Our Confederate Ancestors: A Year with Forrest, by Rev. W. H. Whitsitt, Part One

A Series on the Daring Exploits of Our Confederate Ancestors in the War Between the States.

There were two brigades of infantry close at hand, numbering in all about five thousand men, and the country swarmed with cavalry, but these did not count for much. The Northern generals still proceeded on the sleepy idea that it is the main function of cavalry to serve as eyes and ears for infantry. Forrest had gotten beyond that standpoint long before, and no cavalry trained upon the ancient maxims was able to stand against us.

Part One of
A Year with Forrest

Address by Rev. W. H. Whitsitt, D.D., before R. E. Lee Camp, Confederate Veterans, of Richmond, Va., in Confederate Veteran magazine, Vol. XXV, No. 8, August, 1917.


[Publisher's Note, by Gene Kizer, Jr. : Rev. Whitsitt's address recounts a year with Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest mostly in Tennessee and often around the area of SCV national headquarters at Elm Springs in Columbia, Tennessee where Gen. Forrest and his wife, Mary Ann Montgomery Forrest, will be laid to rest in a little over a week.

We are blessed to have one of the greatest cavalry soldiers of all time and his beloved wife back home with us, inspiring us now as he did his compatriots during the war. It is as if Forrest is once again commanding Confederates, charging into the enemy, winning battles, except it is our honor to do so today.

SCV members should pilgrimage every year to Elm Springs and other inspiring places and come away determined to spread the true history of the South far and wide, and obliterate our woke, ignorant enemies.

A good way to celebrate the return of Gen. Forrest and his wife to those who love them, is with the powerful words of another Tennessean, Edward Ward Carmack (1858-1908), in his "Pledge to the South." Carmack was a United States senator from Tennessee and before that a member of the House of Representatives. These words were spoken on the floor of the House:

The South is a land that has known sorrows; It is a land that has broken the ashen crust and moistened it with tears; A land scarred and riven by the plowshare of war and billowed with the graves of her dead; But a land of legend, a land of song, a land of hallowed and heroic memories. To that land every drop of my blood, every fibre of my being, every pulsation of my heart, is consecrated forever. I was born of her womb; I was nurtured at her breast; And when my last hour shall come, I pray God that I may be pillowed upon her bosom and rocked to sleep within her tender and encircling arms.

The Latin phrase, gaudium certaminis, is mentioned in this article and it means "the joy of battle" which describes That Devil Forrest and his Confederate compatriots to the letter.]

Part One of
A Year with Forrest
by Rev. W. H. Whitsitt

I JOINED THE ARMY at Winchester, Tenn., the latter part of April, 1862. Having taken my only sister to school at that place in the autumn of 1861, after the battle of Shiloh I decided to visit her; so about the middle of April I went to Murfreesboro, where the Federal lines were established.

I stopped with Prof. George W. Jarman, who the net morning took me to a lonely spot on the bank of Stone's River, where I took off my boots and small clothes and waded the stream. Replacing them on the farther shore, I waved mute thanks and farewells to my guide and friend and took my way on foot to Winchester, avoiding the turnpikes and traversing the entire distance of sixty miles by dirt roads.

I met at Winchester the cavalry battalion of Col. James W. Starnes, which had just come over from Chattanooga on a scouting expedition, and found a vacant saddle in Company F of this command.

Company F had been raised in the beginning by Starnes, who commanded it until he was promoted to the office of lieutenant colonel and put in charge of the battalion, when he was succeeded in office by Captain McLemore.

The men were recruited in the vicinity of Franklin, eighteen miles south of Nashville, where I was brought up, and I had been acquainted with a number of them in their homes. It was a choice body of troopers, most of them coming from families of wealth, position, and culture. It would have been difficult to have selected in either army a company possessing nobler blood and truer breeding than Company F.

Not long after my connection with it the period of one year for which the battalion originally enlisted ran out, and they enlisted again for three years, or during the war, and were then reorganized as a regiment, Starnes being chosen as full colonel. The following notice of Colonel Starnes is selected from many others found in the biography of General Forrest by Dr. Wyeth:

This man was James W. Starnes, who signally distinguished himself on that occasion and had won the lasting regard and friendship of Forrest, a friendship which endured until at Tullahoma in 1863 the leaden messenger of death brought to an untimely end a career full of the promise of great deeds in war. A new regiment was now organized, with Starnes as colonel, and took its place with Forrest as the 4th Tennessee Cavalry. It was destined to become famous and to sustain throughout the war the reputation it was soon to win west of the Tennessee, ending its career in a blaze of glory in a brilliant charge at Bentonville, N. C., in the last pitched battle of the Civil War.

