Forrest War: Putting the Fight Back. . .

by Lt Col E. J. Robeson IV

War is far more complex than either the firepower-attrition or maneuver warfare models suggest. The campaigns of MajGen Nathan B. Forrest illustrate a third model that could prove devastating on the modem battlefield if we master the characteristics that made him successful.

The debate over the conflict in Indochina has prompted a renaissance in American military studies and has yielded essentially two schools of thought on how wars have been successfully fought throughout history; they are popularly known as maneuver warfare and firepower-attrition warfare.

The maneuver warfare school has been particularly vocal in advocating its position and in castigating firepower-attritionists. In fact, the debate has been singularly one-sided. Few strategists would openly advocate pure firepower-attrition (although several prominent leaders have come close in practice). Moreover, the skeptic must ask whether the firepower-attrition school is really nothing more than a “straw man” alternative developed by the maneuverists, for it has many detractors and no known champions.

I believe that warfare is much more complex than either of these two models suggests, and we should actually be striving to implement a third alternative. Let’s call it “Forrest war,” in honor of one of its foremost practitioners. MajGen Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate States Army (CSA).

Forrest war recognizes that both firepower and maneuver are essential components of warfare and that they must be integrated to obtain maximum effectiveness. Certainly, no one in the maneuver warfare school would argue with that; but there is a fundamental difference. Forrest war also postulates that firepower is not only essential, but that it must always come first. This is true because of the realities of war, especially at the level of the individual combatant. For the infantryman on the ground, every attack is a frontal assault. Here, weapons are for killing, wounding, or causing the enemy to cower. Assertions that a rifle is not for killing, but should be principally regarded as a means to maneuver are simply ludicrous. (Only when the rifle butt is placed under the arm and used as a crutch could a rifle be considered as a means to maneuver.) In truth, it is only after the enemy has been dominated by aggressiveness and firepower that maneuver can become an effective option at all. Educating the enemy to the consequences of firepower can be a brutal, personal struggle; but, if it is successful, it will make him susceptible to maneuver. Gen Forrest understood this very well and knew how to fully implement this third style of warfare to which we have attached his name.

Six characteristics quickly become apparent in an analysis of the art of Forrest war. These are: 1) fearsome reputation, 2) preparation and positioning, 3) surprise, 4) physical dominance through firepower, 5) moral dominance through maneuver, and 6) pursuit. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Gen Forrest initially gained reputation during the fight for Ft. Donelson, where Union forces captured the Confederate garrison with one notable exception: Forrest‘s command, which was then a Tennessee cavalry regiment. Here, in February 1862, strong winds, sleet, and snow brutalized the Confederate garrison trapped inside the fort by superior Union forces. Forrest and other junior commanders advocated a breakout attempt, but the senior leadership faltered, even after the initial Confederate attacks were successful, and decided the garrison should be surrendered. As R. U. Johnson writes in his history of the Civil War:

Colonel Forrest promptly announced that he neither could nor would surrender his command. He requested permission from General Pillow to cut his way out. He assembled his men, all as hardy as himself, . . .moved out and plunged into a slough formed by backwater from the river. An icy crust covered the surface, the wind blew fiercely, and the darkness was unrelieved by a star. There was fearful floundering as the command followed him. At length he struck dry land, and was safe. He was next heard of at Nashville.

It is from such character and stamina that the first requirement for successful prosecution of Forrest war is derived-the establishment of a fearsome reputation.

Cultivating this irreplaceable commodity is also essential. It can only be done through demonstrated excellence in the performance of duties in the field. Forrest accomplished this at the end of the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. Forrest‘s cavalry regiment was assigned to cover the Confederate retreat, but even here, he was a dangerous opponent. When Forrest noticed momentary confusion in Sherman’s pursuing infantry, he ordered an immediate charge. Firing their double-barreled shotguns, Forrest‘s men rode over their opponents, shooting down men by the score. Sherman himself, says W. Sword in Shiloh: Bloody April:

. . .was caught in the tumult and nearly killed. He said ‘My aide-de-camp was knocked down, horse and rider, into the mud, and I and the rest of my staff ingloriously fled pell mell. . .closely followed by Forrest and his men. . . .’

