Born in the backwoods of Tennessee on July 13, 1822, Nathan Bedford Forrest was a product of the frontier, where survival was a constant battle and affronts to family and honor were answered violently. Through his own efforts he rose to planter status and married well, but he never smoothed off his rough edges or mastered his passionate temper. In war, however, his mix of impetuosity and control made him the ferocious and fearless “Wizard of the Saddle.” Always ready to do his own scouting or throw himself into the thick of things, he had thirty horses shot from under his, matching the number of enemies he claimed to have killed personally. A resourceful and relentless tactician, for whom the best defense was a good offense, he followed a simple axiom in battle: “Forward, men, and mix with ’em.” Quick to press his advantage or outflank his opponent, he was just as good at bluffing and repeatedly tricked his adversary into overestimating his forces. One way or another, he kept the Union forces in turmoil everywhere he went. Unfortunately, as Wills makes clear, too often Forrest was covering a retreating army, and his brilliantly executed raids were primarily sideshows, little affecting the outcome of the war.
Nor was his character without fault; though a man of great poise and intelligence, with a rough and ready wit, Forrest was refractory, contentious, and quick to whitewash his own misconduct. Moreover, as a successful slave merchant, commander during the massacre of black troops at Fort Pillow, and leader of the Ku Klux Klan, Forrest championed the repressive and paternalistic racist Southern social order.
While excusing none of Forrest’s failings, Wills’s scrupulously balanced account tends to blunt the force of his criticism. Also, the book rushes through the last years of Forrest’s life, when he subverted the law to retain his standing in the postwar South. Consequently, the most lasting impression left by this biography is of the heroic Forrest, a sadly underused general who might have changed the course of the war had he been given greater scope. Still, overall Wills succeeds in embodying in Forrest the ambiguities of the South’s “lost cause,” with his many admirable qualities marred by bigotry and violence.