"First With the Most" Forrest


IN JUNE of 1861 a tall, burly man of forty, unlettered but worth a million dollars, stalked into the recruiting office of the Confederate Army in Memphis and enlisted as a private. He had six months of schooling and no military training or experience. Less than four years later, “completely used up, shot all to pieces, crippled up . . . a beggar,” he surrendered as a lieutenant general.
He made short work of his farewell as he had of many a battle: “I have never on the field of battle sent you where I was unwilling to go myself, nor would I advise you to a course which I felt myself unwilling to pursue. You have been good soldiers, you can be good citizens. Obey the laws, preserve your honor, and the government to which you have surrendered can afford to be and will be magnanimous.”
That was all. He took back with him to Mississippi seven young Union officers, set them up in farming, and made his house their Sunday home. Their names are unrecorded; his was Forrest — Nathan Bedford Forrest.
For twenty years Robert Selph Henry has been collecting, sorting, filing, and mulling over material for a life of Forrest. Forrest was a military man and the book is a military book. Henry has followed the pattern of his Story of the Confederacy; that is, he spreads out the general military situation, shows the disposition of the opposing forces, and lets you in on the secret of how Forrest is diagnosing the job to be done, and then in a final burst tells you how Forrest is doing the job.
It is this burst that is worth waiting for. Henry was not there, of course, but he makes you think he was. It is only by the greatest self-restraint that he lets Forrest do all the fighting. At the crucial moment, up rides Forrest (he had more than thirty horses shot under him), a-cussin’ and a-cuttin’ and a-slashin’ and a-shootin’, with Henry right on his heels. The book is as vivid as that in spots, and it is these spots that count.
Forrest never said that he always got there “fustest” with the “mostest”; what he did say to a captain in the Union Army was that he always made it a rule to “get there first with the most men.” That is a good deal more modest. Forrest’s “most” was often a phantom force he had assembled out of thin air for the purpose of fooling his enemy. Usually about the time he had got together a respectable force big enough for one of his raids, somebody ordered it sent elsewhere to somebody else. Few rode long with “Old Bedford,” but those few rode hard. It was his unique power to do much with little that has given him his belated reputation.
Shortly after the first Battle of Ypres, Sir Douglas Haig was found by a United States Army colonel browsing around in a London bookshop hunting for a life of Forrest. Of him Haig said to the colonel: “We regard him as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of English-speaking commanders of mounted troops.” If today anybody anywhere should want to study Forrest’s campaigns, he will find in Mr. Henry’s book the chronology, the place, and the military elements, all based on original sources amply cited.
The reviewer is disappointed that among the many splendid illustrations and maps there is no picture or drawing of the old Forrest home, now rotted down, which he used to pass on his way to school in the little hamlet of Chapel Hill, Tennessee. But that is small stuff. The average layman will grow a little tired of the necessary description, but Henry knows his campaigns in the War Between the States, and he knows those in which Forrest had a part. These he has set apart and followed with zeal. When he warms up, you will see a squad of Rebels skirting a swamp at 9.36 on a foggy Tuesday morning. A few minutes later you will see them at a little hill, crawling along on their bellies toward the bank of a fiftyfoot river. Five hundred feet beyond, you will see a Yankee soldier sitting under a papaw tree washing his socks. Old Bedford is coming round the mountain — and when he comes, hell will pop. Bobbs-Merrill, $4.00.