Along line of Confederate cavalrymen interrupted the quiet tranquility of a Kentucky winter as they slowly rode north. Their horses picked their way across the frost-covered ground, crunching through semi-frozen puddles and pockets of deep mud. The first week of winter was hardly an ideal time for soldiering, but these inexperienced troopers were looking forward to their first real action of the Civil War.
Riding at the head of the column’s main body was 40-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest. Tall and well-built, the Tennessee native had inherited the strength and vigor of his father, a blacksmith. Like the eager horsemen in his charge, Forrest itched for a fight. For three months his battalion had been conducting routine reconnaissance operations in Tennessee and Kentucky, and gathering up horses, cattle, hogs, and other supplies for the Confederate army. Such monotonous duty had its purpose, but Forrest expected to make his mark in a more direct and memorable way.
Five months earlier, on July 10, 1861, Tennessee Governor Isham G. Harris had plucked Forrest from the ranks of the Tennessee Mounted Rifles Company and offered him a command of his own. Forrest had enlisted as a private only a month before. Isham, who knew Forrest by his reputation as a businessman in Memphis, commissioned him a lieutenant colonel with the authority to recruit a battalion of mounted rangers.
Forrest wasted no time. Before the end of July, he ran advertisements in the Memphis Avalanche and other newspapers. ‘I desire to enlist five hundred able-bodied men,’ Forrest wrote, ‘mounted and equipped with such arms as they can procure (shot-guns and pistols preferable), suitable to the service. Those who cannot entirely equip themselves will be furnished arms by the State.’ Forrest took this last promise to heart. Prior to the war he had amassed a sizable fortune through planting and slave dealing, and he paid for many of his battalion’s needs out of his own pocket. He quietly scoured neutral Kentucky for revolvers, shotguns, saddles, blankets, and other equipment, and sent his purchases south in wagons. In Louisville, six teenage volunteers helped Forrest smuggle supplies out of the city in coffee sacks.
A vigorous and powerfully built man, Forrest was his own best recruiting tool, inspiring would-be volunteers with confidence in his ability to lead them. Charles W. Button, one of the youths who assisted Forrest in Louisville, recalled his first meeting with the lieutenant colonel: ‘I was attending a military drill with a local company to which I belonged, and as I rode up home, dressed in my new uniform, I saw my father and a splendid-looking man in serious conversation in the front yard. I was introduced to Col. Forrest and told that he was recruiting soldiers, and, as I had already determined to go out, he wished me to go with him.’ After assisting Forrest in Kentucky, Button accompanied him back to Memphis as a recruit.
By November, Forrest’s Tennessee Cavalry Battalion included roughly 790 men from Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, and Texas. His recruits found him impressive in both stature and manner. ‘This command,’ Major David C. Kelley wrote, ‘found that it was his single will, impervious to argument, appeal, or threat, which was ever to be the governing impulse in their movements. Everything necessary to supply their wants, to make them comfortable, he was quick to do, save to change his plans, to which everything had to bend. New men naturally grumbled, but when the work was done all were reconciled by the pride felt in the achievement.’
Forrest set up winter headquarters at Hopkinsville, in southwestern Kentucky, on December 20, lodging his troopers in floored tents as they contended with the cold and an outbreak of measles. The lieutenant colonel shared his winter quarters with his wife, Mary Ann, and their 15-year-old son, Willie.
Recruits continued to trickle in. Just before Christmas, a Texan named Adam R. Johnson arrived in camp and offered Forrest his services as a scout. ‘I saw at once that he was a man of great and prompt decision,’ Johnson remembered. ‘His muscular, well-proportioned figure, over six feet in height, was indicative of extraordinary physical strength. But it struck me that his most wonderful feature was his piercing blue eye which flashed and changed so rapidly with every emotion that it was difficult to distinguish its true color. He was a man to catch the look and hold the attention of the most casual observer, and as we gazed on each other I felt that he was a born leader and one that I would be willing to follow.’
As Johnson entered Forrest’s tent, the lieutenant colonel gave him a keen, searching look and asked, ‘Well, sir, what do you want?’
‘I want to join the cavalry,’ replied Johnson.
‘I have plenty of room for you and many more besides,’ Forrest answered. ‘Where are you from?’
‘I am from Texas,’ Johnson said, whereupon Forrest asked, ‘What have you been doing out there?’
‘I have been surveying and fighting the Indians,’ the Texan answered.
