Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography

Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography by Jack Hurst

The whole reason I read this one is because I so enjoyed Hurst's book on the Donelson campaign. Yes I admire Forrest's battlefield skills. I definitely would not have wanted to get on his bad side and seeing how often his fellow officers and soldiers got there I think I would have never wanted to be around him. There is at least anecdotal evidence of him beating soldiers of his command and there is concrete evidence of him killing one of his lieutenants. Definitely not someone you'd pick to be friends with, but if you remained loyal to each other you'd have a solid supporter forever backing you. But woe if you ever crossed him.

Hurst's biography is a good one. I was somewhat amazed in how pro-Forrest he was. The Fort Pillow massacre is not just dismissed out of hand, Hurst spends time with it, puts it in historical perspective but at the end of all of it pretty much lets Forrest off the hook. There is a somewhat similar approach to Forrest's klan activities. He's acknowledged to be a leader and using it to get ex-Confederates the vote in Tennessee, but then dissolving it afterwards. Hurst says that Forrest was too hands off in the invisible society and too busy with railroad projects to know that his dissolution orders were never followed.

I thought Hurst did a good job of offering a balanced picture. Forrest bios tend to either praise his every move or denigrate everything he did. This one picks a middle ground that edges on the praise side. The book was published in 1994 so I wonder if some of the recent books on Fort Pillow might now sway Hurst to be harsher on that chapter of Forrest's career. [As a side note it seems odd to refer to 1994 as a bit dated in historiography.]

Forrest is a fascinating character who achieved much as a general and whose personal life before and after the war was also interesting. Some of our interesting generals seemingly sprang from nowhere and/or faded into oblivion when the guns went silent. Forrest was active and interesting from the get go.


Chris Evans said...

I really enjoy Hurst's book on Forrest. I have most of the Forrest bios that have come out and consider it one of the best.

It is interesting to read along with Brian Steel Wills' book on Forrest 'A Battle from the Start' that came out just a few years before Hurst's bio.

I have to say that Forrest really has had excellent bios written about him from authors as diverse as John Wyeth and Robert Selph Henry to Wills and Hurst.


Tim Kent said...

Forrest was a great independent commander. He never performed well when in subordinate command. An example is the Nashville Campaign under Hood and the campaigns fought under Bragg. I agree with you, he wouldn't be the type guy you'd want to just hang out with.