This estimate of the importance and services of the regiment is not overdrawn. The 4th Tennessee Cavalry was the finest fighting machine I ever saw on horseback.

Our armament at the outset was something pitiful to behold. Nearly the entire command were provided with muzzle-loading, double-barreled shotguns. There were scarcely thirty long-range rifles in the regiment.

The shotguns were fowling pieces that had been contributed by gentlemen in the practice of hunting birds and other game. They were loaded with buckshot and at short range constituted a most effective weapon, but at the distance of two hundred yards they were worse than useless.

This weapon imposed a peculiar sort of tactics upon the Southern cavalry during the first year of the war. Fighting on foot, which subsequently became almost universal in the cavalry service, was rare at this time.

It was the custom during the first year to charge up to a point within twenty yards of the enemy's line and to deliver the two loads of buckshot. Then those who were fortunate enough to own pistols went to work with these, while the others would load their pieces for two rounds more.

But matters hardly ever got to that point. The enemy were generally thrown into disorder by the first two rounds of buckshot. It was a favorite expedient to march all night and at the earliest dawn of day to line up before a camp of infantry and deliver a couple of charges of buckshot into the tents before anybody could wake up. But if the camp was large, the men on the opposite side of it would grasp their long-range guns and drive off the cavalry without much trouble. Indeed, it was a part of the game to run away when the long-range guns were brought into full operation.

The month of June, 1862, was a gloomy period, but the operations of Jackson in the Valley of Virginia and of Lee and Jackson in the Seven Days' battles around Richmond gave sensible relief.

The whole State of Tennessee had previously been imperiled. It seemed difficult to prevent the capture of Chattanooga and even of Knoxville, but shortly afterwards the whole scene had changed. Kirby Smith was preparing to invade Kentucky, and the regiment of Colonel Starnes was moved up to the vicinity of Cumberland Gap, where they scouted the adjacent country in Tennessee and Virginia.

At the opportune moment, when roasting ears were in season, we entered Kentucky at Big Creek Gap and marched upon Richmond. Our regiment was placed in a brigade commanded by Colonel Scott, of Scott's Louisiana Cavalry, and took an active part in the battle of Richmond.

When the defeat of the enemy's infantry appeared to be certain, we were sent to take a position on the turnpike leading from Richmond to Lexington, along which we found the enemy retreating in much confusion.

They commonly surrendered without parley; but on passing through a dense cornfield just before we reached the main road we encountered a party who made resistance and shot through the neck my messmate and close friend, Private James Powell, killing him on the spot.

The weather was intensely warm; but we were not allowed to cease pursuit until we had taken Lexington, Frankfort, Shelbyville, and were in the neighborhood of Louisville.

The soldiers were hopeful and contented as long as they were kept engaged. But after the earliest spurt of energy General Smith seemed to require a season of rest. We did not understand all the details, but we felt that there was need of more activity. Finally it was announced that General Buell had entered Louisville without a pitched battle with Bragg.

It was a special mercy for us that General Buell was not more vigorous and successful in the military art. If he had been a genuine soldier, we might have had some trouble getting out of Kentucky; but after delivering battle at Perryville we got off very light and made good our escape to Tennessee.

Our brigade did not arrive in time to share in the conflict at Perryville; but we covered the retreat for a day or two, and then our regiment was ordered to report to General Forrest at Murfreesboro, the bulk of the army having traveled by way of Cumberland Gap to Knoxville, thence by rail to Chattanooga and Murfreesboro.

When we found General Forrest, he had a handful of raw troops with which he was trying to take Nashville, then held by a garrison of ten thousand infantry commanded by General Negley.

I first saw him about the 1st of November, 1862, when I was ordered to report at headquarters for service as a guide, and I rode with him all day and between the Nolensville and Granny White Pikes. It was my first experience of the grave responsibility of acting as guide for a considerable body of troops.

General Negley was short of provisions and on that day had led a large force out the Franklin Pine as far as Brentwood to replenish his depleted stores.

On this day I got my first conceptions of the gaudium certaminis. It was in Forrest a genuine and extraordinary passion. The whole tone and frame of the man were transformed; his appearance and even his voice were changed. It was a singular exaltation, which, however, appeared to leave him in absolute control of his faculties. He was never more sane nor more cool nor more terrible than in the moment of doubtful issue.