It was for actions such as these that Sylvanus Cadwallader in Three Years with Grant observed:

Forrest was the only one whom Grant sincerely dreaded, largely because he was amenable to no known rules of procedure, was law to himself for all military acts, and was constantly doing the unexpected, at all times and places.

An excellent case study that clearly demonstrates all six tenets of Forrest war can be found in the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads, MS, which took place from 10-12 June 1864, between the forces of MajGen Nathan Bedford Forrest, CSA and MajGen Samuel Davis Sturgis, USA.

By May 1864, Sherman had advanced deeply into the South and was becoming increasingly concerned over the vulnerability of his lines of communication to Forrest‘s predations. Having previously met him at Shiloh, Sherman wrote to Sturgis, “I expect to hear every day of Forrest breaking into Tennessee from some quarter.” Forrest‘s reputation had not been lost on Gen Sturgis either. When ordered to tie up Forrest in Mississippi, he reported:

The force sent out was in complete order and consisted of some of our best troops. . . .I saw to it personally that they lacked nothing to insure a successful campaign. The number of troops deemed necessary by Gen Sherman, as he telegraphed me, was 6,000, but I sent 8,000.

In fact, Sturgis sent 8,300-3 brigades of infantry, 2 of cavalry with the latest repeating carbines (“which would give them a big advantage in firepower over their butternut opponents”) and 22 field artillery pieces.

This force left Memphis on 1 June in an unrelenting rainstorm that soaked the men and flooded fields and roads, and began to slowly move south toward Tupelo, MS.

At Tupelo, Forrest made known his presence in the area (Characteristic 1), permitting his previously established reputation to begin to prepare the terms of the battle. He then demonstrated the second characteristic preparation and positioning, by collecting his 4,800-man division for the fight.

A study of the terrain, possible Union objectives, and the axis of advance of the Union troops provided Forrest the intelligence he needed to complete his preparations and position his force. He chose his battlefield just south of Tishomingo Creek, MS, now flooded by a week of rain, at Brice’s Crossroads.

Meanwhile, Sturgis’ forces continued to crawl along through the nonstop deluge and muddy roads. Discouraged by his progress, as well as by the thought of all the Confederate troops gathering ahead, Sturgis remarked in his official report that his delay could provide time needed by the rebels to “concentrate an overwhelming force against us.” Like Sturgis, Forrest was also having thoughts about the comparative force ratio. Even though Sturgis would have almost a two-to-one advantage in men, and three times as many artillery pieces, Forrest believed that boldness and the nature of the terrain, which he knew well, would make up for the numerical odds he faced. He said:

I know they greatly outnumber the troops I have at hand, but the road along which they will march is narrow and muddy; they will make slow progress. The country is densely wooded and the undergrowth so heavy that when we strike them they will not know how few men we have. . ..Their cavalry will move out ahead of their infantry and should reach the crossroads three hours in advance. We can whip their cavalry in that time. As soon as the fight opens, they will send back to have the infantry hurried in. It is going to be hot as hell, and coming on the run for five or six miles, their infantry will be so tired out we will ride right over them.

Forrest‘s sensitivity to weather and terrain is clearly seen in this analysis. He had selected a battleground to which the enemy had only one avenue of approach, the narrow, muddy Guntown Road that crossed the flooded Tishomingo Creek bottom on an elevated dirt causeway before climbing for about one-half mile in a southerly direction to Brice’s Crossroads. It was near this intersection that Forrest intended to meet the enemy, but from an easterly direction, requiring the Union forces to make a 90 degree turn as they entered the battle area. This radical change of direction would most assuredly create problems of command and control. Next day, as the rising sun began to bake steam out of the muddy fields and roads, Union cavalry moved up the hill to the crossroads to find a sense of foreboding in the air.

