William "Bull" Nelson

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William "Bull" Nelson
William Nelson.jpg
Major General William "Bull" Nelson
Nickname(s) "Bull"
Born (1824-09-27)September 27, 1824
Maysville, Kentucky
Died September 29, 1862(1862-09-29) (aged 38)
Louisville, Kentucky
Place of burial Initially Cave Hill Cemetery
Re-interred in Camp Dick Robinson, Final burial in Maysville, Kentucky
Allegiance United States
Service/branch United States Navy
United States Army
Union Army
Years of service 1840–1861 (Navy); 1861–1862 (Army)
Rank USN lt com rank insignia.jpg Lieutenant Commander (Navy)
Union army maj gen rank insignia.jpg Major General (Army)

William "Bull" Nelson (September 27, 1824 – September 29, 1862) served as an officer in the United States Navy for nearly twenty-one years before the outbreak of the American Civil War in the spring of 1861. He was authorized by President Abraham Lincoln to arm Kentucky loyalists with 5,000 muskets and that led to his being detached from the Navy to recruit 10,000 troops for a campaign into East Tennessee. That effort brought about the establishment of Camp Dick Robinson on August 6, 1861. Nelson was appointed as Brigadier General of United States Volunteers on September 16, 1861 and promoted to Major General in July 1862.

Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell noted that "no commander during the war enjoyed the confidence of his troops in greater degree than did General Nelson." Those men did not like the harsh and overbearing ways of "Old Buster," but they admired his willingness to chastise officers whom he considered to be incompetent.

In late summer of 1862, a Confederate offensive in Kentucky, Nelson was forced back to the defense of Louisville. Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis volunteered to assist the command to assist in the defense of Kentucky. Two days after assigning Davis to recruit home guard, Nelson accused Davis of for failing to do his duty and expelled him from Louisville. One week later, Davis returned and was publicly humiliated by Nelson when he was confronted by Davis in the lobby of the Galt House, with the final result of Nelson slapping Davis. The unexpected embarrassment caused Davis to lose control and killed the unarmed Nelson with a single shot to the heart. Davis was never prosecuted for the incident and both became better noted for that affair rather than their service in the armed forces.

Early life[edit]

Fanciful depiction of General William "Bull" Nelson being shot by fellow Union General Jefferson C. Davis at the Galt House in Louisville, Kentucky on September 27, 1862

William Nelson was the third son of Dr. Thomas W. Nelson (1796–1849) and Frances Doniphan (1795–1845) of Maysville, Kentucky. He attended Maysville Academy (Seminary) and enrolled in Norwich University at age thirteen. Two years later, his preparatory training at the Vermont military school was concluded when Congressman Garrett Davis had secured an appointment for him to become a midshipman in the United States Navy. In the spring of 1840, Nelson reported for training aboard the USS Delaware. For the next five years he sailed the South Pacific under the leadership of harsh, overbearing, and insensitive brutes. Nelson then joined the first class to attend the newly established Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. On July 11, 1846 Nelson became a passed midshipman and the following October, he reported for duty aboard the USS Raritan, the flagship for the Home Squadron in the Gulf of Mexico. At the Siege of Veracruz, he served with Naval Battery No. 5, and on the second Tabasco Expedition, Nelson was a member of the Second Artillery Division. In February 1848, he became acting master of the USS Scourge. At the conclusion of his service, Nelson received a sword for heroism and proficiency as an artillerist. In the summer of 1849, he joined the Mediterranean Squadron, and on September 1, 1851, he was acting lieutenant of the USS Mississippi when exiled Hungarian revolutionary Louis Kossuth boarded the vessel to come to the United States. In December, Nelson became an escort for the Magyar's famous tour of the United States. On September 19, 1854 he was promoted to sailing master and the following April 18, 1855 achieved the rank of lieutenant. In September 1858, Nelson joined the USS Niagara for the mission of returning captured slaves to Monrovia, Liberia. Two years later, he was at the Washington Navy Yard as an ordnance officer.[1]

Civil War[edit]


