Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Forrests Murfreesboro Raid - Sunday July 13, 1862

Lt. General Nathan Bedford Forrest

  Nathan Bedford Forrest is one of my favorite historical figures of all time. I am uncomfortable with several things about his character. The fact that he was a slave trader. That he was involved in the battle of Ft. Pillow, which was one of the worst military atrocities in American history and that he was the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. I love the alpha male character in American history or, if you will, the "bad ass". Andrew Jackson was cut from the same cloth and there are a lot of similarities between Andrew Jackson and Forrest. Both had a indomitable will. Once they set their eye on something there was no stopping them until they accomplished their objectives. They were utterly fearless. Forrest had 29 horses shot out from under him during the Civil War. This is the record for the war and he personally killed 30 men in combat. Both men were good military leaders with no formal military education and very little education of any kind. Forrest was functionally illiterate. Of the two Forrest was a military genius that has been studied by modern military men and is still being studied in military academies all over the world. Erwin Rommel was greatly influenced by Forrest. Both Forrest and Jackson were not to be trifled with. If they made a threat you could bank on the fact that they would carry it out if it was in their power to do so. If they walked into a room all eyes would turn on them because they stood out in a crowd. Like all great military leaders they had a relentless killer instinct in battle. 

  Forrest was born into poverty in Chapel Hill Tennessee which was still the frontier on July 13, 1821. Forrest and his twin sister were the oldest of 12 children and his father died when he was 17. He had a strong willed mother which probably had the most influence on him. Some claim, right or wrong that slave trading was a way out of poverty for a poor kid from the frontier. Usually slave traders were hated even by the slave owner and looked down upon but Forrest was respected and liked and would eventually be elected to local political office in Memphis. This is a callous way of looking at it but Forrest did not mistreat his slaves any more than he would mistreat a horse. Slaves, like horses were seen as valuable property. As far as the Ft. Pillow massacre both sides violated a truce that was called during the battle to give the Union army time to make a decision about surrendering. I have studied this battle and I come down on the side that there were possibly two Forrest's at this battle. What I mean is that some eyewitnesses accused Forrest of being actively involved in the carnage and some say that he tried to stop it. These conflicting testimonies come from the victims themselves. Forrest was a ruthless warrior and in the excitement of battle his face would be flushed and his eyes would be blazing. He arrived on the scene late and the carnage was well in progress. Forrest might have been caught up in the moment and acted in a way that he later regretted. After he saw that things were out of hand he began issuing orders and taking action to stop the carnage.

  Forrest would regret Ft. Pillow for the rest of his life. Whether the regret was based on the fact that men who were in many cases trying to surrender were murdered or that he regretted the fact that he allowed things to get out of hand or a combination of both factors will never be known. Atrocities occurred on both sides. On Sherman's march to the sea his army stranded at least 5,000 slaves near the shore of Ebenezer Creek in Georgia. Many drowned when they jumped into the creek in a panic because Confederate Calvary was coming up in their rear. Sherman was not fond of black people. Forrest was a product of his environment and had a typical white mans prejudice against black people, being raised on the Southern frontier. His men hated the whites in the fort. The white Tennessee Unionists fighting in the fort were considered traitors. The black soldiers were former slaves and Southern soldiers were enraged whenever they encountered them in battle. Then there was the Ku Klux Klan. Forrest was a Democrat and the Klan was an arm of the Democratic Party. Trying to keep the Republican Party out of Tennessee and the South. When he was confronted directly by the Republican Governor and there was a possibility of a military clash between the Klan and government forces, he chose to avoid bloodshed and disbanded the Klan. He was a flawed man in my opinion but not necessarily an evil man.

