Thursday, September 6, 2012

A Rebel Born by Lochlainn Seabrook - Book Review

General Nathan
Bedford Forrest
Lochlainn Seabrook describes his book, A Rebel Born, as "a defense of Nathan Bedford Forrest."   Subtitles to books are often forgotten, but readers should keep Seabrook's defense in mind when reading this book.   Nathan Bedford Forrest was not a man to elicit indifferent responses  — you either love the man or hate him.  So when reading this assessment of Forrest,  the reader quickly discovers that this biography is not an unbiased analysis of the famous cavalryman.

The other caution I would extend to prospective readers is this book is framed in an undying hatred for those who don't love Dixie.  Seabrook makes no secret of his hatred of Yankeeism and Southerners who have been corrupted by those devils north of the Mason-Dixon line.  This perspective begins with the authors Introduction which he signs from "Occupied Middle Tennessee."  The author's defense of Forrest starts with condemnation of Lincoln and Sherman.  In some respects, part of Seabrook's arguments is that Forest didn't do all these bad things, but any he did were in response to Lincoln's illegal war.

Now that we understand the author's predisposition, we can move beyond it to examine his arguments.  This is a well-documented, scholarly study with numerous foot notes that would rival some doctoral dissertations.  For me, the essence of this book is Seabrook's view, "That Forrest is seen as either a deity or a devil is just part what of what makes him so intriguing."  The Forrest that is revealed is a complex man with contradictions.  Because of this, Seabrook's defense is also full of contradictions.  It is my view that most men are neither as good or as bad as we think.   The Forrest that emerges from this book illustrates this clearly.

The book is divided into six parts that address Origins of the Anti-Forest Movement, Charges Against Forrest, From Rural Farmer to Urban Millionaire, Forest & The War for Southern Independence, Forrest in the Postbellum World, and Forrest: A Hero for All Ages.  These topics deal with Forrest as a slave owner and trader, the controversial Battle of Fort Pillow, and General Forrest's participation in the Klu Klux Klan.    Seabrook argues that the charges against Forrest are misplaced and were affected by "hatred of the South, one of whose primary symbols is Forrest."  In the author's view, this hatred of the South has prejudiced historians against Forrest and slanted their arguments.

I doubt that most people's initial thoughts of the South bring Forrest to mind.  Just as when people think of Texas, visions of Sam Houston do not appear.  If we add the Civil War to our search, we wouldn't see any notice of any of the leaders until over 50 topics are mentioned.  When we think about Confederate notables, the names of Lee, Jackson, Davis, and Stuart would appear before Forrest.  None of these leaders engenders the hatred that Forrest garners.  So if historians don't like Forrest it is probable that they have other reasons. 

The Nathan Bedford Forrest revealed in A Rebel Born is a very complex man.   I read this bio-defense with the idea of examining the information that the author presented and then forming my own opinion. 

Forest was a brilliant military tactician.  His mounted infantry forms the basis of much of modern warfare from blitzkrieg to the highly mobile strike forces used today.  Unburdened by the Napoleonic approach to warfare, he was free to use whatever method worked well with the battlefield situation and the capabilities of his men.  That approach clearly marks him as a military virtuoso.  While Seabrook regards Sherman's calling Forrest that "Devil Forrest" as labeling him as a sinner, my perspective is that Sherman and others who fought Forrest had high regard for him and used that term to express their frustration and admiration for a tough and clever opponent.

Some authors have suggested that Forrest was not very smart pointing to his lack of education.  The evidence presented by Seabrook refutes that notion.  His battlefield tactics show a unconventional approach to battle using bluffs, disguising troop sizes, gathering intelligence and disseminating misinformation to the enemy.  His business dealings clearly illustrate that he was quite capable.  Perhaps it is not surprising that some equate undereducated with uneducated.   The author admits that Forrest could have benefited by attending West Point.   This would no doubt amuse the General who had no use for West Pointers be they Union or Confederate.   While his plain speech may not match the prose of his battle reports, it seems likely that he used a vocabulary and style that was meant for his men and the common citizens. The language in his reports may have been fine tuned by his staff just like every field officer in the war.  Seabrook provides anecdotal evidence of Forrest correcting reports.

Brice's Crossroads Monument
Forrest was a leader.  The foundation of his leadership was in his fearless approach to combat.  He was often in the thick of battle where the action was hottest.  His men followed him because he was fearless and they gained confidence from his bravery.  His size also contributed to that role.  However, there was a dark side to Forrest and his men were certainly afraid of him.  They charged into battle knowing that if they did not, they would incur his wrath.  Seabrook illustrates this dark side in a few of the colorful folk tales attributed to the General.  In several cases he struck junior officers and enlisted men.  Seabrook finds these amusing, but another would view them as offenses worthy of court martial.

