11 October 2005 by Published in: Confederate Cavalry 15 comments

Last night, I gave a talk to the Raleigh (NC) Civil War Roundtable. I did a comparison and contrast of Wade Hampton and Jeb Stuart, and in the course of preparing the talk, I realized that the TRUE Wizard of the Saddle was not Nathan Bedford Forrest, for the reasons set forth below, but rather Wade Hampton.

Here are the reasons:

1. Unlike Forrest, Wade Hampton was THE quintessential subordinate officer. Always courtly and courteous, Hampton performed well as a subordinate. In fact, Robert E. Lee greatly regretted giving Hampton permission to leave the Army of Northern Virginia to go to South Carolina in 1865, and Joseph E. Johnston, the overall Confederate commander in the Carolinas, came to rely heavily on Hampton was his most trusted and most dependable subordinate, supplanting even William J. Hardee. In fact, Hampton designed the plan that Johnston used at Bentonville, and Hampton’s audacious attack at Monroe’s Crossroads permitted Hardee to successfully evacuate his Corps from Fayetteville and burn the Clarendon Bridge over the Cape Fear River before it fell into Sherman’s hands. In fact, Hampton, who did not particularly like Stuart, was unfailingly the loyal subordinate who could be depended upon in almost any capactiy.

2. Unlike Forrest, Hampton was the complete package. While a ferocious fighter–Hampton killed 13 Union soldiers in personal combat during the war and was severely wounded twice in battle, and wounded one other time in battle–Hampton also had a real talent for performing the traditional role of cavalry–scouting, screening, and reconnaissance. Hampton was actually quite good in all three of these roles–perhaps he learned and mastered the techniques from Stuart–and could be relied upon to perform whatever role he was needed in.

3. Unlike Forrest, Hampton regularly met and defeated the very best the Union cavalry had to offer. While Forrest was off facing the second team, Hampton was facing–and beating–the likes of Sheridan, Gregg, Merritt, Kilpatrick, Wilson, Custer, etc. Hampton never lost a major cavalry engagement where he commanded the Army of Northern Virginia’s Cavalry Corps.

4. Like Forrest, Hampton had no formal military training whatsoever, even though his grandfather had been a major general in the War of 1812, and both his father and grandfather had served in the cavalry. However, Hampton had a lot of native, natural talent, and became a feared and respected commander of horse as a result of his God-given talent.

5. Unlike Forrest, Hampton’s operations actually made a difference in the outcome of the war. Hampton’s truly decisive thrashing of Sheridan at Trevilian Station in June 1864 actually made Early’s Valley Campaign possible, and made it possible for the Confederacy to have an additional six months of life that it otherwise probably would not have had. Forrest’s operations were not much more than annoyances for the Union high command, like a larger-scale version of John S. Mosby’s partisans.

6. Hampton was THE highest ranking officer in all of the Confederate cavalry, ranking even Forrest and exceeding even the lamented Stuart in rank.

When I take all of these factors into account, it becomes clear to me that calling Nathan Bedford Forrest the Wizard of the Saddle is wrong. With all due respect to the late, great Shelby Foote, the TRUE Wizard of the Saddle was Wade Hampton, not Forrest.

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Comments

  1. Johnny Whitewater
    Tue 11th Oct 2005 at 8:24 pm

    Though I pointed this out in your first NBF post after it was no longer one of the newest entries, I’ll point it out here again just in case it went missed.

    I don’t think it’s entirely fair to judge Forrest based on his interactions with Bragg and Hood because a number of very good officers had issues with both of them.

    While Forrest obviously didn’t face the same individuals that Hampton did, at the same time Forrest wasn’t working with the same quality of cavalry. In at least two instances he had to raise his own battalions from scratch. Forrest also decisively crushed Sturgis at Brice’s Crossroads, Sturgis being an experienced cavalry officer out of the 1846 class of West Point

    I don’t know enough about Forrest’s war record, although you did mention he did a great job of rear guarding the retreat from Shiloh. I don’t know to what extent Forrest was asked to perform the traditional cavalry roles.

    I did have a question about #6 though. Since Hampton and Forrest were the only two cavalry officers to be made Lieutenant Generals in the Confederacy, am I correct in assuming you are basing rank on date? Regardless of whether people agree or disagree with your conclusion, I think #6 is rather marginal since they were both Lt. Generals, the highest possible rank.

  2. Tue 11th Oct 2005 at 8:43 pm

    Johnny,

    Regarding Brice’s Crossroads, Sturgis was indeed thrashed. Sturgis, however, was no military genius. There’s a good reason why he never commanded the 7th Cavalry in the field in the years after the war.

    Forrest was not asked to perform traditional cavalry roles because he would not obey the direct orders of his commanding officer. That makes it difficult for him to do so.

    As to your question, Hampton was promoted a month before Forrest was, meaning that he was senior. The rule was that date of commission determined seniority. So, I disagree with your assessment of the date of commission being marginal. It means that if Hampton was to give Forrest and order, Forrest would have had to have obeyed that order since it came from a superior officer. It’s hardly trivial.

