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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Bowie Knife Fight of Nathan Bedford Forrest

Nathan Bedford Forrest

In my book, I covered the 1845 fight in which Nathan Bedford Forrest used a borrowed bowie knife against the Matlock brothers in the town of Hernando, Mississippi. Someone recently told me about an account of the fight left by William H. Matlock (1819-18780.

William Matlock wrote that he told his story "because there has been too much talk about hate between the Matlocks and the Forrests. To my children, I say, this is not so….There has never been any ill-will betwixt us -- nor will there be."
The fight came about because of an uncle of Bedford’s in Hernando, Mississippi. I had gone there in 1844 with wife Lucy and two small children to take up lands, and my two brothers had gone with me....Bedford’s uncle, Jonathan Forrest, already living in Hernando before I got there, ran a store on the square, and was noised to be a queer and contrary old man. He went security on a bond for a neighbor of mine - one Martin Jones, a good and honest man, but poor and having a hard time, which did not matter to Old Man Forrest, for he came out to close the bond and to take Mr. Jones’ land.

This got me in the matter for two reasons: Jones’ land joined mine and Old Forrest claimed three feet over my line; and I did not like the way he was treating Jones, which was shameful.

I appealed to Mr. Forrest but he would not listen. I even begged mercy on behalf of Mr. Jones but the sour old man had hardened his heart. One day he sent Jones word to get off his land.

A few days later I chanced to go to Town for harness and things…and James and Jefferson [his brothers] elected to go also.... I did not notice people were looking at us scared …till Jeff called my attention to it … but I learned later Old Forrest had made threats against me....

Bedford Forrest stepped out the door and commenced talking to us (he had of late gone in business with his uncle). At first I did not know what he was talking about, for he was asking us not to fight his uncle, which I had not thought of. He said he knew his uncle was hard to get along with, but if we commenced a fight, he would have to join in on his uncle’s part.

I said to him, "Why, Bedford, we did not come here to fight, but to appeal to Mr. Forrest once more about the Jones matter."

Bedford said, "Well, Will, I fear it is not a good time. He is most likely to take offense at anything you say."

So, we turned toward the Court House and walked a few steps when all of a sudden Jeff pulled his pistol, hollered "Look out!", turned quick and fired.

Surprised, I turned myself… saw old Jonathan Forrest fall to the ground with an old blunderbuss in his hands--for he had come of a sudden out of the store to kill us all, and would have, if Jeff had not acted quick.

But Bedford must have thought Jeff was shooting at him instead of the old man behind him, for he pulled out a 2-barreled pistol and fired one shot at Jeff and one at James, who was trying to get his pistol out, and both fell down in the mud and lay groaning--Jeff struck in the right side and James in the left leg.

Believing Bedford had killed my two brothers, I got out my single-shot pistol and fired at him, hitting him in the left shoulder.

He stood a minute, then rushed me with a knife. His face was red as a beet and his eyes bright like a snake for he was in a killing rage. We fought hard for some time, but were the same age and of equal strength.

The fight ended when he cut through the great muscle of my right arm and I fell in great agony. At this, all the rage left him, and with words of sorrow, he tried to stop my blood.
At this point, the sheriff arrived to clean up and packed everyone off to jail. Bedford left the jail the next day to bury his uncle, the only fatality. William Matlock stayed three days in jail recuperating from the knife wound.
There was much talk then. Some thought it meant we were more at fault than Bedford and that the sheriff had imprisoned us.

But Bedford took our part and said the whole affair was a terrible mistake and that blame must be laid to his Uncle Jonathan who was known to be ill-tempered and that he was satisfied we had fired in self-defense.

We parted from Bedford on good terms and with many expressions of sorrow for the event and I have but the best feeling for Bedford to this day, even though his cut caused me to lose (the use) of my right arm after I got back to Tennessee.

I served all through the War with one arm for which I did not blame Bedford. A while in that time I was honored to serve under his command, and we both took pleasure in it. He was the greatest General of the War, and I honor him for it.

UPDATE November 25, 2011: I received an email from Michael Cotten, who wrote:
I thought I would let you know that this account of Forrest's fight with the Matlock brothers is a fake. The man who wrote it has created other false documents which have been a major headache for me and others working on the genealogy of the Cotten family. In this particular instance, it looks like he circumvented the possibility of being found out by a carbon dating of the paper on which the account was written by purchasing a sufficiently old book and writing it all out on the flyleaf of the book.

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