War Crime in West Tennessee Tarnishes Forrest’s Reputation

Author Brig. Gen. (Ret.) John R. Scales with owners Don and Bennita Rouleau on the porch of Lairdland Farm House. Photo by Clint Confehr

By Karen Hall

CORNERSVILLE, TN – The military action was minor, but the propaganda effect was enormous.

In April 1864, 262 African-Americans of the 6th Heavy Colored Artillery were among the Union troops holding Fort Pillow, overlooking the Mississippi River north of Memphis. When Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s troops stormed the fort they raged out of control for a brief period, shooting Union soldiers in cold blood even as they tried to surrender. Two-thirds of the African-Americans were killed, a disproportionately large number.

Union boats on the river picked up survivors, so word of the atrocity quickly spread.

As it became public knowledge, the Fort Pillow massacre had a negative impact on sympathy for the Confederate cause, both in the North and among African-Americans in the South.

Additionally, a congressional inquiry later that year published 40,000 copies of a 100-page report on the incident. This was consciously slanted towards influencing the upcoming election: Abraham Lincoln was running for a second term.

Brig. Gen. (Ret.) John R. Scales named Fort Pillow as one of the four actions by Forrest which made a difference during the Civil War.

He talked about these to a small group of history enthusiasts at Lairdland Farm House on Sept. 21. Speaking without notes or visual aids, Scales vividly described how Forrest, at various points in the war, saved the Confederate railroad supply line from Chattanooga to Virginia, delayed the fall of Vicksburg by six months, and saved the agricultural areas of Mississippi and Alabama (crucial for food supplies to the Confederate armies) for a year.

Scales sold and signed copies of his book, “The Battles and Campaigns of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest 1861-1865” (Savas Beattie 2017). The book describes all of Forrest’s actions in detail, with clear explanations supported by 109 maps. The book also contains driving directions for a series of tours following Forrest’s footsteps.

Scales commanded troops in Vietnam and Afghanistan, and he finds Forrest a fascinating character. Unlike many Civil War generals, Forrest had no military education; really, no education at all – he could read, but usually dictated what he wanted written.

“He could see how everything fit together. He had a unique facility for motivating people and for understanding what people could do,” said Scales, calling Forrest “a natural genius.”

Starting from nothing, Forrest was a self-made millionaire by the start of the war and had twice been elected alderman in Memphis. Nevertheless, when Tennessee decided to secede from the Union, Forrest joined up as a private in the cavalry. Almost immediately he used his own money to raise a battalion of cavalry of which he was made Lieutenant Colonel.

There’s no record of Forrest visiting Lairdland Farm House, but he could have: the home was built well before the Civil War, and Forrest rode and fought all around it in Middle Tennessee.

The home is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a site on the Civil War Trail. Owners Bennita and Don Rouleau have painstakingly restored and preserved it as a showcase for their collections, including a room full of Civil War artifacts.

Visit www.lairdlandfarmhouse.com for more information.

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