‘Well, sir,’ said Forrest, ‘I should like to have you with me. One of my companies is from Texas, and you may go in with it if you wish.’ After making sure he would be allowed to serve as a scout, Johnson accepted Forrest’s offer.
Johnson got his chance to do some scouting sooner than he might have expected. On December 26, Brigadier General Charles Clark, commanding an independent brigade in Confederate Department Number 2, ordered Forrest’s battalion to reconnoiter toward Rochester and Greenville, about 30 miles to the northeast. The unit was to continue north toward Rumsey if it was practicable. ‘We were all lying in camp playing poker and writing love-letters, when suddenly ‘boots and saddles’ rang out on the quiet air,’ Private Charles W. Button remembered. ‘The sick recovered instantly.’ Johnson and fellow scout Robert M. Martin rode ahead of the expedition.
‘Now, Bob,’ Forrest instructed Martin, ‘I want you to start at once for Greenville. Johnson will go with you; and if you learn anything he can come back and report. I’ll not be very far behind you, and you’ll find me on the main road. Go into camp now, get your rations, and start right out.’
After the scouts had departed, Forrest’s command of about 250 men set out on the Greenville Road. The excited troopers did their best to ignore the bitter cold and freezing rain that intermittently swirled in the air. Four miles out of Hopkinsville, Forrest turned east with a portion of his men to scout toward Rochester, and sent the balance of the force on to Greenville, under Kelley’s command. The two columns would link up in a day or two.
Finding the Rochester area empty of Union troops, Forrest started back toward Greenville the next day. On the morning of December 28, a squad of about 40 Tennessee troopers under Lieutenant Colonel James W. Starnes and Captain William S. McLemore met Forrest’s column with news that they had tangled the previous day with Federal cavalry a few miles north at South Carrollton. Forrest pushed on to Greenville to join Kelley while his scouts rode north toward Rumsey to find the Yankee horsemen.
Forrest reached Kelley’s camp outside Greenville shortly after the tired troopers there had fallen asleep after a long night of vigilance. ‘Colonel Forrest came in just as we got covered up,’ trooper Gray remembered. ‘We got up and saddled, mounted our horse, and took up our line of march over the same road we had picketed all night before.’
The Confederate force, about 300 strong with Starnes’ squad attached, quickly assumed the march in one long column. Eight miles up the Rumsey road Johnson reported back to Forrest with news that 500 Federal troops had forded the Green River from Calhoun to Rumsey. Forrest called a halt and ordered all saddle girths to be tightened. ‘Now, boys, keep quiet,’ he said to his men. As word of the Yankees’ presence spread through the ranks, however, Forrest found it ‘impossible to repress jubilant and defiant shouts’ from the charged-up Rebels.
Farther up the road, Button recalled,’several ladies, much excited, waved their handkerchiefs, and told us that the enemy were an hour ahead. Here we struck a trot and moved on as fast as our jaded horses could carry us.’ As Forrest approached the small village of Sacramento, an unabashed Confederate sympathizer named Molly Morehead confronted him, urging the Rebels to hurry. Pointing back toward a nearby hill where she had seen the Federals, she exclaimed, ‘There they are! Right over there!’
Forrest shouted, ‘Johnson, go and see right where they are.’
He remembered Morehead in his official report two days later. ‘A beautiful young lady,’ he wrote,’smiling, with untied tresses floating in the breeze, on horseback, met the column just before our advance guard came up with the rear of the enemy, infusing nerve into my arm and kindling knightly chivalry within my heart.’
Galloping to the crest of a nearby summit, Johnson spied a body of about 200 Federal horsemen a short distance away. He hurried back to tell Forrest, who ‘was trying to persuade the brave girl, who was riding by his side, to retire.’
Johnson assumed that Forrest would halt the strung-out Confederate column and order proper battle formations. ‘But this fiery leader,’ the scout later wrote, ‘without checking his charger, galloped on until he had reached the videttes, whom I had left on the hill-top to watch the enemy, now quite close to them.’ Forrest pressed forward on wet ground rendered treacherous by cold drizzle that had fallen for the last 24 hours. Picking up the pace, the Confederate advance force soon approached the Federal rear-guard. Surprised by the sudden movement, the Union soldiers appeared uncertain as to the Southerners’ identity. Forrest quickly dispelled their doubts. ‘Taking a Maynard rifle,’ he later reported, ‘I fired at them, when they rode off rapidly to their column.’
