One can easily envision Nathan Bedford Forrest as the Confederacy’s sole cavalry genius. Often-repeated references to him as “The Wizard of the Saddle” and “That Devil Forrest” reinforce the vision of a lone warrior who befuddled his federal adversaries.
In fact, family to which he was deeply attached surrounded the brilliant tactician who redefined mobile warfare. Here, we gaze upon the likenesses of selected individuals from the general’s inner circle, and portraits of Forrest himself—many of these images published for the first time.
Collector Matt Hagans, and Steve and Mike Romano, teamed up to bring together this unusual grouping.
Mike Romano notes that he and his son, Steve, began collecting Forrest photographs in the 1980s. “His piercing eyes and his look of determination made him stand out as a general,” Mike observes, “I started looking for cartes de visite and larger photographs to see his changing looks as the war progressed. To me he seems like the George Patton of the Civil War.”
A line from the 1931 book Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company, by Andrew N. Lytle, inspired Matt Hagans. In it, Lee was reportedly asked who was the greatest soldier in his command. He replied, “A man I have never seen, sir. His name is Forrest.” Matt explains, “From this moment on, I became infatuated on locating and acquiring original images and artifacts from Gen. Forrest. This quote instilled a new passion for collecting and I have never looked back.”
Frances Ann Forrest gazes intently at the camera at about age three in 1852. The only daughter of Nathan Bedford Forrest, “Fannie” succumbed to scarlet fever on June 27, 1854—her sixth birthday. Only two known images, both daguerreotypes, exist of Fannie. One of Forrest’s great-granddaughters acquired this one.
Forrest’s son, William Montgomery Forrest, poses in this only known image of him in Confederate uniform. Called “Willie” by family and friends, he was only 14 years old when the war began. According to Confederate Veteran, young Willie attempted to join his father and two uncles into the Tennessee Mounted Rifles, but his age and small size disallowed him. “Later, his father seeing he was determined to join the army, he was accepted, and served on the staff of General Forrest.”
The Memphis Tennessean added, “He followed his father in all of his promotions, serving efficiently and continuously as aide de camp until the surrender at Gainesville, Ala.” The newspaper also noted that Willie was wounded in three battles—at Fort Donelson, Tenn., in 1862; and in 1864 at Harrisburg, Miss., and Spring Hill, Tenn.
On April 15, 1865, his father wrote Willie a letter that included moral guidance.
“What I must desire of you my son is never to gamble or swear. These are baneful vices and I trust you will never practice either. As I grow older I see the folly of these two vices and beg that you will never engage in them. Your life has heretofore been elevated and characterized to a high-toned morality, and I trust your name will never be stained by the practice of those vices which have blighted the prospects of some of the most promising youth of our country. Be honest, be truthful, in all your dealings with the world. Be cautious in the selection of your friends. Shun the society of the low and vulgar. Strive to elevate your character and to take a high and honorable position in society. You are my only child, the pride and hope of my life. You have fine intellect, talent of the highest order. I have watched your entrance upon the threshold of manhood and life with all the admiration of a proud father, and I trust your future career will be an honor to yourself and a solace to my declining years. If we meet no more on earth I hope you will keep this letter prominently before you and remember it as coming from Your affectionate father.”
Willie survived the war and later graduated from the University of Mississippi. He joined his father in business, married twice, and had four children. In 1908, he suffered a stroke while watching “The Clansman,” a play adapted for the silent film screen in 1915 as “Birth of a Nation.”
Jeffrey Edward Forrest enlisted with his brother Nathan in the Tennessee Mounted Rifled in 1861. He later advanced to colonel of the 4th Alabama Cavalry, and led a brigade in his brother’s command. His military service was cut short at about age 37, when a minié bullet struck him in the neck during the Battle of Okolona, Miss., on Feb. 22, 1864. Nathan, according to a news report, arrived at his brother’s side moments after he fell.
This sad event filled Gen. Forrest with the profoundest grief. Forgetting the loud thunder-shock of battle, save his dead brother, he knelt down and fondly kissing his smiling lips and pressing his manly brow, sadly exclaiming, ‘noble brother!’ While the tears fell thick and fast. On! what a tide of agonizing emotion must fill the heart when a soldier weeps. The lips of the lion-hearted General, which, during the day, seemed made of iron, now quivered with unutterable feeling, and the eye that had never blanched in the wildest of battle now flowed with tears. The voice of affection spoke louder than the roar of artillery, and the marble-hearted hero wept like a child. And well he might, for there, before him, lay his brother—his youngest, favorite brother—he who was a tower of strength—he who had contributed so largely to the victory—nay, the right hand of his power, broken and fallen forever.”
Forrest’s mood soon changed. “His expression of grief gave way to almost one of ferocity,” recalled a fellow officer on the scene. Forrest mounted his horse and directed his bugler to “Blow the charge!” The general and his mount bolted back into the fray with his 60-man escort. “it seemed to me then that the general,” noted the officer, “maddened by grief at the loss of his favorite brother, wanted to go with him.” What followed next was a series of events that culminated in a wild charge that ended with Forrest slaying three federals with his sword.
