Friday, 26 June 2015

Be careful who you admire: he may have a shady side...

We all, though men perhaps more than women, have a tendency to feel respect for the war hero. It may be slightly grudging respect, if we’re basically anti-war, but there’s something slightly appealing about those who show boldness, cleverness and success on a battlefield.

Napoleon. Wellington. Lee. Grant. Rommel. Patton. Remarkable men, somehow, whatever their faults.

Sometimes, though, it makes sense to look a little more closely. Take, for example, this unusual individual from the US Civil War.

He was, arguably, one of the finest cavalry commanders the world has seen. Interestingly, he didn’t really use cavalry as cavalry. As Bruce Catton points out, in his American Heritage History of the US Civil War he:

…used his horsemen as a modern general would use motorized infantry. He liked horses because he liked fast movement, and his mounted men could get from here to there much faster than any infantry could; but when they reached the field they usually tied their horses to trees and fought on foot, and they were as good as the very best infantry.

His innovative use of the arm was probably down to his having had no formal military training – he’d never been taught to think in the old terms. In fact, he’d had little education of any kind. Following his father’s death, he’d taken charge of his family at seventeen – at least as effectively as he later led soldiers in battle: he became one of richest planters in the country.

That word planter is a first clue to his identity. Yes, he was on the Southern side of the Civil War. That shouldn’t be altogether surprising: the Confederacy unfortunately had more than its fair share of effective generals – had the Union had a few more, the war might have been over a little more quickly with fewer dead.

Unusually, and again admirably, he joined the Confederate army as a private, despite his wealth. However, when he offered to pay out of his own pocket to equip his unit, his superiors moved him up the ranks rapidly, so he became one of a tiny band of individuals to have travelled the whole route from simple soldier to general.

Sherman said of him that there would never be peace in Western Tennessee until this dangerous opponent was dead, which is certainly a measure of the respect in which his opponents held him.

What made him so effective? He explained his approach in terms that are frequently misquoted. We can turn again to Bruce Catton, who tells us than in his view:

…the essence of strategy was “to git thar fust with the most men.” Do not, under any circumstances whatever, quote Forrest as saying 'fustest' and 'mostest'. He did not say it that way, and nobody who knows anything about him imagines that he did.

So we have a name. This remarkable man was Nathan Bedford Forrest, who gave his name to he eponymous hero of the film Forrest Gump.

If you saw the film, you may remember that Forrest was not quite so attractive a figure as I’ve painted so far. He may have been an effective and charismatic leader, but his military prowess seems to have drawn on a deep reservoir of violence. He originally went into business with an uncle of his, who had a quarrel with some brothers and was killed in the ensuing fight; Forrest shot two of them dead and knifed two others.

Nathan Bedford Forrest
Effective maybe. But not particularly nice
And it gets worse.

I said he was one of the wealthiest Southern planters. But not all his money came from his (slave-manned) plantations. He was also a leading slave trader.

During the war, there occurred an event which has never been fully clarified. Forrest won the Battle of Fort Pillow, at which some 500 union soldiers died, in particular black soldiers, white soldiers from Tennessee fighting on the Unionist side though the state was Confederate, and deserters from the Confederate side. Were they killed during the fighting or after it was over? Wikipedia quotes a letter from a Confederate:

The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor, deluded, negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees, and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. I, with several others, tried to stop the butchery, and at one time had partially succeeded, but General Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased.

Bruce Catton stresses that it has never been finally established that a war crime took place but it’s hard to feel sure that none did. Especially given that after the war, Forrest became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

A salutary lesson for all of us who have a sneaking admiration for men of Forrest’s exceptional and self-developed ability. It’s all very well being good at what you do, but it matters what you do with it. Brilliance in the pursuit of the atrocious really doesn’t have a lot to commend it.

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