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Forrest Against Sheridan

ISSUE:  Winter 1932

Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company. By Andrew Nelson Lytic. New York: Minton, Balch and Company. $3.50. Sheridan: A Military Narrative. By Joseph Hergesheimer. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $4.00.

The last few years have been marked by a veritable flood of biographies of the characters of the great American crisis. While chiefly concerned with the political leaders of the struggle, there has also been a considerable lapping-over into the military field, and lives not only of the generals-in-chief, but also of the subordinate commanders are being put within cloth covers. Year by year, random lives of Lee and of Grant appear, but the last two years have been marked by new lives of Stonewall Jackson, Sherman, Jeb Stuart, Forrest, and Sheridan. Recent lives of the two last are here reviewed.

In a number of ways, Andrew Nelson Lytle’s “Forrest” and Joseph Hergesheimer’s “Sheridan” are in curious contrast. First of all, a word as to authors. Andrew Nelson Lytle is a young Tennessean, born into the Middle Tennessee tradition of horse-flesh, fox-hunting, and tall yarns. Of late he has hearkened to the amusing heresies of the Nashville agrarian cult, and, in 1930, was a star contributor to the Young Confederates’ magnum opus, “I’ll Take My Stand.” This Forrest biography, however, is his first full-length book. On the other hand, Hergesheimer is an experienced novelist, who has worked out his own stylistic formula for attracting royalties from lovely ladies who read romantic books. His early training as a painter echoes in his forays into literature. This Sheridan book is his second essay into the field of serious historical portraiture.

Then there is an essential difference of technique between the two. Both Lytle and Hergesheimer have gone in for amplitude of detail. In Lytle’s case, the detail is skilfully employed to build up the picture of a genius in the saddle. From its use, one gains a lasting and impressive feeling of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s heroic stature. But the novelist Hergesheimer does not seem to know quite what to do with his plenitude of facts. At Lytle’s command, the multifarious divisions and brigades pass in parade before you in understandable and orderly array, even when the actual scene is of a turbulent cavalry encounter. But with Hergesheimer, even when the event is simple, a myriad meaningless names swirl about in a maddening fog.

Then there are other stylistic differences. With a liking for the mot juste, Lytle is quite a searcher for new verbal coinages, and occasionally goes far afield to find them. But Sheridan’s biographer seems chiefly to depend upon his curious stylistic device of interrupting the stream-line flow of proper sentence structure by obtrusively dropping into almost every sentence some word or phrase, often unnecessarily offset with commas. This interrupts the easy progress of the sentence thought, compels an unwilling attention to words used, at the expense of thought content, and thus is a negation of the real function of language.

Finally, there is the further contrast of the characters themselves. What a pity it is that Forrest’s and Sheridan’s cavalry never met in field; had they done so, I doubt if Forrest would have come off second best. The characters of the two men are in unmistakable opposition. There is Forrest, not altogether unlettered—Lytle destroys this myth—but without the benefit, if such it be, of a West Point education, and none the less, with Jackson, the strategic genius of the Confederacy.

General Forrest had the essence of a strategist; he could unerringly read the future, and could then conceive the needful major military operations. Furthermore, to him was granted that second strategic sense, the ability to adapt means to ends. But Sheridan seems not to have had these qualities. One learns that he always sought to feed and clothe his men, and that they loved him. The same was true of Forrest. But Sheridan’s strategic insight impresses one as being quite second-rate. Sherman once said that Forrest was the only Confederate leader who could read his mind, and hence the only enemy general whom he feared, a tribute from one master strategist to another, for it seems to me that Sherman is the greatest strategist the American continent has produced. Not only was General Forrest a strategist, with an uncanny ability to analyze general situations and to prescribe for them, but also he was a tactician of real distinction. His keen knowledge of the possibilities of horse-flesh, man-will, and terrain made him an Attila’s scourge to the Union armies in the West. The realm of might-have-been is always an interesting field for speculation. Would the result in the West had been any different had Forrest, perhaps the Confederacy’s greatest general, been in command at Chickamauga, instead of Braxton Bragg, its worst?