The Federals retreated over a hill and reformed. When the Confederates were within 200 yards of them, the Yankees opened fire. Forrest ordered the 150 riders who had kept pace with him to close within 80 yards of the enemy before shooting. After a quick flurry of shots, however, he realized that he had too few men to pursue the Federals, and he changed his strategy. Hoping to draw the enemy after him, he ordered his advance troops to fall back.
The plan worked. The Yankee cavalrymen moved forward and were lining up for a charge when the rest of the Confederate horsemen rode up. Forrest immediately dismounted a number of men with Sharps carbines and Maynard rifles to act as sharpshooters.
He ordered Starnes to move against the Federals’ left flank with 30 mounted men, and sent Kelley to flank the enemy’s right with another 60 riders. Meanwhile, the dismounted troopers, concealed behind trees, logs and fences, continued sniping at the Union horsemen. With his saber raised, Forrest thundered to his main column, ‘Charge! Charge!’ and galloped full tilt toward the enemy. ‘Colonel Forrest spoke to the bugler,’ Private Gray remembered, ”Blow the charge, Isham.’ With that, we raised the yell and away we went. The ground had begun to thaw by this time, and we were soon covered with mud from head to foot. Our company was in the rear, and our boys began cursing the two companies ahead of us, whom we thought were riding too slow, and threatened to ride over them.’
The Confederates jumped into the fray with great enthusiasm. ‘…We started in at a gallop,’ Button remembered, ‘and soon passed a couple of prisoners captured by the advance-guard, one of them wounded and both bloody and muddy; a little farther on a loose horse, full rigged, and close by a bluecoat stuck in the mud; then several bluecoats in the same fix…. This was our first chance to ‘mix’ as Colonel Forrest used to say.’
Forrest dashed forward into the enemy’s center, as Starnes slammed into the Yankees’ left. Major Kelley held his squadron in compact order as he drove in the Federals’ right flank. Starnes, having exhausted his revolver’s ammunition, hurled the empty weapon at one of the fleeing Northerners.
The action was fierce, and Forrest was in the thick of it. ‘The Col. was about 50 yards ahead of us fighting for his life,’ Private James H. Hamner wrote. ‘I believe there was at least fifty shots fired at him in five minutes. One shot took effect in his horse’s head, but did not kill him. He killed 9 of the enemy.’
The Rebel horsemen, Johnson remembered, ‘led by this impetuous chieftain, swooped down upon their foes with such terrific yells and sturdy blows as might have them believe a whole army was on them, and turning tail, they fled in the wildest terror, a panic-stricken mass of men and horses, Forrest’s men mixed up with them, cutting and shooting right and left, and Forrest himself in his fury ignoring all command and always in the thickest of the melee.’
Forrest’s apparent ardor for battle astounded his men. ‘Forrest seemed in desperate mood and very much excited,’ Kelley wrote. ‘It was the first time I had seen the Colonel in the face of the enemy, and, when he rode up to me in the thick of the action, I could scarcely believe him to be the man I had known for several months. His face flushed till it bore a striking resemblance to a painted Indian warrior’s, and his eyes, usually mild in their expression, were blazing with the intense glare of a panther’s springing upon its prey. In fact, he looked as little like the Forrest of our mess-table as the storm of December resembles the quiet of June.’
Severely pressed in the center and on both flanks, the Federal party began a disorderly retreat. According to Union Brigadier General Thomas L. Crittenden, the flight began when’some dastard unknown shouted, ‘Retreat to Sacramento!” Most of the Federals chose to obey this mysterious ‘order’ over the entreaties of officers trying to organize a defense. The Confederates chased the Yankees to Sacramento, where, according to Forrest, his troopers ‘commenced a promiscuous saber slaughter of their rear, which was continued at almost full speed for 2 miles beyond the village, leaving their bleeding and wounded strewn along the whole route…. Those of my men whose horses were able to keep up found no difficulty in piercing through every one they came up with.’ Captain McLemore remembered, ‘It was the only time I ever saw a hand-to-hand contest with sabers.’
Standing in the stirrups, Forrest slashed to the left and right among the terror-stricken Federals. Johnson remembered his commander in action: ‘Finally he came up with a man who had been a blacksmith, as large as himself, muscular and powerful. While engaged in combat with this man, another Federal was in the act of running his sword into Forrest’s back, when a timely shot [from a fellow Confederate] felled his second antagonist. Forrest hewed the big man to the ground by a mighty stroke.’
