StMU Research Scholars

Nathan Bedford Forrest: The Man Behind the Mask

Ku Klux Klan is a name that perhaps everyone has heard at least once in their lifetime.  Most associate this group with a terrible history of African American oppression and hatred through the use of grotesque methods of torture and killing.  Some may wonder how and why such a horrible organization was formed.  The name Nathan Bedford Forrest may not be one that is heard very often, but it is to this man who helped to get the Klan up and running in its early years.

Statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis, Tennessee | Courtesy of

Nathan Bedford Forrest served as a General for the Confederate army during the Civil War and was said to have been one of the strongest leaders of the Confederate army.  Forrest was the oldest of nine children and was thrust into the role of caretaker after his father passed away when Forrest was just sixteen years old. 1  A tragedy such as this could take its toll on a young person, but instead of falling down, Forrest quickly began making a name for himself.  He began by working with his uncle to trade horses and then later moved on to the business of buying and selling slaves and real estate.  Forrest became very successful in his businesses and in turn became a very wealthy man. 2

When his home state of Tennessee made the decision to secede from the Union, Nathan Bedford Forrest wasted no time in volunteering as a private soldier. 3  He was well known in the area and moved up the ranks to earn his title of General rather quickly.  Forrest was said to have been a fearless man who had no problems taking action quickly and forcefully.  He thought of his men as his own flesh and blood and was quick to straighten them out if necessary. 4

The Ku Klux Klan was formed shortly after the Civil War ended and the group, like most groups in the South at the time, were attempting to oppress African Americans by any means necessary.  A group such as this would need a leader who was not afraid to take charge and execute direction.  It would appear the position of Grand Wizard for the Ku Klux Klan was a perfect fit for Forrest.  Not only did Forrest have leadership and fighting experience but he was a former slave owner who had, very early on, made it his business to buy and sell slaves and had become very wealthy in the process.  The Klan was still in its infancy when Forrest took position as the first Grand Wizard in 1867.  However, this title would be short lived for Forrest as he decided to separate himself from the Klan in their early years after realizing the Klan was growing at a rapid rate and his authority would very soon no longer reign supreme. 5

The Ku Klux Klan would spend many years using different tactics to intimidate and oppress African Americans in the United States.  It was not until Congress passed and began to carry out the Enforcement Acts that many of the activities carried out by the Klan finally began to decline.  The Acts were put in place to help protect the rights of African Americans and hold all parties responsible who were caught attempting oppression. 6  Although Nathan Bedford Forrest only spent a short period of time with the Ku Klux Klan, it is possible that his popularity in the area allowed the organization to rise quickly and spread throughout the South.

  1. Jac Weller, “The Logistics of Nathan Bedford Forrest,” Military Affairs 17, no. 4 (1953): 162.
  2. Weller, (1953): 162.
  3. Richard Tillinghast, “Nathan Bedford Forrest: Born to Fight.” Sewanee Review 123, no. 4 (Fall 2015): 605
  4. Weller, (1953): 169.
  5. Court Carney, “The Contested Image of Nathan Bedford Forrest.” The Journal of Southern History 67, no. 3 (2001): 603.
  6. Alan Brinkley, American History: Connecting with the Past Volume 2, 15 edition. (McGraw-Hill Education, 2014): 414.

Tags from the story

69 Responses

  1. I myself have heard a few stories about the KKK. It’s really sad to see a high ranking general turn into a leader for a horrible organization. I had never known about this man nor the part he played as a leader of the KKK. I’d say like many others that he was one of the vital reasons for the KKK’s rise to growth. This article was very informative and shared a lot of great detail. Well done!

  2. Funnily, I had first heard of the Ku Klux Klan leader Forrest from the movie Forrest Gump! I had not known the history nor what had helped him rise to the leader of the horrid group. This article was very well written and concise, it is hard to come across articles that just dive in and get straight to the point! It gripped the readers attention and informed them very thoroughly!

  3. Such an informative and interesting article! Very captivating. Honestly, I am unfamiliar with the story of Nathan Bedford Forest and his association and leadership of the Ku Klux Klan. It is dreadful that the Ku Klux Klan, yet it fascinating how they came into existence. It is very unfortunate that such a powerful leader than could have done so much good with his strength rather than leading an organization that oppressed African-Americans. I loved reading your article. Great job!

  4. People say that the nicest or most likeable people always have the darkest past or secrets. For Forrest however, it was no secret that he wasn’t a good person in general. Sure, you could argue that’s just how he was raised but so were almost everyone else at the time. Yet there ws still people in the south that believed slaves were human too. Some people are just meant to rot in hell. A very well-made article and I hope to read more.

  5. Its really sad how someone of such high rank would move on to a organization such as the KKK. It makes me wonder if he hadn’t joined and if they didn’t use his popularity to grow so rapidly what would it be like today. Would it have dissipated? or was it inevitable? very informative about this aspect of history!

  6. I really enjoyed reading this article. I had heard about KKK a couple of times before, but I had never heard about its history and foundation. KKK was founded by a general from the Confederate Army, what I could not believe; how a man that had such a great position in the Army can end up founding the most racist group. I am glad that this problem is now solved.

  7. This was an informative article, about a man I never heard of until now. I knew the KKK was formed after the American Civil War, but I did not know that General Nathan Bedford Forrest was a strong leader in the South or that he had ties to the KKK. The background on Bedford was helpful to understand his pull to the KKK and the desire to be the first Grand Wizard.

  8. It is a pity that some of the most outstanding American officers and generals were rebels and often not great people, such as General Forrest. Guess that is how life sometimes works; a small part of a person’s life is what we focus on in history, while the rest is swapped under the rug. More people know General Forrest as one of the best calvary offices in American history, not the first KKK Grand Wizard.

  9. I had heard of Nathan Bedford Forest before and in my opinion he is an integral part of the klans rise in the 1860s and beyond. His popularity as this war hero for the south is a part of that. The klan basically getting an endorsement from this southern hero meant people in the area saw the klan as a viable outlet for their hatred.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.