  July 1862 was a low point for the South in the Western theater of operations. The previous April 6, and 7 battle of Shiloh, a near victory for the South, ended instead in a disappointing defeat. The Confederate Army retreated to Corinth Mississippi which was a vital rail center important to both the Union and Confederate Armies. The Union Army forced the Confederates to abandon Corinth on May 29. On June 10, General Don Carlos Buell's Union Army of the Ohio, which would become the Army of the Cumberland began a slow march toward Chattanooga. Abraham Lincoln earnestly wanted to liberate East Tennessee which was for the most part loyal to the Union. Chattanooga was not only the gateway to East Tennessee but to the deep South. The situation was dire for the Confederacy. The Confederate government sent Forrest to Chattanooga to organize. a cavalry brigade. On July 9th he left Chattanooga with two regiments and eventually gathered 1400 men before he reached the Murfreesboro area. This was part of a plan by General Braxton Bragg to move from Chattanooga up through Middle Tennessee into Kentucky. Major General E. Kirby Smith forces would cooperate with him and eventually they would unite near the Ohio River. This would draw Buells army away from Chattanooga. Forrest would play a huge part in this plan by disrupting Buell's supply line and communications from Nashville.

  Murfreesboro had a population of about 4,000 and was an important supply and railroad center on the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad. Eleven major roads radiated from Murfreesboro and some were macadamized ( compressed stone binded by tar). In 1860 there were 14,743 whites living in Rutherford County. One hundred and ninety were free persons of color, and 12,980 slaves belonging to 1,316 owners. In 1810 Rutherford County had 10,265 people. 7,527 were free whites and 2,701 were slaves.These slaves belonged to 412 owners. Most of whom owned fewer than 5 slaves. This was pretty common across the whole South. About seven percent of the white population owned slaves, and held the political power. The majority of them owned on average about five slaves. Whites who owned slaves in the hundreds and thousands were much rarer and very wealthy. Between 1810 and 1860 the white population grew by 100% as opposed to the black population which grew by more than 400%. A new Union General named T.T. Crittenden took command on July 12, 1862 and his command was dangerously spread throughout town, He commanded 1,200 troops. The Union Army had captured Nashville on February 25th 1862 and Murfreesboro was occupied in late Spring. On July 11th Forrest's forces arrived at Mud Creek near McMinnville. There they received reinforcements bringing his forces up to 1,400. One of the amazing things about Forrest military genius was that he was able to accomplish so much with virtually raw recruits. This happened over and over again during the war. He would receive raw recruits and then he would train and equip them. Usually with his own money or captured weapons and supplies. After a hard campaign these men would become battle tested veterans and good soldiers under Forrest's leadership. Then some Confederate general that outranked him, primarily Bragg, would take his men and force Forrest to begin all over again from scratch. Usually just before an important campaign. This didn't stop Forrest from consistently winning battles. Before the war Forrest had a combined worth of about 1.5 million dollars. This was a lot of money in those days. By the end of the war he was broke. This was from having to outfit his men in order to get them battle ready.

South side of Murfreesboro Square during the Civil War
Union camp next to the courthouse

Possibly the west side of the square
The south side of the square

View of Murfreesboro to the north Large building in the distance is the Soule Female College which was used as a hospital. The school was founded in 1852.

View from the courthouse cupola looking down East Main St. On the left is the Cumberland Presbyterian Church built in 1859. During the war this church served as a hospital, barracks for Union troops, and prison for Confederate soldiers. On the right is the Christian church The large building in the upper left is Union University built in 1848. It served both as a hospital and refuge for former slaves.

