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At War with General Forrest

ISSUE:  Spring 1977
Here, too, the honorable finds its due
and there are tears for passing things;
here, too, things mortal touch the mind.
Virgil, The Aeneid

My life with the last General Nathan Bedford Forrest was in its beginnings a matter of illiteracy in Tennessee. Not that the General, a Tennessee man, was in any way illiterate. On the contrary, he had been well schooled at Georgia Tech and West Point. Nor do I mean to imply that I agree with those who were or still are convinced that his famous great grandfather, that other General Nathan Bedford Forrest, was illiterate. It is true, of course, that the latter had no formal schooling. President Zachary Taylor’s son Richard, who met him toward the end of the Civil War, said that Forrest read with difficulty. His biographer, John Allan Wyeth, tells us that he always said “betwixt” and “fetch,” and “mout” and “fit” when he meant “might” and “fought.” Like Keats and F, Scott Fitzgerald, he had trouble with his spelling. To judge from his military correspondence, however, he was as literate as his peers, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and William Tecumseh Sherman, all of whom had the advantage of West Point and were even, at one time or another, academic people. Nevertheless, since it is as useful to his admirers as his detractors, the legend of his total or near illiteracy dies hard, so that if he did not really say that his military principle was “to get there fustest with the mostest” (Henry Steele Commager, among others, believes that he really said “to get there first with the most men”) he should have said it. But whatever he said, the illiteracy that led me to the Forrests was a pure accident of war.

The “fustest” General Forrest and I both enlisted as privates, he in Captain Josiah White’s Tennessee Mounted Rifle Company, I in the 117th Guard Squadron at Fort George Wright in Spokane, Washington, which at the time was headquarters for the Second Air Force, What Private Forrest brought with him to the rifle company is not recorded. All 1 brought with me, apart from bare living necessities, was the two-volume Random House Proust. I was determined that if I survived the war (which in the fall of 1942 seemed unlikely) I would not come home culturally empty-handed. My fellow guards, mainly Kentucky hill people and Mexican-Americans, were exactly the sort of soldiers who would have driven the great Civil War general mad: undedicated, unreliable, bungling, but amiable. They went to sleep on post, got lost in the dark, shot themselves accidentally, forgot their general orders and passwords, and lived in apprehension of the black panther which some of them swore they had seen at night in the woods around the north gate. If there was a wrong way to do something, said our often-disgusted training sergeant, the guards would, by God, be the first to try it out. At one time, in fact, seven of the 13 inmates of the guardhouse were members of the Guard Squadron, so that there was an inbred quality about the whole security enterprise.

In time, I was promoted to private first class and assigned to base headquarters as assistant squadron payroll clerk. The job was easy enough, but it lacked challenge and promise of promotion. Thus the base training officer, having learned that I had been a college teacher, easily persuaded me to take over an evening class of 15 or so illiterate Tennessee boys. Not being very literate about the problems of illiteracy, I began the course with a series of lectures on the history of the English language. After the first lecture, a story about the great thing I was doing appeared in the local paper; after the second, I was summoned to the office of the adjutant general of the Second Air Force. He had seen the news story, in which I was identified as an expert in written and spoken communication, and wondered if I was not exactly the person they were looking for. The command had been criticized for the poor quality of its official prose, and it had been decided that someone would have to be put in charge of outgoing communication. Would I like to be that person? The alternative of the illiteracy class was suddenly intolerable. I accepted the offer, and the adjutant general suggested that I report immediately to General Forrest, the chief of staff.

I went down the long corridor to the chief of staff’s office and hardly had time to catch my breath there before the blond, motherly secretary ushered me into the General’s office. He was the first general I had ever seen in the flesh. Fortunately, I did not yet know of his relationship to that other General Forrest so that I was only moderately nervous as I stood in front of his desk. He was a handsome man with skeptical, brooding eyes and a trim brush mustache. He had come to Spokane the previous year with the Fifth Bombardment Group, was transferred to the Second Air Force as operations officer, and soon was chief of staff, at 36 one of the youngest general officers in the army. In little more than a year, he had gone from major to brigadier—not quite keeping pace with his great-grandfather, who, despite the handicap of his 40 years, progressed between June 1861 and June 1862 from private to brigadier.

I did not salute the General as I stood there. So far, I had saluted lieutenants, captains, the only major I had gotten close to, and, on my second day with the Guard Squadron, the disgusted first sergeant. But nothing in my ramshackle basic training had prepared me for a general. He gave me his frosty little smile and repeated in his terse and clipped style what the adjutant general had already told me. In effect, I was to be assistant chief of staff for military composition. In order to put myself in the picture, I was to have access to the safe in the outer office so that I could read the records of the Second Air Force. It was then late morning. He suggested that I take the rest of the day off in order to move out of the Guard Squadron. Still not saluting, I left him.

