Our Confederate Ancestors: Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and His Men in Action

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

Laying down the body, Forrest spread his handkerchief over his dead brother's face and, calling on a member of his escort to remain with the corpse, he mounted his horse and said to those who were present: "Follow me." Then turning to his bugler he said, "Garis, sound the charge," and away he dashed, followed by those present, with the fury of a hurricane. They galloped into the enemy as some of them were mounting to retreat, and the spirit and animation of the spectacle so enthused the other Confederates that they rushed forward like a mighty storm and trampled down everything in their front, driving the enemy in the wildest confusion and capturing all his artillery, wagons, and a thousand prisoners besides a great quantity of supplies and several hundred negroes who were running away with the Yankees. The pursuit was kept up until night. . . .

Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and His Men in Action

From Forrest's Wonderful Achievements by Capt. James Dinkins of New Orleans, Confederate Veteran, Vol. XXXV, No. 1, January, 1927.

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[Publisher's Note, by Gene Kizer, Jr. : Every son and daughter of the South can gain ENORMOUS inspiration from Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest just as his own men did. They achieved so much because of the dynamism of their leader.

The entries for Forrest in Broadfoot's Confederate Veteran index go on for pages. It's like the Shakespeare section in the library.

All you have to do is absorb Forrest into your brain then go win EVERY heritage fight one way or another, like Forrest did. If a monument comes down, put up 10 and write 10 books, construct 10 more highway battle flag memorials in the area.

Campaign against the dogs who vote to remove century old monuments to war dead and throw them out of office. Sue them if possible as individuals.

Read all the inspiring accounts of Forrest you can lay your hands on then read Gen. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and all the others. The blood coursing through their veins during the great battles of the War Between the States is the same blood coursing through ours today.

Capt. Dinkins' title way understates the extreme excitement in his article on the exploits of Forrest and his men. It is riveting. I could not put it down and neither will you.]

From Forrest's Wonderful Achievements
by Capt. James Dinkins of New Orleans

AFTER THE BATTLE of Chickamauga, Forrest tendered to Gen. Bragg his resignation as brigadier general. He felt so depressed on account of the delay and the inaction in following up a great victory, and, furthermore, was dissatisfied with various conditions which seemed to indicate that he was not appreciated by the commander in chief.

For some time previously, Forrest had received urgent requests from prominent people in North Mississippi to come to that section and organize the scattered bands and defend their country from the frequent raids by the Federal forces at Memphis and along the Memphis and Charleston Railroad. That may also have had its influence upon Forrest's decision.

It happened that Mr. Davis was at General Bragg's headquarters when Forrest's resignation reached him, and he at once wrote Forrest in graceful language saying he could not accept his resignation nor dispense with his services, and requested that he meet him in Montgomery a few days later.

At the time designated, Forrest met the President, who promised to give him an independent command in the department of West Tennessee and North Mississippi, and also stated that Forrest should carry with him such regiments as General Bragg could spare.

However, when Forrest took his departure, he did so with McDonald's Battalion and Morton's Battery, besides his escort company, all told three hundred men and four guns.

He reached the Mobile and Ohio Railroad at Okolona, Miss. on the 15th of November, 1863. He decided soon afterwards to move into West Tennessee and use his influence and prestige in bringing together numbers of men who had been furloughed on account of wounds and other causes and having recovered were not willing to go back to the infantry service.

He, therefore, crossed the Memphis and Charleston Railroad at Saulsbury and moved to Jackson with 250 men and two rifle guns of Morton's battery. He reached Jackson on the 6th of December, 1863, and went into camp with as much composure and confidence as if he had a division instead of a few squadrons.

Major General Hurlbut, commanding the Federal forces at Memphis and West Tennessee also set to work at once to prevent Forrest's escape. He sent a force from Memphis, one from Corinth, and one from Fort Pillow, in all, about 20,000 men, well-equipped, to accomplish that object.