    Eric

  3. Barry Summers
    Wed 12th Oct 2005 at 9:18 am

    Eric,
    Any good bio or books on Gen Hampton?
    Barry

  4. Johnny Whitewater
    Wed 12th Oct 2005 at 2:05 pm

    I wasn’t trying to say the fact that Hampton outranked Forrest is trivial. But I don’t think it bolsters your argument, especially in comparison to the first 5 points. Being the ranking officer hardly made one the better officer, i.e. Benjamin Butler outranking Sherman or Polk outranking a host of Western Confederate officers.

  5. Wed 12th Oct 2005 at 4:58 pm

    You are right as rain about Hampton. His promotion, a last-minute one which could be interpreted as a slight to Joe Wheeler, presented a leadership problem in itself – and in the Carolinas Campaign, Hampton’s deft handling of the very different commands of Wheeler and the South Carolina, M.C. Butler, showed a flexibility of mind and mastery of tactics hard to match. And for pure nerve, it’s hard to beat his five-man mounted charge on occupied Fayetteville…

    He was quick to grasp tactical changes but very clever about exploiting the advantages of South Carolina cavalry – including their outmoded capability with the sabre. His “great beefsteak raid” had all the dash of a Stuart operation – with the added advantage that it did a lot of immediate GOOD. (Grant “treated” several of his generals to a beefless meal to hammer home how unhappy he was with that event.) And, taking nothing away from Forrest’s tactical genius, Hampton as a team player was far, far superior (although Hampton never did have to deal with Bragg, so that may be unfair – but it is true that WH never did find it necessary to shoot or stab any of his OWN men!)

    I would like to hear your talk someday. And for further research, feel free to contact us here at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Museum in Columbia.

  6. Wed 12th Oct 2005 at 5:38 pm

    Barry,

    There are two very recent bios of Hampton. They have different strengths. Ed Longacre’s recent bio, Gentleman and Soldier: A Biography of Wade Hampton is pretty good on his military career, while Walter Brian Cisco’s Wade Hampton: Confederate Warrior, Conservative Statesman is a superb treatment of Hampton’s remarkable political career after the war. If you combine both, you will get a really good overview of his life and accomplishments.

    Eric

  7. Jerry Price
    Sun 15th Jul 2007 at 4:54 am

    A superb biography was written on Hampton in 1940 by the title of “Giant in Gray” by Manly Wade Wellman. It was out of print for many years. Morningside Books of Dayton, Ohio made a reprint in 1988.

    Check with them or check on ebay to locate a copy. A must read for anyone who admires the man.

    It tells many little know n tales that sheds greater light on Hampton.

    A couple of brief ones I found interesting:

    At Gettysburg, the day prior to the battle at East Calvary Field, Hampton was off alone reconnoitering when he came across a lone Union trooper who fired at him. Hampton pulled his revolver and fired back. Oddly, they had a duel in which they allowed the other to take alternating shots. When the trooper’s rifle jammed, Hampton held his fire, allowed the Union man to clear it and resume his fire. Hampton managed to slightly wound the man, who then retreated.

    Earlier in the war, Hampton was again out scouting alone when he came across a Union soldier in the middle of a creek, bathing buck naked, as one would expect. The man convinced Hampton he was a noncombatant and about to go on leave back home to marry. Hampton allow the man to go back to his lines, minus his clothes. In return, the soldier promised to name his first born son Wade Hampton…which he eventually did.

  8. Bernie O'Bryan
    Fri 21st Sep 2007 at 1:43 pm

    Taking nothing away from Hampton, nor his abilities, but
    to contend that Forrest wasn’t quite the general as Hampton, because his opposition was not as prominent as Hampton’s is like saying Alexander may not have been quite up to the mark because he chiefly faced Darius, or that Grant in the west did not have to face Lee, Jackson, etc. Your arguements should have not included who was promoted sooner or higher, as those things are heavily influenced by politics, wealth, connections, recommendations of commanding officers, etc. Kirby-Smith wanted to promote many officers in the west, but because communication was limited with the Mississippi being controled by the union was often frustrated waiting and communicating with Richmond in his limited means. Forrest beat all comers until overwhelmed at Selma, even Sherman worried about him. Sherman also faced Hampton, but did not seemed as concerned about him as he had about Forrest. Could Hampton have done more than Forrest if Hampton had been under the thumb of Bragg. What could have Forrest achieved if overseen and mentored by Lee, Stuart or Jackson? Forrest never wanted to follow foolish orders or poor generals. The defeat at Tupelo was a fight advocated against, and Selma’s defense was most likely the best anyone could have done under the circumstances. If Forrest’s commander had been anyone but Bragg, he most likely would have been promoted faster. The death of A.S. Johnson early in the war had a cascading effect among the entire leadership corps. Even Lee later said that he knew little about Forrest until late in the war. The Kentucky Invasion may have gone differently with Forrest apart of its instead of being sent south to recruit and organize new troops. His aggressiveness and sense of tactics may have pushed Bragg into a better position with higher chance of success. Certainly his own troops would have performed better. He knew Kentucky having personnal traveled to Louisville to outfit his troops early in the war, and actively raided in West Kentucky (Paducah). Imagine if he had been in charge during instead of Morgan during the great 1863 raid instead of Morgan, our held higher command earlier in the war.

  9. Jack Halbrook
    Tue 02nd Oct 2007 at 10:37 pm

    Bedford Forrest was, according to General Sherman the “Very Devil”. After the war Sherman stated that he never knew what Forrest was up to but that Forrest seemed to always know what he was doing. In the retreat from Shiloh, Forrest was blown out of his saddle by a musket jammed into his side yet managed to grab a soldier by the collar, sling him over his back using him as a shield and retreat to his own line before his own horse fell dead from wounds.

    Forrest defeated an army twice his size at Brice’s Crossroads, captured all their cannons and chased them back to Memphis. He used a few good men, boys too young to serve at the beginning of the war, deserters and old men. He rolled his artillery out in front of his skirmish line, had them unlimber and open fire. He later told his artillery commander that artillery was meant to be taken “and I wanted to see them capture yours.”

    When Sherman marched to the sea through Georgia, he sent another army under A J Smith to keep Forrest of his supply line. Forrest fought than larger arm to a standstill and was wonded again.

    He was wounded a third time by one of his own men with a knife.

    He was wounded yet again in Alabama by a saber near the end of the war while defending the arsenal at Selma.

    He killed 23 men and had 22 horses shot out from under him. I do not know it that qualifies him to be a cavalry officer or not but it sure seems to me that you have to know how to get on a horse before you can have it shot out from under you!

    At Chickamauga Forrest urged Bragg to take Chatanooga. Bragg did not. The capture of Chatanooga could have easily turned the tide for the army in the West. Forrest never had a commander over him of the quality of the Army of Northern Virginia.

    There is at least one biography on Forrest written during his lifetime with interviews of him. Several more were written before 1940. I could write a biography about Joe Shelby including elephants and dragons but that does not mean it is accurate.

  10. Darrell L. Combs
    Wed 03rd Oct 2007 at 4:47 pm

    This site is really useful. I am engaging in working on a Masters degree in Civil War History and there is always food for thought (in depth) here.
    I just wanted to says thanks

    Darrell L. Combs
    USMC (Infantry) Ret.

  11. Charles Bennett
    Tue 15th Apr 2008 at 3:47 pm

    About W. Hampton, I’m trying to find any info about one of my great uncles who served in the 7th Va. Cav. I understand that his commander was Rosser who served under Hampton if I’m correct.
    I’ve been looking for unit records, pay,enlistments,etc. and can’t seem to locate any rolls for that unit. Anybody have any suggestions?
    Also, his brother served with Hatcher’s Independent Cavalry Brigade which I assume to have been Confederate. I don’t know who or if they were attached to any other unit. Any help with that one would also be much appreciated

  12. Dr.G
    Mon 25th Aug 2008 at 12:25 am

    FYI – for all you Hampton heads – Rod Andrew, Jr. just published his biography of Hampton through UNC Press. Still reading it, but so far so good. Really good maps and illustrations (I think he must have got in good with the folks at the South Caroliniana Library at USC). Title – “Wade Hampton: Confederate Warrior to Southern Redeemer.” Themes – paternalism, honor, chivalry and vindication.

  13. raymond hix
    Wed 20th Jul 2011 at 1:23 pm

    Gen. Wade Hampton and N.B. Forrest were both very fine Cavalry officers and both contributed to the Cause in substantial ways. Comparing the War in Northern Virginia with the West is silly. The reason the South failed is the fact that Gen. Lee was primarily concerned with defending Va. while in the West the war was spread out over the rest of the Confederacy. That said, W. Hampton is one of my favorite historical military figures ahead of Forrest, but calling Hampton the Wizard of the Saddle is about a preposterous as calling Wheeler the Gray Ghost. I would take Wheeler, Forrest, Hampton, Mosby, or Morgan as my cavalry man any day over Little Phil or that moron Custer.

  14. Jim
    Sun 14th Dec 2014 at 9:26 pm

    This is an excellent discussion of two of the greatest Americans to ever wear a uniform. That said, to elevate one of my heroes, Hampton, at the expense of Forrest is incorrect as are many of the points raised.

    Forrest was treated in a criminal manner by many of his commanders. In the case of Bragg, Forrests’ unit, which he had raisedband equipped atnhis own expensevwas taken away from him not only once but twice, after he had formed a second.

    Forrest was an excellent cavalry officer in every role and mission assigned him. See his performance at Fallen Timbers conducting rearguard and similarly after Chattanooga. His performance conducting recon and screen at chickamauga demonstrates his excellence in that role.

    Forrest not only defeated all opponents except Wilson but defeated combined infantry and cavalry forces with cavalry which is rare for any cavalry force.

    The statement that Forrests operations made no difference in the war is farthest from the mark of all. According to US Grant himself Forrests raid cutting his lines of communications to Tennessee, (combined with Van Dorns destruction of his supply base) ended Grants first offensive to take Vicksburg extending the war in the West by at least a year

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