MATLOCK / FORREST GUNFIGHT
The following story was brought to my attention by Walter Phillips (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I am most indebted. Walter Phillps is a gr-gr-grandson of the William H. (Huston) Matlock in this story and the one who provided the material to the author of the newspaper article. I hope you find it as interesting a read as I do. Nathan Bedford Forrest along with being one of the best General's of the Civil War, was also the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. I know, he deserved to be shot for that but more importantly he was the one that 'Forrest Gump' was named for (I love that movie).
THE COMMERCIAL APPEAL (A Memphis, Tenn. Newspaper)
(Reprinted with permission)
ANOTHER TAKE ON FORREST’S GUNFIGHT
(reprinted here with permission of Walter Phillips)
Date: THURSDAY, September 14,2000
Author: Perre Magness (Permission Granted)
Nathan Bedford Forrest - hero to some, anathema to others - is one of the most written-about figures in Southern history.
There are innumerable biographies and articles about him. Now a document has emerged that puts a new light on an incident from his early life.
When Forrest was a young man in Mississippi, he was involved in an incident in Hernando.
Most of his biographers in recounting the story cast Forrest in a favorable light and portray his opponents, the Matlock brothers, as outlaws or thugs.
Descendants of the Matlocks have found a handwritten account that presents their side of the story.
As Paul Harvey would say, "Now for the rest of the story."
In Andrew Lytle’s highly colored and imaginative book, Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company, the story is told this way:
Forrest’s uncle Jonathan had paid security on a bond for one Martin Jones. This involved him in a dispute with a planter named William Matlock.
On March 10, 1845, Matlock, his two brothers and an overseer came to the town square of Hernando to bring matters to a head. Everyone in town watched as they approached, fearing violence.
Nathan Bedford Forrest tried to intervene and said that four men against one was not fair. "His voice was gentle, so gentle one might wonder why it was not muffled by the stone-like movements of his jaw."
In this version, Jefferson Matlock shot first, at Forrest. More gunshots. Two Matlocks dropped. Forrest "waited, unflurried … standing there, confident with no sign of fear, as certain as fate, and their shots flew wild."
He slashed and disabled the third Matlock; the overseer fled. Jonathan Forrest was killed by a gunshot from one of the Matlocks.
"Bedford’s courage had so aroused the sympathy of the people …that the three men he had disabled, despite their wounds, were arrested and held without bail, to be tried for murder (for Jonathan Forrest’s death)."
Forrest was set free immediately, and "It was only after much time, harsh confinement and great expense that the Matlocks eventually got free."
Forrest is certainly the hero in this version.
In Jack Hurst’s recent, more scholarly and less biased biography, Nathan Bedford Forrest, he quotes the contemporary Memphis newspaper the American Eagle’s account:
"T. J. Matlock, Esq., and his brother and overseer on one side … had a dispute with another person ...when young Mr. Forrest made some interfering remarks; sometime after which he and the Matlocks met…. Some exciting language rose….
"One of the Matlocks raised a stick to strike Forrest, who immediately drew a revolving pistol and set it to work as fast as possible, shooting both of the Matlocks through."
The Eagle went to lament the death of the elder Forrest, "most worthy and estimable citizen," whom it mistakenly identified as Bedford’s father, who "stood some yards off... offering no interference."
Hurst quotes later accounts as saying that the fight began when one of the Matlocks raised a gun, that young Forrest interceded and was thrown a knife by a bystander after he emptied his gun.
Again, the biographer of Forrest casts him in a heroic light.
Now comes another version from the Matlock side. Matlock’s descendants have recently found a handwritten account and wish to clear the record for their ancestors.
William Houston Matlock (1819-1878) was one of those involved in the affair. He wrote his version on the back flyleaves of a book called The Ancient History of the Egyptians, Carthaginians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Persians, Grecians and Macedonians.
Years later, his great-grandson, Dr. John W. L. Matlock, an Episcopal minister, found the account written in the old book, This account has never been published before.
William Matlock was severely wounded in the fight by Forrest’s knife. He lost the use of his right arm (though the arm was not severed) but went on to serve four years in the Confederate Army.
After the war he became a prosperous farmer and a member of the County Courts. His mother was the youngest sister of Gov. Sam Houston of Texas.
William Matlock writes that he tells 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 b!ood."
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."
The Matlocks, at least, held no grudges. That was left to later biographers of Forrest.
Sources: Thanks to Walter Phillips of Olive Branch, a Matlock descendant, for making the Matlock manuscript available. Jack Hurst, Nathan Bedford Forrest (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993). Andrew Lytle, Bedford Forrest and His Critter
Company (Nashville: J. S. Sanders & Co., 1931, reprinted 1984).
Perre Magness is a Memphis freelance writer. To leave a message for her, call