06 October 2005 by Published in: Confederate Cavalry 24 comments

I am often asked for my opinion on the greatest cavalrymen of the American Civil War. Invariably, unless the person asking the question knows me well, they express surprise and asky why Nathan Bedford Forrest is not on that list. I wish I had a dollar for every time that I’ve been asked this question. I’d have a lot of dollar bills by now.

In my humble opinion, there is no place for Nathan Bedford Forrest on ANY list of great cavalrymen of the Civil War.

I know that’s not only controversial, but borders on sacrilege in a lot of quarters. However, there’s a good reason and sound logic underlying this opinion of mine. First, and foremost, Forrest was not a cavalryman in any traditional sense of the word. The historic role of cavalry was scouting, screening, and reconnaissance. With no formal military training, Forrest had absolutely no talent for these crucial roles, and did not perform them with any ability, the one notable exception being the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. By example, when one thinks of Jeb Stuart, one thinks of his masterful intelligence gathering (which included three different rides around the Army of the Potomac), the magnificent job he did screening Robert E. Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg, and the way Lee described Stuart: “the eyes and ears of the army.” Or, consider what a weeping Lee said when he learned that Stuart was dead–“he never brought me a wrong piece of information.” In all my years studying the Civil War, I have never once heard such a description applied to Forrest.

Rather, Forrest was a commander of mounted infantry. His men carried infantry weapons and used infantry tactics. They used their horses primarily as transportation, using them to move from place to place, where they then fought dismounted. I will grant you that Forrest was an innovative tactician, and that some of his tactics closely resemble some modern armored tactics, but it’s important to evaluate Forrest in the context of his times, and not in comparison with modern doctrine, which has changed. Forrest simply had no talent for the traditional roles of cavalry.

Second, there’s the fact that effective cavalry work depends upon the cavalry commander working closely with the army commander, whereby the cavalry commander serves as the eyes and ears of the army. Armies rely on discipline. Discipline means that junior officers obey the lawful orders of their superiors. This is the only way that a chain of command can be maintained and anarchy avoided. That means that an insubordinate junior officer, no matter how talented, has no value to an army commander if that junior officer refuses to obey orders. What I’ve just described is Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest absolutely and categorically refused to serve under two army commanders–Bragg and Hood–and said to Hood, “If you were half a man, I would slap your jowls.” Never mind that Hood had lost one leg in combat, and had a permanently crippled arm due to another combat wound. This means that unless he was in independent command, Forrest was entirely useless to the army commander.

By the way, the same description applies to Phil Sheridan, who was unable to serve under George G. Meade, and never did again after the Battle of the Wilderness.

Finally, there’s the issue of just what did Forrest accomplish. Yes, he had a gaudy combat record, but it’s easy to do that when you’re persistently and consistently up against the second team. I can think of only one instance where Forrest really faced the first team–against Wilson at Selma at the tail end of the war–and when he did face the first team, he got thrashed, big time. I come to the conclusion that Forrest really wasn’t much more than John S. Mosby on a larger scale–a nuisance that sucked away some resources, but which, in the big scheme of things, didn’t really have any impact at all of the final outcome of any major campaign or of the war in his theater.

When I examine all of these issues, I come away with one conclusion: that there is no place for Forrest on a list of great cavalrymen of the Civil War. In fact, given my druthers, I would choose Wade Hampton over Forrest in a heartbeat. Hampton was every bit as hard a fighter–Hampton had a gaudy won-lost record against the best the Union had to offer, not the second team–who was the ultimate subordinate officer and who had a real gift for performing the traditional roles of cavalry. Perhaps that explains why Hampton was THE highest ranking cavalry officer of the war on the Confederate side, outranking even Forrest.

That’s my opinion, anyway.

Scridb filter

Comments

  1. Johnny Whitewater
    Thu 06th Oct 2005 at 6:40 pm

    The irony about this post is that a number of ardent Forrest supporters reached the exact opposite conclusion: starting with his biographer Andrew Nelson Lytle, some argue that Forrest could have won the war if the likes of Lee and Davis would not have gotten in his way.

    Regardless, I think Forrest’s biggest influence on the war is the total dichotomy of public perception regarding his legacy. It helps us understand Civil War historiography and Civil War memory in an unusually clear way. When I graduated last spring, I wrote my sizable term paper on the national and sectional perceptions of Forrest from 1861-now.