  Forrest was successful for a lot of reasons. He was at least 100 years ahead of his time because he invented the concept of mobilized infantry or mobilized warfare. Although he commanded cavalry the horses were used to transport his men quickly from point A to point B. Once his men arrived at the point that they were needed they would dismount and fight as infantry. Every fourth man would be a horse holder. The weapon of choice was revolvers and carbines. Carbines were used when the men were firing from long range and pistols were used when combat was at close quarters. Forrest was ambidextrous and could kill with both hands. He fought with a sword in one hand and a pistol in the other. His sword was sharpened on both sides and he learned that a sword was much more effective when you ran a soldier through with the point rather than using it in a slashing motion. Because of battle smoke a commander that commanded from the rear would lose control of his troops because he could not see what was going on and had to depend on couriers to relay important information on the course of the battle that could change again before a commander could respond to the situation in an effective way. A commander was very dependent on subordinates that were on the scene to react to these changes quickly. Forrest was unique because he commanded from the front. This way he was there to command in person and could react more quickly than the average commander. The only drawback of this was that he placed himself in extreme danger. It is a miracle that Forrest was never killed in battle. Forrest had a saying. "Get there first with the most men". This was sound military doctrine. If he saw a weak point in a battle line he would overwhelm that point with more men. Once there was a breakthrough he would create havoc in the rear of the battle line creating panic among the enemy. If Forrest was attacked first he never waited for the attack. He would attack the attacker. The element of surprise was important and he was great at psyching out his enemy.

  He learned this at an early age one day in Chapel Hill Tennessee, as a child, when a mountain lion sprang out at him while he was riding through the woods on a horse. The horse reared, throwing him to the ground right in front of the big cat. This unexpected accident frightened the lion so badly that it ran away. This incident taught Forrest to always do the unexpected in battle. He would do things like move the same unit or artillery pieces back and forth through the woods or a tree line in order to deceive the enemy into believing that he had more men or guns than he actually had. There was no General better at pursuit than Forrest. He would tell his men to "keep up the skeer or (scare)".When he defeated the enemy he would mercilessly ride them down when they were at their most vulnerable. His greatest victory was Brice's Crossroads, which was a masterpiece of strategy and execution. He pursued a Union Army 60 miles that originally outnumbered him by odds of two to one and was armed with superior firepower throughout the battle. The Union commander General Samuel Sturgis told a Colonel "For God's sake if Mr. Forrest will let me alone I will let him alone". The Union Infantry and Calvary totaled 8,500 compared to Forrest's 3,200 Troopers. Forrest suffered 492 casualties and the Union Army suffered 2,610 of which 1,500 were taken prisoner. After Brice's Crossroads General William Tecumseh Sherman said the following "that Devil Forrest must be hunted down and killed if it costs ten thousand lives and bankrupts the Federal treasury".

  At 1:00 PM on July 12, 1862 Forrest formed his new brigade to march toward Murfreesboro fifty miles away. Once underway there was little rest until they reached Woodbury. His troops arrived at 11:00 PM that Saturday night. The town turned out to welcome his men with cakes and pies that had been prepared by the housewives for their own Sunday dinners the next day. Many of Woodbury's citizens were angry that a Federal patrol had raided the town earlier that day and arrested a number of the men on suspicion of providing aid and comfort to the rebels. These men were lodged in the Murfreesboro jail that was on the square across from the court house. Forrest promised the people of Woodbury that he would do all he could to free their men. At 1:00 AM Sunday morning Forrest's brigade began the march toward Murfreesboro. The Union army was about equal in number to Forrest's Calvary but they were in three separate locations. Colonel Henry Lester's 3rd Minnesota Infantry along with four guns belonging to a Kentucky battery was 1.5 miles northwest of the town square. I read somewhere that Colonel Lester's men were about where Medical Center Parkway enters present day Broad Street. Colonel William Duffield's 9th Michigan Infantry along with a detachment of the 7th Pennsylvania Calvary was camped near Oakland's Mansion owned by the Maney family. One detachment of the 9th Michigan was serving as provost guard and post headquarters which was the Civil War equivalent of modern day Military Police. They were holding the center of town including the jail and the courthouse. The jail was full of not only the Woodbury men but Murfreesboro citizens who were accused of being Confederate sympathizers. Some of the men had been sentenced to death.

