The first wave entered the ditch while the second used their comrades’ backs to step over the embankment’s ledge, then reached down and helped the first wave up. They went over the embankment, and attacked the garrison, who broke and ran. The defenders had hoped that their US Navy gunboat, the USS New Era, would cover them – but the sailors were pinned down by the Confederate troops and had to close their gun ports. Despite surrendering, most of the garrison were bayoneted by Confederate soldiers, who shouted, ‘No quarter!’

Achilles V Clark, one of Forrest’s sergeants, wrote that: ‘Our men were so exasperated by the Yankees’ threats of no quarter that they gave but little. The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor deluded negros would run up to our men, fall on their knees and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. The white men fared but little better. The fort turned out to be a great slaughter pen. Blood, human blood stood about in pools and brains could have been gathered up in any quantity. I with several others tried to stop the butchery and at one time had partially succeeded but Gen. Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased.’

Forrest himself wrote gleefully in dispatches: ‘The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for two hundred yards. The approximate loss was upward of five hundred killed, but few of the officers escaping. My loss was about twenty killed. It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.’

Forrest wrote in dispatches: ‘The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered’.

Prisoner exchanges

Until August 1863, prisoners in the American Civil War were exchanged as quickly as possible. These exchanges were suspended because the South refused to exchange black prisoners or their white officers. Attempts were being made to restore exchanges when the Fort Pillow Massacre happened. The Union side ended all talks until the Confederates agreed to treat white and black prisoners equally; Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the Confederate States of America, and General Robert E Lee refused point-blank.

This ended up hurting the Confederacy far more than the Union, as the former had a population of just nine million people (including four million slaves), while the latter had 22 million. Far from being a military asset, Forrest may unwittingly have contributed to the Confederacy’s defeat – with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on 9 April 1865 coming barely a year after Fort Pillow. But as Forrest himself put it, in one of his less celebrated utterances: ‘If we ain’t fightin’ to keep slavery, then what the hell are we fightin’ for?’

Ever since the end of the war, ‘Lost Cause’ historians (i.e. those described by the Encyclopaedia Britannica as clinging to ‘a myth that attempts to preserve the honour of the South by casting the Confederate defeat in the best possible light’) have attempted to argue that only a tiny minority of Southerners owned slaves, and that most were small farmers simply fighting to defend their homes. But the evidence against this is overwhelming.

The Southern states left the Union – they were not expelled – and in the war’s first action, it was the Confederates who fired on Fort Sumter. This was not, therefore, a ‘war of Northern aggression’. The census of 1860, meanwhile, shows that while only 0.1% of Southerners owned plantations, a third of white families in the Confederacy owned or rented at least one slave, while the average slave owner had five slaves. In the Confederate army, according to historian James McPherson, half of the officers and a tenth of the soldiers owned slaves (another 25% were from slave-owning families). Southern forces even captured free blacks in their invasion of Pennsylvania and sold them into slavery as ‘contraband of war’, regardless of whether they had ever been slaves.

Forrest had exhibited similar behaviour when he had shot a mixed-race prisoner in the head. The man who died wasn’t even a soldier, but the servant of a captured Union officer.

Andersonville Prison, in south-west Georgia, where 45,000 Federal prisoners were kept in cramped conditions; 13,000 would die of dysentery, scurvy and starvation.

Brice’s Cross Roads

Two months after Fort Pillow, on 10 June 1864, Forrest would win his most celebrated victory at the Battle of Brice’s Cross Roads, 100 miles south-east of Memphis, in northern Mississippi. Here, he had just 3,500 cavalry, pitted against 4,800 infantry and 3,300 cavalry commanded by Brigadier General Samuel Sturgis. The Union infantry division was led by Colonel William L McMillen; the cavalry division by Brigadier General Benjamin Grierson.

Sturgis had been ordered out of Memphis by Sherman to invade northern Mississippi and to distract Forrest from raiding the supply lines of Sherman’s army as it approached Atlanta. For his part, Forrest was heading for the Nashville & Chattanooga railway, when he was forced back to northern Mississippi.

But Forrest realised that the Federal cavalry would arrive long before the infantry, and that the blazing heat would leave them exhausted.

He was right, the first Northern cavalry brigade arrived at 9.45am, and the battle started at 10.30 – three hours before the infantry joined in. The sole Confederate brigade on the scene fought stubbornly for an hour, until the rest of Forrest’s cavalry corps arrived at 11.30 and counter-attacked. When the first Union infantrymen arrived at 1.30pm, they attacked the enemy’s left flank. Forrest counter-attacked on both flanks before the rest of the Northern infantry could arrive, and had his guns pour anti-personnel canister fire at them. Sturgis pulled back to a tighter defensive line around the crossroads.

At 3.30pm, the 2nd Tennessee Cavalry went around the Federal left and tried to take the bridge over Tishomingo Creek, the Northerners’ escape route. Although the Confederates failed to take the bridge, Sturgis ordered retreat; the Union army panicked and ran desperately, trying to get over the bridge. The 55th and 59th United States Colored Troops managed to hold their ground – but the rest were routed all the way back to Memphis, where Sturgis resigned.