    On a side note, I never read or saw anything about that alleged comment to Hood until this post, though I do know he made a very similar one to Bragg.

  2. Fri 07th Oct 2005 at 12:13 pm

    Johnny,

    Of course, that doesn’t surprise me a bit–Forrest’s supporters tend to be quite strong in their support and view any criticism as being sacriligious. I think you’re quite right in your assessment, and that’s why I thought that this topic was worth discussing.

    Thanks for writing.

    Eric

  3. Dave Kelly
    Sun 09th Oct 2005 at 5:23 am

    Cavalry in the “traditional” sense of the word?

    I’m sure a “heavy” cavalryman would take exception with the notion that he was supposed to patter around the edge of the battlefield sniping and spying ;).

    I will agree with Mr Wittenberg that most ersatz cavalryman failed to multi task effectively, and NBF’s manifest inability to work well with others limited his scope.

    But given the doctrinal disarray for cavalry I’m not so certain that I would simply disqualify cavalry commanders for failing to be Murat.

    Also Selma is hardly a fair example of matched capabilities considering it was an endgame encounter pitting a Confederate polyglot against the final product of 4 years of northern development. Consider what Forrest and Wheeler accomplished vangaurding Braggs plunge against Buell in 1862, tearing up his rear area…. Every dog has his day. ‘cept Kilpatrick :).

  4. Johnny Whitewater
    Mon 10th Oct 2005 at 6:30 pm

    I think it’s only fair to point out that Forrest was not the only one to have problems with Bragg and Hood.

  5. Tue 11th Oct 2005 at 5:37 pm

    Johnny,

    While that’s certainly a true statement, Bragg was not the only commander that Forrest had problems with. Once, you can overlook it as an anomoly. Twice, though, and it becomes an issue.

    Eric

  6. Ryan
    Tue 18th Oct 2005 at 10:42 pm

    No two military officers are the same. They all vary in skills and tactics, what one general might do isn’t always what the other will do. Why do you think the army of the potomac went through so many commanders? Not all were equal some were very agressive,others were cautious, and some master strategists, but all were general officers. My point being that Forrest was aggressive,brave and intelligent, and also a good calvary commander. Jeb had qualities of a great calvarymen in the ” traditional sense” but this war was the beginning of modern warfare and with the change in times and technology so is the need for change in units and leadership. I believe that Forrest’s qualities were effective and helped support the southern confederacy when they needed it most. Forrest might have had limited abilities as a calvarymen but the abilities he did have he used with great effectiveness and should not be dishonored for his efforts.

  7. Tue 18th Oct 2005 at 10:45 pm

    Ryan,

    Clearly, you’re entitled to your opinion, and I respect that. I also agree with much of what you say.

    However, I must take exception with–and vigorously disagree with–one portion of your comment. I cannot agree with your claim that Forrest was a good cavalry commander. He may have been a good commander, but he was NOT a cavalryman. That, by definition, means that he could not have been a good cavalry commander.

    Thanks for reading, and thanks for taking the time to write.

    Eric

  8. Ryan
    Wed 19th Oct 2005 at 1:57 am

    Thanks for the feedback General, and I must say that this is a good blog for fans of military history. You’ll be hearing from me!

  9. Wed 19th Oct 2005 at 8:27 am

    Ryan,

    Great! And thanks for your kind words.

    Eric

  10. Stefan Papp, Jr.
    Tue 01st Nov 2005 at 5:24 am

    Eric,

    Forrest threatened Bragg with slapping, not Hood…

    Best from Germany,

    Stefan

  11. jack jameson
    Thu 17th Nov 2005 at 4:31 am

    I think it is interesting that Forrest ushered in the “New Age” of calvary, yet you claim he was not a calvaryman. The current day “Air Cav” accomplishes with heliocopters what Forrest did on horseback. Alyhough you have a valid point…William Forrest and the” Forty Theives” were NATHAN’S

  12. jack jameson
    Thu 17th Nov 2005 at 4:39 am

    CALVARY’S eyes and ears.
    I think Lee was being too kind to Stuart, as Stuarts failure to provide Lee with recon at Gettysburg may have resulted in some poor decisions made there.

  13. Frank Stroupe
    Fri 18th Nov 2005 at 1:20 pm

    Sir, you are totally correct in your analysis of Forrest not being a cavalry commander, in the traditional sense. I do understand the criticism to your position, as after the war, the role of the cavalry was redefined to a large part, to the role of mounted infantry, and most people base their understanding of the branch to post-WBTS instead of the traditional role.