Legend has it that the only man Nathan Bedford Forrest feared was his younger brother, William Hezekiah Forrest.
“Bill” Forrest began his war service in 1861 with the Tennessee Mounted Rifles, and went on to become a captain in the 3rd Tennessee Cavalry. He suffered a wound at the Battle of Sand Mountain, also known as Day’s Gap, Ala., on April 30, 1863. According to author Andrew N. Lyle in Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company, “A volley rattled; Captain Bill’s horse leaped in the air to meet it, and the captain fell off in the road, his thigh bone shattered.”
He recovered from his injury and was back in the saddle for his brother’s raid on Union-occupied Memphis on Aug. 21, 1864. One of the raid’s goals was to capture several Union generals. Captain Bill was assigned to bring in Maj. Gen. Stephen A. Hurlburt, reportedly headquartered at the Gayoso Hotel.
Lyle recounted what happened next. “Captain Bill, covered by the fog, rode stealthily forward. His men followed slowly but closely behind him. He reached the picket, struck him one blow with his heavy revolver, and the men tumbled to the ground. At the same instant his men sprang forward and captured the reserve. But one gun was fired.”
The gunshot prompted immediate action. Lyle continued, “Captain Bill’s men let out the rebel yell; the entire command, although it was strictly against orders, took it up. It was too much to ask them to keep from whooping and hollering. What was a raid for anyway?”
The noise alerted the Union men. “Captain Bill galloped to the Gayoso and, without the formality of dismounting, rode into the lobby,” Lyle noted. “One officer resisted and was shot. Some of Hurlburt’s staff were captured, but the general escaped.”
The raid failed.
Captain Bill fought on through the rest of the war, but did not live long after the end of hostilities. He died in 1875 after a short illness at about age 44.
A gold locket containing a portrait of Forrest scrimshawed in ivory was once owned by Capt. John Watson Morton (1842-1914), who served as the general’s Chief of Artillery. In 1909, his history of Forrest’s artillery was published.
An early war view of Forrest in Confederate uniform. He started his military service in Memphis in 1861 as an enlisted man, along with his brothers, Jeffrey and William, in a local militia company, the Tennessee Mounted Rifles. Surprised that a man of Forrest’s accomplishments had enrolled as a private, Gov. Isham G. Harris summoned Forrest to Memphis. He appointed Forrest a lieutenant colonel and authorized him to raise a battalion of mounted rangers.
By mid-October 1861, Lt. Col. Forrest commanded eight companies, about 650 troopers, which included the Forrest Rangers and the Boone Rangers. Forrest had amassed a fortune as a planter, real estate speculator, slave trader and riverboat gambler. He financed a significant amount of the equipment carried by his men. A few months after he sat for this portrait, Forrest received a promotion to colonel, adding a third star to his collar.
President Jefferson Davis promoted Forrest to major general in December 1863. Davis later described Forrest as “our vigilant, daring cavalry leader.” In this capacity, the newly minted major general took command of the 3,200-strong Forrest Cavalry Corps.
By this time, Forrest had distinguished himself at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Murfreesboro and elsewhere. Four months after he received the promotion to major general, his men participated in the massacre of U.S. Colored Troops at Fort Pillow, Tenn. Questions of what he knew and did not know dogged him for years.
Bingham & Brother in Memphis took this well-known view of Forrest. The Binghams are credited with numerous portraits of the general and his family. Forrest, pictured as a lieutenant general, received the promotion on March 2, 1865, for his leadership in command of rear guard actions widely credited with saving the Army of Tennessee from annihilation after the Battle of Nashville.
Forrest is pictured here in 1865, having traded his lieutenant general’s uniform for civilian attire. He presented this image to Thomas Cheatham Little (1848-1933), a member of his escort. “Doubtless no company,” according to a story in Confederate Veteran magazine, “was more widely known and favorably known or did perilous service than Forrest’s Escort.”
In 1868, Forrest sat for this pair of portraits at Mathew B. Brady’s studio in New York City. Forrest and his son, William, had made the journey from their home in Memphis to attend the Democratic Convention, at which Forrest served as a Tennessee delegate. Forrest was also a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. According to a news report in the July 8, 1868, edition of the Tennessean, a New Yorker entered Forrest’s hotel room and attempted to buy the general’s vote in favor of Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase. Forrest, who ultimately endorsed party nominee Gov. Horatio Seymour of New York, “slapped him in the mouth, and springing up in his shirt-tail he gave the pecuniary messenger a violent bare-foot kick as he fled through the door.”
About this time, Forrest publicly expressed his opposition against growing violence perpetrated by the Klan. Toward the end of his life in 1877 at age 56, Forrest spoke in reconciliatory tones to heal racial divides.