The Confederates had fought close to their supply depots, while the Union men had been on half rations, and the infantry had been marching twice as fast to join the cavalry as the battle started. Forrest was right to guess that they would be exhausted and would join the battle in dribs and drabs. The roads were clogged with mud as it had been raining for six days in a row and the horses were starving from lack of fodder. Above all, Forrest was fighting on the defensive, in territory with friendly inhabitants, who told him of Federal troop movements – an advantage denied to his opponents.

By the end of the action, 96 Confederates were dead and 396 wounded – against 223 dead and 394 wounded on the Federal side; Forrest would also take 1,600 prisoners, and capture 18 of the 26 enemy cannon. The Confederate dead were buried at Bethany Cemetery while the Union dead were piled into mass graves. A furious Sherman ordered that: ‘Forrest must be hunted down and killed if it costs 10,000 lives and bankrupts the federal treasury. There will never be peace in Tennessee till Forrest is dead.’

The murder of George W Ashburn, a Republican advocate of Reconstruction, by members of the Ku Klux Klan on 31 March 1868. Forrest was the organisation’s first grand wizard.

As at Fort Pillow, Forrest had routed the enemy – but they were both pyrrhic victories. The failed Northern invasion of Mississippi had distracted Forrest from what he was supposed to be doing: cutting off Sherman’s supply lines and forcing him to retreat from Georgia. This could have been done: Forrest himself had forced Grant to retreat from Mississippi in 1862 by cutting his supply lines. If the fall of Atlanta had been delayed by just two months, Lincoln may have lost his re-election bid in November 1864, and the Confederacy might have won.

Andersonville Prison

Astonishingly, the fifth largest city in the Confederacy was a prison camp at Anderson in south-west Georgia. Of the 45,000 Federal prisoners kept at Andersonville Prison (all white: black prisoners were shot or enslaved, even if they were born free), 13,000 would die of dysentery, scurvy and starvation. It opened in February 1864 and was only meant to hold 10,000 prisoners, but by August, it held 33,000 inmates on a site less than 27 acres, leaving 30 square feet for each prisoner. Barely able to feed their own soldiers, the Confederacy had very little for them. Daily rations were half a pint of cornmeal, three tablespoons of beans, and a teaspoon of salt.

Captain Henry Wirz, the camp’s commandant, forbade the digging of shelters from the blazing sun in case they were used to make escape tunnels. Meanwhile, a horribly misnamed stream called Sweetwater Branch served as the camp’s sewer, bath and drinking fountain. The prison was downstream from the local garrison, who also used it as a latrine.

In 2017, this large equestrian monument to Forrest was removed from Memphis’s Health Sciences Park, a green space which had itself been known as Nathan Bedford Forrest Park until 2013. 

A wooden barrier was erected 19 feet inside the 15-foot stockade. It was called the ‘deadline’, as the guards shot anyone who crossed it. Any escapees were usually caught and placed in the stocks or chained to boulders. They were never flogged though, as that was for slaves.

To make things worse, members of a gang known as the Andersonville Raiders robbed their fellow prisoners of whatever few possessions they had, and traded them with guards. Eventually, a rival vigilante gang known as the Regulators captured the Raiders, and six were hanged.

Final reckoning

It is highly likely that knowledge of the Fort Pillow massacre and the dreadful conditions of Andersonville meant that Union soldiers would fight to the death rather than be captured.

Again and again, the South’s violence would play a role in its undoing. If the Confederate side had accepted the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 instead of seceding from the Union, Southerners would still have had their slaves by 1865 – Lincoln having only pledged to stop slavery’s spread. The Confederates could also have kept their slaves if they had surrendered before 1 January 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation took effect. If Lincoln had not been assassinated on 14 April 1865, Reconstruction and the military occupation of the South would have been far less harsh. And if they had not killed hundreds of black prisoners, they might have had more of their own soldiers available to them via exchanges.

After the war, Henry Wirz, the commandant of Andersonville, became one of only three Southerners executed for war crimes. It could be argued that Nathan Bedford Forrest should have been on the scaffold with him.

Instead, Forrest would go on to become the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), the secret hate organisation which used violence over many decades to maintain white control over formerly enslaved people. In the years following his death in 1877, streets, schools and other public buildings were named in his honour – placing him at the centre of much recent controversy over the place of Confederate monuments in modern American society.

On 1 June 2021, after several Black Lives Matter protests, Forrest’s body was removed from Memphis’s Health Sciences Park – a green space which was itself known as Nathan Bedford Forrest Park until 2013, and from which a large equestrian monument to him had already been removed in 2017. His remains are now buried about 200 miles from Memphis, at the National Confederate Museum at Elm Springs. This is arguably the right place for those who started a civil war to maintain slavery.

Edmund West is a freelance journalist with an MA in History from the University of East Anglia. Since 2008, he has written for MHM, Wired, History Today, and other publications.

All Images: Wikimedia Commons unless stated