General Nathan Bedford Forrest was probably one of the least understood generals on either side of the War Between the States or American Civil War as many say. Yeager took a very interesting approach in writing this book in that it is considered fiction, but all of the battles and things of that nature are accurate. The main premise for the book is a story of two fictional characters from two very different families in Alabama that become friends. Randy Rushton is from a rich slave owning plantation family and Buck McCord is from an average working class family that Rushton’s mother refers to initially as “that hill boy”. The story about their friendship and some adventures they have is fabricated, but all are based on things that do and did happen at the time. He follows them from the start of their friendship when Buck teaches Randy about shooting and throwing a knife and Randy ends up getting his father to have his children’s private tutor teach buck academics. They also end up going to college together, which Buck had never even thought of. It then follows them through their time that they decide to volunteer for the Confederate cavalry and are with General Forrest. The various battles and military campaigns undertaken by Forrest are explored to the end of the War Between the States.
The fictional storey of the lives of Randy and Buck do take many real turns that the reader can relate to. Things like lost loves and love that was under your nose but you were afraid to say anything. Both young men end up marrying women they were tutored with at the Rushton plantation. Randy marries the Rushton’s family friend Sally Beaumont and Buck marries Randy’s sister Ellen. One thing that is fictional but rather interesting is a family feud that The McCord’s have with a family of moonshine runners called the Barlow family.
This is a basic account of what occurred. Buck’s father Corey was approached by one of his sharecroppers about his son that is being asked to help the Barlow family run their shine and his father is afraid he will get into trouble. Corey politely goes to the Barlow home and informs them to stay away from the young boy. Sam Barlow tells Corey off. Corey leaves with a warning to the Barlow’s to stay away from the young boy. The Barlow’s do not listen and Corey destroys their moonshine still. They then decide to get even. Sam Barlow with his sons Caleb and Jethro ambush Buck and Corey and shoot Corey causing him to lose his arm from the infection. After the Barlow’s shoot his dad, Corey goes after them. He shoots and kills Caleb and wounds Sam Barlow. Jethro escapes and vows revenge.
Buck and Randy encounter Jethro a few more times through the storey while in the service of the Confederate Army. Jethro ends up deserting his Confederate unit and robs a woman with two Union soldiers. He also assists the Union Army in navigating the local area in hopes of them killing Buck, but Randy is captured by the Army and Buck makes a plan to bust him out. In the process he sneaks up on Jethro, but is unable to finish him off. Jethro finally decides to try to steal gold that Corey had been hording and in the process of the robbery kills his mother. This sets the final stage for the Jethro and Buck to face each other at the Rushton estate while Jethro is holding his wife Ellen at knife point.
In addition to the very real military exploits of General Forrest, Yeager also offers and insight into some of the mindset as far as slavery and its factor in the War Between the States. The Rushton’s were a slave holding family, but were generally very good to their slaves and eventually even went as far as freeing some of their slaves and moving towards sharecropping. The McCord family did not own slaves and did not agree with the institution, but did not favor abolition of the south’s “peculiar institution” as slavery was often referred. When Randy and Buck decide to join the Confederate Army it is made very clear that is not about slavery but protecting their homes and families from an aggressive federal government kind of like the one we have now. Yeager also reinforces the fact that the South faced overwhelming odds and eventually realized they would not be able to win and hoped the Union would lose the will to fight as well and just leave them alone.
As a side note, It is many separate articles, but to say the war was fought over slavery is idiot and untrue. If you watch the movie Glory it shows how many Union soldiers felt about Negro soldiers. You also can’t help but notice the fact that the units were segregated except for being commanded by white officers. There are many sources available to show how racist Lincoln, Sherman, Grant, and many other Federals were. Also there were Union regiments from the South like a Union Alabama cavalry unit and other examples. The war was about preserving the union. Lincoln states himself he would not end slavery if it meant preserving the Union. The end of slavery was used as a propaganda tool by the North since there was more anti-slavery sentiment was there.
