The Civil War is often characterized as being a turning point in the history of war, for it is seen as the crucible out of which total warfare arose. As Jack Hurst illustrates throughout his biography NATHAN BEDFORD FORREST, no man on either side adapted to such fighting as readily as did the Tennessean Forrest. Although lacking both military training and formal schooling, the fearless and tactically brilliant Forrest consistently prevailed in the war’s western theater, where the codified civility of wars past was often sacrificed to expediency.
Forrest, hardened by his frontier upbringing, could be brutal during warfare and quick to violence during times of peace; yet, as Hurst shows, the Confederate general remains one historical figure to whom the mythmakers have not been completely fair. Much has been made of Forrest’s association with the nascent Ku Klux Klan, yet few know that he later renounced this association. Also, historians frequently detail Forrest’s antebellum slave trading, without, however, discussing his postwar view that blacks should be fully integrated into Southern society.
Hurst’s portrait does much to humanize an individual typically viewed as either an intrepid warrior or a brutal scoundrel. Filling out the picture of Forrest’s life, however, does not undercut the life’s central truth: Forrest was a man both physically and psychologically well-suited for battle. Hurst’s Forrest is more man and less myth, but it is unlikely that much of what Hurst writes will supplant the lore that has arisen around one of the Confederacy’s most admired yet vilified heroes.