The War Against the Past
by John Derbyshire
October 10, 2013
Here is a thing that happened in the Civil War. If you know your Civil War minutiae, it’ll be familiar to you, in which case I beg your pardon. I can’t resist a good story.
A young lieutenant of the war angered his general by abandoning two artillery pieces to the enemy. The general ordered the young officer to be transferred out of his command. Feeling his honor insulted, the lieutenant asked for an interview. The general obliged.
When they met in one of the headquarters buildings, the lieutenant demanded to know the reason for his transfer. The general refused to tell him. Enraged, the young man pulled out a pistol and shot the general. “The ball entered the left hip, traveled in the vicinity of the intestines, and went out again.”
Before the lieutenant could fire again, the general reached out with his own left arm, grabbed the pistol hand, and forced it away from him. With his right hand he had been carrying a closed pocketknife. Using his teeth, he pulled out its biggest blade and stabbed his opponent in the belly, “ripping it open and perforating the bowels.” Dropping his pistol, the lieutenant staggered out into the street and made it across into a tailor’s shop, where he collapsed.
The general, meanwhile, had shown his gunshot wound to a doctor, who declared it dangerous. The general ran out of the building, grabbing a pistol on the way, and forced his way through the crowd of gawkers at the tailor’s shop. “Get out of my way,” he was shouting. “He’s mortally wounded me, and I aim to kill him before I die.” The lieutenant managed to leap out of a window, the general firing at him as he went.
The lieutenant died of sepsis two days later. Near the end he asked to speak to the general, who was recovering from his bullet wound. The general agreed, and his hospital bed was carried in to where the lieutenant lay. The young man begged his commander’s forgiveness. The general “leaned over the bed and wept like a child.” He told the lieutenant he forgave him freely and that his heart was full of sadness.
The general in that story was Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest. I took the quotes there from Andrew Lytle’s biography, first published in 1931.
Forrest knew all about the wilderness. His father was one of those restless pioneers who felt the urge to move on west when he could see the smoke of his neighbor’s chimney. “West” and “wilderness” at this time—Forrest was born in 1821—meant the backcountry woodlands of what we nowadays call the Southeast, from which Andrew Jackson had evicted the Indians. Forrest grew up in cabins in west Tennessee and north Mississippi, the family making their own clothes, shoes, and candles, and killing their own meat. Education was a year or two in the “log academy.”
As that opening story illustrates, Forrest was a fearsome and fearless character. My Taki’s Mag colleague Fred Reed, writing once of his own time in the military, mentioned occasional encounters with the hardest of the hard men: still, quiet-spoken fellows, watchful, economical of movement, scary as all get out. I’ve met one or two in my own travels, and one or two is quite enough. I think Forrest was of that company. Read Lytle’s account of his being wounded at Shiloh.
Forrest was also a military genius, as Lytle’s book documents in day-by-day detail. Entering the war with no military training, he soon led a cavalry regiment, hated and feared by the Union commanders. His masterpiece was the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads in June 1864, when his force of 4,700 men routed 8,500 Union cavalry and infantry. There is an animated map of the battle here, from which:
In the four years of the war, Forrest reputedly had a total of 30 horses shot out from under him. He was said to have personally killed 31 people. “I was a horse ahead at the end,” he said.
“There will never be peace in Tennessee until Forrest is dead,” wrote Sherman to the Secretary of War after Brice’s Crossroads.
Forrest nonetheless survived the war, though as a figure of notoriety in the North. A force under his command had reduced Fort Pillow in West Tennessee in early 1864 with much slaughter of the Union defenders, a mix of black and white soldiers. Union propagandists seized on the incident as a case of helpless blacks being shot down while trying to surrender, and a tremendous fuss was made.
Probably there was some vengeance killing, especially of blacks. In intense engagements, such things happen. Shelby Foote notes that sixty percent of the garrison’s whites were marched away as prisoners at last; of the blacks, only twenty percent. He allows, however, that Forrest did what he could to stop the madness; and Sherman, asked by Grant to investigate the incident, found no blame. None of this stopped the propaganda frenzy, and Forrest became an early prototype for George Zimmerman.
He didn’t help matters by taking a leadership position in the Ku Klux Klan right after the war, when the Klan was founded as a resistance movement against the lawlessness of Reconstruction. When, by 1869, Klan groups had descended into terrorism, Forrest was instrumental in disbanding them. In his final years—he died in 1877—he got religion and spoke for racial reconciliation.
There are monuments to Nathan Bedford Forrest all over the South, but he is of course a hate figure to modern sensibilities. Last year his bust was stolen from a park in Selma, Ala.; recently an equestrian statue in Memphis was defaced; and there’s an ongoing fight to rename Nathan B. Forrest High School in Jacksonville, FL.
The War Between the States goes on, but now as a War Against the Past.
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