Nathan Bedford Forrest grew up poor, in rural Tennessee, with very little formal education. In his early teens, he went into business with his uncle Jonathon Forrest, and when Jonathon was killed in a street fight, Forrest killed the assailants with a a pistol and Bowie knife. He amassed a small fortune working as a slave trader, and by 1860 Forrest owned two cotton plantations and had established himself among the wealthiest men in Tennessee.
Once the War broke out, Forrest enlisted as a private in the Tennessee Mounted Rifles, and helped equip the unit using his own money. Proving himself to be a savage fighter with extraordinary battlefield savvy, Forrest was quickly promoted to the command of a corps. He is considered one of the Civil War’s most brilliant tacticians, and Forrest’s fast and hard striking raiders constantly harassed Union forces, cutting communication lines and seizing supplies. Leading his men to often surprising victories over numerically superior forces, his Corps won their fights at the Battles of Shiloh, Chickamauga, Brice’s Crossroads and 2nd Franklin and hundreds of small skirmishes. His men captured more Union guns, horses, and supplies than any other single Confederate unit. Forrest is reported to have killed thirty enemy soldiers in hand-to hand fighting in Cavalry battles.
In April 1864, at the Battle of Fort Pillow, Forrest’s command massacred 300 Union troops who had surrendered. Most of victims were black soldiers, but there were also some white Tennesseans fighting for the Union. While Forrest and his men would claim the fort’s occupants had resisted, survivors of what became known as the “Fort Pillow Massacre” argued that Forrest’s men had ignored their surrender and murdered the unarmed troops. The Joint Committee on the Conduct of War would later investigate the incident and agree that Forrest’s men had committed an unjust slaughter. They took no further action.
In the late 1860s Forrest is believed to have served as the Ku Klux Klan’s first Grand Wizard when it formed in 1866.
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