F“War means fighting’ and fighting’ means killing’…forward men, and mix with ’em…the way to whip an enemy is to git ’em skewed and then keep the sheer on ’em…shoot at everything blue and keep up the sheer.” These are quotes from Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate General in the American Civil War.

Nathan Bedford Forrest

Nathan Bedford Forrest

Forrest was a controversial figure, in his day and since. He was a hard hitting, unconventional type of commander. He chaffed under the leadership of commanding generals and eventually won his own independent command. Asked why he consistently won, he replied, “The one who gets there first with the most is usually victorious.” His no-holds barred style won the admiration of the southern populace. During the battle of Chickamauga, Reeds’ Bridge was a key objective. Named for the farm nearby, Mrs. Reed was heard to exclaim when the Yankees were retreating, “You Yanks are running! Our army (some say she said Forrest is coming) is coming! Our friends will not hurt me!” Just then Yankee artillery opened fire, sweeping the house with canister, throwing her mangled body against the door.1 Another vignette has Forrest escaping enemy fire by pulling a dead Yankee up on the saddle behind him, thus shielding his body.

Forrest’s winning strategies included:

  • Surprise the enemy;
  • Never give up. When the Confederate commander of Fort Donelson surrendered, Forrest took his men and left the fort, traveling through cold swampy conditions rather than surrender to the Yankees.
  • Get there first with the most.

When we look at Nathan Bedford Forrest there are things to admire such as his grit, his fighting spirit, his faith in what he thought was right. There is, however, another side to the man: 1) There was the massacre at Fort Pillow in 1864, where 262 men were killed—some after they surrendered. Forrest’s complicity in that event is cloudy, but he was there and involved. 2) Though some think he founded the Ku Klux Klan, that has largely been disproven. However, he was probably their first Grand Wizard (leader).

To his credit, when the Ku Klux Klan became ungovernable and merely vicious, he disavowed the organization completely. Nor did he advocate segregation or the doctrine of black inferiority. On the contrary, his avowed position was extraordinarily progressive on matters of race, especially for a man of his background, time and place. He called for racial equality and racial harmony and believed that professions should be open be open to all people, black or white.2

Leadership Lessons

  • Being punctual or early has its merits—Get there first…
  • Gathering your resources so that that you have everything you need will enhance your chance of success—…with the most.
  • Sometimes it’s okay to use your opponent as a shield.
  • The element of surprise can be very effect in hostile negotiations.
  • If you know you’re in the right, don’t give up.

1 from This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga by Peter Cozzens
2 from Generals South Generals North by Alan Axelrod