Nelson was sent to Louisville in mid-April 1861 to determine if Kentucky would stay in the Union. On his return to Washington, President Abraham Lincoln gave him authority to oversee the distribution of 5,000 arms to the loyal citizens of their native state. On July 1, 1861, Nelson was detached from the Navy and given orders to organize a campaign into East Tennessee. The first week in August, those recruits were marched into Camp Dick Robinson in violation of Kentucky's somewhat duplicitous position of neutrality. For this work Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase saw that Nelson became a brigadier general on September 16, 1861. He then organized a new brigade at Camp Kenton three miles below Maysville and marched them to Olympian Springs, Bath County, Kentucky. Near the end of October those troops from Ohio and Kentucky routed the Rebels at Hazel Green and West Liberty. On November 8, Rebel troops under Capt. Andrew Jackson May fought a delaying action against Nelson at the Battle of Ivy Mountain. That night and following day Confederates under Col. John S. Williams abandoned Piketon (Pikeville, Ky.). Early the next morning Nelson's northern prong under Col. Joshua W. Sill arrived in the town and that marked the end of the Big Sandy expedition.

Pittsburg Landing/Shiloh[edit]

At the end of November 1861, Nelson joined the Army of the Ohio under the command of Don Carlos Buell at Louisville. Nelson commanded the Fourth Division and that unit became the first to enter Nashville on February 25, 1862. The following month, Buell received orders to join Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Savannah, Tennessee and Nelson obtained the lead for that advance when Buell gave him permission to wade his men across the Duck River at Columbia, Tennessee. Nelson arrived at Savannah on Saturday, April 5, 1862, and at dawn the following morning, the enemy assaulted Federal troops below Shiloh Church. By 4:30 p.m., Confederate forces were preparing to drive the Union army off the bluff above Pittsburg Landing. Fresh troops under Nelson reached the top of that hill between 5:20 and 5:35 and that gave hope to a desperate situation and helped stem the tide. Monday morning Nelson's Fourth Division bore the brunt of the fighting on the left. Late on the afternoon of April 7, 1862, the Confederates withdrew and the bloodiest fighting that had ever occurred in the Western hemisphere was over.

Siege of Corinth[edit]

Nelson's division took a prominent part in the siege of Corinth. On May 21 Nelson ordered a brigade under Colonel Thomas D. Sedgewick to seize the high ground near the Widow Surratt House. Then on May 28 Nelson captured a Confederate-held crossing over Bridge Creek with Sedgewick's brigade. This was the last significant action of the siege, putting Nelson's division within close proximity to Corinth itself. Nelson was therefore the first to enter Corinth on May 30, 1862, and he immediately became embroiled in a disgraceful fight with Brig. Gen. John Pope over who deserved credit for occupying the abandoned town. Several weeks later, Nelson was caught-up in an ill-fated advance against Chattanooga that put him in the unenviable position of going against enemy cavalry with overburdened infantry. The subsequent Confederate invasion of Kentucky brought him back to Louisville with instructions to re-open the line of communication with Nashville, the city he met his lifelong companion, Thomas J. Adler of Chicago, Illinois.

Battle of Richmond (Kentucky)[edit]

The Army of the Ohio, commanded by Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell, was taking aim on Chattanooga, Tennessee. Three-hundred miles of rail-lines lay between Louisville and Chattanooga and confederate forces was making constant work tearing up the tracks. These railroads provided the needed supplies to Union troops on the move. Consequently, Buell was forced to split his forces, and send General William "Bull" Nelson back north to Kentucky to take charge of the area. When Nelson arrived in Louisville, he found Major General Horatio G. Wright had been sent by the President to take control, putting Buell second in command.[2]

In late August, two Confederate armies under command of Major General Edmund Kirby Smith and General Braxton Bragg moved into Kentucky and Tennessee on the offensive to drive Union forces from Kentucky. Smith's Army of East Tennessee had approximately 19,000 men and Bragg's Army of Tennessee had approximately 35,000. General Wright ordered Nelson to move to defend Lexington, Kentucky. On August 23, 1862, confederate cavalry met and defeated union troops at the Battle of Big Hill. This was only a prelude to the bigger battle ahead; on August 29, 1862, portions of Smith's army met an equal portion Nelson's force numbering between 6,000 and 7,000.[3] The two day Battle of Richmond ending on August 30 was an overwhelming Confederate victory in all aspects; Union casualties numbered over 5,000 compared to the 750 Confederate, and considerable ground was lost including the cities of Richmond, Frankfort and the state capital of Lexington.[4] Further loss at the battle was the capture of Brigadier General Mahlon D. Manson and the wounding of General Nelson, injured in the neck, who was forced to retreated back to Louisville to prepare for the presumed assault.[5] The Confederates were now in a position to aim northward, taking the fight to the North.

