The Murder of “Bull” Nelson

September 29, 1862 – Major General William “Bull” Nelson was shot to death by Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis over a trivial argument.

Gen William “Bull” Nelson | Image Credit:

The Federal Army of the Ohio enjoyed the amenities of Louisville, and officers settled old grudges. Following the horrific defeat at Richmond, Davis (no relation to the Confederate president) had been assigned to serve under Nelson and help with recruiting Louisville residents into the army. Nelson, a native Kentuckian, had a strong dislike for Indianans, calling them “uncouth descendants of ‘poor trash’ from the mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina.” Davis was from Indiana.

Davis made it clear that he did not like his new assignment, declaring, “I am a regular army officer, and will not disgrace myself by mixing with a rabble of citizens.” After two days, Nelson told Davis that he was dissatisfied with Davis’s performance. Davis, who had served with distinction at Wilson’s Creek and Pea Ridge, demanded an apology for such disrespect. Nelson refused and relieved him of duty.

Accompanied by Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton, Davis confronted Nelson in the lobby of the Galt House, a hotel serving as Major General Don Carlos Buell’s headquarters, on the morning of the 29th. Davis again demanded an apology, to which Nelson replied, “Go away, you damned puppy.”

Gen Jefferson C. Davis | Image Credit:

Davis crumpled a hotel registration card and threw it in Nelson’s face. Nelson slapped Davis across his face and turned to go upstairs, telling a reporter witnessing the incident, “Did you hear that insolent scoundrel insult me, sir? I suppose he didn’t know me. I’ll teach him a lesson, sir.”

Davis fumed to Morton, “Did you come here to see me insulted?” He then called for a pistol, which Indiana attorney and friend Thomas Gibson provided. He followed Nelson to the staircase and hollered, “Nelson! Not another step, sir!” When Nelson turned, Davis shot him in the chest from three feet.

Nelson staggered up the stairs and collapsed in a hallway. General Thomas Crittenden rushed to Nelson’s side, asking, “Are you seriously hurt?” Nelson mumbled, “Send for a clergyman. I want to be baptized. I have been basely murdered.” Nelson, one of Buell’s most dependable commanders, died within 30 minutes.

Some witnesses called for Davis to be hanged. Others, such as Major General Horatio G. Wright, said that Davis did what was needed to settle this “matter of honor.” Buell had Davis arrested and jailed, but his services were needed to help confront the Confederates in Kentucky. With Governor Morton’s backing, Davis was released and resumed division command. He never faced justice for the murder.


References; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 219; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 715; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 216; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 272; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 206-07; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 523; Street, Jr., James, The Struggle for Tennessee: Tupelo to Stones River (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 54; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 414-15

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