A little while back I sent a copy of the Lytle book to Captain B. H. Liddell Hart, the well-known English military critic, chiefly because in my opinion Captain Liddell Hart is the most penetrating and discerning of the military critics of today. Inasmuch as Mr. Lytle has not been and is not a soldier, and my own military experience, confined to service with the Rainbow Division on the Western front, had given no taste of such a war of movement as Forrest exemplified in the Civil War, I was a little doubtful as to my own judgment that Mr. Lytle had identified the real essence of Forrest’s strategic genius. Captain Liddell Hart’s comments to me completely subdued these qualms.

“It is just the sort of biography Forrest himself would, one thinks, have appreciated,” he wrote. “Like Forrest, this book has an outstanding force and virility of style. Better still is the way the writer goes to the root of the military meaning of Forrest’s campaigns. He has a real and very rare insight. I would like to congratulate him, even if his fine feat imposes another check on my own long-cherished desire to write a book on Forrest.”

There is no need for me to say more as to Lytle’s volume, but there is need for one or two further observations about the Sheridan. For dramatic purposes, Mr. Hergesheimer divides it into three sections: The Mountain, the Valley, and the Plain. The first of these sections, the Mountain, is concerned with Sheridan’s part in the 1863 campaigns about Chattanooga. For sight-seers’ benefit, every patriotic Chat-tanoogan must arm himself with some source knowledge of the Chattanooga campaigns, myself among the rest. Therefore, I must confess to a disappointment with Mr. Hergesheimer’s treatment of, and knowledge of, this particular segment of the Civil War. Here are some small things, but disheartening. The author insists on calling Walden’s Ridge, “Waldron’s” Ridge. Some early maps do give that designation, and I believe it is followed in “Battles and Leaders”; but it was wrong at the time, and is wrong today; the name is Walden. Furthermore, Lookout Mountain does not close the gorge of the Tennessee. Immediately across the river is a broad plain, easily traversed. Additionally, at the time of the Battle of Lookout Mountain, Longstreet was before Knoxville, besieging Burnside. Thus it is hard to see how Hooker’s troops took Lookout from “Longstreet’s men.” In the account of the relief of Chattanooga, Mr. Hergesheimer gives no credit to General Rosecrans for having initiated and approved the scheme which General “Baldy” Smith, Rosecrans’ Chief of Engineers, had worked out early in October for the midnight river expedition against Brown’s Ferry. But General Smith, in his little book of reminiscence—a book which, by the way, is not in the Hergesheimer bibliography—shows clearly that the plan had its birth and initial growth under Rosecrans, not Grant.

In the Hergesheimer account of Chattanooga, I find no bibliographic mention of Archibald Grade’s monumental and most convincing “The Truth About Chickamauga,” to mention only one of several significant omissions. One is not convinced that Mr. Hergesheimer understood the Chattanooga campaign, one feels sure he did not know the topography, and I distrust the value of his account.

In the Shenandoah Valley campaigns, and the Sheridan part in the capture of Lee’s army I suspect that Mr. Hergesheimer has more accurately set forth the facts and the truth behind the facts. None the less, although his account of the Valley campaign has a number of vivid pictures, one cannot learn from it whether or not Sheridan was drunk before the famous ride to Winchester. Furthermore, I feel that, in the finale of that battle, much less than justice is done to Jubal Early. Incidentally, Early’s Memoirs are not in the bibliography. Were they unconsulted? In the final campaign leading up to Appomattox, the befogging assembly of a disorganized mass of detail leaves one in a daze. In this section, Mr. Hergesheimer tells of an obscure negotiation between the Federal General Ord and the Confederate General Longstreet. A reference to the latter’s Memoirs reveals that the account is an almost exact paraphrase. Interestingly, there is no Longstreet in the bibliography, just as there is no listing of Captain McClellan’s invaluable essay into strategic truth, “Grant Versus the Record.”

Mr. Lytle contends that his hero is a genius. So does Mr. Hergesheimer. It seems to me that Mr. Lytle has made his case. But Mr. Hergesheimer fumbles around, admits that Sheridan was no good at detail, demonstrates that his hero blundered both in tactics and in strategy, and then cites Grant as about his only authority that Sheridan really belonged to the great captains of all time. Such authority, one may say, had no tremendous weight; it will be remembered that Grant sneered at Lee, who beat him for a year.

So much for these two books. The contrast between the characters portrayed, and the type of portrayal is most unusual. Without hesitation we recommend the Lytle book. We recommend that Mr. Hergesheimer return to the realm of romance; there, at least, he is a master hand.


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