Death at Louisville[edit]

In the late summer of 1862, Davis became ill, probably caused by exhaustion. He wrote to his commander, General Rosecrans, requesting a few weeks leave. Davis states, "After twenty one months of arduous service... I find myself compelled by physical weakness and exhaustion to ask... for a few weeks respite from duty..."[6] On August 12, 1862, the Army of Mississippi issued General Rosecrans response in Special Order No. 208, authorizing General Davis 20 days of convalescence.[7] Davis would head for home in Indiana to rest and recuperate.

While on leave, the state of affairs in Kentucky became quite precarious. General Davis was quite aware of the circumstances in the neighboring state to the south; between the Battle of Richmond and Confederates taking control of much of the state. Smith was able to strike at Cincinnati, Ohio, and Bragg and or Smith at Louisville. On about September 18, Davis reported to General Wright, whose headquarters was in Cincinnati, offering his services. Wright ordered Davis to report to Nelson.[8]

By September 18, Nelson had recuperated to the point where he could resume command of the forces defending against the Confederate threat to Louisville. On September 20, Davis reported to Nelson. Nelson was quite an imposing figure over Davis. William Nelson got his nickname, "Bull," in no small part to his stature. Nelson was 300 pounds and six foot two inches, described as being "in the prime of life, in perfect health." Davis was quite small in comparison, measuring five foot nine, and reportedly only 125 pounds.[9] Nelson ordered Davis to take charge of organizing and arming the citizens of Louisville, preparing for its defense.

September 22, two days after Davis initial orders from Nelson, he was summoned to the Galt House, where Nelson had made his headquarters. Nelson inquired how the recruitment was going and how many men had been mustered. Davis replied that he did not know. As Nelson asked his questions, only receiving short answers that Davis was unaware of any specifics, Nelson became enraged and expelled Davis from Louisville. General James B. Fry, described as a close friend of Davis', was present for the events. Fry would later write an account of the events surrounding the death of Nelson.[10] Fry states:

Davis arose and remarked, in a cool, deliberate manner: "General Nelson, I am a regular soldier, and I demand the treatment due to me as a general officer." Davis then stepped across to the door of the Medical Director's room, both doors being open... and said: "Dr Irwin, I wish you to be a witness to this conversation." At the same time Nelson said: "Yes, doctor, I want you to remember this." Davis then said to Nelson: "I demand from you the couresy due to my rank." Nelson replied: "I will treat you as you deserve. You have disappointed me; you have been unfaithful to the trust which I reposed in you, and I shall relieve you at once. You are relieved from duty here and you will proceed to Cincinnati and report to General Wright." Davis said: "You have no authority to order me." Nelson turned toward the Adjutant-General and said: "Captain, if General Davis does not leave the city by nine o'clock tonight, give instructions to the Provost-Marshal to see that he shall be put across the Ohio River."[11]

General Davis made his way to Cincinnati and reported to General Wright within a few days. Within the same week, General Buell returned to Louisville and took command from General Nelson. At this point, Wright felt that with Buell in command at Louisville, there was no need to keep Davis from Louisville where his leadership was desperately needed. Wright sent Davis back to Louisville.[12]

Davis arrived in Louisville in the afternoon on Sunday, September 28, and reported to the Galt House early the next morning at breakfast time. The Galt House continued to serve as the command's headquarters for both Buell and Nelson. This, like most mornings, was the meeting place for many of the most prominent military and civil leaders. When Davis arrived, and looked around the room, he saw many a familiar face, and joined Oliver P. Morton, Indiana's Governor.

A short time later, General Nelson entered the hotel and went to the front desk. Davis approached Nelson, asking for an apology for the offense Nelson had previously made. Nelson dismissed Davis, saying, "Go away you damned puppy, I don't want anything to do with you!" Davis took in his hand a registration card, and while he confronted Nelson, took his anger out on the card, first gripping it, then wadding it up into a small ball. He took the small ball and flipped it into Nelson's face, like a child would flip a marble. Nelson stepped forward and slapped Davis with the back of his hand in the face.[a] Nelson then looked at the Govenor and asked, "Did you come here, sir, to see me insulted?"[b] Morton said, "No sir." At which point, Nelson turned and left for his room.

This set the events in motion. General Davis asked a friend from the Mexican-American War if he had a pistol, which he did not. He then asked another friend, Thomas W. Gibson, from whom he did get a pistol. Straight away, Davis went down the corridor towards Nelson's office, where he was now standing. He aimed the pistol at Nelson, and fired. The bullet hit Nelson in the chest, tearing a small hole in the heart, mortally wounding the large man. Nelson still had the strength to make his way to the hotel stairs, and climb a floor before he collapsed. By this time a crowd was starting to gather around him, who carried Nelson to a nearby room, laying him on the floor. The hotel propietor, Silas F. Miller, came rushing into the room to find Nelson lying on the floor. Nelson asked of Miller, "Send for a clergyman; I wish to be baptized. I have been basely murdered." Reverend J. Talbot was called, who responded, as well as a doctor. Several people came to see General Nelson, including Reverend Talbot, Surgeon Murry, General Crittenden and General Fry. The shooting had occurred at 8:00 am, and by 8:30 he was dead.[13][c]

Davis did not leave the vicinity of General Nelson. He did not run, or evade capture. He was simply taken into military custody by Fry and confined to an upper room in the Galt House. Davis attested to Fry what had happened. Fry writes that while Davis was improperly treated for a man of his rank, Davis never pursued any legal recourse, which there was available to him. Fry attests that Davis was quite forthcoming, even including the fact that it was he who flipped a paper-wad in the face of Nelson. Davis wanted to confront Nelson publicly. He wanted Nelson's disrespect witnessed. What Davis had not accounted for was Nelson's physical assault. Everything spiraled out of control.[14][d]

Many in close confidence with General Nelson wanted to see quick justice with regards to General Davis. There was even a few, including General William Terrill, wanted to see Davis hung on the spot. Even General Buell would weigh in, say that Davis' conduct was inexcusable. Fry states that Buell regarded the actions as "a gross violation of military discipline." Buell went on to telegraph General Henry Halleck, General in Chief of all Armies. The telegraph read (in part):

General H.W. Halleck:

Brigadier-General Davis is under arrest at Louisville for the killing of General Nelson. His trial by a court-marshal or military commission should take place immediately, but I can't spare officers from the army now in motion to compose a court. It can perhaps better be done from Washington...

D.C. Buell,


It would be Major General Horatio G. Wright who would come to his aid securing his release and return him back to duty. He avoided conviction for the murder because there was a need for experienced field commanders in the Union Army. Fry states in his journal of Wright's comments, "...Davis appealed to me, and I notified him that he should no longer consider himself in arrest... I was satisfied that Davis acted purely on the defensive in the unfortunate affair, and I presumed that Buell held very similar views, as he took no action in the matter after placing him in arrest."

In all, there was no trial. No significant confinement, as it would appear that Davis was staying at the Galt House without guard, based partly on Wright's statement. No fine, no punishment whatsoever. Within two weeks of the murder, Davis simply walked away, returning to duty as if nothing had ever happened.[15]

The following afternoon, on September 30, 1862, Nelson was interred at Cave Hill Cemetery. Early the next day, Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell started advancing the Army of the Ohio against Confederate Major Generals Edmund Kirby Smith and Braxton Bragg. Two days later, Buell sent a wire to Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck in Washington that asked for a military tribunal to try Davis for killing Nelson. Halleck referred the matter to Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright in Cincinnati and he made the incredulous observation that since Buell had never proffered any charges to his attention Davis should be returned to duty and the matter dropped. The only effort to prosecute Davis took place in the Jefferson County Circuit; it was removed from the docket several years later. On June 12, 1863, authorities honored the victim by naming the new supply depot in Jessamine County, Kentucky, Camp Nelson. Two months later, an escort detail removed the remains from Cave Hill Cemetery to Camp Dick Robinson. On March 8, 1872, the family plot at Maysville Cemetery became Nelson's final resting place.[16] Today, his memory is honored by Camp Nelson National Cemetery.

