The Myth of Nathan Bedford Forrest. By Paul Ashdown and Edward Caudill. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005. xxii + 218 pgs.

Few figures loom as large as Nathan Bedford Forrest in the collective memory of the Civil War. The war which split the nation has also split the national memory of that event, and this is rarely more poignantly evidenced than in the myth of Nathan Bedford Forrest. The birth that myth is the subject of Paul Ashdown and Edward Caudill’s 2005 memory history of the man and his legacy, The Myth of Nathan Bedford Forrest.

The monograph is not a biography or account of Forrest’s military encounters, but rather a history of the man’s legend in the memory of the great American conflict. In the years since Forrest’s death in 1877 the Confederate general has been said to have either been a vile, barbarian slave-trader and racist murderer of surrendered colored troops and ex-slaves, and hooded devil of white supremacy; or conversely a beleaguered hero of southern nationalism, one with great skill who was denied the resources and credit to save the lost cause, and an untutored symbol of the common man’s pride over presumptive aristocracy. The Nathan Bedford Forrest that any American knows depends on which myth that person believes – the overly simplistic Unionist view of Forrest, or the lost-cause view of the supposed saint of Southern pride.

Whatever is concretely known about the man is all too often subsidiary to what his legend in American mythology. Ashdown and Caudill’s first three chapters are an attempt to briefly nail down what is known of the factual life of Nathan Bedford Forrest – his early life as an undedicated Tennessee frontiersman, his rudimentary and lacking formal education, his antebellum business ventures in real estate and slave trading, his enlistment as a Confederate private and subsequent climb up the ranks of the Confederate army to Lieutenant General, a few notable wartime campaigns including the Fort Pillow episode, Forrest’s rather peaceable surrender in 1865, his postwar business attempts and flops, and his nebulous career with the Ku Klux Klan. The authors define his character as rough-and-tumble, a man of deep and keen intellect despite near illiteracy, and of course, as a natural military tactician and true “Wizard of the Saddle.” Forrest died after a relatively short life in 1877, and the mythical life of the man quickly eclipsed his actual experiences in the minds and hearts of the American people, for better or for worse.

The authors spend the bulk of their work documenting the history of the generation of Forrest’s myth in American culture. Chapters four through seven tell the story of how Nathan Bedford Forrest came to hold such a prominent place in the memory and mythology of the Civil War, with a special emphasis on written media, cinema, and television. Forrest’s legend has been claimed by neo-Confederate nationalists and racists at various times, particularly during the 1930s, who claim that he was a perhaps the most significant and versatile hero of the Confederacy, even going so far to question if the South might have won the war if Forrest had assumed command in the West early on. The man has also been reviled by many, who cite his extensive history with the Ku Klux Klan, his slave-trading past, and above all the massacre of black union troops at Fort Pillow by Confederates under Forrest’s command. The work’s final chapter deals with popular art and iconography, especially statues scattered across Tennessee and the deep South, that commemorate the memory of the Nathan Bedford Forrest, placing special emphasis on the conflict surrounding these statues and the competing myths warring over who can claim the infamous man’s legend.

The myth of Nathan Bedford Forrest is everywhere it seems, and this book is an excellent attempt at analyzing just how the man who lived such a short life and spoke and wrote so little about himself after the war came to possess such a dynamic and twofaced legend. Just who the real Forrest was is still up for debate, but that has not and may never prevent the man from being claimed by lost-causers and those seeking to defame the Southern cause alike for many years past and to come. The Myth of Nathan Bedford Forrest is a key work in analyzing the real Nathan Bedford Forrest, since his legend has become just as real a part of his life in the mind of the American peoples as his actual deed. 

- Jonathan Jones


The Myth of Nathan Bedford Forrest. By Paul Ashdown and Edward Caudill. (New York, Toronto, and Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005. Pp xxii + 218. Bibliography. Index.).

            When I was a young boy, my mother took my brother and I to spend the summer with her parents in the fishing village of Southport, North Carolina. It was idyllic; we spent the whole summer learning how to be boys from out thoroughly wise and blue-collar grandfather (a part-time shrimper and fisherman in his old age). Every summer, Pawpaw (as we called him) gave us a small gift. One year, the gifts were t-shirts boughyt from a local Lost Cause-ish gift shop in Wilmington. My shirt carried the innocuous likeness of Robert E. lee with the slogan “an officer and a gentleman.” My brother’s shirt proved to be quite controversial. Above the motto “a few good men were the images of four Confederate generals; among these was Nathan Bedford Forrest. No one in our family knew much about Forrest, but when our father (raised among the North Carolina gentry, educated at North Carolina and Wake Forest, and thoroughly knowledgeable about the Civil War) arrived, my brother was gently and privately (in order to not embarrass my grandfather) advised not to wear the t-shirt in public. Forrest, according to my father, had led the Klan (true), committed monstrous atrocities against African Americans (also true), and was a low-class marauder who had no place among the pantheon of great Virginians and Tar Heels that fought the war nobly (up for debate).

            Ashdown and Caudill’s The Myth of Nathan Bedford Forrest is therefore a welcome book. Who was Forrest? To African Americans, he represents the worst of the Confederacy. To many, he represents an anti-elitist demagogue, whose greatness was held back by the cerebral Jefferson Davis and the courtly Robert Lee. Caudill and Ashdown tell the reader that Forrest in fact represented the real strength of the Confederacy, the West. The myth of Forrest effectiveness has led many to see him as a “Great If.” If he had been commanding the Confederate armies in the West, the South might have stood a chance. Thomas Connelly and Steven Woodworth’s scholarship cast doubt on this; their analysis constantly shows a systematic failure of command among the Confederates.