Think of it! Forrest with but those few hundred men surrounded by twenty thousand veteran troops. No other man on earth so situated could have marched away. Forrest soon had assembled about three thousand men, who, however, had no arms, and to protect those men from capture with the aid of only three hundred men seemed impossible---but that word was not in Forrest's vocabulary.

About this time it began to rain and bad weather lasted several days causing all the rivers and creeks to overflow their banks; but on December 22, Forrest put his column in motion and crossed the Forked Deer River, going in the direction of Bolivar. His scouts reported large Federal forces moving on him from all sides, but, with about five hundred armed men and three thousand men without guns, he set out to reach the Confederate lines. Arriving at Bolivar, he was met by Col. D. M. Wisdom with one hundred and fifty men, which made his fighting force nearly seven hundred strong.

Ascertaining that a Federal column was encamped just south of the Hatchie River and directly in the line of his intended march, Forrest constructed a bridge over the river during the night, and crossed over, and while the enemy were wrapped in slumber just before day, he dashed into their camp, creating the wildest confusion and stampeded the entire force, which left behind a large number of wagons and several hundred head of beef cattle.

Forrest then moved rapidly in the direction of Somerville, where he learned that the whole country was swarming with infantry, cavalry, and artillery, ready to pounce on him. Forrest, with the additional responsibility of protecting his captured beef cattle and wagons, was in a hopeless position it would seem.

Halting a few hours before reaching Somerville, he sent some three hundred armed men and about a thousand without arms to get in the Federal rear, and, moving boldly with the remainder of his command until he met the enemy's pickets, he drove them in.

About the same time the detached force charged into the federals on the other side, Forrest sent forward a flag of truce demanding the unconditional surrender of the enemy, consisting of 5,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry, and the Federal commander, believing that he was surrounded by a large force, began a hurried retreat in the direction of Memphis.

Taking advantage of the fright, Forrest led his escort company and McDonald's Battalion upon their retreating columns, riding them down and scattering them in all directions.

The victory was so complete that the unarmed men joined in the pursuit and captured several hundred prisoners from whom they secured arms, etc.

Leaving the Federal command scattered and in great disorder, Forrest marched toward Memphis, creating the impression that he would attack the place, which caused the Federal commander, General Hurlbut, to hurry all the troops along the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, from Corinth westward to Memphis, and also recall the forces he had sent from Fort Pillow.

The heavy rains had in the meantime caused the Forked Deer, the Hatchie, and the Wolf rivers to overflow their banks, so that they could not be crossed at all, which left the Federal forces in Forrest's rear utterly harmless.

While the enemy was hurrying to Memphis, Forrest suddenly changed his course to the south, and crossed the Memphis and Charleston Railroad at Mount Pleasant into the Confederate lines, with a thousand head of cattle and a large number of wagons and stores of different sorts. The cattle were sent to feed the Army of Tennessee.

Many amusing incidents occurred during the stampede of the Federal forces at Somerville. In the pursuit of a column of these fugitives, a Confederate officer, Lieutenant Livingston, received orders to turn back with his company. He shouted after them: "Get out of our country, you worthless rascals."

In the rear of the Federals, on a horse somewhat slower than the rest, was a trooper, who, turning his head, exclaimed in unmistakable brogue and with the ready wit of his countrymen: "Faith, ain't it thot same we're trying to do jist as fast as we can?"

Forrest had them reach safe ground, and we can but wonder how it was possible for him to escape with his wagons, cattle, and unarmed men in the face of the manifold dangers which environed him.

Leaving Jackson, Tenn., on a march of one hundred and fifty miles with three thousand unarmed men, a large wagon train, and hundreds of cattle, thoroughly surrounded by more than 20,000 of the enemy (which General Hurlbut admits in his official report), having to cross three overflowed rivers, with the loss of less than thirty men, seems marvelous. And almost any other man to have thought of such a possibility, would have been regarded as foolishly rash and perilously vain.

