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  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

Nathan B. Forrest: Described in Detail, 1865.

by Gordon Thorsby

His photograph is always recognized. Was Nathan Bedford Forrest, the soldier that went from private in 1861 to Lt. General in 1865 an evil man guilty of massacres or someone who won almost every fight he got into?

When Union Maj. General Harry Wilson was preparing to take a cavalry corps into Alabama and Mississippi in March of 1865, he sent an officer and six men under a flag of truce to discuss prisoner exchange. He wanted to find out who he was going up against.

In a dark living room on a rainy nigh, the room lit only by some candles here is what Captain Lewis M Hosea saw:

“[He was a man fully six feet in height [actually 6’2”], rather waxen face; handsome; high, full forehead, and with a profusion light gray hair thrown back back from the forehead and growing down to a point in the middle of the same…The thoughts of line and care, in an upward curve, receding, are distinctly marked and add much to the dignity of expression. The general effect is suggestive of notable of Revolutionary times.”

Wilson might have wondered if the Captain was describing the Confederate general or if he was enthralled like some Greek hero of mythology that could never be defeated.

Hosea went on to describe that he was of quick mind and talk, was of engaging frankness and soldierly simplistic. His language “Indicates a very limited education.” His habitual expression seemed rather subdued and thoughtful but when his face lighted up with a smile, Which ripples all over his features…”

A Lieutenant Colonel under Wilson added additional information, “without a uniform…he looked like an old farmer. His manner was mild, his speech rather low and slow, but let him once be aroused and the whole man changed, his wrath was terrible.

At Hosea’s meeting, Forrest offered a message for Hosea to take back to Wilson. “Jist tell General Wilson that I know the nicest little place down here…whenever he is ready. Gin’ral Wilson may pick his men and I’ll pick mine. He may take his sabers and I’ll take my six shooters. I don’t want nary a saber in my command-haven’t got one… I ain’t no graduate of West Point; never rubbed my back up ag’in any college… I’ll use my six shooters and agree to whup the fight with any cavalry he can bring.”

Forrest, 40 at the time of the meeting stated that he had no authority to negotiate exchanges and basically Hosea was wasting his time.

At the end of the Selma Campaign. almost simultaneous to the surrender at Appomattox, Hosea had changed his attitude about Forrest. It was after a possible shooting incident of 25 Union troopers during the Selma Campaign. Hosea saw Forrest in a different light during a final meeting between Wilson and Forrest, now wounded, and with his arm in a sling. His description was that Forrest had ridden far and depressed by his defats but he saw in the general, "all the brutal instincts of the slave driver." The incident while 25 men had killed in a small space, could not be ascertained.

Forrest was a man that you were either strongly decided with great respect, or red with the greatest of anger. There was and is no in between.


Yankee Blitzkrieg, Jones, James Pickett, The University Press of Kentucky, 1976.

Hosea, Lewis M., Some side Sides on the War for the Union, Papers Read before the Ohio Commandery of the Loyal Legion of the United States, 1912.

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