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Getting Away With Murder

By Thomas Fleming
2/28/2018 • MHQ Magazine

Lost in the political scheming and gamesmanship that characterized the Union’s war in the West was the cold-blooded killing of one Union general by another in 1862.

After Fort Sumter surrendered to Confederate batteries and the American Civil War became inevitable, many Northerners, including President Abraham Lincoln, realized that the fate of the nation depended on keeping border states such as Kentucky in the Union. Kentucky’s legislature had voted to stay neutral in the contest, and the Democratic governor was tilting toward the South, influencing other divided states, notably Missouri and Maryland.

Kentucky’s geographic position made the state even more crucial. A Confederate Kentucky would make it difficult, perhaps impossible, to get soldiers and supplies into Tennessee and ultimately into Mississippi and Georgia. At stake was the Union’s military strategy in the West, the vast attack to penetrate the South’s vulnerable interior. Lincoln told more than one man that “to lose Kentucky was very nearly the same as to lose the whole game.”

Lincoln assigned the task of keeping Kentucky in the Union to Maj. Gen. William Nelson, a huge, black-bearded bull of a man who seldom hesitated to express his contempt for Radical Republicans, a party faction strongest in New England that viewed the war as a crusade against slavery and advocated immediate emancipation.

Also in the game was Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis (no relation to the Confederate president) whose slight physique concealed a touchy, ambitious personality. A more than competent Union general, Davis also worked hard to ingratiate himself with Oliver Morton, the Radical Republican governor of Davis’s native state, Indiana, who had given him his first military appointment.

Over the next 18 months Nelson, Davis, and Morton became fatally entangled in the central question of the war’s early years: Was the North fighting to preserve the Union or to destroy slavery? Intent on keeping his coalition united, President Lincoln repeatedly avoided answering the question, trying to keep Union men and Radical Republicans in the same fold.

But on Monday morning, September 29, 1862, this internecine clash led to a singularly shocking occurrence: In the crowded lobby of the fashionable Galt House hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, Davis shot Nelson in the chest at point-blank range. Nelson died an hour later, gasping that he had been “basely murdered.”

Later that day, another Union general even implicated Governor Morton, calling him a murderer to his face. The Union general in command at Louisville, Don Carlos Buell, ordered Davis arrested. But General Davis was never punished, or even put on trial, for committing this horrendous act. The explanation for such an astounding event lies in one of the deeply hidden turning points in Abraham Lincoln’s political leadership in the Civil War.

Kentucky-born William Nelson was an unlikely general. He was appointed a midshipman in the U.S. Navy in 1840 at the age of 15 and served with distinction in the Mexican War. From his naval experience, he acquired a purple-prose quarterdeck style of giving orders that riled many people. In private he was a jovial, cultured man, a lover of opera and the arts.

When the Civil War erupted, the 38- year-old Nelson was a senior lieutenant in the navy. His brother, Thomas C. Nelson, was a close friend of their fellow Kentuckian, Abraham Lincoln, who had appointed Thomas ambassador to Chile. In April 1861, Lincoln sent Lieutenant Nelson to Kentucky with orders to do everything in his power to keep the state in the Union. Nelson quickly saw that there was no hope of winning Union support in Kentucky’s affluent Bluegrass region, the 15 prosperous counties in the center of the state. In Louisville, Gen. William T. Sherman had been trying to lure Union recruits from the northern section of the state, with no success. Nelson saw that in the surrounding hills of Appalachia were thousands of potential Union recruits. In the hearts of the mountain men festered a decades-old antagonism toward the Bluegrass dwellers, who regarded them as yokels.

President Lincoln authorized Nelson to begin training thousands of these potential soldiers on the 3,200-acre estate of Union supporter Dick Robinson, south of Lexington. Both ignored the vehement protests of the Democratic governor of Kentucky. The Republican governors of Indiana and Ohio supported Nelson with several 30- and 60-day militia regiments until his cadres had acquired the ability to defend themselves.