    And you are also correct in the view that Forrest would not be useful to any commander…in a traditional cavalry role.

    I will not criticize your position of Forrest’s effectiveness to the war effort, as it is your opinion, and it is clear that you are unimpressed with the entire “War in the West”. I will let the opinions of Robert E. Lee and William T. Sherman, among others, of Forrest, stand for myself.

  14. Frank Stroupe
    Fri 18th Nov 2005 at 3:00 pm

    I should say “horse cavalry”, once the post-WTBS cavalry unmounted horses, and mounted vehicles, their mission once again became “the eyes and ears of the commander”.

  15. Lee White
    Fri 27th Jan 2006 at 2:53 pm

    I agree with Eric, Forrest has taken on the mantle almost akin to Robin Hood. Forrest performed very poorly for Bragg in the Chickamauga campaign, the same can be said of Wheeler too. If the Cavalry is the eyes and ears of an army, then the Army of Tennessee was blind and deaf. Also, a there is some doubt as to either of the Forrest confrontations actually occured. There is only one account of the Bragg fight, and that was wrote years after the war and never supported by anyone else, also given Bragg’s strict adherance to the rules, Bragg would have had Forrest in irons. As a side note, Bragg was not as universally dispised as most would belive, he did have his supporters in the army and they were split pretty even with his enemies.

    Lee

  16. Valerie Protopapas
    Sat 11th Mar 2006 at 8:24 pm

    Forrest is an enigma of a sorts. He was far more ‘independent’ than even such ‘independent’ commands as Mosby. At a recent symposium in Richmond, some little effort was made to delineate Forrest and from what I learned, it seemed as if Forrest was fighting the war more ‘independently’ than anyone else. For instance, when engaged in a battle after which the Confederate military commander wished to surrender his forces, Forrest said something to the effect that he hadn’t come all that way to surrender – and took his men off by stealth. Forrest’s desire to ‘obey’ his military superiors was directly proportionate to his own determinations vis a vie the orders they gave. If he agreed, he obeyed; if he didn’t, he was liable to find something else to do that suited him better.

    As well, Forrest bought and paid for his command and, I guess, believed that he was the final arbiter of their destiny – which, in fact, he proved to be after the surrender of the Confederacy. In the same way, Mosby created his command – a much smaller one than Forrest’s – and so chose after Appomattox to disband rather than surrender the 43rd Battalion. However, Mosby never failed to obey orders given to him by his recognized superiors – Stuart and Lee – and, unlike Forrest, was a commensurate commander of cavalry in the role of scouting, raiding and intelligence gathering.

    Both Forrest and Mosby saw a role for the cavalry that ‘went against the grain’ of the more accepted military ideals. The thing is, they went in different directions: Forrest went to a larger role – a sort of ‘mounted infantry’ as Mr. Wittenberg notes – while Mosby went for a smaller role – what we now call, Special Forces operations.

    However, I don’t think that any evaluation of Forrest is really complete without taking into account how very badly W.T. Sherman wanted him exterminated even to bankrupting the national Treasury. Whether Forrest was cavalry or mounted infantry, apparently to Sherman he was a colossal pain in the nether region and – like Mosby – remained so until the end of the war.

    V.P.

  17. Frank Stroupe
    Mon 07th Aug 2006 at 8:38 pm

    Valerie, you make it sound as if Forrest and Mosby acted independently in a vacuum. Each were allowed to act independently, because that is when they usually were more effective. Either man could be removed from command at any time. More than once in the OR, Bragg gives favorable comments to President Davis of Forrest’s exploits, and tells Davis “it would deprive this army of one of its greatest elements of strength to remove General Forrest, when Forrest had requested permission to form a brigade in northern Mississippi in Jul 63.

    General Lee also allowed a fair amount of independence to Stuart, i.e., Stuart’s fairly useless “rides around the entire Union Army”.

    At Ft. Donelson, Forrest was not only allowed to leave with his command, he was also allowed to extract many other men that did not desire to surrender, Generals Floyd and Pillow left with him. Obviously, his point was well taken. Yes, they left by stealth, as leaving before the surrender instrument was signed was against protocol.