A correspondent of the Cincinnati Commercial, writing from Memphis on January 12, 1864, in summing up Forrest's operations, said: "With less than 4,000 men, Forrest moved right through the Sixteenth Army Corps, passed within nine miles of Memphis, carried off one hundred wagons of provisions, seven hundred head of beef cattle, and innumerable stores; tore up railroad track, cut telegraph wires, ran over our pickets with a single Derringer pistol, and all in the face of 20,000 men, and without the loss of a man that can be accounted for."

Arriving at Holly Springs, Forrest found that the almost incessant rain for a week was giving way to clear, cold weather.

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On December 28 the command moved toward Como, Panola County, Miss. Forrest reached Sucotobia late Wednesday evening, December 30, and remained there until Friday morning, January 1, 1864, thence to Como.

Between Como and Senatobia runs the Hickahala River, which the entire command crossed, including the artillery and wagons, on the ice. It was the coldest day known to the oldest inhabitants, and will never be forgotten during the life of those who encountered its horrors.

The writer was ordered to move with a small squad of men as rapidly as possible ahead and press into service every able-bodied negro to be found and put them to work chopping down timber and building fires.

Arriving at Como, there was not a member of the little party able to dismount without assistance, but the few citizens and negroes of the town set to work to throw us out, and within a half hour or so we were able to begin the work. The men were scantily clad, and, with less than a blanket each, their suffering was fearful, so much so that numbers of the young recruits which followed out of West Tennessee left their commands to return home.

In the meantime, Forrest had been appointed a major general and put in command of all the forces in North Mississippi and West Tennessee. He set to work to organized his force into regiments and brigades. Four brigades were formed, the first under Brig. Gen. R. V. Richardson; the second under Col. Robert McCullough, composed of the 2nd Missouri, Willis's Texas Battalion, Faulkner's Kentucky Regiment, Kinzer's Battalion, the 18th Mississippi, and a fragment of the 2nd Arkansas, commanded by Capt. F. M. Cochran.

The third brigade was under Col. T. H. Bell, and the fourth was commanded by Col. J. E. Forrest, a brother of the General.

In all, there were about 6,000 men, rank and file. The brigades commanded by Cols. McCullough and J. E. Forrest composed the first division, and it was commanded by Brig. Gen. James R. Chalmers. The other division was commanded by Brigadier General Richardson for a short time, but finally by Brig. Gen. A. Buford.

These details having been accomplished, Forrest moved his headquarters to Oxford and left General Chalmers at Panola.

While at Oxford, the squads which had been sent after the deserters returned with nineteen of them, whom they delivered to General Forrest. He gave orders that in consequence of this desertion and disgraceful conduct, the whole lot should be shot, and instructions were issued that the executions would take place at an early date.

The news spread like a cyclone, and very soon prominent citizens and ladies, also every clergyman in Oxford, waited on General Forrest with urgent appeals to forgive the boys and spare their lives. Some of the officers advised Forrest that they had intimations of meetings among the soldiers.

But he was unmoved, and apparently determined on the executions. All preparations were carried out and one a bright morning, the 20th of January, 1864, the procession of wagons containing the deserters, sitting on their coffins, moved through the streets to a skirt of woods just west of the university buildings, where the graves had been dug. The men were made to get out, and the coffins placed alongside the graves. Then all were blindfolded and seated each on his coffin.

The company detailed for the purpose marched in front and loaded their guns and came to a ready. There was but a moment between these men and eternity. The next instant the commands "Aim" and "Fire" would be given. But while they were standing at the ready, Captain Anderson of General Forrest's staff, announced that the men were pardoned and would return to their commands.

The lesson was not lost and will never been forgotten by anyone who was a witness to the spectacle. As a matter of fact, I do not know of more than a dozen men living who were present at that time. The news scattered broadcast that Forrest had shot a lot of boys who went home, etc., and many people believed to the day of their death that the boys were shot. The writer was present and the statement is true in every particular as given above.