So I went back to base and cleared out of the bungling Guard Squardon. The first sergeant shook hands with me and predicted a great future. The chief payroll clerk was convinced that I would be immediately promoted to staff sergeant; anything else, he said, would be an affront to the General. I collected my gear and moved into one of the headquarters barracks, where the literacy rate was obviously much higher and where a man might lie on his bunk reading Proust without feeling that he was making a spectacle of himself. In fact, in the next barracks, there was an aspiring writer who was doomed in time to hang himself, though not before he had persuaded me to read a good deal of the chaotic novel he was working on. Within a week I was promoted to corporal, the highest noncommissioned rank I was ever to achieve. Meanwhile, the class of Tennessee illiterates was left stranded half way through the history of the English language. Eventually, I learned, a buck sergeant who had taught English in high school took it over.

Now it was winter, early 1943. Roosevelt flew to Casablanca to confer with Churchill; British bombers struck Berlin for the first time in daylight; the Japanese were beaten at Guadal-canal, as were the Germans at Stalingrad. In the warmth and quiet of the General’s outer office, I worked my way through the confidential, secret, and top-secret files of the Second Air Force. It was a young but bourgeoning enterprise, possessing only 389 aircraft of all descriptions when I joined it, but already in the process of spreading over most of the West and Midwest. Its mission was to train the heavy bomber crews that manned the B-17’s and B-24’s in the European and African theaters; later it would train B-29 crews for the Pacific. Though I could not know it at the time, I was reading the prologue to Kiel, Dresden, Cassino, Ploesti, and Hiroshima. Much of the literature was incomprehensible to a layman, but I read it all scrupulously, and within two weeks I had acquired some kind of feel for the whole complex business. In the evenings, meanwhile, I was beginning to get the feel of Proust’s even more complex business, Once or twice I went slumming back to the Guard Squadron. One of the Kentucky boys who had been stationed in a hospital ward to guard a sick prisoner had gone to sleep sitting upright in a chair and was now in the guardhouse; the Mexicans were still having trouble with their general orders; the black panther was more than ever on their minds now that his spoor could be seen in the snow. Nothing had changed; they were losers; I was well rid of them.


On my first official day with him, the General called me in to tell me in his curt but by no means unfriendly manner what his long-range plans for me were. After a novitiateship in his outer office, he would send me to Officers Candidate School at Miami Beach so that I could return as an officer to be his aide. This was astonishing news. Surely generals did not choose their aides so haphazardly. Why wouldn’t he wait a prudent interval until he had had a chance to see whether I could measure up? I wondered if the eyes of headquarters operatives had been on me all along, if they had been checking me out with their hugger-mugger devices while I went my innocent way with the bungling guards? In any event, my future, which had previously been all uncertainty, now took definite if uneasy shape as my old apprehension that I was not meant to survive the war was reinforced by a new one: I had no idea what was required of an aide.

It was not long after this announcement that I learned from the blond secretary the true identity of the General. Indeed, without realizing it, I had already seen the clear signs of that identity in the folder on his desk: the two generals facing each other, just as they would a few months later in Time,strikingly resembling each other as everyone inevitably said, the great grandfather suggesting the more formidable and commanding presence (the very ideal of a beau sabreur as Wyeth says), but the great-grandson looking formidable in his own way, no doubt in part because of the juxtaposition of the photograph. It was unthinkable not to salute such a man, but I had not saluted him yet (would I have to begin saluting him when I became his aide?). In fact, the only Tennessean that I ever felt strongly compelled to salute was my first sergeant when, some years later and through another accident of war, I became troop commander at the Air Transport Command installation in British Guiana. He was only 22, but he had that capacity to command instant obedience that both Forrests would have appreciated.

Knowing the General’s relationship to “that devil, Forrest” put the failure to salute him into a nervous historic context. Worse, I soon learned that since becoming chief of staff he had acquired the reputation of being something of a devil in his own right. In those days the occupational disease of the Air Force was a prideful nonchalance about regulations, which was no doubt connected with its efforts to define itself against the older components of the armed forces. In a headquarters this attitude displayed itself in a casual slovenliness, the signs of which were unshined shoes, tarnished brass, failure to salute or come to attention, exotic and unauthorized combinations of attire, much loitering around water coolers, and a great deal of aimless if good-natured drifting about from office to office. Such a state of affairs was apparently what Forrest had set out to correct. Now, in any event, there was much saluting and an at least superficial concentration on official business; officers dressed less eccentrically and enlisted men shined their shoes more often; attention was called whenever the General entered headquarters and everyone in the corridor snapped to attention.

