Post-Chickamauga: Bragg vs. Forrest?

ForrestIf the stories are to be believed, Nathan Bedford Forrest was one of the most quotable characters of the Civil War. One of the best lines attributed to him came following the battle of Chickamauga.

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.

11 Responses to Post-Chickamauga: Bragg vs. Forrest?

  1. The story of Gen. Forrest’s lifting a man up onto his saddle, and using him as a shield, is definitely a possibility. When adrenalin kicks-in during a shocking experience, like protecting one’s life, human beings are known to exhibit excessive strength. There are numerous reports of people lifting vehicles off of themselves, or others, following an accident, in an attempt to save a life. Gen. Forrest was an athletic man, and the man he is purported to have pulled-up onto his saddle could very well have been small in stature. So, to assume that such a feat, on the part of Gen. Forrest, is not a possibility, is displaying your ignorance of the situation, not to mention your “bias” against Gen.Forrest.

    1. Forrest was a very big and tough man for his time. 6’2 and 210 lbs and lean so that was 210 lbs of muscle not fat like most 210 lb guys are now. Obviously extremely tough since he rode around with a bullet in his back for a week before surgery. Men like that in the past that did lots of hard labor growing up are extremely strong. Average union soldier was 145 lbs so it very easily might have just been a 130lbs fellow he picked up. Also a good horseman could use the horse as leverage. Nothing superhuman, completely doable for a man of his size and strength.

  2. Indeed, I too have heard of such stories of superhuman, adrenaline-fueled feats of strength. But I also know, as someone who’s ridden a lot of horses, just how hard it is to find the leverage and strength to hoist heavy objects to saddle-height. To do it one-handed, while keeping one’s balance, adds greater elements of improbability. Then add in the fact that the soldier was probably struggling against him (and if the soldier was “small in stature,” then Forrest had to reach farther to get him, further straining his ability to get leverage).

    I didn’t say it was impossible–I just said it’s SO improbable that I don’t buy it. I’m not the only historian to wonder about the story’s veracity, either.

    BTW, I don’t have a bias against Forrest. I do have a bias in favor of fact over myth, though. Myth-making does a disservice to the real person buried underneath all that myth. I think Forrest was interesting enough as a person that he doesn’t need embellishment. I’m not so in love with him that I’m unafraid to critically examine and even challenge beloved assumptions about him, though.

    1. The work product of historians is subjective, whether or not they want to admit same. They propose a theory, and then must proceed to prove this theory, by searching for information in concurrence with their position. If they are unable to locate material that lends credence to their position, then they’ll most likely change their viewpoint of the subject matter, or find a new topic they support. Myths are based on truth, and are to be acknowledged as such, and must not be discounted because they may have been embellished. The historian is compelled to recognize a myth, label it as such, but must not totally discount it, for that would be a travesty of its own nature. Using the term “fact” to enhance material presented for consideration, should not be accepted as the total truth, since many so-called “facts” are disproven, with additional research garnered from previously unknown sources. Impossible does not mean the same thing as improbable, yet possible and probable are “kissin’ cousins.” Think about it. LOL. BTW…it’s good to know that you’re not biased against Gen. Forrest, but keep in mind that to maintain your claim of being unbiased, you must counter any negatives with positives, or you’ll lose your claim of objectivity. Just sayin.’

      1. I spend a lot of time in my writing classes trying to get my students to understand the difference between “fact” and “truth.” Truth is largely subjective, as you point out. I have students look at things that are supposedly “objective”–everything from news reports to history narratives–and show them how those examples are actually subjective. You’re absolutely right that no truth should be accepted as total truth.

  3. For an interesting look at how Forrest anecdotes tend to be treated, look at Forrest’s interaction with Ector’s Brigade on September 19th at Chickamauga. The reality of what happened to Ector’s men shortly after Forrest promised to look after their flanks is sobering, but not much told by historians.

  4. Did anybody who was a contemporary of Forrest ever debunk these stories? Or were they contrived after the fact by people trying to enhance an image of a man others were destroying i. e. KKK or Fort Pillow? Sort of reminds me of the early gospel writers trying to remain relevant.

    1. Brian,

      Virtually all of these stories appear after Forrest is dead. the anecdotal confrontation between Bragg and Forrest, for example, comes from only one source, and only appeared long after both men were dead. Jordan and Pryor’s book, which is the only history or biography of Forrest written while he was alive, and with what amounted to his full approval, contains none of these stories.

  5. Hope other stories are true like Emma showing him across river and where he captures town that held confederates in prison. Before though jail cell was attempted to be torched. After Forrest freed town and union prisoners were being accounted for those who had attempted the arson were not present. Upon their names being called Forrest said move on its alright. As for fort pillow I believe many of so called victims were either drunk or had no commanding officers to effect a surrender without an effusion of blood.

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