Book Review: The Battles and Campaigns of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, 1861-1865

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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.

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15 Responses to Book Review: The Battles and Campaigns of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, 1861-1865

  1. Trevor says:

    I have been waiting so long for Gen. Scales book and it just landed on my doorstep this week. He has graciously spoken at our round table on a couple of occasions in Guntersville, Alabama and he is knowledgeable, precise and an all around good person. As cold as it is outside I may just get started today. Congrats John!

    Also don’t forget to check out his other book.
    “Sherman Invades Georgia”
    Planning the North Georgia Campaign Using a Modern Perspective
    Naval Institute Press

  2. John Foskett says:

    A well-done and helpful review, but – “Scales is quick to point out Forrest’s mistakes (if there were any)” – if there were any??? As one example, I’d point to Dave Powell’s excellent “Failure in the Saddle” in which he evaluates the mediocre performance of their duties by both Wheeler and Forrest in the Chickamauga Campaign.

    • John Scales says:

      I agree with Powell sometimes, disagree other times – as documented in my book.

      • John Foskett says:

        That’s what scholarship is all about. The problem with Forrest is similar to the problem with Jackson – my own view is that the mythologists have had too much influence over the years. I note that in the introduction to your book which is accessible in kindle version at Amazon, you make a critical point about Jackson – distinguishing his record at the operational level and his tactical record (which I would characterize as consistently mediocre, often against a weak opponent). That bodes well for a balanced assessment of Forrest. I look forward to getting the book.

  3. Kevin Pawlak says:

    Hi John,

    Good catch. I didn’t mean to imply that Forrest did not make any mistakes or that Scales believes the same. What I meant to say is that in any engagement where Forrest made mistakes, Scales is quick to point them out.

    Thanks for reading!

    • John Foskett says:

      Kevin: After I posted I suspected that as a possibility. I’m so used to folks who don’t specialize in this area (such as Burns and his writers) labeling this guy as some sort of war-changing, once-in-a millenium “genius” that I am programmed to “jump”. As I indicated, the rest of this review is extremely helpful.

  4. Pingback: ECW Week in Review Dec. 31-Jan. 7 | Emerging Civil War

  5. David Lady says:

    To accompany John on a tour of one of “Forrest’s trails” is an excellent educational experience. His hometown Civil War Roundtable has benefited from his tour of routes of Streight’s Raid and the 1864 Mid Tennessee railroad raids. In 2018 he will lead us into Mississippi to study his successful resistance to the several Federal raids of spring and summer1864.

  6. Bob Ruth says:

    Gen. Scales’ book sounds fascinating. Forrest was a brave and innovative commander. But, as John points out, he did make several costly mistakes. And while his raid into western Tennessee helped stall Grant’s first campaign against Vicksburg, Van Dorn’s destruction of Grant’s supply depot at Holly Springs was far more responsible for Grant’s retreat.

    And then there was Fort Pillow. Before Pillow, Forrest had issued no-quarter threats to other Union officers if they didn’t surrender. An argument could be made that Forrest was a war criminal. The best book I’ve read on Fort Pillow is River Run Red by Andrew Ward.

    • John Scales says:

      Have to disagree about the primacy of Van Dorn’s effect based on Grant’s Memoirs – he credits his decision to the impossibility of keeping the supply lines open. By current terms many of the generals on both sides committed war crimes. There certainly were such crimes committed by individuals at Pillow, but had Forrest so ordered the carnage would have been much worse. I think Brian Steel Wills’ book on Pillow is pretty definitive.

  7. Thomas R Place says:

    Bob R
    Labeling any one a war criminal when over 150 years has past and you were not there is certainty not fair and judge mental .
    Suggest you read the Gen. book first .

  8. Sounds like a good and balanced book about Forrest. Thanks for mentioning the maps and how helpful they would be on a road trip. I think that makes it so I have to buy this book before the summer!

  9. Lisa Murphy says:

    Thank you for the review of “The Battles and Campaigns of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.” We appreciate your review and are glad to hear you enjoyed the book! Those interested in checking out this book can read more at the Savas Beatie website here:

  10. John Scales says:

    Thanks for the review. I appreciate it!

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