By Roger Pinckney
Yankees called him “That Devil Forrest.” Memphis slave-trader Nathan Bedford Forrest enlisted as a private soldier and rose to Major General, the only man on either side to do such in The War for Southern Independence. He was unschooled in English and military science, but he exhibited a native genius at both. “Come Jine Up, Boys,” his recruiting posters read, “Let’s have some fun and kill some Yankees.”
Forrest extended his recruiting efforts to the Memphis slave population. “Fight with me and win or lose, you’ll have your freedom when the shootin’ stops.” Fifty men heeded the call. One was killed, one defected and forty-eight followed him home as free men. But meanwhile, they had fun killing Yankees.
When the Union Army moved in strength in one direction, Forrest’s cavalry typically went the other way, fast. His August 1864 raid upon Memphis was a classic example, two-thousand Rebel horseman thundering into town at 4:00 AM under cover of a heavy fog. Troopers rode into the lobby of the best hotel in town, sent high-ranking officers fleeing in their underwear. Forrest cut the telegraph lines, burned supplies he could not carry and scooted, taking five hundred prisoners, a thousand fresh horses and many wagons of rifles and ammunition. “I was relieved of command for not being able to keep Forrest out of west Tennessee,” a former Yankee general quipped, “but my replacement can’t even keep him out of his bedroom.” General W.T. Sherman was not so amused. “That man must be hunted down and killed! I don’t care if it costs ten-thousand lives and bankrupts the Treasury!”
Forrest never surrendered. In the Summer of 1865, learning of the general Confederate collapse elsewhere, he called his men together. “We is whupped boys, so go on home.”
Forrest became an early advocate of full civil rights for freed slaves, little doubt due to his black troopers’ pluck in battle. There were tens of thousands of black Confederates, most serving as laborers, cooks, grooms, medical orderlies, quartermasters and such, but Forrest sent his men to the front, even beyond the front where they scouted and spied, mingling unsuspected among the enemy.
And it is of one of these men of which I speak now.
Holt Collier was born into slavery in 1848 on a plantation outside Jackson, Mississippi where he killed his first bear at age ten. Hunting to feed his master’s family and fellow slaves, he kept them well stocked in bear, wild pork and venison. When war came in 1861, he tried to enlist but was turned down because he was only thirteen. Stung with disappointment, young Holt ran away from home, hid out of a river boat and was eventually accepted into the ranks of Ninth Texas Cavalry which came under “That Devil Forrest’s” command where he became one of Forrest’s most trusted scouts. Forrest killed forty-nine men in hand to hand combat, had forty-eight horses shot out from under him and often bragged, “I come out the war one horse ahead.” It is unknown how many of the enemy Collier personally dispatched but he did kill one Yankee officer after the war, a crime of which he was somehow acquitted.
More importantly, Collier also killed upwards of three thousand bears and became the best-known professional bear hunter in America, the perfect choice for a guide when President Theodore Roosevelt went bear hunting in 1902.
It was a high-profile event, a hunt with John Avery McElhanney, the Tabasco hot sauce magnate, and many reporters in attendance. Collier’s Walker hounds soon struck a hot trail and brought a huge bear to bay. After the bear killed one of Collier’s prized tracking dogs, Collier lassoed the beast from the saddle, dallied the lariat off to a tree and told Roosevelt to shoot it, which he did. Reporters turned the whole story around as they generally do. The bear became a cub which Roosevelt refused to shoot. An illustrator made a sketch, “Drawing the line in Mississippi,” that was published in the Washington Post.
New York toy store owner Morris Michtom had two stuffed bears on display in his shop window that would not sell. On February 15, 1903, he affixed two small signs “Teddy’s Bear.” Both bears sold in less than an hour. Michtom wrote the president asking to use his nick-name, permission was granted and an icon was born.
Holt Collier died in 1936 at the ripe old age of eighty-eight. He’s buried in Greenville, Mississippi and the Holt Collier National Wildlife Refuge is named in his honor.