Forrest‘s march to this same location had begun well before dawn in the cooler hours of the day and on as many parallel routes as were available, for he had over twice as far to come.

Forrest initially had few forces available, but he opened his attack suddenly with lines of dismounted gray soldiers moving rapidly forward and fixing the lead Union cavalry units in position. These vicious frontal assaults were merely designed to buy time for his units to close and force Gen Sturgis to commit his entire force. In this, he was eminently successful. The Union cavalry brigade commanders were soon desperately crying for reinforcement or relief, and Gen Benjamin H. Grierson even asked that his division be withdrawn, as it was being “overwhelmed by numbers” and was “exhausted and well nigh out of ammunition for its rapid-firing carbines.” In fact, however, the Confederate “desperate charges” were being successfully conducted against Union forces that were much larger and which overlapped the Confederates on both flanks; the Union forces had six cannons in action and four more in reserve, while Forrest‘s guns had not yet arrived.

Meanwhile, on Guntown Road, the Union infantry brigades were marching to the sound of the guns. They were being hurried along by their officers and staff noncommissioned officers through the Mississippi summer heat. Gen McMillian was among the first to arrive at the crossroads, leading his infantry brigades and finding:

. . .everything was going to the devil as fast as it possibly could, he [McMillian] threw caution to the winds. Though many of his troops had already collapsed from heat exhaustion on the hurried approach march, and though all were blown and in great distress from the savage midday, mid-June Mississippi sun, he sent preemptory orders for his two front brigades to come up on the double quick and restore the crumbling cavalry line before the rebels overran it.

With these actions, Forrest had achieved the third important characteristic of surprise.

Physical dominance through firepower had become the key concern. Forrest had closed all his units on the battlefield, and he rode along putting the fire of battle into his lines of soldiers lying on the line of departure. At the bugle call, he had them up and surging forward. It was a brutal frontal assault, and everywhere “there was a grim struggle, much of it hand to hand, before the contest reached the climactic point and the time came to hit ’em on the ee-end.” The stage was set for the fifth characteristic-moral dominance through maneuver.

Forrest committed his final reserves, small units who were sent simultaneously around the right and left flanks of the Union lines to gain their rear. Because of the carnage occurring to their front, even veteran Union brigades were now susceptible to dislocation, and these actions “. . .made the whole line waver and cave in, first slowly, then with a rush.” As Gen Sturgis related in his official report:

Order gave way to confusion and confusion to panic. . . .Everywhere the army now drifted toward the rear, and was soon altogether beyond control.

The Confederate battery along with a captured Union cannon were now playing with deadly effect along the Union escape route, and the closely pursuing Confederates ensured “. . .that every attempt to make a stand only brought on a new stampede.”

As Gen Sturgis related to Col Edward Bouton during this retreat, “. . .for God’s sake, if Mr. Forrest will let me alone, I will let him alone.” Forrest, however, had other ideas. He directed his commanders to “keep the skeer on “em,” and they did just that, past sunset and on into twilight and full night. Forrest later reported that after 8 p.m.:

It being dark and my men and horses requiring rest, . . .I threw out an advance to follow. . .after the enemy, and ordered the command to halt, feed and rest.

Pursuit was now in full operation, and unlike his contemporaries of that era, he did not see darkness as an insurmountable obstacle to further combat operations. By 1 a.m., Forrest had his troopers back in the saddle and hard on the equipment-littered trail.

By dawn, Forrest caught up with the last Federal rear guard about four miles south of Ripley, MS, and smashed it. His official report stated;

From this place, the enemy offered no further organized resistance, but retreated in the most coplete disorder, throwing away guns, clothing, and everything calculated to impede his flight.

One Union commander described it thusly:

On we went, and ever on, marching all that day and that interminable second night. . .we marched, marched, marched, without rest, without sleep, without food.

An Ohio regimental commander reported that his troops became so stiffened they needed assistance to walk. Some of them crawled upon their hands and knees. These accounts are starkly indicative of the dangers that come when units are both physically and morally beaten.

