A Biography
Email this review


 The Confederate cavalry commander, as conspicuous for his racism as for his military prowess, receives a biography that emphasizes his reprehensible exploits as slave trader and founding father of the Ku Klux Klan. Robert E. Lee supposedly called Forrest ``the most extraordinary man the Civil War produced.'' But Chicago Tribune newsman Hurst offers the first recent portrait that pays as much attention to Forrest's distasteful activities before and after the war as to his undeniable martial genius. Better written than Brian Steel Wills's A Battle from the Start (1992), this new book spends less time on Forrest's extraordinary career as a soldier--he was the only man on either side who went from private to lieutenant general--and gives equal weight to his rise from raw frontier poverty to self-made wealth in land and slaves, his prewar civic activities as a Memphis alderman, and his postwar career as an icon of the unreconstructed South. But the good news about Hurst's work- -his reluctance to substitute speculation for fact in the name of psychobiography--is also the bad news: The reader is left wondering about the sources of Forrest's undeniable penchant for personal violence. What other general was even reported to have killed 30 enemy soldiers in hand-to-hand combat, in addition to shooting his own men caught running from battle? Hurst's hands-off attitude also results in an absence of strong conclusions about Forrest's conduct when the evidence is conflicting (did Forrest encourage or prevent the notorious massacre of Union, particularly black, soldiers at Fort Pillow? Hurst thinks he may have done both). Readers wanting military history should pass over both recent biographies for Edwin Bearss's Forrest at Brice's Cross Roads (1991). Hurst's is the best all-around recent life of Forrest, but we still await a truly insightful study of this complex man. Since Richard Ellmann is dead and Walter Jackson Bate is retired, how about it, Stephen Sears?

Pub Date: June 6th, 1993
ISBN: 0-394-55189-3
Page count: 464pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1993