The United States Army, in its doctrine, lists nine basic principles. As stated in
Field Manual 100-5 these include objective, offensive, mass, economy of force,
maneuver, unity of command, security, surprise, and simplicity. 1 Napoleon had 115
maxims, Sun Tzu had 13 principles, but Nathan Bedford Forrest's advice was the utmost
of simplicity, "Git thar firstest with the mostest men."2 As we look at the challenge
facing our nation's military today, our leaders would do well to look at Forrest's
campaigns and strategies as a guide.
. Forrest won respect for risking his life while trying to save his aging uncle.
Subsequently, Forrest won the affection of Mary Montgomery who, in 1845, became his
In 1851 Bedford moved to Memphis. He won several elections as an elderman
and prospered as a businessman. When he closed out his business in late1859 war was
eminent. He was involved in his own cotton business and was busy putting his family
affairs in order. His net worth was 11/2 million dollars and he was netting $30 thousand
a year for his cotton. While he was a slave trader during this period, Colonel Adair
described his actions as "Forrest was kind, humane, and extremely considerate of his
slaves. He seemed to exercise the same influence over them that in a greater degree he
exercised over the soldiers who served him as devotedly as if there was between them a
strong personal attachment.5
On 14 June 1861, he enlisted in Memphis as a soldier in Captain White's
Tennessee Mounted Rifles Company.6 This unit would become a subordinate unit of the
Seventh Tennessee Calvary Regiment. Forrest was the unit's commander when the war
ended. Friends of Forrest's approached Governor Harris and General Polk, which
subsequently resulted in an authorization allowing Forrest to raise a battalion of
mounted rangers. By October of 1861 he had eight companies of men comprising a
total of 650. Most arrived with pistols and shotguns, as well as horses, which resulted in
Forrest still attempting to obtain rifles for them when the unit was ordered to Dover as
reinforcement for what was to be Fort Donelson. As Colonel Tate described then to
General Johnston, "Colonel Forrest's regiment of cavalry, as fine a body of men as ever
went to the field, has gone to Fort Donelson. Give Forrest a chance and he will
For the next forty months, Forrest proved just how good Colonel Tate's
evaluation was. As we examine his exploits as a cavalryman/raider, it is important to see
how these same skills would be valuable to today's military leaders. When describing
Forrest, it was said "His ferocity as a warrior was almost legendary. His claim to have
slain one more enemy soldier in personal combat than the twenty-nine horses killed
beneath him only added to the legend."8 Forrest knew what war was about. In his own words "War means fighting and fighting means killing." President Bush today talks about
this nation's actions regarding terrorism as we "bring the terrorists to justice or bring
justice to them." Forrest's comments obviously bear consideration as our involvement in ground combat begins to escalate.
Forrest's first combat action of the war was near Sacramento, Kentucky with a force of 300 men conducting a reconnaissance. When a scout located a Union force of 500, Forrest planned an attack and demonstrated his ability to adapt and surprise an enemy. One company provided a base of fire along his avenue of approach. While this unit drew the enemy fire, Capt. Starnes and Capt. Kelley attacked both flanks. When the Union force reacted to two new axes of attack, Forrest had his chance to fully exploit the situation. The commander led a charge at the correct moment and the Union line collapsed. While the total number of combatants may have been small, the effect was a...
Bibliography: Bearss, Erwin C. Forrest at Brice 's Cross Roads. Dayton, Ohio: Morningside Bookshop, 1979
Brasher, Justin "Forrest 's Headquarters" and "NBFHQ" 2001 (a website)
Corlew, Robert E. Tennessee: A Short History. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989
Current, Richard N. Encyclopedia of the Confederacy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985.
Jordan, Thomas and Pryor, J.P. The Campaigns of Lieutenant General N.B. Forrest .New Orleans, 1868.
Matloff, Maurice, General Editor, American Military History. Washington D.C.: Office of the Chief of
Military History. United States Army, 1969.
Wyeth, John A. MD, Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Dayton, Ohio: Morningside Bookshop, 1975 reprint
of 1898 ed.
The writer, son and grandson of retired army officers and brother of a currently serving air cavalry officer acknowledges their input and opinions. I could not have fully understood what I was researching without their help.
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