All of this was still a far cry from the military termagancy of his great-grandfather—who, Wyeth reports, showed no mercy to cowards and ordered his officers to shoot anyone who flickered. Once he leaped from his horse to seize a trooper who was running away from battle, thrashed him with a stick, and forced him back into line. Nevertheless, there was the usual muttering among the headquarters noncoms about this new relatively tense and spruced-up state of affairs: the General’s promotion had gone to his head, he had gotten himself confused with his glamorous ancestor, he was trying to turn the place into a Marine barracks, etc. On the other hand, there was general agreement among officers and noncoms that Forrest was a man of extraordinary competence who was being groomed for great things.

Both generals had commanding aristocratic appearances, but the great-grandson had the advantage of being socially beyond question: not only was he West Point, but he trailed history grandly behind him. His great-grandfather, however, had had no history to trail: he was known to be the son of a blacksmith and was himself a dirt farmer, a man with no formal education and no social status to speak of. What one of his aristocratic troopers wrote in his diary was no doubt the opinion of many:

. . . and I must express my distaste to being commanded by a man having no pretension to gentility—a negro trader, gambler, —an ambitious man, careless or the lives of his men so lone as preferment be in prospectus. Forrest may be & no doubt is, the best Cav officer in the West, but I object to [that] tyrannical, hotheaded vulgarian’s commanding me.

Had Wyeth read this remark, he would have said that it was hardly typical. Forrest out in front of his troops, urging them on with a bull voice that not even the cannon could drown out; swinging his great sword, eyeballs, cheeks, and neck swollen with the blood of rage; utterly careless of his own safety as he struck terror into his foes and inspired his command to superhuman achievement—how was there room for anything but admiration and awe for such a man? In hand-to-hand combat he killed 30 men; 29 horses were shot out from under him, three at Fort Pillow alone; he was wounded or injured a half dozen times; he was one of the greatest strategists and tacticians of all times. No wonder General Sherman, himself something of a beau sabreur, said that Forrest must be taken “if it costs 10,000 lives and breaks the Treasury.” I see him as a kind of super Vince Lombardi for whom anything short of total victory was intolerable and whose nature it was to inspire strong ambivalent feelings in his subordinates. If such a man had come into Second Air Force Headquarters, we would not only have snapped to attention; we would have remained petrified in his electric wake long after he had passed by.

The military composition was no great problem. I warmed up by rewriting a few ambiguous general orders, then spent several days rewriting a brief but horribly written manual that had been prepared by the training people on the second floor. Then I was given a letter addressed to a senator refusing his request that a certain co-pilot, ready to depart for England with the rest of his crew, be released from service so that he might take over the management of the family ranch from his ailing father. Someone upstairs had prepared this letter for the General’s signature, but he wanted no part of it, sensing that even a stupid senator was likely to take it as an irisult, He conferred briefly with me: the answer had to be a categorical but by all means delicate “No,” since then as now the last thing the Air Force wanted to do was antagonize a congressman. I prepared the letter in an hour and a half, emphasizing the disrupting effect of replacements at the crucial state of departure for overseas, and it then became the model for similar refusals, though how it got disseminated among the other offices I never knew.

In between editing and rewriting I went back to browsing among the secret documents or did small chores for the little brunette who shared the outer office. Her sole job was to transcribe the dictaphone recordings of all conversations that came over the tactical phone lines. Hour by hour she sat at her typewriter listening to her headphones as the chief of staff or the commanding general (then Davenport Johnson) carried on their transactions with Generals Arnold or Spaatz or with the widely separated wing commanders of the Second Air Force. A suppressed squeal from her was always a sign that the generals were sounding less like generals and more like common soldiers, and then her job (a version of mine) was to make them sound more like generals again. Sometimes, in the interest of picking up more background, I read over her transcripts, trying to imagine what crudities were buried under her girlish euphemisms. Certainly the transcripts represented the General as measuring up to the high standard set by his great-grandfather, who, says Wyeth, might use violent language in the heat of battle but otherwise abhorred obscene or vulgar words and under no circumstances would “permit a smutty story to be told or a vulgar expression used in his presence.”

It took me almost a month to realize what I should have expected all along: socially I existed in no man’s land, a figure of suspicion and even resentment among headquarters personnel, whether officers or enlisted men. One of my few friends, a sergeant in personnel who bunked near me, first alerted me to my predicament. He had heard from another sergeant how the major who had written the letter to the senator, and who also had had a hand in the training manual, had reacted to my rewrite of the letter.”Who the hell’s doing this?” the major demanded, piqued to discover that what had been good enough all along was suddenly unacceptable. “They’ve got a damned corporal down there,” the sergeant told him. So I began to feel like that damned corporal, though I would have preferred to feel like a damned sergeant. I came to believe that they were hating me instead of the General, or along with him, just as Major J. P. Strange had no doubt been hated along with his General Forrest simply because he was the latter’s adjutant, and hating me to boot because I had been a college professor who was now in a position to shove their miserable prose down their throats, and they couldn’t do a damned thing about it except mutter to their sergeants because they were afraid to mutter to me or Forrest. Thus in effect I was ostracized and was therefore able to spend more time on my bunk with that unhappy man, M. Swann and, until he hung himself from his upper bunk, with the aspiring novelist.

