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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Civil War Psy Ops

One of my favorite Civil War stories comes from Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s raid on Union-held Memphis at 4 a.m., August 21, 1864. It might have included one of the early uses of psychological warfare.

Forrest, with no formal military training, quickly became one of the leading cavalry figures of the tragic war. His goal in the Memphis raid was threefold: to kidnap the three Union generals who were posted there; to free Confederate prisoners jailed there; and to force the recall of Federal troops from North Mississippi.

On the night before the raid, the clever Forrest sent a telegram to the Oxford, MS telegraph office stating that “Forrest Had Captured Memphis in Surprise Raid.” Union forces began scrambling north and away from what would have been the destruction of Oxford.

Then, under cover of early morning fog, Forrest led about 2,000 cavalrymen galloping into Memphis which was occupied by 6,000 Yanks. In their quest to capture the generals, Forrest’s younger brother, Col. Jessee Forrest, rode his horse directly into the posh Gayoso Hotel. Unfortunately, their targets weren’t there.

Gen. Cadwallader C. Washburn, quartered elsewhere, fled in his nightshirt to escape capture – and was later ridiculed by his fellow Federal officers for his perceived cowardice. To commemorate the incident, there is an alley in downtown Memphis bearing the street sign “Gen. Washburn’s Escape Alley.”

Although the general eluded kidnap, Forrest did capture Washburn’s uniform. Perhaps adding insult to injury, Forrest had the uniform cleaned and pressed and returned it to Washburn under a flag of truce. Washburn returned the chivalrous (?) gesture. Since Memphis was the center of contraband for the western war, Washburn was able to find Forrest’s tailor and have a Confederate gray uniform sent back to Forrest.

Union General Hurlbut was quoted afterward as saying, "There it goes again! They superseded me with Washburn because I could not keep Forrest out of West Tennessee, and Washburn cannot keep him out of his own bedroom!"

After a two-hour enounter in Memphis, Forrest withdrew, cutting telegraph lines and taking with his troops 500 prisoners and large quantities of supplies, including 600 horses.

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