Lt. Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest
February 17, 1862
The winter of 1862 was a challenging time for the newly formed Confederate forces trying to defend against invading armies from the North. Many southern officers were elected for their popularity with the men. Some of those leaders were ready to prove their worth in battle while others were not. One elected officer, who would prove himself to be the greatest cavalry officer of the period was Lt. Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest had been a wealthy plantation owner and successful land speculator that had raised and personally equipped his own battalion of eight companies of mounted volunteers, which included companies from Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky and Texas, a complement of about 650 men.
By February 1862 Federal General U.S. Grant's army had seized Paducah, Kentucky and had captured Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. Supported by a fleet of gunboats and fifteen thousand men, General Grant turned his attention to Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. Located high on a bluff overlooking the river, Fort Donelson had been reinforced with Lt. Colonel Forrest's cavalry battalion and soldiers from the garrison at Fort Henry. Grant found the fortifications at Ft. Donelson difficult to attack. Federal gunboats that had been so effective in the previous assault of Fort Henry, were practically useless as their shells harmlessly arched over the fort. Southern guns rained fire and shot down from the bluffs sinking two of the Federal vessels and wreaking havoc on Grant's soldiers. In the confusion of battle General Grant rallied his officers and men. Regrouping, the Federals launched a successful infantry assault that pushed retreating southern soldiers into the confines of the fort.
Now encircled and trapped by the Federal force, four Confederate commanders, Buckner, Floyd, Pillow, and Forrest held a council of war in the middle of the night. To Forrest's astonishment and anger the three other leaders decided to surrender. Forrest was outraged, as he was sure the men could fight their way out of their circumstances. Forrest shouted, "I did not come here for the purpose of surrendering my command". General Buckner agreed to let Forrest's cavalry and what men they could muster attempt to escape before surrender negotiations with Grant began. Forrest stormed out of the meeting and gathered his troops. In the dead of the night, Forrest led his men through the darkness on a snowy wooded two day 75 mile trek to the safety of Nashville.
Forrest's meritorious actions at Fort Donelson brought him great acclaim with the Confederate high command in Richmond and would leave his first mark on the pages of history as the greatest cavalry commander of the Civil War, the "Wizard of the Saddle".