Looking for Nathan Bedford Forrest: negotiating historical controversies

Karin Felmly, Colby College

Document Type Honors Thesis (Open Access)


Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the most controversial generals of the Civil War, was born on September 13, 1821, in the backwoods of Chapel Hill, Tennessee. This fierce Confederate cavalryman delivered a brutal, offensive style of fighting that terrified northerners and southerners throughout the war. In order to understand who Forrest was, one must study him in terms of his three main controversies: (1) pre-war occupation as a slave trader; (2) commander at the battle of Fort Pillow in 1864; and (3) position as first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan following the war. Modern day attitudes and opinions held by Forrest's sympathizers and opponents help demonstrate the various emotional chords he has struck in individuals. My research focuses on the controversies behind Forrest and the difficulties in assessing such a debatable figure in history.