  The new Union commander General Thomas T, Crittenden recognized how vulnerable his army was and that it needed to be concentrated but he mistakenly believed that he had plenty of time. Crittenden went to bed on the night of the 12th in his headquarters that was in a hotel on the south side of the square not having a clue about the coming storm. When Forrest's men were 5 miles outside of town on the Woodbury Pike the order came to dismount, fix saddles, and tighten girts". Scouts returned to say that that 15 Union pickets were stationed on the pike just ahead unaware of the presence of the Confederates. Forrest ordered a hand picked detachment to take care of these pickets. Their leader Colonel Wharton circled the pike on a hidden path and got behind the pickets. They advanced as if they were Yankee Calvary coming from town. Not expecting an enemy coming from that direction in the darkness they surrendered without firing a shot. Forrest then divided his men into three sections. Wharton's Texas Rangers attacked the camp of the Michigan and Pennsylvania troops near Oaklands. Colonel Morrison's battalion, under Forrest's personal leadership, would attack the courthouse and center of town. One group would attack the courthouse, one the jail, and the other would attack the hotel where Crittenden was sleeping. Lawton's Georgia Calvary along with Kentuckians and Tennesseans would pass through town without stopping and position themselves between the 3rd Minnesota and the other Union forces being assaulted. In columns of fours Forrest's men started off slowly at first but then the clatter of hooves and the rebel yell aroused the sleeping Yankees from their sleep. It was 4:30 AM at the first light of dawn. Col. Wharton's men attacked the camp of Col. Duffield near Oakland's. Even though the Yankee's had been surprised they fought with courage and determination. Col. Wharton shot and seriously wounded Col. Duffield in the groin. Then Wharton himself was shot and wounded. A Lt. Col Parkhurst took over command from Col. Duffield. The Confederates were thrown back in a temporary state of confusion. The Federals placed several wagons filled with hay along a lot and improvised a formidable fort in a short time. The Confederates positioned themselves so as to keep the Federals pinned down until Forrest could arrive with additional forces. Oakland's mansion was owned by the Maney family and their children watched the battle from an upstairs window. A resident of Murfreesboro wrote, "The whole population were aroused from their slumbers, and rushed to their windows, balconies, and verandas, with every demonstration of delight.

  Forrest charged into the town square. One prisoner in the jail described the approaching sound of hoofbeats as "a strange noise like the roar of an approaching storm". One Confederate unit surrounded the jail just as a Union soldier set it on fire, escaping with the keys. The local citizens were still locked inside expecting to be burned alive. Some of the Confederates were able to pry open the cells with axes and crowbars freeing the prisoners just in time. Forrest ordered all Union officers to be rounded up including General Crittenden. The courthouse was barricaded by Union soldiers who were pouring accurate fire into the Confederates. Forrest organized an assault from all four directions of the courthouse using battering rams. Under intense fire they were able to break down the doors and fight hand to hand with the Yankees inside. After a brief struggle the Union soldiers surrendered. Forrest then dispatched some of his men on the square to help Wharton's men near Oakland's mansion. Forrest with the rest of his men went to reenforce the attack on Col. Lester's position on the northwest side of town. Lester had time to prepare a strong line of defense when he heard all the firing and commotion in town. His men advanced 400 yards toward Murfreesboro when they ran into the Confederates sent to stop him. When Forrest reached the scene he circled the Union forces and led an attack into the rear of their camp. Only 100 troops had been left behind to protect it but their fire was so accurate Forrest's attack was stalled. Forrest ordered two more attacks and finally this small group of Union soldiers threw down their arms in surrender. Forrest was almost killed by a black camp follower shooting at him with a musket. He calmly turned with his pistol and shot the man down. Forrest decided that Lester's forward position on a ridge was too strong to carry so he devised another plan. He left enough men to keep Lester busy and focused his attention on the Union position near Oakland's.
Flag carried by Forrest command into Murfreesboro on July 13th, 1862

