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HARDTACK and HARD TIMES: Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, Hero or Villain?

March 3rd, 2014 5:31 pm by Ned Jilton

HARDTACK and HARD TIMES: Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, Hero or Villain?

Brian Steel Wills is the Director of the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era and Professor of History at Kennesaw State University. Photo Courtesy of TCCWRT.

This just in off the telegraph line. You have a chance next Monday to attend a lecture on one of the hot button issues of the Civil War, Nathan Bedford Forrest and the Battle of Fort Pillow.

The Tri Cities Civil War Round Table (TCCWRT) is bringing in Brian Steel Wills, historian, professor, author and director of the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era and Professor in the Department of History at Kennesaw State University to Kingsport Monday, March 10. His program topic is
“Hero or Villain: Gen. Forrest’s Attack on Ft. Pillow.” Here are some details provided by the TCCWRT.

As Confederate major general Nathan Bedford Forrest approached a small isolated fortification on the banks of the Mississippi north of Memphis in April 1864, he would soon become associated with one of the Civil War’s most infamous episodes.The fall of Fort Pillow left the Union garrison of between 557 and 580 colored soldiers and white East Tennessee Union troops with between 277 and 297 deaths or mortal wounds; 64 percent attributed to the black units and 31-34 percent to the white Tennesseans.The toll for the attacking Confederates rested at 14 killed and 86 wounded.The most devastating of the Union losses came early in the fighting when the commander, Major Lionel F. Booth, suffered a fatal wound while standing near one of the fort’s embrasures, forcing leadership to pass to Tennessee Unionist, Major William F. Bradford.

Following an investment of the fort, Forrest sought to achieve a surrender of the garrison.The failure to accomplish this outcome left the Confederates with the necessity of subduing the defenders by assault. Forrest’s men quickly swarmed over the parapet and scattered their opponents. In the chaos and panic of broken and pursuing troops, any sense of order evaporated, especially below the bluffs on which the inner works were situated. Many tried to surrender, while others plunged into the water to escape; still others continued to resist, all the while under a hail of Confederate fire. A plan to cover the retreat with
support from the gunboat New Era proved impossible on account of the earlier expenditure of much of the vessel’s ordnance and Forrest’s placement of Southern troops along the riverbank near the landing.

A United States Congressional investigation of the disaster resulted in the conclusion that “an indiscriminate slaughter” had taken place after the fort had fallen, “sparing neither age nor sex, white or black, soldier or civilian.”This “massacre” had featured terrifying examples of brutality, including the burning and burying of live victims.At the same time, Forrest consistently refused to accept that the deaths at Fort Pillow amounted to any more than would be attributable to combat and that his policy toward prisoners reflected accepted practices.Yet, accusations of massacre and atrocity continued.In any case, the Confederate capture of the fort, with its garrison of Tennessee Unionists and African American troops became the most controversial moment of his wartime career.

Brian Steel Wills is the Director of the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era and
Professor of History at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga.He is the author of numerous works relating to the American Civil War.His most recent publications are Confederate General William Dorsey Pender: The Hope of Glory (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013) and George Henry Thomas: As True as Steel (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2012), which was the recipient of the 2013 Richard Barksdale Harwell Award for the best book on a Civil War topic for the year 2012 presented by the Civil War Round Table of Atlanta.

His biography of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, “A Battle From the Start: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest” is currently in reprint as “The Confederacy’s Greatest Cavalryman: Nathan Bedford Forrest” (University Press of
Kansas).This work was chosen as both a History Book Club selection and a Book of the Month Club selection.

Dr. Wills also authored, “The War Hits Home: The Civil War in Southeastern Virginia”,
released in October, 2001, and “No Ordinary College: A History of The University of Virginia’s College at Wise”, (2004), both by the University Press of Virginia.“Gone with the Glory: The
Civil War in Cinema” appeared in 2006 with Rowman and Littlefield. An updated edition of the James I. “Bud” Robertson, Jr., Civil War Sites in Virginia (Virginia) came out in 2011.

In 2000, Dr. Wills received the Outstanding Faculty Award from the Commonwealth of Virginia, one of eleven recipients from all faculty members at public and private institutions across the state.He was named Kenneth Asbury Professor of History and won both the Teaching award and the Research and Publication award from the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.

The TCCWRT sponsored program beginning at 7:00pm in the Eastman Recreation Center, Room 219.The program is open to the public and is free.

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