In Ken Burns’ nine-part documentary The Civil War, Shelby Foote notably described Nathan Bedford Forrest as one of “two authentic geniuses” generated by the Civil War. At another point in the series, Foote lays out Forrest’s maxims of war after calling the civilian turned soldier with no military experience before 1861 “a natural genius.” How did Forrest the civilian come to be Forrest, one of the most feared cavalry commands in the Confederate Army?
Retired United States Army special forces general John R. Scales’ work seeks to answer that question. Scales is quick to point out that this book is not a biography of Forrest, and the only controversy one finds within these pages regarding the general is the wisdom or folly of his military decisions, which of course includes the April 12, 1864, action at Fort Pillow. To nail home this objective further, Scales begins the book with Forrest’s enlistment into the Confederate Army in June 1861 and concludes it in May 1865.
The pages in between are filled with detailed descriptions of Forrest’s military movements. To help build his case at how Forrest gained his prowess, Scales hardly leaves a stone unturned, examining every action that Forrest participated in during the war, no matter how large or small. In his studies of these many campaigns and battles, Scales is quick to point out Forrest’s mistakes (if there were any), his successes, and what lessons he learned that made him successful at later points in the war. Following the latter throughout the book makes it easy to watch the upward evolution of the general’s military career.
But Scales does not miss the forest for the trees. While examining Forrest’s military progression, Scales mentions the moments when the general’s actions had an impact on the Civil War at a higher level than the local one. Indeed, there are four times during his service from 1861 to 1865 that Forrest had a “significant and measurable impact on the overall course of the war”: his July 1862 attack on Murfreesboro, Tennessee that halted Don Carlos Buell’s campaign to occupy Chattanooga; Forrest’s operations in West Tennessee during the winter of 1862 delayed Federal occupation of Vicksburg; stalling the United States campaign to strike at the heart of the Confederacy by taking Selma and Mobile, Alabama in early 1864; and, finally, Forrest’s negative impact on the war, the confused fighting at Fort Pillow resulting in the massacre of black troops (441).
One of the book’s real gems is the 109 maps produced by Hal Jespersen, which are each accompanied by a driving tour, allowing a reader to take what they learned on the page and apply it to the extant Civil War landscape in the Western Theater. Indeed, it becomes evident from examining the maps and reading through the driving directions that the author visited the site of most, if not all, of Forrest’s campaigns and engagements, viewed the terrain, and made his judgments on Forrest’s performance not only from a study of the written record but from a survey of the battlefield terrain. That’s a valuable lesson for any military historian, and here Scales excels. If you do a lot of driving through what was once the western Confederacy, keep this book handy in your vehicle; you never know when you might spring onto a Forrest battlefield!
Overall, Scales’ work is a worthwhile addition to the Forrest historiography. It is an excellent examination of how someone with no prior military experience learned from his actions and propelled such a meteoric rise not often seen in the Civil War.
John R. Scales, The Battles and Campaigns of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, 1861-1865.
Savas Beatie, 2017.
465 pages, 109 maps, footnotes, bibliography, index.