As one Union cavalry major put it:

. . .it is the fate of war that one or the other side should suffer defeat, but here there was more. The men were cowed, and there pressed upon them a sense of bitter humiliation, which rankles after nearly a quarter of a century has passed. . . Just over 8,000 troops had been thrown into a rout and driven headlong for nearly a hundred miles by just under 5,000.

What can we learn today from this exhilarating victory and tragic defeat?

First, success in combat requires an excellent professional reputation that is only obtained in peacetime through hard, uncompromising training. Secondly, preparation and positioning of friendly forces for battle must ensure that they will end the initial engagement where they are advantageously deployed for the next event. (Every billiards player understands this instinctively as he lines up his “next” shot with his current one.) This, of course, often requires modification of the open-ended mission-type orders that the maneuver school advocates. Stipulating the commander’s intent for the current battle is important, but ensuring that subunits are properly positioned for the next sequence of engagements is essential. This often requires specific instructions that detract from the freedom of subordinates. Maneuver warfare extremists decry such “how-to” instructions, but a Forrest war proponent would counter that there is a middle ground between chaos caused by subunit “free play” and rigidity caused by instructions that are unnecessarily restrictive. When Forrest chose Brice’s Crossroads as his battleground, he positioned his brigades so that he could meet the enemy there or respond to enemy initiatives elsewhere. He also enhanced the effectiveness of his surprise by permitting the enemy to extend before he struck at an unlikely time and place.

Achieving physical dominance through firepower is perhaps the single greatest difference between the contemporary definition of maneuver warfare and the tenets of Forrest war. Gen Forrest stated when describing his 30th victim in personal hand-to-hand saber/pistol combat:

You know, if that young fellow had had sense enough to give me the point, I wouldn’t be here right now; but he tried to slash, which was his last mistake.

Military commanders today should recognize Forrest‘s symbolic intent: sophisticated movement will never compensate for failure to give the enemy “the point.”

War is a grim and bloody business. Maneuverists seem to forget this fundamental fact. Clever schemes to gain the enemy’s flanks or rear may appear eloquent and even delay the day of reckoning, but sooner or later the shooting must begin. As the Germans discovered again and again during OPERATION BARBAROSSA in Russia during World War II, bold maneuvers did not disconcert Soviet soldiers. In fact, the Red Army continued to resist even when surrounded and often succeeded in getting out large bodies of troops. Soviet soldiers, cut off in severe weather for days at a time, lay without shelter on the frozen ground in defensive positions until a breakout or exfiltration could be successfully accomplished.

Failure to recognize this hardiness and professionalism in our most dangerous adversary and his relative immunity to being “dislocated” by flank attack or even encirclement is the maneuver school’s greatest error. Only after the shooting is well underway can the door to maneuver be opened with any guarantee of success against a competent adversary.

However, “giving ’em the point” through vicious application of firepower can unhinge even professional soldiers from their organizational security and ensure the disintegration that is required for total victory. Tough, not fancy, infantrymen are required for this task. Demonstration of physical dominance through firepower sets the stage for moral dominance through maneuver-and successful maneuver produces the conditions required for the culminating phase of Forrest war-the pursuit.

In summary, Gen Nathan Bedford Forrest‘s campaigns stand as fine examples of how inferior forces led by hardened commanders with proven character and reputation can dominate a larger enemy. The six characteristics or phases of Forrest warfare form a pattern of building blocks that prove devastating when properly woven together on the battlefield.

So, while maneuver warfare advocates continue to press the Marine Corps to radically change its traditional mode of operations, perhaps the more prudent action would be to have confidence and believe in ourselves, to resist the current vogue, and to remember that at the core of every conflict is a rifleman, whose every attack will be frontal and brutal, and whose weapon is for killing, not for maneuver. The more effectively we institutionalize this truth in the souls of all Marines, the better able we will be to fight, maneuver, and pursue on the battlefields of tomorrow.