Nathan Bedford Forrest is one of the most controversial commanders in US military history. Slave trader, plantation owner, (un)successful businessman, gambler, philanthropist, LtGeneral of Confederate Cavalry in the Civil War, and finally as a Grand Wizard in the original Klu-Klux, he is revered by some (perhaps some who should not revere him) and hated by others (who perhaps should take a more careful look).
Was he a war criminal for what happened at Fort Pillow in April 1864? And how could one of the prime movers behind the formation of the Klu-Klux order its disbandment in 1869 and then even offer the state government of Tennessee in 1874 to “exterminate” those who had refused to disband?
Forrest was needless to say a complex man, but if the war records, and much of what has been written since, are to be believed also a 24-caret military genius.
Back to theory now. How would one define a military genius?
Clausewitz defined military genius as a “harmonious combination of elements, in which one or the other ability may predominate, but none may be in conflict with the rest”. What types of societies produce such genius? “The smaller the range of activities of a nation and the more the military factor dominates, the greater will be the incidence of military genius. This, however is true only of its distribution, not its quality. The latter depends on the general intellectual development of a given society. . .” (Book 1, Chapter 3, On War).
The main point to consider about this concept of military genius is that it is the prime element which counteracts friction in war.
Antullio J. Echevarria provides us more on this:
GENIUS, A BALANCE OF INTELLECT AND CHARACTER
Military genius, according to Clausewitz, consisted of a harmonious balance of several qualities belonging to reason (Verstand) and passion (Gemüt), or what we might refer to, while admittedly taking some liberties, as sense and sensibility. The latter category included energy (Energie), steadfastness (Festigkeit), resolve (Standhaftigkeit), strength of temperament (Gemütsstärke), and strength of character (Charakterstärke).
As mentioned earlier, these served as a counterweight to the elements of danger, physical exertion, uncertainty, and chance, which made up the atmosphere of war; . . . Energy was necessary to overcome the resistance of one's enemy as well as the inertia of one's own military machine; it might take the form of a commander's personal quest for glory, or his desire to satisfy his own honor.
Although these motives were often regarded as negative, Clausewitz believed they could prove more powerful, and thus more valuable, than other passions, such as patriotism, fanaticism, and revenge. Steadfastness and resolve go hand-in-hand: the former refers to the ability to stay focused when confronted by sudden adversities; the latter means the capacity to remain committed over the long haul. Strength of temperament best equates to self-discipline, the ability to listen to the voice of reason in the midst of even the strongest of emotional appeals—to maintain one's perspective. Strength of character, a common term throughout the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, means strength of conviction, which might stem from many factors, but—ideally—came from an unshakeable belief in correct principles; in contrast, obstinacy was blind adherence to unfounded or incorrect ideas, and thus was a perversion of strength of character, and so was to be avoided. Once again, therefore, we see the importance of objective knowledge in the formulation of judgment.
In a sense, all of these qualities fall under the heading of physical and psychological courage. Physical courage means the ability to function in spite of the debilitating influence of danger and the physical privations of war; psychological courage refers to the capacity to accept responsibility, to make decisions in times of crisis.
Yet, the central point of this chapter of On War is that all of these qualities would come to naught without the use of the intellect. The ability to penetrate the fog of uncertainty that surrounds events in war, and to exercise sound judgment, was essential. This higher use of the intellect required a certain coup d'œil—an innate ability to see in an instant the true significance of manifold things or events, to grasp the situation completely and precisely even as it unfolded. Put simply, coup d'œil describes the ability to see simultaneously with the physical as well as the mind's eye. As mentioned previously, this talent could be nurtured by acquiring correct knowledge of war.
Together, these were the qualities essential for successful command at high levels, and Clausewitz believed one could find them in evidence in each of history's great military commanders: Alexander, Hannibal, Gustavus Adolphus, and Frederick the Great. However, he did not limit genius only to such lofty heights. In his view, true genius was the harmonious union of the traits of temperament and intellect in such a way that each cooperated with, rather than opposed, the others. While some scholars believe Clausewitz's model for genius was Napoleon, it was probably Scharnhorst, whose traits were balanced. Napoleon's character was weighted toward arrogant recklessness, and thus not balanced enough for true genius. In Clausewitz's studies of the 1814 and 1815 campaigns, moreover, he more than once sought to deflate the Corsican's growing legend, though he clearly admired aspects of his way of waging war. The officer he most admired was his friend and mentor Scharnhorst, to whom he owed a great deal.
Possessing all the qualities mentioned above was not enough to qualify as a genius, however; they also had to work together. The message was, simply, that favoring one type of quality, such as energy, led to an imbalance, a character flaw that adversity would overwhelm, or an adversary would exploit.