We camped that night at Nolensville, twelve miles away, and were in the saddle almost daily for a week entertaining the garrison at Nashville and trying to worry them into submission before relief might appear.

We had lost our shotguns in Kentucky and were now armed with Enfield rifles, and henceforth fought chiefly as infantry.

Forrest always like to charge on horseback, but he had an unerring judgment in selecting the psychological moment for such an entertainment. He always sent one of his trustiest officers to assail the enemy in the rear, and at the earliest signs of disorder in their ranks he was glad to ride amongst them.

He had likely never studied any maxims of war, but he seemed as if by instinct to understand the value of sending a force to the rear and adopted that method even in this initial fight at Sacramento, Ky.

In the fight at Murfreesboro, in July, 1862, he had also adopted the policy of beating the enemy in detail. He was swift in movement, fierce in assault, and persistent in pursuit. He had not obtained these secrets from Caesar's commentaries; they must have come to him by instinct. He was a born soldier, not made.

If by any possibility he could have succeeded Albert Sidney Johnson at Shiloh, the war in the West might have run a different course. But the government at Richmond never took him seriously until it was too late, and one of the greatest natural masters of the military art was buffeted by outrageous fortune almost to the wrecking of his career and to the entire destruction of his country's hopes.

He was no bully nor barbarian, but a gentleman of such admirable presence that he would be observed among a thousand.

But when the passion of battle was upon him, he was the most inspiring figure in the army.

In religion he was deeply devoted to the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and a regular attendant, but I am not sure that he was a communicant. His veneration of his mother's religion and his wife's religion was beautiful to witness, and the Rev. Herschel S. Porter, pastor of the Cumberland Church in Memphis, was his standard of excellent in pulpit performance.

In the opening skirmish at Nashville I found Capt. Samuel L. Freeman, who had been one of my teachers at Mill Creek Academy, on my mother's farm, and later at Mount Juliet Academy, near Lebanon. Just prior to the war he had entered upon the practice of the law in Nashville.

In the autumn of 1861 Freeman raised a company of artillery and on departing for the camps intrusted to me his law library, with the request that I should keep it safe till he returned to claim it.

About noon the General rode up to Freeman's Battery, which at the moment was engaged in a lively duel with Negley's Artillery, and there I greeted my beloved master, six feet in height, a type of friendly dignity, shy, womanly modesty, reposeful courage--every inch a soldier.

In due time we were recalled from Nashville to Murfreesboro, whence we were ordered to Columbia, in Maury County, where Gen. Earl Van Dorn was placed in command of us.

Toward the middle of December we set out for the Tennessee River, and crossing it at Clifton, we commenced operation in West Tennessee with the purpose of crippling Grant, who was then pressing against Vicksburg, and also to prevent him from sending help to Rosecrans to Stone's River.

We had less than two thousand troopers and Captain Freeman's battery of artillery. I was never sensible of the perils of that expedition until I read an account of it in Dr. Wyeth's history of Forrest.

We crossed about the 16th of December, and immediately all the great resources of the enemy were brought to bear to capture us.

The first town we struck was Lexington, where we captured Colonel Ingersoll, of Illinois; but he had not then become famous, and we made nothing of him.

We made a feint against Jackson and after driving the enemy within his intrenchments worked upon the railroads and burned many bridges to the north--south of the town.

We captured Humboldt, Trenton, Union City, and other places of smaller note.

But the problem of recrossing the Tennessee River was ever before us. It was patrolled by gunboats, but Forrest had sunk his two small ferryboats in a secluded spot where no gunboat could find them and had left a guard to watch them.

On the 27th of December we became aware that forces were converging from every direction to assault us.

There were two brigades of infantry close at hand, numbering in all about five thousand men, and the country swarmed with cavalry, but these did not count for much. The Northern generals still proceeded on the sleepy idea that it is the main function of cavalry to serve as eyes and ears for infantry. Forrest had gotten beyond that standpoint long before, and no cavalry trained upon the ancient maxims was able to stand against us.

Instead of moving immediately back to Clifton, raising the sunken ferryboats, and recrossing the Tennessee, Forrest, holding apposition between these two infantry brigades, concluded to attack and capture one of them before the other could come up in his rear, and take them home with him as prisoners of war.

It was a daring conception, but he considered that he was equal to it, notwithstanding the fact that Gen. G. M. Dodge, with  two other full brigades of infantry and some cavalry, was taking position between him and Clifton.

