A Forrest Ride Through West Tennessee
Tennessee is a great touring ground for Civil War enthusiasts. In fact, more conflicts took place in Tennessee than any other state except Virginia. Tennessee’s significance in The War Between The States was due in large part to its critical river and railroad systems. In addition, because of the state's strategic position and shape, it was a natural pathway for defenders from the South and invaders from the North.
Many generals took part in the Civil War on both sides. One in particular served in Tennessee and his battle route makes for an interesting tour. General Nathan Bedford Forrest made a name for himself as one of the most worrisome opponents for the Union army. He led a cavalry division and made raids against Union supply lines and often won decisive battles for the Confederate army.
A good introduction to General Forrest is at Fort Donelson near Paris, Tennessee, where he first distinguished himself in February, 1862. Fort Donelson sits on the banks of the Cumberland River, which was a major entry point of the Union naval forces. An overlook from the fort replicates the view from the Confederate cannon positions on the Cumberland River. Dover, a town near the fort, is the site of the Surrender House, as it is called. It was originally the Dover Hotel and is the location the surrender documents were signed by the commanding generals of both sides. Forrest was not a general at the time.
After the Union forces took Fort Donelson, Forrest took his forces to Nashville to defend Tennessee's capital. However, it was to no avail because Nashville was the first state capital to be captured by the Union forces.
Near the town of Camden is Nathan Bedford Forrest State Historic Park, obviously named for the General. On November 4, 1864, General Forrest attacked and destroyed the Union supply and munitions depot at (Old) Johnsonville across the Tennessee River from the state park. New Johnsonville has been rebuilt after Forrest's visit. His operations were concentrated along the river in the vicinity of the park and the nearby small town of Eva.
The park's Tennessee River Folklife Interpretive Center sits atop Pilot Knob, the point with the highest elevation in West Tennessee. The center features information on General Forrest, the Battle of Johnsonville, and the lifestyle of the residents on the Tennessee River.
Just south of Interstate 40 at exit 108 is the visitor center for Parkers Crossroads Battlefield. This is a relatively small battlefield, but there are trails with interpretive signs along the way. This battle occurred on December 31, 1862. General Forrest out-maneuvered the Union forces and withdrew south to Lexington and then across the Tennessee River. Both sides claimed victory, but the Confederate claims are more recognized.
The Battle of Shiloh was fought on April 6 - 7, 1862, and was one of the bloodiest of the Civil War with over 23,000 casualties on both sides. The battlefield covers many square miles and has a printed tour that details the battle strategy and lists monuments with their significance. Even though Forrest was only a colonel at Shiloh, he was stationed as the rear guard and was protecting a field hospital. During fighting he was seriously wounded when a Union soldier fired his musket striking Forrest in his spine. However, Forrest survived the battle and the war.
There is much to see at Shiloh, including a national cemetery and many monuments to the generals and the states whose armies participated. The Union army called Shiloh the Battle of Pittsburg Landing, because it was their base of operations and landing site for river steamers carrying troops and supplies. The Confederates called it the Battle of Shiloh Church. The Shiloh Meeting House was occupied by both sides at differing times during the battle.
Forty river miles north of Memphis is the site of another West Tennessee battle. Because of its strategic location to control traffic on the Mississippi River, Fort Pillow was attacked and captured by the Union army, which controlled it during most of the war. An exception to this control occurred for less than one day immediately after the Battle of Fort Pillow on April 12, 1864. General Forrest overran the fort and forced the Unions out. However, the same day the Confederates abandoned the fort. The only result of the battle was the temporary confusion of Union strategy.
Both the North and South agree that General Nathan Bedford Forrest was one of the greatest tactical officers in the Civil War. His campaigns took him across much of the state of Tennessee. From Fort Donelson southward along the path of the Tennessee River, to Shiloh National Military Park, there is plenty of history and scenery for visitors.
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