A Study in Warfighting: Nathan Bedford Forrest and the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads

A Scholarly Monograph By Parker Hills

1 November 1995

The Papers of the Blue and Gray Education Society, Number 2


On a sultry Mississippi summer day in 1864, a Confederate force of under 5,000 troopers met and destroyed a well-equipped Union expeditionary force of over 8,000 men. To grasp fully the essence of this battle, one must first appreciate the engineer of the victory, Nathan Bedford Forrest. This man had the ability to take a complex situation and reduce it to the simplest of terms. “War means fighting, and fighting means killing,” was his basic tenet, and he ensured that all of his soldiers understood it.’

The Army fights wars to win. The Army’s basic document is Field Manual (FM) 100-5, titled Operations, and it describes how the Army will fight its wars. It is the foundation for the development of Army doctrine, organization, and training. This leads to both the development of leadership courses for soldiers at all levels of authority and the procurement of adequate materials to fight the wars.

Because our Army must operate with fewer resources such as tanks and soldiers, it must concentrate on improving ways to win in combat. We expect our military leaders to be responsible. However, they must also be agile, flexible, aggressive, creative, and daring. Before entering a battle, they must envision the conclusion. FM 100-5 stresses these concepts, but studying a manual is not enough. Soldiers also have the opportunity and duty to study the success and failures–the experiences–of soldiers who have preceded them.

The study of the battle of Brice’s Crossroads and the man who engineered this tactical masterpiece provides the warfighter with an experience that epitomizes the intent of FM 100-5. Generations of leaders have studied this battle to determine how General Nathan Bedford Forrest achieved the virtual annihilation of a better equipped and supplied Union army that outnumbered his forces almost two to one. A great deal has been written about this battle. And though some conflicting accounts exist over relatively minor issues, the battle is a classic study, and the battlefield is a virtual tactical time capsule.

In order to glean all the lessons of the battle of Brice’s Crossroads, one must study the man who planned this military action. Nathan Bedford Forrest never received any formal military training. Yet, he understood what needed to be done to win.

The best way to understand Forrest is to read the accounts of those who knew him or saw him in action. To study his battles, it is best to read the accounts of those who fought them with him. But, because eyewitness accounts will almost always vary, many accounts need to be consulted to piece together the puzzle. Fortunately, the recorded eyewitness accounts are many, and the battlefield is still pretty much as it was in 1864.
Set in rural Mississippi, Brice’s Crossroads is basically untouched by modern hands, and it remains as it was at the time of the battle. Walking this battlefield with eyewitness accounts and sketch maps helps the student develop a deep appreciation of the effects of terrain on the tactical decisions made by the commander on the scene. Additionally, the interpretations of modern historians are valuable, as one can build upon their research.

Most of the military’s academic and professional education courses use the remaining battlefields of the Civil War to compare the tactics used by former commanders to our modern warfighting doctrine. It is the most effective way known to assist in transitioning from abstract theory to battlefield reality. This monograph will examine the nine principles of war: objective, offensive, mass, economy of force, maneuver, unity of command, security, surprise, and simplicity. All were flawlessly executed by Forrest at Brice’s Crossroads.

However, practical examples of these principles are not all we can take from the battle at Brice’s Crossroads. The optimum characteristics of modern army operations were also modeled in this battle: initiative, agility, depth, synchronization, and versatility. A winning army will clearly demonstrate these characteristics, and all military training and doctrine should emphasize them.

Yet there is more; Combat power, or the ability to fight, consists of four elements: maneuver, firepower, protection, and leadership. Forrest fully understood these elements and practiced them at Brice’s Crossroads as though he had authored the modern operations manual.

Forrest’s concise orders before the battle indicated his innate mastery of the factors of METT-T: mission, enemy, troops, terrain, and time available. These factors were fully considered in his estimate of the situation for the attack.

Last, but certainly not least, Forrest completely appreciated the role of logistics in warfare. The battle of Brice’s Crossroads was the consequence of Sherman’s efforts to keep Forrest away from the vulnerable Union logistical tail leading from Middle Tennessee into Georgia–a tail that Forrest was intent on severing. The relentless pursuit of the defeated Union troops at Brice’s Crossroads was as much a result of Forrest’s need for vital military stores as it was an effort to annihilate the defeated enemy.

Clearly a modern soldier has much to learn from Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general of the American Civil War. And, the battle at Brice’s Crossroads provides the classroom.

Forrest himself was a killer; he could always be found at the most contested part of the battlefield. He used his escort of approximately 100 hand-picked fighters as a reserve force, and would place himself with them into the thickest of the fighting at the crucial point in combat. He was wounded four times, had twenty-nine horses shot from under him, and killed no fewer than thirty enemy soldiers in hand-to-hand combat; more than any other general in American history.2

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