Obviously the book chronicles General Forrest as it intertwines with the fictional account of Buck and Randy. Forrest was the patriarch of his family when his father died when he was 17. This did not allowing him to get a formal education yet he was considered a military genius. He epitomized the concept of a self made man. He took care of his mother and put his brothers through college. He was able to buy several cotton plantations and also was a slave trader amassing a large fortune with both ventures. He rose from the rank of a volunteer private to a General in the Confederate army and had the respect of those on both sides of the war. He was a very wealthy farmer and could have been exempt from military service but chose to enlist anyway showing the type of character that the man had. General Sherman actually started referring to him as “that devil Forrest” because of how effective he was as defeating Union armies. Sherman actually thought that killing General Forrest was a paramount priority.
Forrest knew that war was tough he often said of war that “War means fightin’ and fightin’ means killin.” His soldiers knew he meant business and that he would shoot deserters running from battle. He almost always led the charge and was out there in the thick of battle with his men. General Forrest managed to win several engagements with the enemy when the Confederates were greatly outnumbered. He had twenty six horses shot from under him and killed over twenty men in hand to hand combat. He was a fierce fighter and brilliant leader with bravery and wisdom and his men knew and respected him for that. This was very uncommon for Generals at this time. His tactics were very different from many contemporary cavalry men of his time. He did not like the saber and often had his men carry several of the Colt Navy model six shooter pistols. He often would dismount his men and have people hold horses so some of his men. He also became an expert at splitting his forces at attacking flanks. There is an anecdote by Yeager of a man named Rommel who traveled to Mississippi to study the tactics by some who knew people who had fought with General Forrest.
General Forrest comes under much more criticism than other Confederates and Union. Some have even called General Forrest a war criminal. If he is then several of the Yankee commanders are war criminals. This is especially true o William Sherman who brought war to civilians. The Confederates did not such thing. And the Yankees were invading the South who just wanted to be left alone. This is one reason why the war should be called the War of Northern Aggression. The main things he comes under criticism for is the fact that he was a slave owner and trader, often considered the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and that he allowed Negro soldiers to be massacred after his capture of Fort Pillow in Tennessee. There is also the whole thing of being a traitor since he fought for the South, but to give that credence you need to call all of the founders of our country traitors since they rebelled from England.
There is a saying that “To the victor goes the spoils’. One of the spoils of war is that the victor typically writes the history. In the case of General Forrest being a slave trader and owner a few things need to be considered. First of many of the founders of the country including several of the early leaders like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and other Presidents including Grant owned slaves at some point. Grant actually stated “If I thought this war was to abolish slavery, I would resign my commission and offer my sword to the other side”. You further do not need to look very far to see how racist Lincoln was. You can find all that information in the Lincoln/Douglas debates. Another thing is that even though slavery was wrong it was legal at that time in the United States. He did not own slaves after the war only while it was legal. Also all of the people who think slavery is wrong, and I myself do, must understand that hindsight is 20/20. We did not live in the time of Forrest or Washington. This makes it really hard for us to judge something that we could not have been involved in.
The Ku Klux Klan is also an association that brings much controversy to General Nathan Forrest. There is argument over how much truth there is to Forrest being involved with the Klan, but he definitely was involved and most likely was the organizations first Grand Wizard or leader despite some argument over his rank in the Klan. First of the Ku Klux Klan was initially a social club for Confederate veterans. It later became more political since southerners were being disenfranchised by the occupying reconstruction puppet governments and the Yankees were using the blacks to dominate control over the southerners. In reality much of the bigotry that plagued the south was a backlash to the horrors of reconstruction. The Klan would become more and more violent than simply a club and Forrest is credited as being the person who thought to disband the Ku Klux Klan. He told members to “burn their robes”. Many did not and the Klan had several rebirths.
