The Battles and Campaigns of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, 1861–1865
John R. Scales
Savas Beatie, El Dorado Hills, CA, 2017, 480 pages
Book Review published on: February 23, 2018
John R. Scales’s narrative of Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest’s campaigns and military career is part history and part travelogue; complete with over one hundred maps detailing the cavalryman’s many actions—however small—and his exact path between engagements. While The Battles and Campaigns of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, 1861–1865, is meticulously researched and would be a handy reference for the “battlefield tours” Scales leads, the work only serves as a useful reference for a more formal staff ride, lacking the detail and terrain analysis normally present in published staff ride guides. Scales’s cartographer does an excellent job of locating Forrest’s many actions by referencing modern locations, but the reason for including Forrest’s exact path between engagements is less clear, unless the reader wants to literally follow in the footsteps of the famed leader.
The narrative of Forrest’s many actions relies on standard sources, including the Official Records and the many biographies of the commander that have emerged since the end of the war. It offers a defense of some of Forrest’s most notorious actions, including the massacre of Fort Pillow, that contrasts with the most recent scholarly interpretations. While a useful reference on Forrest’s campaigns, Scales’s work will not supplant standard accounts, such as Brian Steele Wills’s The Confederacy’s Greatest Cavalryman and Wills’s assessment of Fort Pillow, The River was Dyed with Blood.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the book is hagiography bordering on hero worship. Scales is obviously impressed with Forrest’s considerable tactical acumen, but his argument that Forrest somehow possessed a genius for operational art, and that he translated his tactical victories into strategic success, is unsubstantiated. While Forrest was undoubtedly popular with his men, perhaps because he shared their simple and rough upbringing and lacked the formal training of a professional military officer (attributes sadly echoed in some of the anti-intellectualism in the modern force), his ability to lead highly effective and disruptive raids rarely had any impact on the larger course and conduct of the war. Most of his greatest victories came in relatively inconsequential actions, such as Lexington and Thompson’s Station in Tennessee and Brice’s Crossroads in Mississippi. Scales argues that Forrest’s raid on Murfreesboro in July 1862 somehow “delayed the capture of Chattanooga by a full year,” which ignores the impact of Braxton Bragg’s invasion of Kentucky that fall and Don Carlos Buell’s corresponding retrograde movement that was largely responsible for the railroad city’s salvation. Similarly, Forrest and Earl Van Dorn’s operations in the fall of 1862 did turn back Ulysses Grant’s drive on Vicksburg, but the argument that they “delayed the fall of Vicksburg for five or six months” is counterfactual and assumes that Grant’s initial effort would have succeeded against considerable opposition and with a lengthy and unsecured overland supply line. Scales’s assessment that Forrest’s efforts somehow extended the war ignores the reality that the Confederacy was not founded on the idea of simply “holding out as long as possible,” an argument often used to defend other failed Confederate military commanders such as Robert E. Lee. The South’s goal was to win independence, and its commanders were unable to devise campaigns that successfully led to that outcome, the essence of operational art.
Forrest’s inability to work with other Confederate commanders (i.e., Joseph Wheeler, Earl Van Dorn, and Braxton Bragg) is well documented, but his most significant failures came in the 1864 campaign season. He allowed relatively small Union columns sortieing from Memphis to occupy him in northern Mississippi all summer, when a cavalry raid against William Sherman’s attenuated supply lines stretching to Atlanta could have had significant consequences. From February through June 1864, Union authorities in Memphis sent a series of costly campaigns into the region in an attempt to tie up Confederate raiders. Scales views this as “a sizeable diversion of Union resources,” but in reality, it was Forrest who was being diverted. He did not hit Sherman’s rail lines in Tennessee until well after Atlanta had fallen, opening a path to the sea and ensuring Lincoln’s reelection. Even Scales is forced to admit that “the railroad raid certainly succeeded tactically,” but “operationally, the raid was a failure.” Though Forrest recognized the strategic possibilities of logistical disruption by his fast-riding, hard-hitting troopers, he was never able to translate these concepts into strategic success. Indeed, most of his actions were simply efforts to keep his men supplied. Even the tremendous destruction at Johnsonville, Tennessee, in the fall of 1864 had no impact on John Bell Hood’s failed Nashville campaign.
Given Forrest’s tactical acumen but operational and strategic shortfalls, readers are left wondering if Forrest really is a good exemplar for modern military officers. In later conflicts, such as Vietnam, officers developed significant tactical expertise and won an unbroken string of battlefield victories, yet were unable to achieve a decisive victory. What many have coined as a “strategy of tactics” seems unlikely to translate into strategic success without considerable training and education in the operational art. While Forrest certainly possessed tactical genius and was a magnetic leader, his lack of professional training ultimately undid both his military career and his cause. Bragg’s assessment after Chickamauga that Forrest was “nothing more than a good raider,” seems to be the most accurate and enduring assessment of his military career.
Book Review written by: Christopher M. Rein, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas