William “Bull” Nelson, as his name might suggest, was not the easiest person in the world with whom to get along. One Union officer, the unfortunately-named Jefferson C. Davis, discovered this throughout the Confederate invasion of Kentucky.
Davis, a veterain of Wilson’s Creek and Pea Ridge, had been reassigned to aide in the defense of Louisville, under the toutalage of “Bull” Nelson. Born into a high class family of Kentucky, Nelson entered university at age thirteen and the navy three years later. When the war came, he commanded the Washington Navy Yard, until Lincoln sent him back to his home state to make sure she stayed loyal to the Union. He was made a General, raised a brigade and fought under General Buell at Shiloh. With the invasion of Kentucky, Nelson was brought back to Louisville to oversee its defense.
Throughout his life, Bull Nelson developed a keen dislike of men from Indiana, referring to them as “uncouth descendents of ‘poor trash’ from the mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina.” He even blamed his Indiana regiments for the defeat at Richmond, Kentucky, two weeks back. The air was inflamed with rumors that the Indiana troops planned to assassinate Nelson during the next battle.
It was into this that Jefferson C. Davis, born of modest folk from Indiana, entered the picture. Davis had arrived in mid-September with reinforcements from Grant’s troops along the Tennessee/Mississippi border. Rather than plant Davis in charge of troops in the field, he appointed him to oversee the defenses of Louisville.
A few days later, Nelson questioned Davis over the preparations. To each question, Davis, very annoyed with his current assignment, answered a flippant “I don’t know.” At one point, fed up with this Bull Nelson fellow, Davis spoke up. “I am a regular army officer,” he asserted, “and will not disgrace myself by mixing with a rabble of citizens.”
“But you should know,” Nelson retorted before completely berating and dressing down General Davis. Before it was over, Nelson ordered Davis to Cincinnati, to General Horatio Wright’s headquarters, for reassignment. Davis put up an indignant protest, but Nelson threatened to have him arrested. “If General Davis does not leave this city by nine o’clock tonight, give instructions to the provost marshal to see that he shall be put across the Ohio.”
Davis left Louisville for Cincinnati, but ended up in Indianapolis to see Governor Oliver Morton, a man responsible for what Bull Nelson saw as too many political appointees into military positions. Morton had, in a sense, been acting as governor of both Indiana and Kentucky, ordering his own state’s troops into Nelson’s command.
Davis, while in Indiana, became obsessed with Bull Nelson. Bolstered and accompanied by Governor Morton, he headed back to Louisville in a storm of fury.
In the morning of this date, they found all 300 pounds of Bull Nelson in the lobby of the Galt House, a fine hotel and bar frequented by Union officers. Davis approached Nelson clearly stating that he was insulted by Nelson’s dressing down. Now, he was demanding satisfaction.
“Go away, you damned puppy,” snapped Nelson in return. Davis grabbed a hotel desk card, crumpled it up and threw it at Nelson’s face.
A backhanded slap to the face of Davis was now Nelson’s reply. After it reddened the already embarrassed facade of General Davis, Bull Nelson turned to Governor Morton. “Did you come here to see me insulted?” The Governor, no doubt cowering, said he did not, though he sort of had. Nelson spun around and began to walk upstairs to his room, snapping at a nearby reporter, “Did you hear that insolent scoundrel insult me, sir? I suppose he didn’t know me, sir. I’ll teach him a lesson, sir.”
Davis, now boiling over with savage rage, called for a pistol. Thomas Gibson, an attorney from Indiana, was more than happy to oblige.
“Nelson!” screamed Davis, “not another step, sir!” Nelson began to turn, but before he came fully front, Davis fired a shot. The bullet, launched from a mere three feet away, tore into Nelson’s chest. Shocked, he staggered back and then somehow managed to lumber up the stairs, collapsing in the hallway of the second floor.
He was still coherent enough to understand exactly what happened: “Send for a clergyman. I want to be baptized. I have been basely murdered.”
General Thomas Crittenden, who had been eating his breakfast in the hotel, rushed up the stairs to Nelson’s side. “Are you seriously hurt,” asked the General. “Tom,”came the staggered reply, “I am murdered.” By 8:30am, Bull Nelson was dead.
With that, Davis’ rage abated. He was arrested, and though agitated, showed no signs of anger. As history will tell, Davis was largely supported by the men in the ranks. His arrest would only be temporary. Charges would never be brought against him for the assassination of General Bull Nelson.
But this day’s drama at the Galt House was not yet at an end. Washington had grown tired of what they saw as General Don Carlos Buell’s inability to command. His ineptness had allowed Confederates under Kirby Smith and Braxton Bragg to escape from Chattanooga and invade Kentucky. President Lincoln sent an order to Louisville, removing Buell from his post.
The order, however, was leaked in this morning’s edition of the Chicago Tribune. The official order arrived a little after the paper hit the streets. General George Thomas was to take his place. As word spread, a gaggle of Kentucky politicians wired Lincoln, demanding the Buell be retained as commander. Buell called Thomas to the Galt House, but when he arrived, he refused to take command.
Thomas wired General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, telling him as much. At the time, Buell believed Thomas did this out of friendship. He was very mistaken. According to Thomas, he saw the so-called promotion as “unjust to him and to me. It was unjust to relieve him on the eve of battle, and unjust to myself to impose upon me the command of an army at such a time.”
That Thomas had little desire to untangle Buell’s mess probably rests closer to the truth than anything else. By evening, Washington had rescinded the order. Buell was in command and Thomas was made (by Buell’s hand) his second, a position that rendered the talented General Thomas more or less impotent.1
- Sources: All for the Regiment by Gerald Prokopowicz; Days of Glory by Larry J. Daniel; War in Kentucky by James Lee McDonough; Perryville by Kenneth W. Noe. [↩]