One again someone not living during the time of Forrest makes it hypocritical to completely pass judgment on him. As far as his association with the Ku Klux Klan goes here is how I feel about it. He had as much of a right to join the Ku Klux Klan as a black man or white man with a racial identity crisis had to join the NAACP. The way southerners were initially treated by reconstruction governments the Ku Klux Klan could arguable be compared to the Sons of Liberty. There is no doubt though that today though the Klan is a hate group and nothing but. Barack Hussein Obama was a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and I am sure that he will not get the same flak in history over that membership. The CBC will not allow white members and clearly has a stated purpose to advance the black interests. This often comes at the expense of white people as you can’t bring one person up artificially without putting someone else down with something like affirmative action. This should show the double standard of how we judge people. Also Senator Robert Bryd from West Virginia was a member of the Ku Klux Klan when it was a hate group in the 1940’s yet his is hardly criticized by it even by the CBC.
Of all the controversies surrounding General Nathan Bedford Forrest the most notable and controversial will always be his attack on Fort Pillow, which is often called the “Massacre of Fort Pillow” in which he was supposed to have allowed the massacre of Negro soldiers after capturing the fort as many tried to surrender. Yeager does give an account of the battle in the book. A couple things that should be noted first is that Fort Pillow was in Tennessee and this in the Confederate States of America and therefore being occupied by an opposing force. This goes back to the “War of Northern Aggression” theory since the federal troops should not have been there in the first place. Another note is that many of the negro soldiers were runaway slaves and thus criminals as the men in the fort harboring them under both United States and Confederate laws as Tennessee was not named by Lincoln as a state that his Emancipation Proclamation applied to since most of it was under Union control by the time Fort Pillow was taken by General Forrest. Basically in the brilliant military strategy used by General Forrest to attack the Fort the Commanding officer was killed and was not in command. Forrest offered terms of surrender and it was told that he informed the yanks that he could not guarantee their safety if not in the skirmish to follow. Bradford Refused to surrender and the onslaught began. Now there is huge debate over what happened next.
Some sources say that the Negro troops were practically falling to their knees and surrendering and then being butchered by the Confederates, but others say that is not entirely true. There have been numerous reports that the Union officers told the Negro soldiers that the confederates would not allow them to surrender so they keep fighting instead of surrendering forcing the violence to continue. Another thing is that many of the Negro soldiers were not as well trained and were not aware of the surrender and this led some to continue fighting and even to keep turning and shooting as they were retreating. It is funny that Forrest always gets criticized for this yet Sherman gets almost a free pass for his war crimes throughout the south. If surrendering troops were butchered that is wrong no doubt, but since General Forrest did surrender many Negro troops I doubt the butchery stories are true. If it was a race thing Forrest and his men would have killed all the Negro troops there. This is a very detailed and controversial issue and probably one that will require its own article.
These are some of the example of the reasons that General Nathan Bedford Forrest has been very controversial for some. His military exploits and bravery are a reason many revere him as a hero of the south. As customary to a hero there have been many things named after him. There are numerous memorials in his home state of Tennessee. There is a bust of General Forrest in the Tennessee state House of Representatives. There are currently two high schools named after General Forrest in Chapel Hill, Tennessee and Jacksonville, Florida. Because of his defense of the state of Alabama for some time during the War Between the States there is a statue of General Nathan Bedford Forrest at Live Oak Cemetery in Selma, Alabama. The town of Forrest City, Arkansas is also named in his honor. It will write more about this in another article, but the school in Jacksonville recently had a huge issue over wanting to change the name of the school. It was voted down 5-2 with the two blacks voting to change the name. Many former students wanted to keep the name including many blacks. It is worth noting that the school is over 50% black now. There have been attempts to remove the monument in Selma, Alabama to little success. I recall in the 2000’s a picture of several Negro leaders putting a rope around the statue and trying to pull it down. This did not work and they basically looked like bigger fools.
The book is really good and does a great job of combining fact with fiction. There are a number of good books about General Forrest that are available and I would highly encourage anyone interested in the War Between the States to read about him. Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis both later said that he was not fully utilized during the conflict and this may have been able to help the south further had he been.
Thanks for reading
God Bless you and God Bless America.
Fightin’ With Forrest by John Yeager. Pelican Publishing Company (January 1989)
The History Channel