In another instant, Forrest was fighting it out with three Yankees at once. Forrest quieted a private with a pistol shot just as two officers attacked him with their swords, ‘which,’ Johnson recounted, ‘he eluded by bending his supple body forward, their weapons only grazing his shoulder. The impetus of his horse carrying him a few paces forward, he checked and drew him a little to one side and shot one of his antagonists as his horse galloped up, and thrust his saber into the other.’
Forrest’s wounded opponents refused to surrender, so the Confederate commander obligingly renewed the fight. He slashed Union Captain Albert G. Bacon, whom he had already shot, with his saber. He then charged Captain A. N. Davis, and their horses slammed together in a violent collision. Davis was thrown to the ground with a dislocated shoulder, and he surrendered. Moments later Forrest’s frightened mount bolted into the path of two riderless horses, colliding with them and hurling its rider to the ground in a heap. A bruised Forrest scrambled to his feet, but his horse was crippled.
‘Johnson, catch me a horse!’ the lieutenant colonel shouted to his scout. ‘Catching one that came plunging down the road,’ Johnson remembered, ‘I handed him the bridle, but the saddle did not suit him, and while he was getting his own saddle his men gradually withdrew from the pursuit.’
The Confederates had indeed given up the chase. Their horses were exhausted. Forrest’s troopers spent the remainder of the day apprehending Union fugitives and gathering up the wounded and dead. Forrest put Federal losses at about 65 killed and 35 wounded or taken prisoner. General Crittenden estimated the Yankee losses at an unlikely total of 8 killed and perhaps 13 captured. Among the Confederates, there were two dead: Captain C.E. Merriwether had been shot twice in the head while riding beside Forrest, and Private William H. Terry had been pierced through the heart by a Union saber, even as Forrest tried to intervene. Three other privates had been wounded.
One of Forrest’s wounded, recalled Private Hamner, ‘was from our company and was shot by one of our own men. The enemy had on the regular U.S. uniform overcoat, and the man on our side had been in the Mexican War and had on a coat like they had — blue. We were all mixed up together and one of our men took him for a Yankee.’
Forrest dealt kindly with one of the Federals he had unhorsed, a Greenville resident by the name of Williams. The man was severely wounded, so Forrest had him carried carefully to his home, where he was placed on parole and entrusted to his wife. Passing through Greenville on a subsequent expedition, Forrest stopped in to inquire personally after the man. Williams’s wife and children displayed such genuine gratitude for his kindness that the lieutenant colonel was seen to wipe a tear from his eye as he emerged from their home.
The first battle under Forrest’s command left Kelley with a vivid impression of his chief. ‘So fierce did his passion become that he was almost equally dangerous to friend or foe, and, as it seemed to some of us, he was too wildly excitable to be capable of judicious command. Later we became aware that excitement neither paralyzed nor mislead his magnificent military genius.’
The effect of Forrest’s leadership on his troopers was electric. ‘This battle had a splendid effect in our regiment,’ Private J.C. Blanton wrote, ‘causing men and officers to confide in and respect each other. We were convinced that evening that Forrest and Kelley were wise selections for our leaders. And in all the battles that followed in which these two men were actors, they well sustained the reputation made on the field of Sacramento.’
Higher up the chain of command, Brigadier General Clark also took notice of Forrest. In transmitting the lieutenant colonel’s official report of the engagement, Clark added a postcript: ‘For the skill, courage, and energy displayed by Colonel Forrest he is entitled to the highest praise, and I take great pleasure in calling the attention of the general commanding and of the Government to his services. I am assured by officers and men that throughout the entire engagement he was conspicuous for the most daring courage; always in advance of his command. He was at one time engaged in a hand-to-hand conflict with 4 of the enemy, 3 of whom he killed, dismounting and making a prisoner of the fourth.’
Forrest’s unforgettable debut on that cold winter day at Sacramento was a harbinger of ill fortune for his future Union opponents. The blacksmith’s son from Tennessee had only just begun to tap into a fervor for battle that few other men could match. Despite his lack of professional military training, Forrest rode roughshod over his Union foes throughout the Civil War, and rose to the rank of lieutenant general. By then, Northern commanders such as Major General William T. Sherman remembered him simply as ‘that Devil Forrest.’
This article was written by William J. Stier and originally published in the December 1999 issue of Civil War Times Magazine. For more great articles, be sure to subscribe to Civil War Times magazine today!