The important thing was that the General was satisfied. Soon I was even collaborating with him in the phrasing of his unofficial correspondence. He had an excellent sense of language and knew immediately when an expression was just right for his purpose, even though he had no particular ability to bring it to that point himself. It no more bothered his West Point pride to lean on the support of a damned corporal than it had bothered his great-grandfather when Major Strange corrected his spelling or changed “fit” to “fought.”

It was strange to learn ultimately that my reserved and dedicated General had a playful side. Periodically, the blond secretary would contact a certain lieutenant and make arrangements with him to meet the General for squash. It occurred to me one day that when I became his aide I might be expected to play squash with him, a game about which I knew absolutely nothing. Whatever problems Major Strange had with his General Forrest, it was not this one. Such playtime as the latter had had (always, said a neighbor, yelling louder than anyone else) was over in his 16th year when at his father’s death he “took on the burden of life” as head of a family that included his mother, seven brothers, and three sisters. The only games he played after that were those grim charades that so effectively bamboozled the likes of Colonel Abel Streight and General Sooy Smith.


Spring of 1943 was at hand. The Americans were recovering some lost ground in Tunisia; the Japanese finally abandoned the Guadalcanal area; the R. A. F. hit Berlin hard; I finished Swarm’s Way and began Within a Budding Grove at about the same time that the Guard Squadron’s black panther was demythologized into a brown mongrel dog and the would-be novelist hung himself with three knotted-together G. I. neckties. With startling suddenness then, orders came to proceed to Officers Candidate School, One of my few friends predicted that I would immediately be promoted to staff sergeant since I would need the extra income at OCS. I went in to see the General for the last time and for the last time did not salute him. Instead he shook my hand, and a he did so I realized not only that I had come to like him very much but that I was about to leave my pleasantly ostracized job for very doubtful gain. Nevertheless, I put Proust away and went off obediently to Miami Beach. Enroute I passed through Rome, Georgia, not far from where that devil Forrest, with the assistance of the spunky Emma Sansom who led him to the lost cattleford on Black Creek, finally took the measure of Colonel Abel Streight’s Raiders.

Miami Beach in those days had been pretty well taken over by the military for training and schooling operations. The few remaining civilians stood out like rare animals in a zoo. We lived in resort hotels, drilled and exercised on the golf course, and ate in night clubs from which signs of sybaritic and even pornographic luxury had not been entirely erased. Major and minor celebrities—movie stars, professional ball players, a few writers, social register aristocrats who had somehow missed direct commissions—were scattered indiscriminately among the OCS squadrons. Even Clark Gable, who was subsequently assigned to the Second Air Force for gunnery training, had been there. Squadron Eleven, my squadron, had the movie star John Carroll, now long forgotten but then at the peak of his career as a romantic singing Latin. He was the unofficial music master of the squadron, which was expected to sing constantly in all marching formations. He was a handsome and agreeable fellow who several times complimented me on my singing, something no one had ever done before or would ever do again. When he graduated a class ahead of me, he came around to give me his left-over textbooks.

No amount of singing could make us forget that OCS was at best hot, hellish, and anxious. Supposing that you made it to a commission (which seemed highly unlikely during the first six weeks) there remained the burning questions: Where would you be assigned? What would your duties be? OCS prepared you for everything and nothing. My advantage was therefore very great, knowing as I did where I would go and what I would do. I even gave out this information, in an offhand sort of way, to my three roommates, with the result that they looked at me with the respect they had previously reserved for John Carroll. They predicted that I would very quickly become a captain since the General’s own prestige would be involved. I was tempted to believe this, though against it was the fact that I was still a damned corporal who had twice been led to believe that he would be much more.

But when the assignment sheet came out just before graduation, I was listed for Eastern Flying Training Command Headquarters at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama. I asked the officer who distributed the list if the assignment could be a mistake. The list was correct, he said, and the next evening, no longer a damned corporal but now an utterly abandoned second lieutenant, I climbed onto a daycoach and rode all night and most of the next day through the Dixie I was later to become so familiar with. No quarters were available at Maxwell Field; I was told to find accommodations in town. There the better hotels were filled with newly arrived and similarly disoriented officers. Eventually, I got a spacious but nondescript room in an old hotel far down Dexter Street. I stayed there three nights; after the second, I learned from an officer in personnel that the place was generally believed to be a whore house. Given my abandoned condition, it seemed appropriate enough.

