- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 18, 2002

To many soldiers, Union Gen. William "Bull" Nelson was a tyrant. Standing 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighing nearly 300 pounds, the irascible Nelson earned a fearsome reputation among his troops. A former naval officer, he often was charged with treating his infantry volunteers as if they were incompetent midshipmen worthy only of the harsh lash of 19th-century naval discipline.

Nelson, who was born in Maysville, Ky., in 1824, began his military career in the U.S. Navy, where he served as a midshipman during the Mexican War. A Navy lieutenant when the Civil War erupted, he secured from President Lincoln the rank of brigadier general of U.S. volunteers and returned to Kentucky determined to keep his home state in the Union.

Nelson delivered hundreds of muskets (called "Lincoln guns") to Kentucky Unionists and established several recruiting camps. His efforts helped pull the commonwealth away from its neutral stance and gave the federal government a toehold in the state.

After leading troops at the Battle of Ivy Mountain, Ky., Nelson was given command of an infantry division in the Army of the Ohio. In April 1862. Arriving at Pittsburg Landing, Tenn., on the Tennessee River, he found hundreds of shaken troops from Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Tennessee huddled together on the riverbanks, panicked from the whipping they had received from the Confederates on the first day of Shiloh. Angered over what he perceived as cowardice, Nelson drew his sword, rode into the swarm of frightened soldiers and shouted, "Damn your souls! If you won't fight, get out of the way and let men come here who will."

Nelson later reported that those troops "were insensible to shame or sarcasm for I tried both of them and, indignant at such poltroonery, I asked permission to fire upon the knaves." Later, Nelson's division fought fiercely, suffered heavily and helped drive off the Confederate army.

After campaigns in Mississippi and Tennessee, Nelson returned to Kentucky to defend the state from Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith's Army of Kentucky. On Aug. 30, 1862, while at his Lexington headquarters, Nelson received terrible news: His army, under the temporary command of two inexperienced officers, was receiving a thrashing from Smith's forces at Richmond, Ky.

Nelson raced 40 miles to Richmond and found his battered force in the city cemetery defending its third line of defense. Nelson responded with his usual blustery manner to the troops' panic. Striking many with the flat of his sword, he condemned the men as cowards and urged them to fight, finally rallying 2,500 soldiers.

The Union lines were again struck by Smith's Confederates. To bolster morale, Nelson stormed up and down the Union line as he shouted, "Boys, if they can't hit something as big as I am, they can't hit anything." He was shot in the thigh.

Shortly after, the line broke for a final time, and enemy cavalry surrounded them. Most of Nelson's command was captured, making the Battle of Richmond one of the most lopsided Southern victories of the entire war. Nelson barely escaped.

After Richmond, Smith's army captured Lexington and Frankfort. The proximity of Confederate troops to Louisville threatened that city, and Nelson began defending it with his usual zeal. New recruits were drilled, and local residents were directed to dig entrenchments. Panic abated on Sept. 24 when Gen. Don Carlos Buell's Union Army of the Ohio arrived. Louisville was saved.

During the rush to defend Louisville, Nelson's brusque manner caused a severe clash with Union Maj. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis. No relation to the Confederate president, Davis was an Indiana native and Mexican War veteran who had been present at the fall of Fort Sumter. Later, his good friend Indiana Gov. Oliver Morton appointed him colonel of the 22nd Indiana Infantry. Davis fought at Wilson's Creek, Pea Ridge and Corinth, and after an illness, he went to Louisville to help with the defense.

Nelson harshly criticized him for not showing ample enthusiasm in organizing local troops, and after a heated argument between them, Nelson ordered Davis to leave the city. It would prove to be a fatal order.

On Sept. 29, 1862, after seething in Indianapolis, Davis returned to Louisville, bringing Morton with him, and confronted Nelson in the lobby of the Galt House Hotel. Davis informed Nelson that Nelson had insulted him and that he demanded satisfaction. Nelson, who towered over the 5-foot-8-inch Davis, spat, "Go away, you damned puppy."

Davis, equally hot-tempered, crumpled a hotel card and threw it in Nelson's face. Nelson promptly slapped Davis, turned and walked toward the stairs. Davis borrowed a pistol from a bystander, followed Nelson and shot him in the chest.

Despite the severe wound, Nelson turned and walked up the stairs, collapsing in the hallway. Carried into a room and placed on a mattress on the floor, Nelson whispered, "Send for a clergyman. I wish to be baptized. I have been basely murdered."

Learning of the shooting, Nelson's friend Union Gen. Thomas Crittenden rushed to the room and asked Nelson if he were severely injured. "Tom," Nelson gasped, "I am murdered." He died within the hour.

While some of Nelson's comrades vowed revenge, others would not miss him. One Ohio soldier informed his family, "General Nelson was shot yesterday by Gen. Davis of Indiana and it is one of the best things that has happened in this department." The soldier added that Nelson was "baptized and went to heaven in about twenty minutes, but then I have my doubts of him a going there."

Davis went unpunished for the shooting. Although he was arrested, he was freed quickly and returned to service, where he led infantry divisions at Stones River, Chickamauga and in Georgia. He continued to serve after the war, and he never expressed any remorse for the shooting. He died in 1879.

Nelson was buried first at Camp Dick Robinson, a Union recruiting camp he had helped establish, but vandalism of the grave induced the family to move his remains to Maysville, Ky. He rests there today.


Stuart W. Sanders is director of interpretation and education for Kentucky's Perryville Battlefield Preservation Association. He can be reached at www.perryville.net.


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