We attacked Dunam's Brigade at Parker's Crossroads by sunrise of December 31, 1862, hoping to beat and crush it before any of Fuller's Brigade might arrive on the ground.

We had done the work for Dunham by twelve o'clock, but Fuller just then closed in on our rear. In thirty minutes the surrender would have been completed, but in that nick of time Fuller charged us and compelled us to retreat without the prisoners who were rightfully our own.

By daylight next morning our advance had reached the river.

The two ferryboats were raised from the bottom and brought over to the west side, and the work of recrossing was begun. It was completed without incident the following morning, and we made our most respectful salutations when the enemy arrived an hour later and began to shell the woods on our side. What Jackson accomplished in the Valley of Virginia was hardly more masterful than the skill of Forrest in extricating his small force from this most perilous situation.

Early in February, 1863, General Wheeler, who was in command of the entire cavalry services of Bragg's army, led a force to attack Fort Donelson and was defeated. The weather was intensely cold, and the enemy was admirably intrenched.

Forrest formally protested, but the attack was made in spite of him.

There was a bloody slaughter, in which our regiment suffered greatly, and Forrest notified Wheeler that he would be in his coffin before he should ever fight again under his command.

Forrest understood better than Wheeler when to risk a desperate encounter.

On March 5, 1863, we fought the battle of Thompson's Station under the command of Gen. Earl van Dorn and captured the entire force of the enemy's infantry, a fine brigade under Colonel Cogurn, of Indiana; but Van Dorn permitted two regiments of cavalry and a battery of artillery to escape.

Forrest got in the rear and rendered the escape of the infantry impossible. It was here that we captured Maj. W. R. Shafter; but as he had not yet been to Cuba, we heard little of him.

In one of the engagement of this day Capt. J. R. Dysart, of Company D, who was standing in a position just above me on the uneven ground, was shot through the head and fell over upon me with a severe crash. I thought for an instant that I myself had been killed.

On the 24th of March, 1863, we left Spring Hill, midway between Franklin and Columbia, and daylight next morning found us at Brentwood, midway between Franklin and Nashville, where we captured and brought away about eight hundred prisoners.

This was a perilous expedition as Nashville, the base of supplies of the Federal army, and Franklin also were held by a large force.

On our retreat we had gotten across the last pike by which we could be attacked from Nashville and, considering ourselves at last somewhat secure, had halted for dinner. While we were thus engaged Gen. Green Clay Smith, who had been sent down from Franklin to pursue us, rushed upon our rear guard and occasioned some confusion.

Forrest soon got a regiment in line, and just then Starnes, who was returning from a scouting expedition down the Hillsboro Pike toward Nashville, fell upon the flank of the enemy.

Observing the confusion occasioned by that incident, Forrest instantly led a charge against the enemy and easily shook them off.

It was the common verdict  that General Smith displayed little stomach for fight. If Forrest had been in his position, he would have fought the Confederates every foot of the journey to Harpeth River. That stream was in league against us, being swollen by the freshets of springtime; and if Smith had shown any vigor, he would have given us much annoyance.

On the 10th of April, under Van Dorn's command, a reconnoissance was made in force from Spring Hill against Franklin, with the hope of relieving the pressure upon Bragg at Tullahoma.

By an unaccountable oversight the enemy's cavalry were permitted to assail our column on the right flank as we were marching down the turnpike toward Franklin. It was the brigade of General Stanley, which was striving to get in our rear.

The first we saw of them the 4th United States Regulars were charging down the hill along the base of which we were marching. They struck Freeman's Battery, and before a single piece could be brought into action it had been captured. Many of the men escaped, but Captain Freeman was taken.

We quickly rallied and recovered the guns and prisoners, but in the melee Captain Freeman was killed. The piece with which he had been slain was held so close to his face that the skin about the eyes was deeply burned with powder.

Some of his fellow prisoners reported that he had offered no resistance; but our pursuit was so rapid that he could not keep up with his captors, and rather than give him up they concluded to take his life.

He was the idol of the brigade, and it was hard to forgive the gentlemen of the 4th Regulars. Possibly the deed was done by no rightful authority; it may have been the conceit of some irresponsible private soldier.

The next day was Sunday, and I officiated at Freeman's funeral.

General Forrest stood at the side of the grave, his tall form bent and swayed by his grief. It was a sight to remember always, the sternest soldier of the army bathed in womanly tears and trembling like an aspen with his pain. The whole army sympathized in the mighty sorrow. . . .


To be continued next week, September 16, 2021.
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