Wilbur Snellings: Forrest, America's greatest fighting general
Mar. 3, 2011
In rebuttal to Leonard Pitts Jr.:
A wise historian once said "you have to judge people by the times in which they lived, and the customs of that day, not by yours." Nathan Forrest was born on the frontier; the family was impoverished. His father, a blacksmith, died at an early age; and Nathan supported the family.
Although illiterate, he had a good mind for business and did eventually trade in livestock and slaves, which was lawful at that time. He did not break up families or sell to people he knew to be cruel. He got out of the slave trade and became a planter. When war broke out, he enlisted as a private and rose to lieutenant general, owing to his military genius and fierce courage.
In western Tennessee, the 6th Tennessee & 13th Tennessee Cavalry (U.S.) — comprised of deserters, outlaws and unionists — extorted, plundered and murdered civilians and soldiers, settling old scores and feuds. Most were families of Forrest's command. Forrest wanted Col. Fielding Hurst, 6th Tennessee command, declared outlaws.
The 13th Tennessee, 2nd U.S. Light & 6th U.S. Heavy Colored Artillery occupied Fort Pillow (450 to 500 men), which was loaded with supplies (and barrels of whiskey the federals had been drinking all day) that Forrest needed. Forrest, with 1,500 men surrounded the fort and posted 250 sharpshooters on bluffs to pin down the federals. He demanded the surrender of the fort three times.
In his report, Lt. Dan Van Horn (6th Colored Heavy Artillery) wrote that Forrest guaranteed them (black and white) prisoner of war status. It was refused. Two battalions (400 men) were sent down behind the fort on either side of Coal Creek to defend against reinforcements and gunboats. The assaulting regiments (about 600 men) with pistols and muskets held their fire until they topped the parapet. They fired point blank into the defenders, inflicting massive casualties. The federals broke and fled out the back of the fort into a crossfire from the two battalions.
Col. Barteau reported, "They made a wild, crazy, scattering fight like a bunch of drunken men. One moment they would yield and throw down their guns and seize them again and renew their fire. It was soon discovered that they could not be trusted as to having surrendered. At first opportunity, they would break loose and engage in the contest. Some of our men were killed by Negroes who had once surrendered." Some of the panic-stricken federals dove into the river and drowned.
Lt. Horn reported there was no surrender of the fort, the officers and men declaring they would never surrender nor ask quarter. He never mentioned a massacre either, although he was there from start to finish. There were probably some revenge killings, but not en masse. There were prisoners taken, black and white (200-250). The federals buried all the dead. The federal wounded (black and white) were loaded on the steamer Ville Platte by Confederate and federal soldiers.
The Memphis Bulletin newspaper, which started the "massacre" story, said two years later in May 1865 "there was much misrepresentation about Fort Pillow. It is not true that the Rebels took no prisoners. On the contrary, about 200 were taken prisoners and carried South."
In 1871, a congressional committee found Forrest was not a founder, member or adviser to the Klan and had actually worked to disband it. Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, America's greatest fighting general.