Nathan Bedford Forrest: The Man Behind the Mask

General Nathan Bedford Forrest, April 1, 1865, at Ebenezer Church on Bogler's Creek Courtesy of wikicommons

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.

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60 Responses

  1. I once read an account that near the end of his life Forrest renounced leadership of the Klan and advocated for racial harmony. Regardless of that fact, that doesn’t cleanse him of his sin for creating such a despicable group that would go on to terrorize the South for generations. He was an ambitious man that prided himself on victory on all costs; That being considered, it’s no surprise that he refused to surrender to the Union and felt disenfranchised by the Confederacy’s defeat.

    The Klan is merely shadow of its former self and its power has been all but destroyed (thankfully), but it is interesting to see that the effects of the Civil War are still being felt today over the debate of Confederate monuments, almost 150 years later.

    Forrest was an exceptional general and tactician. Nonetheless, he was still the face of racial terror and hatred.

  2. I had never known the origins of the KKK prior to reading this article. I never knew that one of their main founders was a Confederate solider. I didn’t quite understand why he separated from the Klan because his power was not going to be supreme. I don’t doubt that his leadership helped get the organization on more solid footing that allowed it to commit the crimes it did.

  3. I think the story of Klu Klux Klan is very interesting and how it prospered more with the help of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Whenever I studied history the name of the KKK always stayed in my head one of the reasons was because of the name of the clan. I never really learnt much about Forrest but now I have a good amount of knowledge about him. In my opinion Nathan Bedford Forrest seemed to be a very strong man and someone who can achieve a lot which he did. Although the fact that he just left the clan because he thought that he would not have supreme power is smart but at the same time I would say that it shows his weakness somehow.

  4. This was a very interesting read, while brief it did a good job of telling the story of how the Ku Klux Klan was formed and the person responsible for the spark of intrigue in the KKK. While I know who Nathan Bedford Forrest was in regards to his role in the Civil War, and his role in the beginning of the KKK, I was never aware of his life prior to being a general for the Confederate army in the Civil War so despite him not being a good person, it was interesting to learn of his early life and how he came to power.

  5. It is of no doubt that Nathan Bedford Forrest was an integral reason for the rise of the Klu Klux Klan and why it still exists today. He played a key factor in the oppression of African Americans, which does not surprise me, but what does is that power was more important to him. I initially thought that Forrest could not get more diabolical for being the first Grand Wizard and helping expand the organization, but to leave because he felt that he could not wield as much power anymore seems so much worse.

  6. I have never heard of this man before but I obviously have heard about the Ku Klux Klan. I think it is interesting that there are so many people that most people don’t ever learn about. This article was an easy read with a lot of information condensed into a short. It is awful to think about the way that black people were treated back then and how there were groups like this.

  7. Its interesting to read about people who in the general public have done great evils while in there minds there are ether doing what need to be done or somehow have rectified there actions. in this case we also get o see a little more into them mind of the creator of the ku klux klan Nathan Bedford forrest, a man who grew up in the environment of the slave trade and saw it as not only a way of life but how things should be done feel like he had to create this hate group . Its interesting to see that the creator of the group did not stay in the group for more than a few years because its membership was becoming larger and uncontrollable, i like that we saw his military career and understand his leadership style in the article that make it so it sensible why he left the order. if you look further into the history of the kkk then u also realize that it was destroyed and recreated three times. its interesting and scary to realize the staying power of these hate group and looking at current groups that post as anti hate group that are in reality a hate group in there own right… its sad to see that human are so divided on the color of the skin and small indifference in there political beliefs bleed and destroy the resolve in our nation.

  8. Interesting article written in a easy-to-read manner.

    Like the author says at the beginning, I had heard before about the Ku Klux Klan, but never read or searched more about it.
    It is awful to think today about how black people where treated and persecuted in that history moment.
    It is frustrating to see how intelligent, fighting people (like Bedford Forrest), who do not let that life knock them down, had another dark side of themselves that led them to do immoral things like to be part of the organization described in the article.

    An article that leads to think, once again, about what we should learn from the past, in order to not do it today.

  9. Although I’ve heard about the Ku Klux Klan since I was younger, I never knew of their origins. It now actually makes sense why a group like this ever existed, although I wish it never did. When one influential person possesses an opinion and is adamant about, it could create ripple effects. This was the case for the Ku Klux Klan, as those that had these personal opinions were able to be heard by this one leader. Then the group grew and developed over the years, and sadly became successful at it.

  10. Although I do understand that a damaging childhood can result in a person who is hateful or violent, I still can not imagine what could possibly drive someone to be so filled with hate to the point where they not only join but lead a group such as the Ku Klux Klan. Also, I wish the author would have gone more into detail about how the KKK came to be; more specifically, the title of Grand Wizard.

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