An indifferently educated blacksmith's son, Nathan Bedford Forrest built a fortune as a cotton planter and a slave trader in his native state Tennessee. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Forrest enlisted as a private in a cavalry regiment he had raised and equipped at his own expense.
Within a few weeks, Forrest had risen to command the regiment as lieutenant colonel and embarked on the career that would make him the best-known and most feared Confederate cavalry commander of the Civil War. Despite his arguments against surrender of Fort Donelson in February 1862, his supervisor overruled him; he escaped, however, at the head of a detachment of cavalry. Two months later he was seriously wounded at the Battle of Shiloh.
When Forrest returned to the field during the summer of 1862, he led a series of destructive raids behind the Union lines, including one in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where he captured 1,000 prisoners and supplies valued at 1,000,000, and destroyed key railroad lines. His skill as a commander enabled him to check Union cavalry penetrations of Confederate territory. Throughout 1864 he raided so successfully that William T. Sherman vowed to stop him " if it costs ten thousand lives and bankrupts in the Federal treasury."
In April 1864, Forrest's command carried out the infamous massacre of surrendering black troops at Fort Pillow, Tennessee. Despite his denial that he ordered the killing of several dozen black soldiers, it seems probable that Forrest was responsible, as he repeatedly issued similar threats to Union soldiers.
Forrest continued to launch successful raids against the Union, severely depleting their supplies and capturing thousands of soldiers. During Hood's unsuccessful 1864 Tennessee campaign, Forrest commanded the Confederate cavalry. He was promoted to lieutenant general in February 1865, but the effectiveness of his troops began to erode. His command failed to check the Union Gen. James H. Wilson's raid to Selam, Alabama, in March and April 1865, the last great cavalry operation of the war. Overcome with hunger and exhaustion, Forrest was forced to surrender on May 4, 1865.
Two of Forrest's brothers were killed during the war, and his personal finances were seriously depleted. His brief presidency of a railroad resulted in bankruptcy. After the war, Forrest became involved with the Ku Klux Klan in his native state and is believed to have served as its Grand Wizard from 1867 until 1869.