But I did not give up hope. Perhaps Maxwell Field was only a staging area in a process that would eventually return me to the Second Air Force and General Forrest; at any moment the order might come; there was even hope in the fact that Maxwell Field did not seem to know what to do with me. No orders came; I was assigned to Spence Field in Moultrie, Georgia, as a special service officer, where in due time I picked up the auxiliary chores of WAC recruiting officer and army emergency relief officer. I sent for Proust and settled down to make the best of my bad lot.

I had not been at Spence Field a week before I learned that I had been orphaned, not abandoned. In the officer’s club one evening, I was browsing through Time when, shockingly, there were my two Generals at the bottom of a page, separated by a column of print but otherwise looking exactly as they had looked on the chief of staff’s desk. He had gone along as an observer in a raid over Kiel, saying in effect what his great-grandfather had said in his farewell address to his troops: “I have never on the field of battle sent you where I was not willing to go myself.” The plane had been hit; eight of the ten-man crew were seen to bail out as it went down in flames; Forrest was not one of them. Later I learned that he had left Fort Wright under secret orders in late May or early June. The Kiel raid had been on June 13, so that when I graduated from OCS he had been missing for two weeks, childless, and the last of his line. What had happened was obvious enough: once he was away from headquarters and unlikely to return, my enemies had seen to it that the damned corporal did not return either. There were moments when I envied the hanged novelist.

I settled into the long hot summer of the deep Jim Crow South, Allied troops under Eisenhower invaded Sicily; Syracuse fell; the Nineteenth Air Force bombed Rome, putting into practice tactics that in another lifetime had been part of my background reading; Mussolini resigned. I learned that the Second Air Force, as if determined to dissociate itself from my very memories, had moved its headquarters to Colorado Springs. If I had been able to go with it, I would have been only a few miles from the home where my paternal grandfather had lived for many years, the final 20 blind, and where at the age of 92 he had died, one of the last Civil War veterans in the West. As a boy of 18, he had enlisted with Company K, 45th Illinois, First Brigade, Third Division. He saw action at Kenesaw Mountain and Antietem, was with Sherman at the burning of Atlanta and during his great march to the sea, and later marched in the Grand Review at Washington, D. C. He had been raised in New England so that there was no question of his literacy. When I saw him for the first and last time two years before his death, he sang Union marching songs for us in an eerie quavering voice and remembered how, as they marched through Georgia, the girls had cheered and waved at them. What did they have to cheer about? I wondered, and suspected, that the old man was in his own small way rewriting history. It did not occur to me to ask him about General Forrest, for the latter had not yet entered my life.”After all,” said Sherman, “I think Forrest was the most remarkable man our Civil War produced on either side.” It is conceivable that my grandfather, as one of Sherman’s men, shared his commanding general’s conviction; but it is just as conceivable that he had known only of that bloody massacring devil whose cavalry, Sherman complained bitterly, could go one hundred miles while his own was trying to go ten.

Moultrie, Georgia, was not Forrest country, but the farther reaches of the Eastern Flying Training Command extended into the Western Theater of the Civil War, which was rich with his memory. He had never gotten to Montgomery itself, though he might have gone there in the spring of 1865 in pursuit of General James Wilson after the latter had whipped him at Selma. At Selma, 50 miles west of Montgomery, the attraction had been the Confederate arsenal, and it was in protection of it (although as usual badly outnumbered) that he had made such a fool of General Sooy Smith the previous spring in northeastern Mississippi. There his brother Jeffrey had been killed, and there Forrest had made another of his miraculous escapes, killing three of the enemy in the process and as usual losing his horse.

It would therefore have been nice to go to Selma, where there was an airbase, but I never got there. It would have been better still to go up to the site of Fort Pillow on the Mississippi above Memphis. Here Forrest brought off one of his most remarkable victories, indeed, one of the most remarkable accomplishments in the history of cavalry warfare. Forrest himself estimated that the storming of this stronghold cost him only 20 men to the enemy’s 500, so that, as he reported to his superior, General Polk, “the river was dyed with blood of the slaughtered for 200 yards.” Unfortunately, Fort Pillow was also his Mai Lai, for among the dead was a vast number of black troops, and Forrest was accused, falsely, he believed, of permitting or ordering a massacre. I might have gotten there if I had been able to hitch a ride to Memphis, where after the war Forrest had served as a member of the Board of Aldermen, and where he is buried in front of the equestrian statue. But no one was ever flying that way when I was free to go. Instead, I went often to Atlanta, now long recovered from Sherman’s depredations, to buy recreational supplies. There I thought of my young grandfather. Had he been present at Sherman’s congratulatory address to his troops after the capture of Atlanta? Heard him prophesy “that our country will in time emerge from this war, purified by the fires of war”? Seen Atlanta burning? Been-one of Uncle Billy’s foragers, or “bummers,” as the mighty horde swept through Georgia to the sea?