    Actually, Forrest “bought and paid for” two commands, and a significant part of a third. The first two were taken from him and given to Wheeler by Bragg…a man that Bragg well knew that Forrest despised. Of course, we don’t know if Bragg did it malitiously, or out of operational necessity. The third was when he was given command of the poorly equipped States’ Troops, local militias, and former partisan rangers in Jan 64.

    Nowhere that I am aware of, was Forrest ever accused of failing to obey orders, only that he allegedly voiced his displeasure of them…at Ft. Donelson, and after Chattanooga. The alleged confrontation with Hood was not over orders, but over the needless deaths of Forrest’s soldiers at Franklin.

    Lee, actually, both Forrest and Wheeler performed well at Chickamauga, both in the cavarly roles they were in prior to the battle, and in the infantry roles they performed during the battle. Additionally, Forrest notified Bragg that the Union army was retreating to Chattanooga and advised him to attack, both allegedly in person, and officially. (OR, XXX, XVII, Part IV, Page 681)

    Whether the confrontation between Forrest and Bragg after Chickamauga actually took place, who knows, you either believe Dr. Cowan or not, and he waited until both Bragg and Forrest had passed on before telling the tale.

    Regardless, a few months later, President Davis gave Forrest a lateral promotion, with even more independence than he previously had. (he was given command of all cavalry forces in north Mississippi, excepting those directly under the command of Gen Stephen D. Lee, and had operational control of at least two of Lee’s cavalry regiments for most of the remainder of the war)

  18. Don H.
    Tue 31st Oct 2006 at 8:35 am

    Hello Eric and fellow bloggers

    I recently purchased a couple of your books and look forward to reading them. This portion of your blog relating to confederate cavalary has raised my interest in other lesser know leaders. I agree with your opinions about Thomas Munford and enjoyed reading them. I wanted to see if you were going to post some others. What do you think about the following:
    Laurence Baker
    Lunsford Lomax
    James B. Gordon
    John Chambliss
    Pierce M.B. Young

    I realize Young and Gordon have had biographies done on them(unsure of the quality). Wondered if you thought any of the others might be good subjects. One other book I have in my collection that I’ve not gotten to is THE LITTLE JEFF- Hopkins. Hopefully, will provide some good reading.
    Regards
    Don

  19. Morgan A. Mukarram
    Sat 06th Jan 2007 at 11:34 pm

    Was general Nathan Bedford Forrest ever married to a blacj woman? Is it possible that Mary Ann Montgomery was a black woman with a very fair complexion?

  20. Lee White
    Sat 17th Feb 2007 at 12:06 pm

    Lee, actually, both Forrest and Wheeler performed well at Chickamauga, both in the cavarly roles they were in prior to the battle, and in the infantry roles they performed during the battle. Additionally, Forrest notified Bragg that the Union army was retreating to Chattanooga and advised him to attack, both allegedly in person, and officially. (OR, XXX, XVII, Part IV, Page 681)

    I disagree completely. Neither Wheeler or Forrest kept Bragg informed of Rosecrans movements. Indeed the entire Federal Army was across the Tennessee River and in Bragg’s rear before Bragg learned about it, and then that was from civilians. Wheeler had one regiment charged with covering fifty miles of river front and it numbered slightly over 200 men. Wheeler had the bulk of his cavalry encamped down near Rome, GA and Oxford, AL, too far away from the front.
    Forrest gave bad info to Bragg as well, in regards to the Union forces leaving Chattanooga, they werent, and indeed a few hours later he runs into strong Federal resistance at Rossville Gap, where Thomas was firmly entrenched. Thats why Bragg didnt follow up on Forrest’s info.
    Also as the Battle began Forrest was supposed to cover the CS advance to the LaFayette Road, not done, he actually followed behind the infantry and encamped on the night of Sept 18. Finally, in one of the fabled Forrest tales on the 19th, he sends Ectors infantry brigade into action, without having gotten permission, Ector then sent word back that he was worried about his left flank and Forrest responded he would look after his left, then Ector sent back word that he was worried about his right, and Forrest roared that he was there and he would take care of both Ector’s right and left, does anyone know what happened to Ector? His right flank was torn apart, Ector’s command was so shot up that it was held out of action on Sept 20, having lost almost every field grade officer in the brigade, Ector being wounded himself.

    Lee

  21. Sat 21st Apr 2007 at 8:03 pm

    Mr. Gavigan,

    You’re obviously entitled to your opinion, which is fine.

