Forrest at Fallen Timbers
Then Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest by his actions on April 8th 1862 was attributed with one of the greatest feats in Civil War history. But, what really happened at Fallen Timbers?
After two days of fighting at the battle of Shiloh with it’s all too foretelling deathtoll that shocked both the North and South; the Confederate Army was in retreat. Maj. General U.S. Grant ordered Brig. General William Tecumseh Sherman to ascertain if the Confederates were in fact in retreat back to Corinth or if they were falling back to reform their lines. Sherman was taking two brigades of infantry(Hildebands’3rd and Bucklands’4th ) along with one battalion of cavalry on his reconnaissance. After realizing that the Confederates were in fact in retreat Sherman discovered a large field hospital and the existance of Confederate cavalry in the area. He then set up a skirimish line believing the area to be a good defensive position against cavalry due to the “miry ground and fallen timber”. (1)
For the retreating Confederates Brig. General John C. Breckinridge had ordered Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest to screen the armies movments and to protect a large field hospital. Maj. Thomas Harrison of the 8th Texas cavalry had noticed the advancing Federal troops on a scouting mission with about 40 troopers. Realizing his force was insufficient he returned to camp where he met up with a company of Wirt Adams’ Mississippi cavalry. They then found Forrest with his command of the 3rd Tennessee giving them a combined force of a little over 300 men mounted. Forrest being the highest ranking officer assumed command of the combined force.
Sherman himself later descibed what happened next, “Forrest’s cavalry came down, with a yell, firing away with their pistols, over the skirmish line, over the supports right in among us.” All of this being witnessed directly by Sherman because he was with his staff at the skirmish line. He also added, “My Aide-de-Camp, McCoy, was knocked down, horse and rider, into the mud, but I, and the rest of my staff ingloriously fled, pell mell, through the mud, closely followed by Forrest with pistols already emptied.” Forrest by all accounts continued further on to ascertain the situation. At the same time the remaining Confederates were pulling back with their Federal prisoners.
Here is where the story begins to take a turn and the beginning of a legend is born. Forrest, at this point was stuck out alone and in front of the advancing Federals. Forrest took fire from almost every direction and was struck with a ball from an Austrian rifle just above the point of the hip and lodging next to his spine according to Jordan & Pryor, Forrest’s first biographers and the only written while he was alive and Forrest himself approved the manuscript. Next, Forrest is supposed to have picked up a Union private and slung him across the back of his horse to screen his back while he shot his way off the field.
The problem with this amazing feat is that nowhere in any of the Official Records, Jordan & Pryor’s biography or in the discussions between Sherman and Forrest was this amazing act mentioned. The first time it came up was in Robert Selph Henry’s “First with the Most”, published in 1944 and none of Henry’s citations ever mention this happening according to Stacy Allen historian for Shiloh NB. According to Sherman as cited in his 1881 paper on the Battle of Shiloh, “I have seen Forrest since the war; have talked to him about this very matter, and he explained that he was left behind by Breckinridge to protect this hospital camp, and if possible to check the pursuit by our forces which was naturally expected after the close of the battle of Shiloh. I’m sure that had he not emptied his pistols as he passed the skirmish line, my career would have ended right there.” It certainly does not sound like Sherman was trying to take anything away from Forrest and his actions on that day, so why is it not mentioned by them then?
I think it would be near impossible even with the adrenaline of battle to pick up a grown man with one hand and throw him over your back essentially, control your mount and have a hand free for a pistol and all the while with a ball lodged against your spine. Forrest acted bravely enough as did all the charging troopers without what seems to be a tall tale added in for effect.
www.civilwar.org Fallen Timbers: Then and Now
First with the Most: Nathan Bedford Forrest by Robert Selph Henry
The Campaigns of Nathan Bedford Forrest and of Forrest’s Cavalry by General Thomas Jordan and J.P. Pryor