So in the South it was possible to fight two wars at once; in fact, it was all too easy in southern Georgia—lush with cotton, tobacco, pecans, watermelons, and peaches—to forget all about the war immediately at hand. Nevertheless, it went on. Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met at Teheran; Eisenhower (a far cry from Forrest) became supreme commander in Europe; the Red Army entered Poland; the abbey at Mount Cassino was bombed to smithereens; Admiral Nimitz attacked Truk island; I organized a cavalcade and toured around in Southern Georgia propagandizing the WAC, sometimes covering as many miles in a day as Forrest’s cavalry, but with considerable less success. Meanwhile, I was nearing the end of The Guermantes Way. In one of my segregated theaters I saw a movie short publicizing the Air Force’s OCS. It included a brief shot of John Carroll, beautifully tailored, conferring on a palm-shaded patio with the general to whom he was now aide. Wormwood! My own General was declared dead a year after his disappearance over Kiel, but I had given him up long before. It was that other Forrest who was alive for me now, for war which had denied the great-grandson his chance had made the great grandfather an immortal.

This being the case, it was fortunate that in the spring of 1944 I was dispatched to the Special Service School at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. In one sense, I was moving still further from the Western Theater of the Civil War, but in a more important sense I was getting closer to it than ever. For Lexington was the shrine of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, who meant Civil War; and to me wherever there was Civil War, there was above all others Nathan Bedford Forrest. Lee, who had once been superintendent at West Pdint, was president of Washington and Lee (then simply Washington College) during the few years that remained to him after the war. In mid September of 1865, he arrived at Lexington astride his faithful battle companion, Traveller, after a lonely three-day ride through the late summer heat of the Blue Ridge mountains. As president, his compensation was $1500 a year, plus one fifth of the tuition fees, plus the house in the dining room of which he ultimately died. Despite his five years at the school, his last words were military, not academic.”Strike the tent,” he is reported to have said.

There in the sweet Blue Ridge spring I roomed with another veteran of heroic combat, Johnny Baker, the former All-American guard from U. S. C. who in 1931 had kicked an historic field goal to defeat Notre Dame 16—14, The program at the school was quite physical, though by OCS standards relaxed and even idyllic. I went often to the chapel to visit the Lee museum, where the memorabilia were, and to stand contemplating the famous recumbent statue of the General. Lee had never met Forrest, but when he was asked who under his command was the greatest soldier, he answered, “A man I have never seen, sir. His name is Forrest.” Lying there he looked patriarchal and Jovian—the very model of an old-fashioned college president, a grand loser but hardly a great warrior. I measured him against the portrait of Forrest that I had carried in my head and found him wanting. Imagine Forrest going through the war with one horse! I put Lee in a class with my grandfather; at heart he was a peace-loving man who, if he had been young enough when the war was over, and all the Southern girls had stopped cheering, might have gone to the real West to homestead and build railroads as my grandfather did (Indian arrows whizzed past his ears while he laid track in the Dakotas, my father told us).

But with Stonewall Jackson it was another matter. His memorabilia were enshrined at Virginia Military Institute, whose campus adjoined that of Washington and Lee. We used the VMI pool for water safety training, but there was no opportunity to view the memorabilia. In 1851, after service in the Mexican War, Jackson came to VMI as professor of natural and experimental philosophy and military tactics, an unlikely combination even in these interdisciplinary times, He got $1200 a year and quarters, fair enough considering that he wasn’t much of a teacher. He was there ten years, then the war came; in two more years he went from major to lieutenant general and became Stonewall Jackson—”old Jack.” War made him as it made Sherman and Forrest, then it spitefully unmade him: saw to it that he was killed by moonlight with a stray bullet from his own ranks. Dead in his glory at 39, he was younger than Forrest had been when he enlisted as a private.

Like Forrest, too, Jackson’s beginnings had been inauspicious. He was four when his lawyer father died almost destitute, seven when his mother died. An uncle raised him in the Ohio Valley, where he got the usual haphazard schooling and for a short time was a school teacher himself. One of his pupils, his uncle’s slave, learned so well that he was able to write himself a pass and escape through the underground railroad. As a military leader, he was, like Forrest, the sternest of disciplinarians; temperamentally, as General Grant said of him, he was “a man of the Cromwell stamp, a Puritan” (though unlike Forrest he was never to be featured in a 20th-century whiskey ad). War for him, says his biographer Lenoir Chambers, “was an inner fire, a secret stimulus, an internal generating power . . .” It “increased his mental activity . . .endowed him with new energy . . .stirred his imagination.” The war to him, as to Forrest, was a holy crusade to which he devoted himself utterly; that God was on his side he never doubted. He too was a superb tactician, a master of the use of propaganda and surprise.

