A BATTLE FROM THE START by Brian Steel Wills


The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest
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 Wills (History/Georgia Southern Univ.) superbly tells the story of one of the Confederacy's authentic military geniuses, the man who consistently ``got there first with the most men'' and bedeviled the Union armies in the West throughout the Civil War. Unlike other great Civil War generals, Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-77) had little education and no formal military training. Instead, he was an enterprising frontiersman from the Tennessee and Mississippi backwoods whose many businesses included slave-trading. Wills shows, however, that Forrest was a born leader, one whom the southern code and way of life, with their emphasis on ``violence and honor,'' prepared for a military life. Wills also explains how Forrest, despite his humble origins, used his slave-trading business to become wealthy and to break into the planter class. When Tennessee voted to secede from the Union, Forrest's love of horses prompted him to organize his own cavalry regiment. Wills devotes the bulk of his account to Forrest's remarkable exploits during the Civil War--his daring escape with his command from the trap at Fort Donelson; his ``Streight bluff,'' which convinced Colonel Abel Streight to surrender nearly 1,500 Federals to only 400 Confederates; and his victory over a superior Federal force at Brice's Cross Roads. Wills also recounts the less savory aspects of Forrest's record, including the massacre of black Federal troops at Fort Pillow, and his postwar founding of the KKK. Although Forrest was unable to prevent Union victory in the West, Wills argues that the general was not simply a cavalry raider, but a commander whose battles had strategic importance. Ultimately, Wills concludes, Forrest was a blend of vice and virtue and a product of his times, ``neither the incarnation of evil his detractors have described...nor the paragon of Southern virtue some of his apologists have maintained.'' A well-written and meticulously researched biography that offers a balanced perspective on its controversial subject. (Sixteen pages of halftones--not seen.)

Pub Date: June 3rd, 1992
ISBN: 0-06-016832-3
Page count: 480pp
Publisher: HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1992


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