A short time after the occurrence just mentioned, General Polk, who was department commander, notified Forrest that Sherman was moving from Vicksburg toward Jackson with a large force; also that a force had moved at the same time up the Yazoo River. This information was quicky followed by news that a column had moved from Memphis toward Panola, and another from Collinville toward Holly Springs.

Jeffrey Forrest was sent to Grenada to watch the column moving by the Yazoo River, while General Chalmers posted McCullouch at Panola, Bell at Belmont, and Richardson at Wyatt, all on the Tallahatchie River. Forrest soon learned, however, that a large cavalry force was arranging to leave Memphis, and he at once decided that it was intended to participate in a cooperative movement with Sherman, and that the columns sent toward Panola and Holly Springs were feints.

Sure enough, on the 11th of February, Capt. Thomas Henderson, Chief of Scouts, reported that a force of cavalry about eight thousand strong and four batteries of artillery were moving rapidly in the direction of Germantown. Forrest ordered Chalmers to move with his division to Oxford, leaving one regiment (Faulkner's) to guard the river at Wyatt and Abbeville.

Reaching Oxford on the 14th, Chalmers received orders to march with all dispatch toward Okolona, as the enemy, under Maj. Gen. W. S. Smith, about ten thousand strong, seemed headed for the rich prairies south of Okolona, which facts confirmed Forrest's opinions.

It was raining almost constantly, and the roads were next to impassable, but we outmarched General Smith's force and reached West Point, Miss., on the 17th. Forrest established his headquarters at Starkville and sent Col. Jeffrey Forrest with his brigade to meet the Federal column in the neighborhood of Aberdeen.

Colonel Forrest had a number of light skirmishes while General Smith pressed his small brigade back to West Point. Anticipating that General Smith might cross the Tombigbee at Aberdeen, Bell's Brigade was sent to Columbus, where he crossed the river and moved along the east bank toward Aberdeen, but finding that Smith was moving his entire force toward West Point, he took up a position at Waverly. In the meantime, Forrest, with Chalmers, marched with McCullouch's Brigade and two regiments of Richardson's Brigade, to the relief of Col. Jeffrey Forrest.

The situation at this time was critical on both sides. The rivers in front and behind both the Federal and Confederate forces were badly swollen and there could be no retreat for either. The Tombigbee on the east the Sooh-a-Toucha on the south, and the Okatibbyha on the west were all in flood.

Gen. Stephen D. Lee notified Forrest that he was marching to his support with a brigade of infantry from Meridian and Forrest hoped to avoid a general engagement until his arrival. Forrest, therefore, went into camp about four miles west of West Point, from whence, we could see the eastern horizon lighted up by burning houses, barns, gin houses, fences and everything which the enemy could set on fire.

The sight so infuriated Forrest that he determined to put a stop to further devastation.

The following morning he led McCulloch's Brigade to a crossing on a little river called Siloam, about four miles east, and resolved to do all in his power to stop such an uncivilized kind of warfare. He expected to strike the Federal left flank but found that the force consisted of but one brigade, which he quickly put to flight. He ordered all his force forward from West Point and found the enemy in position in a woods four miles from that little city.

Chalmers quickly dismounted his men and moved to the attack. The men went rushing and yelling at the Federal line with as little concern for their lives, apparently, as they would have shown in a skirmish drill. The effect was instantaneous and the Federals, after firing a round, mounted their horses and galloped away.

In the meantime, McCulloch had sent the force at Siloam helter-skelter. The fugitives, on reaching Smith's main column, added tenfold to the demoralization. The whole force began a hurried retreat. Having the swollen river at their backs, the audacious onslaught of the Confederates made the victory a stampede.

The Federals could not be halted. The scene was indescribable. The roads were knee deep in mud and the fields were boggy. Wagons and caissons were left behind and our men could barely keep in sight of the fleeing house burners. Stop a moment and think of the disparity of the two forces.

General Smith's command numbered ten thousand men and twenty-four cannon. Men who had been selected from the Army of the Cumberland, seasoned and tried troops, with the best equipment, while Forrest's force did not exceed 4,000 men and eight cannon.

Bell's Brigade of 2,000 men at Waverly, ten miles distant when the fight began, did not reach the field until after the route began.

The roads and the whole country were soaked from the continued rain, and the passage of the Federal artillery and wagons left the roads impassable.

Forrest made every effort to overhaul the enemy by sending detachments through the fields, but the ground was so rotten it could not be done, although the enemy was encumbered with plunder and hundred of negroes.

However, Forrest was after them and with unsurpassed impetuosity succeeded in overtaking the Federal rear guard, several times during the day, with his escort company, and had two or three sharp brushes, but was not able to bring them to a stand.

Night coming on, the command went into camp, but the following morning, February 22, 1864, McCulloch's and Jeffrey Forrest's brigades were in hot pursuit.

Nine miles out of Okolona, Jeffrey Forrest was ordered to take a left-hand road and cut off the retreat if possible. In the meantime Barteau, with Bell's Brigade, had reached the Federal right flank, which forced the enemy to make a stand at Okolona.

Forrest, at the same time, had been dogging the rear of the Federal column with his escort company so savagely there was no alternative but to fight. General Smith, therefore, posted his force in a very favorable position across the Pontotoc road, in a skirt of woods. Barteau, with Bell's Brigade, dismounted, charged across a field and met strong resistance and suffered great loss but just at that moment Jeffrey Forrest struck the Federals in the rear and caused another stampede.

Barteau's men quickly recovered their setback and joined in pursuit. McCulloch reached the field about this time and his presence added to the confusion of the Federals, and the rout became general.

The Confederates, however, in the excitement, lost organization for a time and did not follow up the chase as well as could have been done.

In the meantime, General Smith had found a most favorable position eight miles distant from Okolona, and posted his line on a ridge of post oak timber.

Forrest soon got his men in hand and sent McCullock to the left and Jeffrey Forrest to the right, with orders to drive into them.

Jeffrey Forrest, at the head of his brigade accompanied by Col. D. M. Wisdom, made the attack with great vigor. The Federals fired a volley into his ranks as he approached and Colonel Forrest fell, mortally wounded, about fifty yards from the enemy's line.

The enemy was pushed back and soon, General Forrest, hearing of the wounding of his young brother, galloped to the spot where he lay, dismounted, raised his head, and with passionate tenderness begged Jeffrey to speak. He died in his arms. They were throughout life devoted. The General was the oldest and Jeffrey was the youngest of the family. The General had been unwearied in his efforts to give his brother an education, and he felt his untimely loss. The flower of his life had been snatched from him.

Laying down the body, Forrest spread his handkerchief over his dead brother's face and, calling on a member of his escort to remain with the corpse, he mounted his horse and said to those who were present: "Follow me." Then turning to his bugler he said, "Garis, sound the charge," and away he dashed, followed by those present, with the fury of a hurricane. They galloped into the enemy as some of them were mounting to retreat, and the spirit and animation of the spectacle so enthused the other Confederates that they rushed forward like a mighty storm and trampled down everything in their front, driving the enemy in the wildest confusion and capturing all his artillery, wagons, and a thousand prisoners besides a great quantity of supplies and several hundred negroes who were running away with the Yankees. The pursuit was kept up until night. It was a wonderful achievement.

I was induced to write this story because of a remark made to me by an old comrade I met during the reunion of the Louisiana Division, U. C. V., held at Alexandria, November 25-26.

He said: "Forrest's Cavalry was the greatest body of soldiers ever assembled."

I answered: "They were made so by Forrest's example."

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2 Comments

  1. Would that we all had the courage, determination and intelligence of Nathan Bedford Forrest!
    Thanks for another excellent article.
    garry

    • Absolutely, Garry! No question, Forrest is unbelievably inspirational. I can’t wait to read more about him and his exploits. Anybody that Sherman and company labeled a “devil” has GOT to be a GREAT guy!

      Gene

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