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With no formal military training, Nathan Bedford Forrest became one of the leading cavalry figures of the Civil War. The native Tennesseean had amassed a fortune, which he estimated at $1,500,000, as a slave trader and plantation owner before enlisting in the Confederate army as a private in Josiah H. White’s cavalry company on June 14, 1861. Tapped by the governor, he then raised a mounted battalion at his own expense.
When the mass Confederate breakout attempt at Fort Donelson failed, Forrest led most of his own men, and some other troops, through the besieging lines and then directed the rear guard during the retreat from Nashville. At Shiloh there was little opportunity for the effective use of the mounted troops and his command again formed the rear guard on the retreat. The day after the close of the battle Forrest was wounded. After serving during the Corinth siege he was promoted to brigadier general, and he raised a brigade with which he captured Murfreesboro, its garrison and supplies.
In December 1862 and January 1863 he led another raid, this time in west Tennessee, which contributed to the abandonment of Grant’s campaign in central Mississippi; the other determining factor was Van Dorn’s Holly Springs raid. Joining up with Joseph Wheeler, Forrest took part in the unsuccessful attack on Fort Donelson which resulted in Forrest swearing he would never serve under Wheeler again.
His next success came with the capture of the Union raiding column under Abel D. Streight in the spring of 1863. On June 14, 1863, he was shot by a disgruntled subordinate, Andrew W. Gould, whom Forrest then mortally wounded with his penknife. Recovering, he commanded a division that summer and then a corps at Chickamauga. Having had a number of disputes with army commander Braxton Bragg, Forrest was humiliated by being placed under Wheeler again. His request for transfer to west Tennessee was granted and he was dispatched there with a pitifully small force. Recruiting in that area, he soon had a force large enough to give Union commanders headaches. Sherman kept ordering his Memphis commanders to catch him.
When Forrest captured Fort Pillow a controversy developed over reports of a massacre of the largely black garrison. Apparently a massacre did occur as there are numerous Confederate firsthand accounts of it. He defeated Samuel D. Sturgis at Brice’s Crossroads and under Stephen D. Lee fought Andrew J. Smith at Tupelo. He again faced Smith during August 1864 and then provided the cavalry force for Hood’s invasion of middle Tennessee that fall. Finally the force of numbers began to tell when he proved incapable of stopping Wilson’s raid through Alabama and Georgia in the final months of the war. His diminished command was included in Richard Taylor’s surrender.
Wiped out financially by the war, he resumed planting and became the president of the Selma, Marion & Memphis Railroad, which he helped to promote.