Clausewitz and Contemporary War, pp108-9
Military genius can use theory to understand what is going on, but more importantly genius operates “beyond theory” since genius is able to understand the application of the military means (beyond simple tactics to operations and the achievement of strategic aims) acting/reacting within a resistance environment. That is how these means are used during a specific epoch, in effect the genius creating an “art of war” for that epoch, which others attempt to copy. Strategic theory in turn attempts to incorporate these “insights” into the further development of theory. Thus strategic theory is the retrospective attempt to codify military genius developing an art of war for a specific epoch - as well as testing the tenets of the general theory which covers all wars. . .
Thus concerning the genius there is a very important temporal component: the military genius, unlike the avante garde artist, is very much a person of his times. Whereas, like the artist, the military genius creates and provides models for others to follow, which in both cases does not mean that those who follow will be able to achieve the same results.
Later in that same chapter Echevarria goes into the distinction between the military genius and the “brilliant military mind”, quoting Clausewitz’ contemporary Kiesewetter, “A brilliant mind is one who makes discoveries in science, a person who, with respect to knowledge, is original. A genius is that person who, in works of fine art, delivers exemplary products . . . achieves originality . . . Newton was a brilliant mind and Horace was a genius”. Put another way, the brilliant mind follows the rules and makes an original discovery, whereas the genius makes his own rules and creates an achievement of originality.
Or, in our case War as social relationship and military genius as art. Logistics, communication, technical intelligence collection . . . as brilliance, in other words staff . . .
So how does Nathan Bedford Forrest measure up as a military genius?
In 1861 Forrest was a successful business man and plantation owner in western Tennessee close to Memphis. He had no military training or experience although had grown up on the frontier, was used to a rough life, and had hunted and ridden a horse since childhood. He enlisted as a private, but was quickly elected to the rank of LtCol by the cavalry regiment he had raised himself. He distinguished himself in his first action against Federal troops in December 1861.
He had the innate ability (coup d'œil or in German Takt des Urteils) to size up an enemy situation and know whether it was ripe for a cavalry charge or not. This he gained from personal reconnaissance without field glasses. He trusted his own eyes better.
Far from being reckless, he gave the impression to some other commanders as being too skeptical, asking numerous questions and demanding accurate intelligence in the planning of an operation, and then acting with absolute decisiveness once he had made up his mind to act. Forrest was also a master at what the Soviets would later refer to as maskirovka (not just camouflage, but active deception as well) in that some of his greatest triumphs were escaping from pursuit (by simply hiding his command in a woods) and in getting superior Union forces to surrender to him after elaborate ruses to convince them of his “overwhelming strength”. Having experienced US Grant’s use of psychological means (his demand of “Unconditional Surrender!” at Fort Donelson in 1862) Forrest used the same methods reinforced with his well-earned reputation for fierceness to demand the same from several unlucky Union commanders who crossed his path.
He had incredible drive and energy and being a physically powerful man would help to manhandle horses and artillery across rivers, offering an inspiring example to both his officers and men.
At the tactical level, Forrest developed several innovative cavalry manoeuvres and pioneered close coordination of artillery with his cavalry acting as infantry. Discarding the cavalry saber as a preferred weapon early on, his troops fought mostly with pistols and on foot, using the shock action of the mounted charge when he best sensed it would bring about a decision. In battle Forrest was brutal and fearless, leading countless charges and having at least 29 horses shot from under him in action. He was also an expert at close combat, credited with single-handedly killing 30 Federal soldiers and officers in personal combat, at times outnumbered three to one. He was both loved and feared by his men: calm, quiet and even gentle in garrison, battle transformed Forrest into a red-faced demon, a veritable “steam engine of war”. “War means fighting, and fighting means killing” was his view of war and “shoot any man who won’t fight!” was his first order of battle to his officers.
Forrest was able to transfer this tactical success to the operational, and even strategic level. His actions in Tennessee challenged Union control of that state and his raids kept Sherman looking over his shoulder during his advance through Georgia. Forrest almost single-handedly kept the Southern cause alive in not only Tennessee but Kentucky and northern Mississippi as well, and was able to recruit new units even in Union occupied areas as late as mid-1864. Given his correct assessments of the situations at Fort Donelson and Shiloh in 1862, Chickamauga in 1863, and Franklin in 1864, and his keen understanding of the importance of communications and logistics in the warfare of his time, had Forrest been given the command of the Confederate Army of Tennessee in 1862, or at the least been allowed to deal with Sherman’s advance in the manner he had argued, the course of the American Civil War would have been quite different.
Not that this be taken as harping over “the lost cause”, Forrest, while not arguing for secession in 1861, admitted that the war was “about slavery”, that is his genius and the horrible sacrifices of his countrymen, let alone the tragic damage they did to the country as a whole, were for a criminal cause. This being not the last time that the genius and human potential of a capable people would be abused and squandered on a twisted and inhuman dream.
So, Nathan Bedford Forrest is my example of a true military genius following Clausewitz’s definition. A fitting close would be to read Forrest’s farewell address to his troops issued at his surrender.
Is there any one else you consider a military genius in this regard as well, especially since Forrest’s time?
Why is a military genius such a rare commodity?
What would “military genius” entail today?
What is the effect of strategic culture on the formation of a military genius?