He started up as a planter of cotton plantation in the Delta region of West Tennessee, a business which brought him rich fortune. Additionally, he also functioned as a slave owner and trader.
The thriving business and success raised the financial status of the family all through the 1850s. By 1858, he was chosen as a Memphis alderman. In the next two years, he established himself as one of the richest men in Tennessee.
With the initiation of the Civil War, he drafted himself at the Confederate States Army and by 1861, started out as a private soldier at Tennessee Mounted Rifles.
His status and position as a planter earned him the position of Lieutenant Colonel. His position involved recruiting and training a battalion of Confederate Mounted Rangers.
By October 1861, he was commanding a regiment. Despite having no military training or experience, his proficiency, tactical approach and leadership prowess earned him a respectable status.
In 1862, he, along with his troops, was stationed at the Fort Donelson. Though his company was cornered by Major General Ulysses Grant, instead of surrendering to their demand, he successfully and safely led his troop across the river.
He led the cavalry to escape past Niashville, where he coordinated evacuation effort. Within a month, he trained himself and his troops for the Battle of Shiloh. He commanded rear-guard action during the Confederate retreat into Mississippi.
During the battle, he sustained a gun shot at the back. However, despite this, he led a cavalry charge against union skirmishers and single-handedly controlled the troops.
During the summer, he commanded a new brigade of green cavalry regiments and by July, he led them successfully into the First Battle of Murfreesboro. He was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General and given command of Confederate cavalry brigade.
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He next participated in the cavalry operations near Mississippi River, wherein Grant was under control. The troop frustrated Grant’s forces by cutting communication lines and raiding stores of supplies. He then employed guerrilla tactics to frustrate and exhaust his pursuers.
Throughout 1863, he engaged himself at the Battle of Thompson near Fort Donelson. Interestingly, he fooled and successfully cornered Colonel Abel Streight’s commanded Union cavalry by leading his troop around the same hilltop a multiple times to give an impression of a large force.
During the Battle of Chickamauga held in September 1863, he played a vital role by fighting alongside infantrymen and pursuing the retreating Union army. However, combat with General Bragg led him to serve as the independent commander in Mississippi.
By December 1863, he was promoted to the rank of a Major General. In the new found position, he commanded several small engagements before taking up charge at the Battle of Okolona and defeating a large force.
His most controversial role came in the Battle of Fort Pillow wherein he served as the field commander. Despite winning the battle, his troops went on to kill over 200 unarmed Union soldiers, mostly black. The entire incident was later recognized as the Fort Pillow Massacre.
Notwithstanding the charge sheet against him at the Battle of Fort Pillow, he went on to lead his men at the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads where he not only destroyed the Union force, but claimed valuable supplies and arms as well.
The year 1864 brought mixed results for his army. While he lost the Battle of Tupelo and the Third Battle of Murfreesboro, he came up with a resounding victory at the Second Battle of Franklin
In 1865, he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General but was defeated at the Battle of Selma during General Wilson’s raid into Deep South
Post Civil War, he returned to Tennessee and entered private business. However, with the abolishment of slavery, he suffered a major financial setback as he was a slave trader.
Meanwhile, he began to associate himself with the newly formed Ku Klux Klan a secret society that disrupted the reconstruction effort and terrorized blacks. He served as the first mastermind of the Klan ever since its formation in 1866.
He then found employment at the Selma-based Marion & Memphis Railroad, eventually serving as the company President. However, with the failure of the business, he went bankrupt.
Due to major financial losses incurred, he was forced to sell most of his assets. He spent the latter half of his days running a prison labor camp on President's Island in the Mississippi River.
Personal Life & Legacy
He tied the nuptial knot with Mary Ann Montgomery, daughter of a Presbyterian minister in 1845. The couple was blessed with two children, William Montgomery Bedford Forrest and Fanny
His health deteriorated greatly during the latter half of his life. He breathed his last in October 1877 in Memphis of acute complications of diabetes. He was cremated at the Elmwood Cemetery. Later in 1904, his remains were disinterred from Elmwood and moved to a Memphis City Park.
Posthumously, a number of memorials, statues, monuments, schools, institutions were constructed and named in his honor.