Friday, December 23, 2016

Fratricide, Homicide, or Justified? The Killing of Maj. Gen. "Bull" Nelson

By Reece Nortum
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

Brig. Gen. Jefferson Davis shoots Maj. Gen. William Nelson. (
On September 29, 1862, in the lobby of the fashionable Galt Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, the huge, black-bearded Major General William "Bull" Nelson, in the blue and gold uniform of a commanding officer in the United States Army, was shot at point-blank range by a fellow officer, Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis. The six-foot, four-inch, 300 plus pound Nelson died less than an hour later. General Davis was never punished, or even put on trial for committing this horrendous act. The explanation for such an astounding event takes us deep into the seldom explored military-political complexities of the Civil War.

The killing of this Union general created a large amount of controversy and opinions surrounding this story. Multiple versions from third party sources have been heard. Many believed at the time that the local newspaper had been making erroneous reports, creating a public outcry. The Jefferson Circuit Court in Louisville indicted Davis on the 27th of October, 1862, for the "manslaughter" of Nelson. Davis later paid $5,000 bail, and the case was heard from time to time until May 24, 1864 when it was removed from the docket. Nothing was heard or spoken again. The general consensus was that the federal government had swept it under the rug in order to protect Davis. But before you go to the end, we have to start from the beginning.

William "Bull" Nelson. (
Kentucky-born William Nelson was an unlikely candidate to become a major general, since most of his career was spent sailing the open seas with the Navy. He was appointed as a midshipman at the age of 15, and served with distinction during the Mexican War aboard the ship of the line Delaware. Many unofficial reports state that USS Delaware was one of hardest ships to work on due to its harsh leadership and high standards. Nelson later served on the USS Raritan, one of the last sailing frigates of the United States Navy, which eventually ended its career in Norfolk in 1849. From Nelson's naval experience, he received a sword for heroism and proficiency. His "quarterdeck style" of giving orders troubled many people because of its crude and pervasive nature. In 1846, Nelson joined the first class to attend the newly established Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. When the Civil War started, the 38-year-old Nelson was the senior lieutenant in the Navy. His brother, Thomas C. Nelson, was a close friend of fellow Kentuckian Abraham Lincoln, who had appointed Thomas ambassador to Chile in April 1861. The second day after the inauguration of Lincoln, Lt. Nelson walked into the Executive Mansion and expressed his allegiance to the Union. As a Kentuckian, Nelson could sympathize with the Confederates, and Lincoln knew that and that he also needed a strong supporter in that region. Lincoln sent Lt. Nelson to Kentucky with one order: do everything in his power to keep the state in the Union. Nelson acquired extensive information on the situation and reported his findings to Washington DC. He was promoted to brigadier general in the US Army.
USS Delaware within Dry Dock No. 1 at Gosport (now Norfolk Naval Shipyard) in 1833. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Jefferson C. Davis (Wikipedia)
The events leading up to Davis' shooting of Nelson showcase the influences of both personality and the culture of honor that was prevalent in 19th century America. Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis had been sick and exhausted from the Civil War, and knowing the major concerns of the political issues in Kentucky. Davis quickly offered his help after an R&R trip back to his home state of Indiana. Davis was sent to work under Brig. Gen. Nelson in Kentucky by order from Major General William S. Rosecrans of the Mississippi, US Army Command. After Davis had been there for a day or two on duty, Nelson called him to headquarters, and Nelson asked: "Well, Davis, how you are getting along with your command?" and several other questions about his unit sizes, positions, and unit numbers under his command. Davis continued to reply noncommittally, "I don't know."

Nelson became angry and said that he should know these things, and that he was disappointed in him. Nelson stated in a commanding voice, "I selected you for this duty because you are an officer of the Regular Army, but I find I made a mistake." Davis remarked, in a cool, deliberate manner, "General Nelson, I am not a regular soldier, and I demand the treatment due to me as a general." "I demand from you the courtesy due to my Rank." Nelson thundered back, "I will treat you as you deserve, you have disappointed me, and you have been unfaithful to the trust which I reposed in you. I shall relieve you at once." "You are relieved from duty here, and you will proceed to Cincinnati and report to Major General Wright." Nelson turned toward the Adjutant General and said, "Captain, if General Davis does not leave the city by nine o'clock to-night, give instructions to the Provost-Marshal to see that he shall be put across the Ohio." Davis withdrew and reported in Cincinnati to Maj. Gen. Wright, who assigned him to command the units in Covington and Newport, Kentucky. A few days after, General Buell reached Louisville and superseded Nelson in command, and Wright, then ordered Davis to return to Louisville and report to General Buell, against Wright's order.
The murder of William Nelson made headlines across the country, (Wikimedia Commons)

Davis appeared at the Galt House in Louisville,  the headquarters at that time of both Buell and Nelson. On the morning of September 29, 1862, when Nelson entered the grand hall office of the hotel, he saw Davis at the front desk speaking to the hotel clerk. Nelson went to the hotel's office and asked Silas F. Miller, the proprietor of the hotel, if Gen. Buell had his breakfast yet. Then he turned, leaned his back against the counter and saw Davis quickly walking his way, demanding an apology for insulting him at their last meeting, and saying he must have satisfaction. Nelson told him abruptly to go away. Saying, "Go away you dammed puppy, I don't want anything to do with you!" Davis had taken a visitor card from a box on the counter and crumpled it into a ball, which, upon hearing the insulting words, he flipped into Nelson's face. Instantly Nelson, with the back of his hand, slapped Davis in the face and then walked away toward his room. After the slap, Davis turned to Thomas W. Gibson and requested a pistol, which he received. In the meantime, Nelson had passed from the office hall into the corridor which led to his room. Davis reached the doorway from the office, pistol in hand. They were face to face and about a yard apart. Nelson was entirely unarmed. Davis then fired a shot at Nelson while on the stairs. Nelson stumbled to the top and died less than an hour afterwards. Davis, though greatly agitated, showed no signs of rage, and was placed in formal military custody by Major James B. Fry, at that time Buell's Chief of Staff.

The grave of Maj.Gen. William Nelson as it appears today. (
General Buell regarded Davis' action not only as a high crime, but as a gross violation of military discipline. He felt that the case called for prompt and immediate action. He could not administer proper judgment and ruling. A major campaign was to start in two days. A new commander was found for Nelson's unit, and the Army marched the second day after his death. Buell could not spare the officers necessary for a proper court-martial. The pressures of war subverted justice in this case. Even in a society where honor was held high and duels occasionally still happened, most viewed this occasion as murder. Some believed the Army covered up the incident.

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