Top 7 General Nathan Bedford Forrest Quotes

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

Final Thoughts

Nathan Bedford Forrest was good for other notable quotes. If you have a favorite one, please share it in the comments.

chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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9 thoughts on “Top 7 General Nathan Bedford Forrest Quotes”

  1. Sometimes his men were more afraid of him than they were of the Yankees!
    My Great grandfather rode with him and Gen’l Nat saved his life at Thompson’s Station but lost his favorite horse “Roderick” in doing so.
    Deo Vindice

  2. I was humorously informed to learn that General Forrest was more than just Forrest Gumps inspiration! Great post and VERY informative. It is always a good thing to learn facts and separate perceptions about what you THINK you know about someone, especially someone like General Forrest.

    1. He did some things that are shady by today’s standards, but he also had some great accomplishments. I’m not condoning his behavior, but I think we can all learn something from studying past military leaders, even Nathan Forrest.

  3. Faith A. Coleman

    This is a difficult mix of worthiness and unworthiness. I think I’d have to use the word “infamous” rather than “famous” to describe his service, if its possible to call it service. The KKK was/is such an embodiment of evil that there is nothing that could be said to make the general’s other acts worthy of study or recognition. I’m embarrassed on his behalf and want to apologize to anyone who was one of his target victims. Although this says he treated his slaves well, that’s an oxymoron.

    1. I have to refute your comment.
      I met a Black man at one of my SCV meetings whose ancestor also rode with General Forrest as my white ancestor did.
      At one point, General Forrest’s body guard company consisted of black troopers.
      The General was a very stern and powerful leader of men. In the Army and in War there will always be some men that will resent that, however that is the leadership quality needed to keep the majority alive and victorious.

  4. I knew that Forrest was considered a skilled general, but I also knew that his association with Fort Pillow and the KKK pretty thoroughly overshadowed that legacy. I’m glad to know that he moved beyond negative racial attitudes, something all the more noteworthy for a man who had grown up in a slave-owning culture and owned slaves himself. It always disturbed me a little that at Camp Shelby, MS, a training site we’ve used frequently, the three main streets are named Jackson, Lee…and Forrest. (The installation itself is located in Forrest County, MS.) I feel much better about it now.

    1. At Fort Pillow Gen. Forrest was very ill with food poisoning. It is known that he lost control of some of his troops. Much easier to say a general officer committed a massacre of negroes rather than to say he lost control of his bowels and his men went wild and crazy and obeyed no orders from him.

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