Jackson is buried in the Confederate cemetery at Lexington. I went there twice in early evening, once with Johnny Baker, once alone. Then in mid-spring it was lushly unkempt, a melancholy land of the dead, a wound that nature was trying to heal by overgrowing it. Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead” with its sense of aching yet glamorous futility catches the very spirit of it. It occurred to me that Tate might have had this very cemetery in mind, especially since Jackson is the only person he mentions:

Stonewall, Stonewall—and the sunken fields of
hemp. Shiloh, Antietem, Malvern Hill, Bull Run . . .

In any event, it has ever since been Forrest’s poem for me, not Jackson’s. After all, Shiloh is there, and Forrest was at Shiloh, and so was Sherman (but not my grandfather; it was too early for him). The beau sabreur came close to being killed at Shiloh: was shot in the hip at close range, and again lost a horse. Jackson is buried in the middle of the cemetery, surrounded by his colonels, losers all, like my old guards. Some of the graves had fallen in blackly, as if they were ragged entrances to a macabre underworld. It was easy to imagine Bela Lugosi rising out of there by moonlight to go lusting after the blood of the Blue Ridge virgins.

Jackson made it possible to bring Forrest into another and unanticipated association. In late November of 1859, the former took an artillery detachment of VMI cadets to Charleston as security forces at the hanging of John Brown. He was struck with Brown’s “unflinching firmness” as he rode on his coffin to the place of execution; he, the strict Presbyterian and former Sunday school teacher, hoped that Brown was prepared to die but had his doubts, since the condemned man had refused to have a minister the night before. What he could not have realized was the extent to which Brown was the ideal type of that class of men to which he himself, Forrest, and Sherman belonged (to say nothing of Vince Lombardi). All of them were fanatics and war-lovers, but none of them to the degree that Brown was: with his hyperbole Brown defines them all.

Forrest and Brown would have hated each other—the one a former slave trader who would in time be an early leader of the KKK, the other the passionate abolitionist who hoped that Harper’s Ferry would be the spark that would set the slave-holding South ablaze. Yet how alike they were otherwise: the same lowly beginnings and deprivations of early childhood, the same painful loss of parents, and early assumption of man s estate, the same intense Puritan personalities. In their pictures there is even the same fierce and ominous concentration of purpose. And Brown had his Pottawatomie Massacre to put alongside Forrest’s Fort Pillow. Brown once said to Emerson that he believed in two things, the Bible and the Declaration of Independence, and that it was “better that a whole generation of men, women and children should pass away by a violent death than that a word of either should be violated in this country.” Forrest—at least the Forrest of the war years—would have understood this.

Such people do not serve causes the way most of us do. Causes intoxicate them; perhaps that is why, like Forrest and Brown, they have so little need for literal intoxicants (Forrest said that he let his staff do his drinking for him). For them, people do not exist in their own right; they exist to the end of the grand causes in which the fanatic war-lovers (they are always war-lovers) are so intensely alive. You can hear something of their belligerent zest in the words with which the transcendental Emerson greeted the outbreak of hostilities: “Ah! sometimes gunpowder smells good.” The Southern diarist Mary James Chesnut might have been speaking of all of them when she said of Jackson: “He did not value human life when he had an object to accomplish.” And Thoreau, the pacifist-abolitionist who wanted Brown to hang, “doubting if a prolonged life, if any life, can do as much good as his death”—what is he but a fanatic war-lover too? There was something of this fanatic temper in Sherman as well, despite the cavalier strains in him and despite a deficiency of the religious zeal that inspired Forrest, Jackson, and Brown. He was “akin to the Old Testament prophet and law-giver,” says B. H. Liddell-Hart, his biographer, “The land must be purified by fire; and in this purification he would bear the torch.” How appropriate then that he marched out of burning Atlanta with his band playing “John Brown’s soul goes marching on.” Even Walt Whitman, who as a hospital missionary ultimately took Southern soldiers under his wing, was wrought up enough after the first battle of Bull Run to chant:

Make no parley—stop for no expostulation,
Mind not the timid—mind not the weeper or prayer,
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man,
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties,
Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie
awaiting the hearses . . .

Is it any wonder then that the Civil War was so bloody?

