A few years before he became one of the Ku Klux Klan’s charter members, Nathan Bradford Forrest was among the Confederacy’s craftiest generals. On a number of occasions during the Civil War, Forrest successfully demanded the surrender of much larger Union forces by use of a ploy as old as scripture.

The Book of Judges records Gideon’s defeat of a vast army of Midianites with only trumpets and torches, the latter hidden in clay jars. After he had surrounded the Midianite camp at dark with his tiny force of three hundred men, Gideon ordered his soldiers to blare their trumpets and smash open the clay pots with the torches inside at his signal. When they did, the resulting flash and din convinced the Midianites that they were surrounded by a massive force. They scattered and fled in a blind panic.

Forrest adopted a similar tactic in 1863. He called for the surrender of the Union troops of Colonel Abel Streight near Rome, Georgia, after a long march that had exhausted both sides. Though he was significantly outnumbered, Forrest created an illusion of strength. He had only two artillery pieces, for example, but he ordered them passed back and forth across Streight’s line of vision as the two parlayed. “Name of God!” Streight exclaimed after watching this demonstration for a while. “How many guns have you got? There’s fifteen I’ve counted already!” Forrest glanced in the direction the Union commander was looking and replied nonchalantly, “I reckon that’s all that has kept up.”

As the discussion with Streight continued, Forrest periodically issued fake orders for the movement of troops that did not in fact exist. The few Confederates that were there marched back and forth across Streight’s line of sight, just as the artillery men had done with the two guns. It was a simple ploy, but it was enough to fool the Union commander. Streight ordered the surrender of fifteen hundred Federals to a rebel force half that size. It was, declared George W. Adair, editor of the Southern Confederacy, “the boldest game of bluff on record. . . . for cool audacity, it excels all history or imagination.” Adair exaggerated slightly, but less than two years later his old friend Forrest pulled a similar stunt with even more remarkable results.

Union forces held a fort in Athens, Alabama, that defended the Central Alabama Railroad. The structure was “one of the best works of the kind I ever saw,” noted a federal inspector of such defenses. Forrest wanted it surrendered. “Knowing it would cost heavily to storm and capture the enemy’s works, and wishing to prevent the effusion of blood I knew would follow a successful assault, I determined to see if anything could be accomplished by negotiations,” Forrest later reported. “Accordingly, I sent Major Strange, of my staff, with a flag of truce, demanding the surrender of the fort and garrison.”

Union colonel Wallace Campbell, who had already been fed misleading information about the enemy’s strength by two Confederate prisoners, agreed to a personal interview with Forrest. “[I] immediately met General Forrest,” reported Campbell, “[who] told me he was determined to take the place; that his force was sufficiently large, and have it he would, and if he was compelled to storm the works it would result in the massacre of the entire garrison. He told me what his force was, and said myself and one officer could have the privilege of reviewing [it].”

Forrest gave Campbell a guided tour of his troops, the relatively small size of which was cleverly concealed. Dismounted cavalry were identified as infantry; horse-holders as cavalry. The same elements were then dispersed to other parts of the field to play different roles until, wrote one Confederate, “the whole place seemed to be swarming with enthusiastic troops and bristling with guns.” Campbell, convinced, as he later wrote, “that there were at least 10,000 men and nine pieces of artillery,” duly surrendered the fort.

The audacious trick only added to the luster of Forrest, respectfully known in the South as “the Wizard of the Saddle.” Of course in the North, the epithets were somewhat less laudatory. General William Tecumseh Sherman called him “the very devil,” but later acknowledged, “He had a genius which was to me incomprehensible.”

 

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