Nathan Bedford Forrest

The statue of Nathan Forrest which used to stand in Memphis


Nathan Bedford Forrest was once described by Union General William Sherman as “the most remarkable man our Civil War produced on either side.” He may also be the most controversial person in American history. People get into arguments today about his legacy.

Forrest was born in what is now Marshall County. His father died when he was a boy, leaving him to help take care of his 11 brothers and sisters. In the 1850s he became wealthy as a slave trader (click here for more about slavery and the slave trade).

Nathan Bedford Forrest
PHOTO: Library of Congress

When the Civil War broke out, Forrest enlisted in the Confederate cavalry but was soon promoted to Colonel.

At the Battle of Ft. Donelson, Forrest refused to surrender and led 700 fellow soldiers on an escape. At Shiloh he was surrounded by the enemy and survived only by grabbing a Union soldier and carrying him in the saddle with him until he was out of firing range. Later in the war, Forrest led successful Confederate victories at the First Battle of Murfreesboro, New Johnsonville, Parkers Crossroads and Brice Cross Roads, Mississippi.

After the war, many Southerners considered Forrest a hero because of his military victories. Because of this, there are more historical markers about him than about any other Tennessean (even Andrew Jackson!)

Fort Pillow State Historic Park

Today his legacy is controversial. For one thing, men under his command killed nearly 300 men who may have been trying to surrender at Fort Pillow, in Western Tennessee. And, in addition to being a military man, General Forrest reportedly became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in 1867. Forrest later ordered the Klan to disband after Governor Parson Brownlow left office in 1869. (The Klan was revived near Atlanta, Georgia, in 1915).

For more about Forrest, check out the following: