The Notorious “Bull” Nelson: Murdered Civil War General
by Donald A. Clark, Southern Illinois University Press
William “Bull” Nelson, a successful lieutenant commander in the antebellum U.S. Navy who served in the Union Army during the war, is perhaps best remembered for being killed by a fellow officer in a fit of pique in 1862. Donald A. Clark’s new biography of the controversial general brings deserved focus to an individual whose contributions to the Union war effort far outlived his brief command.
Nelson’s work ethic had been forged through his 21 years of service in the Navy, and his loyalty to the Union was never in doubt. After Fort Sumter was fired upon, he received orders to go into Kentucky, then teetering toward secession, and sustain the allegiance of that crucial border state. Through heavy-handed means, he kept Kentucky neutral and was rewarded with an active field command in the Army. Yet his abrasive personality, frequently on display during his time in command, would hamper his career and ultimately cost him his life.
Clark highlights how Nelson’s volatile temperament and antipathy toward volunteers overshadowed much of the work he accomplished. While he praises Nelson’s martial abilities, Clark presents a balanced view of the general, and provides some context for Nelson’s destructive behavior. In the process, Clark chronicles the Kentucky secession crisis and the early campaigns in the Western Theater, as well as exploring the overarching influence of politics on military affairs.
That last aspect explains why Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis appeared to get off scot-free after killing Nelson. At the time, authorities put up no obstacles to a civilian court dictating the outcome of the investigation. The press abhorred Nelson’s harsh treatment of volunteers, yet lamented his death all the same.
Clark’s study, which includes some excellent maps, is soundly researched and crisply written. He succeeds in showing how the general tried to bring order to the maelstrom of war. The Notorious “Bull” Nelson will be seen as a useful addition to the list of studies examining the Union war in the West.
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.