Although Braxton Bragg had (finally) led his army to victory, he still managed to stir the ire of nearly all of his senior officers, including Forrest. Forrest, who might well have originated James Brown’s phrase “Papa don’t take no mess,” apparently confronted Bragg after the battle.
“I have stood your meanness as long as I intend to,” Forrest growled:
You have played the part of a damned scoundrel, and are a coward, and if you were any part of a man I would slap your jaws and force you to resent it.
What a magnificent line! It’s so good that historians have recounted it for 150 years. (And so good I wanted to set it off with italics.)
And that’s not all. From there, Forrest apparently went on to full-fledged insubordination: “You may as well not issue any more orders to me, for I will not obey them . . .” he added, “and as I say to you that if you ever again try to interfere with me or cross my path it will be at the peril of your life.”
The problem is, there’s strong reason to believe Forrest never actually said any of it it.
So I discovered as I worked with Lee White to edit his book on the battle, Bushwhacking on a Grand Scale. While doing the layout, I needed a design element to use as filler in the epilogue, and I thought a pull-quote would be useful (basically, that’s a quote pulled out of the text and enlarged in the margin as a way to break up a page). I noticed, as Lee described the post-battle fallout, that he hadn’t included the Forrest quote (which had even appeared recently in an America’s Civil War article about “generals we love to hate”). When I asked Lee if it would be okay to include the quote in his book, Lee broke the news to me: Forrest probably didn’t say it. There’s reason to believe it was all part of the postwar myth-making that seemed to flourish around Forrest, he explained.
Although disappointed, I wasn’t surprised. After all, it wasn’t the first time I’d heard of such Forrest-related exaggeration. The most famous example, of course, is the story of Forrest’s narrow escape after Shiloh, when, with one arm, he bodily hoists a Federal infantryman up on to the back of his horse and holds him there as a human shield while he makes his getaway. Shelby Foote, an unabashed Forrest admirer, recounts it best:
As he came out of the mass of dark blue uniforms and furious white faces, clearing a path with his saber, he reached down and grabbed one of the soldiers by the collar, swung hi onto the crupper of the horse, and galloped back to safety, using the Federal as a shield against the bullets fired after him. Once he was out of range, he flung the hapless fellow off and rode on up the ridge where his men were waiting in open-mouthed amazement.
Forrest might be Superman to some, but he’d had to be Superman, indeed, to lift a man like that using only one hand.
We remember and recount such stories, though, because they’re the products of especially effective postwar propaganda. After all, in the battles for memory, the stakes were enormous. At Chickamauga, for instance, Forrest continually underperformed (see David Powell’s Failure in the Saddle for an excellent in-depth exploration). There’s nothing like a little self-righteous anger directed at a universally disliked commander to deflect attention–or blame–after all.
Such stories are totally bedazzling, no doubt, and in their way, they’re even fun, but alas, as quotable as they can be, they don’t always make for good history.