    However, what you don’t get to do is insult me on my own web site.

    Your comment has been deleted until you learn how to behave.

    The Management

  22. Bryan Gladstone
    Wed 15th Apr 2009 at 11:25 am

    What a genuinely fascinating debate, but at the most fundamental level, it cannot ever reach any kind of conclusion. Forrest was no subordinate, that is for certain. He proved that in 1861 when he cut his way out of the Kentucky forts in a way that was well understood at the time. He would never have lasted in the Northern armies, but was an ideal commander in the less organised and wartorn South.
    It is precisely because he was raising troops and fighting them in his and their own backyards that the Sothern hierarchy put up with him and he was so effective. And he was effective whether or not you want to compare him to Hampton, Lee, Pershing or Eisenhower.
    The Civil War was the first major war in which the Industrial Revolution profoundly impacted on the traditional role of Cavalry, and that is one reason why Forrest still fascinates us. He influenced the future of militairy tactics more profoundly than the traditional plumed cavaliers and that cannot be denied.
    At the same time, of course, Stewart and Hampton wonderfully well (with the exception, of course, of Stewart’s famous Pennsylvania ego trip).
    Its horses for courses. Whatever we think of Forrest, we ought to respect the judgments of most of his contemporaries who fought with and against him. the speculation about the relative merits miss the point. In very different conditions Hampton and Forrest were both amongst the most effective of leaders at least in the eyes of their contemporaries.
    I have never warmed to either as human beings, but both Forrest and Hampton probably did as much as anyone could have hoped for with their Calvalry troops, given the overall performance of the armies with which they served. I doubt that either could have accomplished what the other did if their roles had been switched.
    Sorry for waiting so long to contribute, (Given the erudition of the earlier contributions I was afraid to waste your time.)

  23. Fri 16th Sep 2016 at 8:33 pm

    I just found this comment while reading the Hess book on Bragg. In my opinion (and I have a large analysis of Forrest’s battles and campaigns forthcoming from Savas Beatie), your original post as well as some subsequent posts have a significant amount of misinformation.
    I will not argue mounted infantry versus cavalry, he fought his men primarily dismounted. I would say almost always he did as he was ordered, and that was not always scouting, screening, and reconnaissance. He screened the left flank of Bragg before the Tullahoma campaign, reconning Franklin and Triune, and reported in early June that the Union cavalry had moved east to Murfreesboro and Rosecrans was getting ready to move (OR 23 pt.2, 856) – a report Bragg and Wheeler apparently ignored.
    He screened the army’s right (by Bragg’s order) at Chattanooga, but Rosecrans chose to go left through Wheeler’s area. He quite correctly informed Bragg of what he could see after Chickamauga, and, had the Confederate army been in any shape to continue the attack I believe there is little doubt they would have crushed Rosecrans – but they were not.
    Nowhere have I found any evidence he threatened Hood (although he certainly disagreed with him about Franklin on Winstead Hill), and the story by Cowan is almost certainly highly exaggerated if not false. You obviously confused the two stories. His relations with his commanders (Johnston, Clark, Pillow, Breckinridge, Kirby Smith, Bragg, Wheeler, Polk, S.D. Lee, Maury, and Taylor) were extremely cordial with the singular exceptions of Bragg and Wheeler.
    The comment about the “first team” is incorrect. Sturgis and Grierson had twice as many troops, all experienced, at Brices Crossroads, yet they fell. Wilson had 4,800 men, some with repeaters, north of the Duck during the early part of the Nashville campaign. Forrest had 4,500 men and drove Wilson north past Spring Hill. At the end of the campaign Forrest delayed on successive positions, saving Hood’s army, against Wilson, who by that time had close to 10,000 men while Forrest, reinforced by the remnants of an infantry division, had at most half that.
    Yes, at Selma he was defeated. He had around 5,000 men, half untrained militia. He was attacked by 10,000 experienced men with repeating rifles, who were aided by an Englishman Wilson had captured who gave Wilson the plan for Selma’s fortifications. On the other hand, Forrest did not know the defenses at all until the day of the battle because he had been delaying Wilson’s advance (Wilson had also captured two of his couriers, letting Wilson know Forrest’s dispositions and plans, during the delay phase.
    Forrest had shortcomings and made mistakes, but his record supports Sherman and Lee in their opinions as to his value, not yours.

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