As part of the Federal Army of the Ohio garrisoned Louisville, Kentucky, some of its officers took the opportunity to settle old grudges. Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton expressed bitter resentment toward Major General Don Carlos Buell, the army commander, for the large casualty rate among Indianans in Buell’s command. Morton was particularly mortified by the high death toll among the Indiana troops at the Battle of Richmond in late August. Those troops belonged to Buell’s army, but they had been led in the battle by Major General William “Bull” Nelson.
Following the horrific defeat at Richmond, Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis (no relation to the Confederate president) had been assigned to serve under Nelson and help defend Louisville against the Confederate invasion. 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.
Nelson ordered Davis to oversee the recruitment of loyal Kentuckians into the Federal army. Two days later, when Nelson asked Davis for a progress report, Davis’s answers were short and unspecific. This seemingly detached attitude angered Nelson to the point that he ordered Davis out of Kentucky. Davis, having served with distinction at Wilson’s Creek and Pea Ridge, declared, “General Nelson, I am a regular soldier, and I demand the treatment due to me as a general officer.”
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 of duty here and you will proceed to Cincinnati and report to General (Horatio) Wright.” When Davis resisted, Nelson turned to the adjutant general and said, “Captain, 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 obeyed the initial order to leave Louisville, but instead of reporting to Wright at Cincinnati, he went to Indianapolis to inform Governor Morton what had happened. To Morton, who already despised Nelson for his treatment of Indianans, this rough treatment of a distinguished Indiana officer was the last straw.
Morton and Davis stormed into the Galt House, a Louisville hotel serving as General Buell’s headquarters, on the morning of September 29. Finding Nelson in the hotel office, they marched up to confront him. Onlookers knew that there would be trouble between Nelson, an opinionated man of “almost gigantic proportions,” and Davis, who was much smaller yet “intensely proud and of hot temper.” Davis again demanded an apology for being insulted, to which Nelson replied, “Go away, you damned puppy. I don’t want anything to do with you!”
Davis crumpled a hotel registration card and flipped it into Nelson’s face. Nelson in turn backhanded Davis across the face and then asked Morton, “Did you come here, sir, to see me insulted?” Morton backed off: “No sir.” Nelson marched toward the staircase leading to his upstairs room, telling a reporter witnessing the incident, “Did you hear that insolent scoundrel insult me, sir? I suppose he didn’t know me, sir. I’ll teach him a lesson, sir.”
A furious Davis called for a pistol, which nearby Indiana attorney and friend Thomas Gibson provided. Davis followed Nelson to the staircase and hollered, “Nelson! Not another step, sir!” When Nelson turned, Davis shot him in the chest from three feet. The bullet pierced his heart.
Nelson managed to stagger up the stairs and before collapsing in a hallway. Major General Thomas L. 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.” A clergyman and a doctor were called for, but Nelson, one of Buell’s most dependable commanders, was dead within 30 minutes.
Brigadier General James Fry, one of Davis’s staff members, spoke with the general after the incident. Davis asserted that he intended to provoke Nelson into displaying his disrespectful attitude toward Davis in front of witnesses. Davis even confessed to having started the confrontation by throwing the wadded card in Nelson’s face. But Davis had not expected to be slapped, and to that his first reaction was to shoot him.
Some witnesses called for Davis to be hanged. Others, such as Major General Horatio G. Wright, said that Davis did what he needed to do to settle this “matter of honor.” Buell had Davis arrested and jailed, and he wrote to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck: “Brigadier-General Davis is under arrest at Louisville for the killing of General Nelson. His trial by a court-martial 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…”
With two Confederate armies on the move in Kentucky, Wright was able to convince Federal officials that the enemy threat outweighed any punishment. And Governor Morton used his strong political influence to have Davis released.
A civilian grand jury later indicted Davis for manslaughter, but he was released on $5,000 bail pending trial. He was never tried. In May 1864, the case was “stricken from the docket, with leave to reinstate.” Davis resumed his command, and though he was never promoted, he never faced justice for the murder either.
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