Nathan Bedford Forrest was born July 13, 1821 in Chapel Hill, Tennessee. He went by his middle name, Bedford, and he was a man both admired and hated. Bedford was probably the most controversial figure from the Civil War era, a legend for his success on the battlefield, yet considered by some a butcher for his bloodthirsty and seemingly contradictory tactics. Bedford Forrest was the only Civil War soldier to enter the military as a Private and attain the rank of Lieutenant General.
Bedford initially was a self-made millionaire through cotton farming, slave trading and land dealing. He volunteered as a Private with the Confederate Army at the outbreak of the Civil War, but then funded and trained a unit himself to fight. As the owner of slaves, he treated them well, recruiting 47 of them into his unit, but earning infamy at Fort Pillow where he reportedly massacred 300 black men, women and children. While this was an unambiguous war crime, he was absolved of any wrongdoing after the war, for it was determined that his Confederate soldiers committed the heinous act before he arrived.
After the war, he became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, which had the overt goal of establishing discipline among the newly-freed slaves. At this time in our nation’s history, this was viewed as sound Christian behavior. The KKK resorted to violence, and while Bedford did not object, his own racial attitudes were evolving. He found the undisciplined nature of its members, and the vigilantism of the group, deplorable, and he disbanded the group in 1869. Bedford spent the latter part of his life advocating for racial equality.
Bedford Forrest’s tactical military skills, as well as his psychological warfare expertise, are still studied today, most notably by German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, General George S. Patton and General Norman Schwarzkopf. The Institute for Military Studies has dubbed the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads as the top display of tactical genius during the Civil War.
Bedford Forrest’s colorful history led to a number of his quotes being permanently chronicled in American History. Here are my top seven:
#7 “No **** man kills me and lives.”
Bedford Forrest shouted these words after sustaining what he thought was a mortal wound at the hands of Andrew Wills Gould. He set out to kill Gould, on whom he had already inflicted a defensive wound that would claim his life. When he realized his wound was not serious, he ordered doctors to “spare no expense” in attempts to save Gould’s life. Gould lingered under the doctors’ care for two weeks, and then died. Bedford Forrest’s sense of right and wrong was clear cut, with no grey area, and he was quick to action.
#6 “**** such nonsense. War means fightin’ and fightin’ means killin’. Turn the grindstone.”
Bedford Forrest uttered these words in response to an accusation that his meticulous preparation for war was for show rather than fighting. Forrest was not a man to mince words; he addressed the accusation directly, and then returned to his work.
#5 “I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think I am doing wrong. I believe I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to elevate every man—to depress none.”
I find that Bedford Forrest, did indeed, mature in his beliefs about black people. He was always a man of action, and did not disappoint at this point in his life, even though his views were unpopular at the time. I admire his courage and willingness to face adversity to do what he honestly believed was right.
#4 “I have never, on the field of battle, sent you where I was unwilling to go myself; nor would I advise to go a course which I myself was unwilling to pursue. You have been good soldiers; you can be good citizens. Obey the laws, preserve your honor, and the Government to which you have surrendered can afford to be, and will be, magnanimous.”
However rough around the edges Bedford Forrest appeared, he was a man of honor, and a strong leader. He encouraged his men to do what was right, even in surrender, and to leave the past behind.
#3 “Never stand and take a charge…charge them too.”
Forrest was not one to lie down and take it, and expected nothing less of his men.
#2 “We have but on flag, one country; let us stand together.”
Bedford Forrest believed in unity that resounds in his words. His call for oneness among people, regardless of race, made him a man before his time.
#1 “Get there first with the most.”
My favorite, simply because it is sound advice and underscores the need for preparation and readiness.
Tribute Video to General Nathan Bedford Forrest
Nathan Bedford Forrest was good for other notable quotes. If you have a favorite one, please share it in the comments.