Forrest was a brilliant tactician and amazing leader, but was he a great soldier?  Regrettably, the evidence presented by Seabrook suggests otherwise.  He fought and threatened his superiors and subordinates.  A times he displayed a lack of understanding of the functions of support units.  Like many independent, self-made men, he was unwilling/uncomfortable taking orders from superiors especially those who he had no regard for.  He came close to having charges filed against him by General Bragg.  At times Forrest seems as troubling for his commanders as his enemies.   The Confederate high command did not know how best to use his unique talents.  He generally performed better when he controlled all of the Confederate forces rather than work in concert with other commanders.

Forrest & Maples
One of the issues that has tainted Forrest's reputation is his relationships with the black community.  Numerous factors have helped forge this negative image.  First, Forrest was a slave holder and slave trader.  The later occupation causes him more difficulty than the first.  Wealthy Southerners owned slaves and this ownership would not automatically carry condemnation with it.  Seabrook makes the case that Forrest was a kind and caring master.  The author points out that slaves were a valuable commodity and that Forrest had the sense to maintain the value of that human capital.  The author says Forrest's slave trading activities were done with an interest in preserving families.  On any kindness scale, slave trading earns more disdain than slave holding and making your living by trading human beings places one on the lower rung of professions.  His involvement in the Klu Klux Klan also adds to this negative image.  Seabrook denies that Forrest was a founder, although there is evidence that he was the leader of his local chapter.  The author points out that this KKK was not the same racially charged version of the last century.  People familiar with the history of the Klan know that it was originally a social and charitable organization.  There are questions about when the Klan start attacking blacks and was Forest involved in this redirection.  Seabrook says that Forrest ordered the Klan disbanded, but how could he do that if he wasn't in a leadership position.   

In his later years, Forrest spoke to the black-organization Independent Order of Pole Bearers.  His tells the group that: "This is a proud day for me. Having occupied the position I have for thirteen years, and being misunderstood by the colored race, I take this occasion to say that I am your friend."  If Forrest had treated his slaves well and was so well-liked by the black community, why was he misunderstood by freed blacks in Memphis.  On the page opposite to where the author quotes Forrest, he says that Forrest "was formulating plans to bring more African blacks to America" and had "bought over about 40 Africans."  He also made use of prison labor, a common practice in the South, on his plantation.

Battle of Fort Pillow
However, the most disturbing chapter in Forrest's life may be his command of the unit that captured Fort Pillow.  This may be the most controversial battle of the Civil War.  Northern authorities charged him with massacring black soldiers.  In his chapter "Fort Pillow: The Full True Story," Seabrook presents his defense of General Forrest's actions with arguments defending the attack and aftermath.  Seabrook reports that of the 557 Union soldiers (295 whites and 262 blacks) present,  231 were killed, 100 wounded, and 226 captured.  The mortality rate for soldiers (killed/(killed and wounded) was 70%.  The author does not present casualty by race, but some estimates indicate that only 58 blacks were taken prisoner (20%) compared to 168 whites (80%).  The overall mortalities were 41% however, if we use the mortality rate of 70% for the 204 blacks who were not taken prisoner we obtain 142 for a 54% mortality figure.  This is certainly a low percentage because it was likely that more blacks were killed as a percentage  than whites.  Seabrook lists the factors (pp. 334-335) contributing to the 40% killed percentage of which 14 of the 15 items mentioned are due to problems on the Union side.   Following this the author cites a number of reasons why the soldiers in Forrest's command had every reason to take out their anger on the garrison (pp. 337-340).  The controversy continues and may never be resolved to the complete satisfaction.  Whether you attribute this to "Dixie-loathing propaganda" by the North or the use of "scurrilous terms employed - out of jealousy, anger, and frustration - by the North for Confederate successes on the battlefield" is a matter of your own opinion.   Clearly the accusations have stuck to Forrest and have tarnished his reputation.

It seems apparent that Forrest's position among Confederate leaders was compromised by, not just one event, but the combination of actions.  These incidents include his occupation as a slave trader, actions at Fort Pillow, and membership in the KKK.  Forrest might have survived one with his image intact, but all three damaged his reputation.

Ultimately, Seabrook is preaching to the choir.  His message is directed to an audience that doesn't need convincing.  His tirades against Yankees and southerners with liberal ideas alienates that part of the public jury that needs to be convinced.  This is an unfortunate and serious shortcoming in A Rebel Born: A Defense of Nathan Bedford Forrest.

There are many books on General Forrest written by Northern and Southern authors.  The following are links to some that I would recommend.


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