            The myth of Forrest hinges largely on the pre-war man. Forrest was the ultimate self-made southerner. His wealth was built on the despicable vocation of slave-trading, and his insecurities over his background caused him to promote himself as a well-dressed tough-guy. Still, Forrest aspired to be a planter.

            Ashdown and Caudill use the preeminence of death and suffering in Forrest’s life to explain much of the general’s mythic appeal. His upbringing on the frontier of white American society hardened him. His slimy occupation allowed him to seem more humane than other slave-traders, but at best the Forrest myth could only transform him into the “best of a bad lot.” And Yet Forrest’s wife remains by all historical accounts a good woman, and Forrest, notoriously violent, remained a good husband.

            No two periods have served to confuse the myth of Forrest more than his Civil War years and his postwar years. Forrest’s wholesale slaughter of troops (mostly black) at Fort Pillow tarred any national reputation he might have had forever. But his raiding prowess earned him the respect of his soldiers, and his benevolent protection over Confederate civilians earned him massive esteem in the post-war South. His leadership and subsequent rejection of the Klu Klux Klan allowed him to be represented as a racial moderate in reconstruction; his reconciliation and support of Memphis’ blacks in the 1870s causes the historian and the myth-maker even further confusion.

            Ultimately, Ashdown and Caudill agree that Forrest’s image fits the man. He abhorred the people who abhorred him. Forrest was the ultimate realist. He understood that the South was fighting for the right to unlimited slavery. He changed some in the post-war period, but his image and myth are built more around the long duree of his life.

Miles Smith                                                                                         Texas Christian University



The Myth of Nathan Bedford Forrest. By Paul Ashdown and Edward Caudill.  Rowan & Littlefield: Lanham, Maryland, 2005.


            Who was Nathan Bedford Forrest and why is he so widely remembered?  These are two of the questions which the authors attempt to address in this creative work, which looks at everything from newspapers, statues, comic strips, movies, and novels, among others.  The legacy of General Forrest ranges far from the man himself, setting forth contradictions in memory.  This work is not intended to be a biographer of Nathan Bedford Forrest, although it does present a chronology of his life and deeds.  Instead, the authors attempted to show how image of General Forrest far exceeded his actions, even during the civil war, setting the stage for the use of his memory by others in all the years since.

            Forrest, who did not possess formal education or career army training, came to embody the center what can be called “The Forrest Myth”.  No truth can really be subscribed to this myth, as those who use this myth for any purpose make up their own facts. 

For the Forrest partisans, Forrest was the greatest general of the Civil War, who could have won the war but for the idiots in Richmond not promoting him.  Forrest was brave and courageous and won battles against impossible odds.  He treated his slaves with honor and respect and after the war won former slaves continued to respect him as a good and honorable man.  Forrest immediately laid down his arms at the end of the war and worked for rebuilding the South and his fortune.  He only joined up with the Klan to control its excesses and ordered it disbanded.

For the Forrest haters, Forrest was the evil, homicidal raider who slaughtered Northern black troopers and their white officers at Fort Pillow even after they had surrendered.  He created the Klan to fight Reconstruction and intimidate and kill blacks.  Forrest was never truly an honorable officer or general, just a barbarian fighter who ignored civility, inflicting fear into the civilian populations everywhere.

The authors demonstrate the real Forrest, while likely inaccessible, was somewhere in between.  His legacy fell into the hands of partisan newspapermen during the war, so that the Forrest Myth was created well before the end of the war, with Northerners fearful of a Forrest-led raid on Chicago and angry over the Forrest-led slaughter at Fort Pillow.  Likewise, Southern newspapermen, some of whom had served with Forrest, created their own Forrest Myth, a myth of the common man become great, the symbol of the Lost Cause and “if only…”  Shelby Foote revitalized the Forrest Myth with his idolization in Ken Burn’s Civil War.

The Forrest Myth became intertwined with the Civil Rights era due to Fort Pillow and the Klan.  Politicians throughout the South have been criticized as much for Forrest as the Confederate flag.  Forrest memorabilia out-sells that of General Lee today, something at has only increased over time.  In popular memory, Lee represents Southern aristocracy in the legacy of the war, while Forrest represents all those non-aristocratic men who bleed and died for the Southern cause.  

Forrest as a symbol and a figure has been popular in novels and movies, with settings from the West, Reconstruction, or even the post-World War II South, far out-stripping his impact on the Civil War itself.  Most of these works build upon aspects of the Forrest Myth, such as the novel which has Rommel coming to Mississippi in 1937 to study Forrest’s battles, only to use these tactics in North Africa.  Forrest also remains larger than life, more capable than normal men.

The authors finished the work with a discussion of monuments.  Tennessee has more monuments to Forrest than Illinois has to Lincoln.  These monuments stand tall and proud as representations of the mythic Forrest, while serving today as points of controversy.  The legacy remains looming large upon the landscape and the crafters of the legacy will continue to take what they want from it. 

“But the fight over his legacy is based as much on ideals as it is on historical reality, or what little we know of it.  If something cannot be defended rationally, then it is abandoned or defended irrationally.  Such was the case for slavery in the South.  Forrest was and is suited to its defense because he represents both primitivism and passion, a symbol of dedication without intellectualization.” (pg. 194)


By Peter Pratt