Since Professor Wills has a way of relating episodes that transforms the dramatic into the soporific and turns the concrete into the abstract, this first biography of Forrest to be written since 1944 is probably the last that anyone should read. An unrelenting tendentiousness warps his interpretation of even the most transparent matters, so that the essential simplicity of Forrest escapes the attention of the historian, as does the tragic conflict of the Civil War.

Professor Wills’ way of interpreting action is more likely to cause this volume to be slammed shut than to be scanned. The mini-tale of the captured Captain S. L. Freeman on page 108 is a salient example: “Following a brief struggle, the Confederates succeeded in recapturing their artillery pieces, but failed to liberate Captain Freeman. Their failure cost him his life. As he ran along in the hands of his captors, they apparently did not believe that he was running fast enough, as one of the Union cavalrymen shot him through the head and rode away.” Thus the murder of Captain Sam Freeman is blamed on the Southerners who couldn’t extricate him from federal hands and not on the Yankee who pulled the trigger. Such a logic would produce some striking results, if universally applied.

But here such a logic is mostly restricted to the interpretation of the mind, motives, and actions of Nathan Bedford Forrest, whom even Sherman called “the most remarkable man our Civil War produced on either side.” In Wills’ rehash of Forrest’s tragic confrontation with Lieutenant A. Wills Gould, for example, the “temper,” “harsh actions towards his friends,” “mood,” “hair-trigger temper,” “anger,” “passion,” etc., attributed to Forrest are assembled to bury the point—namely, that Gould shot Forrest with a pistol, which the General construed as an attack upon his person committed with intent to do grievous bodily harm. Forrest’s displeasure at being shot by his own lieutenant and his subsequent lethal response with a knife seem somehow to constitute a fault of character. Wills concludes: “Indeed, had the general played a more noble role in the affair, even at the end of it, his earliest biographers, Thomas Jordan and J.P. Pryor, would have surely included it in their account. Instead they conspicuously avoided the entire subject.” Of course they did—but not because the incident discredited Forrest. Jordan and Pryor omitted the story because Lieutenant Gould’s behavior was disgraceful to him and embarrassing to his relatives. John Wyeth’s subsequent account omitted Gould’s name for the same reason. Wills goes to considerable trouble to distort the story of Lieutenant Gould.

But then again, throughout this account we are asked in effect to disapprove of Forrest’s manners. Forrest actually raises his voice at people during moments of stress, such as when under attack by thousands of invaders trying to kill him and his associates with rifles and cannons. Forrest even allows oaths to pass his lips, and during the biggest war ever fought in the Western Hemisphere he behaves violently on the battlefield, ordering his men to fight and sometimes even doing so himself! Get animal est tres mechant, / Quand on l’attaque il se defend.

As Professor Wills skirts the obvious with theories, we may wonder if we have missed the point, or rather whether the point has missed the historian:

Whether Forrest engaged in violence because he was a backcountry Southerner or because violence was part of his character, he undoubtedly embodied the struggle between “passion” and “control” that Dickson Bruce discussed in Violence and Culture in the Antebellum South. He struggled for control over his emotions throughout his life. Consequently, he emphasized discipline and order, both as a civilian and as a military commander.

Is it necessary to point out that by definition all humans feel a conflict between passion and control or that (also by definition) all leaders, civilian and military, emphasize order? Or that Forrest never heard of Bruce’s 1979 book?

Among other shortcomings, Wills’ book gives little sense of why Forrest was a hero to his people, why he was the subject of so many stories as to enter the folklore of the South and of the world (“Firstest with the mostest”), or why—until now—he attracted only outstanding writers. Even in fiction the general looms large, yet Wills’ treatment of Forrest in Faulkner is niggling, and Forrest in Caroline Gordon’s None Shall Look Back (1936), in Shelby Foote’s Shiloh (1952), in Perry Lentz’s The Falling Hills (1967), and in Lawrence Wells’ Rommel and the Rebel (1986) goes unmentioned.

What does not go unmentioned arc recent efforts by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Congress of Racial Equality to remove the bronze equestrian statue of Forrest in Memphis, disinter the bones of him and his wife presently buried thereunder, and rename Forrest Park. Though Forrest’s fame was earned on the held of battle, his days as a slave trader before the war and as the reputed leader of the first Klan after it have made him, even more than other Confederate icons, a convenient target for a war upon history. It is hard to see how destroying the memorial of a hero can promote either the advancement of colored people or racial equality, unless of course what is desired is a principle of effacement that will later be applied to all those drives and avenues (not streets) named for the Reverend “Dr.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Well, Forrest Avenue in Atlanta had its name altered about 13 years ago with little result as far as advancement or equality is concerned, though I think such a contemptuous gesture says a lot about a culture that dares not acknowledge the greatest fighting man in its own history. While awaiting the inevitable outcome of such emasculation, some may yet wish to contemplate the heroic parabola of Forrest while we are still allowed to do so. The rough-hewn, self-taught soldier who refused to surrender at Fort Donelson, who predicted the results at Shiloh, who rebuked Bragg after Chickaniauga, and who defended the Army of Tennessee after the mad Hood had wrecked it, was a man whose native gumption was always superior to the mere education of professionals. His story is best told by Andrew Lytle, whose Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company (1931) has just now been republished by J.S. Sanders of Nashville. Lytle’s life of Forrest is highly recommended to all those, of whatever hue or degree of advancement, who know a hero when they see one.


[A Battle From the Start: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest, by Brian Steel Wills (New York: HarperCollins) 457 pp., $30.00]