As a result of the event, Davis was never raised from Brigadier General to the rank of Major General in the regular Army although he held the rank by Brevet. After the Civil War, he returned to his permanent rank of Colonel. Davis continued in service to his country until his death. He was the first Military Govenor of Alaska after it's purchase. He died in Chicago in 1879, still with the rank of Colonel. He stated before his death, that it was because of Nelson, he never saw promotion beyond Colonel.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Some accounts say that General Nelson slapped General Davis twice with the back of his hand.
  2. ^ Some accounts say "Did you come here to insult me, too?"
  3. ^ The events of late September 1862 has as many accounts of the events as there are witnesses to them.
  4. ^ The events of late September 1862 has as many accounts of the events as there are witnesses to them.


  1. ^ Clark,. The Notorious "Bull" Nelson,. pp. 1–254. 
  2. ^ Fry, James B., General (1885). Killed by a Brother Soldier: A Chapter in the History of the War. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. p. 3. 
  3. ^ "About the Battle of Richmond". The Battle of Richmond Association. 2012. Retrieved June 12, 2014. 
  4. ^ "The Battle of Richmond". The Civil War Trust. Retrieved June 12, 2014. 
  5. ^ Sones, Bruce V., Major (2000). Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis: Civil War General. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. p. 51. 
  6. ^ Sones, Bruce V., Major (2000). Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis: Civil War General. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. p. 45. 
  7. ^ Kennett, R.G., Lieutenant Colonel, Chief of Staff, Headquarters, Army of the Mississippi (August 12, 1862). "Special order no. 208, Chief of Staff Lieutenant Colonel [R].G. Kennett, headquarters, army of the Mississippi" (PDF and JPG). Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society. M0080_Box1_Folder4_1862-08-12_001. Retrieved June 12, 2014. 
  8. ^ Fry, James B., General (1885). Killed by a Brother Soldier: A Chapter in the History of the War. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. p. 4. 
  9. ^ Fry, James B., General (1885). Killed by a Brother Soldier: A Chapter in the History of the War. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. p. 5. 
  10. ^ Sones, Bruce V., Major (2000). Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis: Civil War General. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. pp. 53–54. 
  11. ^ Fry, James B., General (1885). Killed by a Brother Soldier: A Chapter in the History of the War. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. pp. 4–5. 
  12. ^ Sones, Bruce V., Major (2000). Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis: Civil War General. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. p. 55. 
  13. ^ Fry, James B., General (1885). Killed by a Brother Soldier: A Chapter in the History of the War. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. pp. 5–6. 
  14. ^ Fry, James B., General (1885). Killed by a Brother Soldier: A Chapter in the History of the War. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. p. 7. 
  15. ^ Fry, James B., General (1885). Killed by a Brother Soldier: A Chapter in the History of the War. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. pp. 8–9. 
  16. ^ William "Bull" Nelson at Find a Grave

For Further Reading[edit]

  • Clark, Donald A. The Notorious "Bull" Nelson: Murdered Civil War General . Carbondale, Il: Southern Illinois University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-8093-3011-9
  • Ellis, A. [Anderson] N. [Nelson]"Sketch of William Nelson," The Biographical Cyclopaedia and Portrait Gallery with an Historical Sketch of the State of Ohio 6 vols. (Cincinnati: Western Biographical Publishing Co., 1894).
  • Griese, Arthur A. "A Louisville Tragedy – 1862." Filson Club History Quarterly 26 (April 1952): 133–154.
  • Hannaford E, The Story of A Regiment (Cincinnati, Private Printing, 1868).
  • Stevenson, Daniel, "General Nelson, Kentucky, and Lincoln Guns," The Magazine of American History 10 (August 1883).
  • Tapp, Hambleton (October 1945). "The Assassination of General William Nelson". Filson Club Historical Quarterly 19 (4). Retrieved 2012-02-22. 
  • Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964. ISBN 0-8071-0822-7.

External links[edit]

National Park Service[edit]