  Some of his men tried to convince Forrest to leave Murfreesboro. They had caused enough damage by capturing men and capturing and destroying supplies. In addition they were afraid that Union forces had been alerted in Nashville and were on their way to Murfreesboro. Forrest replied abruptly " I did not come here to make half a job of it; I mean to have them all". When Forrest arrived at Parkhurst's position he sent in a flag of truce with a message. He lied to Parkhurst by saying that he had captured all other Federal troops and his whole force was concentrated on Parkhurst's position. Forrest demanded their immediate and unconditional surrender to avoid further bloodshed. If compelled to carry the position by assault he would give no quarter to those who resisted. Parkhurst consulted with his other officers. He had lost 11 killed and 86 wounded. His commander was seriously wounded and he had been slightly wounded himself. Exactly 8 hours after the battle had started Parkhurst surrendered at 1200 PM without realizing that Forrest had bluffed him into surrendering. Forrest then took most of Wharton's men back to Lester's position on the northwest side of Murfreesboro. Forrest realized that Lester's position, with four artillery pieces backing him up, was too strong to carry, so he sent in another flag of truce and a message.

Murfreesboro, July 13, 1862


I must demand an unconditional surrender of your force as prisoners of war, or I will have every man put to the sword. You are aware of the overpowering force I have at my command, and this demand is made to prevent the effusion of blood. I am, Colonel, very respectfully, your obedient servant.

N.B. Forrest

Brigadier-General of Cavalry C.S.A.

  When Lester read this letter he asked to speak to Col. Duffield. Permission was granted and Lester was escorted to the Maney House where Duffield lay wounded. On the way Forrest marched and counter marched his forces within sight so that Lester saw the same forces at least twice. With such a show of force and the wounded Duffield advising surrender Lester asked for an hour to consider his decision. Forrest granted a half hour. The longer the wait the greater the chances that Union re-enforcements would arrive from Nashville. When Lester arrived back in his lines he passed Forrest's note around to all of his officers and explained the situation. The vote was unanimous for surrender. At 3:00 PM Lester surrendered his command of 450 infantry and all four artillery pieces. The total bag of prisoners came to 1200 officers and men. They captured 250,000 dollars worth of property, more than 50 wagons and teams, small arms, three 6 pounder artillery pieces and a 10 pounder Parrot rifle. Forrest would use these guns extensively over the next couple of years. Nearly a million dollars in damage had been inflicted. He destroyed the depots containing government supplies and wrecked the railroad bridges. Forrest gathered his prisoners and marched for McMinnville where all were released and paroled. When Forrest gathered the prisoners captured on the square he demanded to know which man had set the jail on fire. The man was pointed out and led away. He was never seen again. British commander in chief Viscount Wolseley later said of Forrest " His... operation that day showed a rare mixture of military skill and what is known by our American cousins as "bluff", and led to the surrender of the various camps attacked... It was a brilliant success, and as it was his first great foray, it at once established his reputation as a partisan and daring Cavalry leader to be dreaded by all commanders of Federal posts and stations within his sphere of action. Forrest caused a panic among Union forces all over the region. Valuable forces were diverted from Buell's army and Nashville in a vain attempt to defeat Forrest who rode at will all over Middle Tennessee. This raid combined with a raid by John Hunt Morgan into Kentucky would save Chattanooga from capture and allow Braxton Bragg to gain the initiative for the Perryville campaign into Kentucky that would begin in August. The raid on Murfreesboro put Forrest on the road to becoming one of the greatest military leaders that the world has ever seen.

The courthouse in the Civil War
Christmas season 2015

Rutherford County Court House



Oakland Mansion




  1. A fascinating study of a military genius. One can barely imagine such cunning and stealth in the heat of battle. I would like to see a film made on this raid. It could start with the warm reception Nathan's men received in Woodbury, then follow them through to the taking of Union prisoners. A well rounded and balanced biography of an amazing Civil War leader. Good job, Greg!

  2. Excellent job on my favorite subject. Thank you for your efforts to educate.