Some people, fortunately, have little of this frantic ferocity: Frederick Douglass, the great black leader, for instance, who wanted no part of Brown’s Harper’s Ferry business; Robert E. Lee (perhaps it was why Traveller was still alive at the end of the war); General Sooy Smith, in Sherman’s view a second-rater whom he damned with faint praise as “a most accomplished gentleman and a skillful engineer”; Forrest’s great-grandson (or was it there in embryo waiting for the nurturing conditions he did not survive to experience?); my grandfather, who nevertheless helped Sherman bear the torch; my bungling guards, les hommes moyens sensuels, who, though intoxicated by no grand schemes, would nevertheless go through life enthralled by imaginary black panthers, But give Forrest credit: he was not as thoroughly the God-and-cause-intoxicated man that Brown was. In war he was a reckless enough daredevil, but there was a point beyond which (at Shiloh and Selma, for instance) he would not needlessly endanger his men. People existed for him as people to an extent that they did not for Jackson or Brown, for the latter of whom even slaves belonged to the Cause before they belonged to themselves. I find it easy to believe that Forrest was less responsible for the massacre at Fort Pillow than Brown for the one at Pottawatomie, though Forrest had been a slave-holder and Brown was (as he himself never doubted) on the side of the angels. When the South had surrendered, some of Forrest’s men wanted him to lead them across the Mississippi in order to continue the struggle, but Forrest immediately saw the folly of this. He may have been a beau sabreur, but he was no Don Quixote. In his farewell address to his troops, he said: “Reason dictates and humanity demands that no more blood be shed.” He went back to his plantation and, like my grandfather, became for a while a railroad builder. In 1869, being then Grand Wizard, he officially disbanded the Klan because it had become dangerously violent. In time he was even able to apologize to avoid killing a man in a duel. Towards the end, says Wyeth, an old friend observed in him “a softness of expression and a mildness of manner which he had not noticed in the trying times of war.” Could Brown have come to such an end?


I left Lexington with a sense of having located General Forrest among his fellow immortals. Back then to the mundane, segregated world of south Georgia: to WAC recruiting, to movie theater management, to USO shows, to watermelon parties and service club dances. Halfway around the globe in either direction, the war proceeded according to the premises laid down for it. Rome fell to the Allies, D-Day arrived, B-29’s bombed southern Japan, Patton (a man cut out of Forrest’s mold) drove his Third Army across the Marne. I was three quarters of the way through Remembrance of Things Past and beginning to wonder if it would last out the war. It did not. I was transferred to the Air Transport Command and shipped to British Guiana. There in the steaming Demarara jungles, not long before V-E Day, I came to the end of Proust—if anyone can be said to have come to the end of a man just as fanatically enthralled by his memory as Forrest and Brown had been by their grand themes. V-J Day arrived; we celebrated half the night and woke with tropical hangovers, which are the worst kind. I became troop commander with nominal power over a thousand or so aircraft maintenance troops, most of whom had never seen me and all of whom wanted to go home at once.

One night before payday I sat in the orderly room beside my young Tennessee first sergeant, the effective troop commander whom I always felt guilty for not saluting and whose respect I was able to keep only by beating him at ping pong. On the table in front of us were pay envelopes, pay records, two canvas bags containing many thousands of dollars in flamboyant British Guianese paper money and British coins, and our loaded 45’s. In the jungle beyond the barracks area, a quarter of a mile away in the fetid heart of darkness, were snakes of all descriptions, sleeping macaws and toucans, mosquitos loaded with malaria and filaria, voodoo, native girls with exotic venereal diseases, and, if one had the courage to go looking for them, real black panthers. None of this menaced us, however; the 45’s were for official decoration only. We worked late into the night, stuffing the pay envelopes. It came to me suddenly that the war was really over, that like Lee and my grandfather I had survived. I knew then with premonitory hindsight that if I actually had become General Forrest’s aide, I would not have survived. Sooner or later, given his capabilities and the tradition behind him, he would have gotten me to where the real action was and where generals’ aides would have been as expendable as his great-grandfather’s horses. With him, my future would have been a succession of Kiels, one of which would certainly have done me in.

One day after the war, I learned the address of Forrest’s residence during his Spokane years, before he departed with the secret orders that turned out to be orders for death. I went looking for it, remembering the neighborhood as one noted for its graceful old three- and four-story mansions and hoping to discover that he had lived in one of these so that my memory of both Forrests would be as firmly anchored in space and time as Proust’s memory had been by his madeleine and tea. No building whatever existed at the address; a mammoth parking lot had consumed the entire area. Fate that had given him a running start had not only tripped him up but had finally covered him with concrete.

Perhaps I expected too much. Why should fate have treated the General more tenderly than my grandfather, whom Sherman did not bother to mention in his Memoirs? Still it was another shock to discover that when General Hap Arnold’s autobiography Global Mission appeared in 1949 there was no reference to Forrest in it, despite the fact that everyone else of any consequence in the history of the Air Force was mentioned. Clearly, his mistake was not to have survived long enough. To enter history, it is not enough merely to survive; unless one survives beyond a certain point—and for everyone the point is different—one has no chance at all. Thus the first General Forrest, who like Jackson, Brown, Sherman, Lee, and Lee’s horse did not make that mistake, is on record for the ages, while his great-grandson must be content to exist along-side the hanged novelist and my grandfather’s cheering Southern girls as simply another thread in the seamless web of one man’s past.


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