These militia and Nelson’s recruits discouraged any attempt to take Kentucky into the Confederacy by force. A delighted Lincoln made Nelson a brigadier general of volunteers in September 1861. The ex-navy man found a friend in Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell, who replaced Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman as the commander of the Army of the Ohio, with orders to defend Kentucky and invade Tennessee against a Confederate army that was gathering strength in Mississippi. Buell gave Nelson command of a division in this new army.

Buell was a close friend of Gen. George McClellan, the man Lincoln had named general-in-chief of the Union armies after he successfully kept western Virginia in the Union. Like “Little Mac,” the short, stocky Ohio-born Buell was an adept administrator, soon regarded by many as the most promising general officer in the Western theater of the war. A lackluster West Point graduate, class of 1841, Buell had won three promotions for bravery in the Mexican War and had spent much of the 1850s at the headquarters of many frontier military departments and in Washington, D.C., as an assistant adjutant general. That position gave him a close look at the way politics affected the army in everything from promotions to grand strategy.

When the South began to secede after Abraham Lincoln was elected president in the fall of 1860 with only 40 percent of the popular vote, President James Buchanan sent Buell to embattled forts Sumter and Moultrie in Charleston’s harbor with the authority to decide whether to defend them or surrender them to South Carolina, to prevent needless loss of life.

Buell advised Maj. Robert Anderson, the senior officer on the scene, to move all his men from the vulnerable Moultrie to Sumter in the outer harbor, where they could hold out until further orders. The decision had not a little to do with starting the shooting war—and made it clear to everyone that Buell was a committed Union man.

Buell had an interesting affinity with Nelson. The gigantic Kentuckian was famous for his feats of strength. Buell, who was only 5 feet 8, was also proud of his muscles—notably his arms. He would playfully pick up his 140-pound wife and carry her across the parlor, holding her at arm’s length, and stand her on the mantelpiece above their fireplace. Buell’s muscular prowess was central to his image of himself as an officer. He believed in tough, no-nonsense discipline as the only way to turn civilians into soldiers. Nelson was even harsher.

Jefferson C. Davis’s path to a general’s star followed a very different route. Born in Indiana, Davis had enlisted as a private in the Mexican War and at age 18 performed so well that 33 officers recommended him for West Point. Without political influence, though, he never reached the military academy, then at the peak of its prestige. But he had fallen in love with soldiering and obtained a commission as an artillery officer in 1848. An outsider in an army dominated by West Pointers, he developed an understandable enmity to their assumption of superiority.

Davis had also been at Fort Sumter, a captain and officer of the day when the first Confederate shell struck the walls. After his evacuation, he hurried to Indianapolis and had no trouble persuading his friend Governor Morton to appoint him colonel of the 22nd Indiana Volunteers. Admirers from the Mexican War presented him with a silver sword, and he led three regiments of Indiana soldiers to St. Louis, where they joined the Army of the Southwest. Their orders were to prevent another divided border state, Missouri, from joining the Confederacy.

Davis was swiftly promoted to brigadier general in command of a division. His well-trained men fought superbly in the ensuing campaign, distinguishing themselves at the March 1862 battle of Pea Ridge, a decisive Union victory that drove the main Confederate army out of Missouri for more than two years.

During these trying days, Davis revealed a fierce temper and a gift for profanity that frequently shocked his men. He saw himself as a professional soldier and expected total obedience from the ex-civilians under his command. He also played politics. After Pea Ridge, all the officers in his division signed a petition to President Lincoln, urging him to make Davis a major general.

It is unlikely that under a martinet like Davis, this tribute was a spontaneous outburst of affection. Any officer who failed to sign would no doubt have felt the sting of his wrath.

In the spring of 1862, General Buell’s 36,000-man Army of the Ohio was ordered from Nashville to join Gen. Ulysses Grant’s 39,000 troops at Shiloh, Tennessee, for a planned invasion of Mississippi. Grant’s star was rising thanks to his swift capture of the Tennessee River forts Henry and Donelson. Gen. Albert Sidney Johnson, the Confederate commander in the West, decided a preemptive strike could destroy Grant’s Shiloh army before Buell reached him. Johnson attacked with 44,000 soldiers on April 6, 1862, achieving almost total surprise. The first day’s fighting came close to destroying Grant’s army and his reputation, but Buell, Nelson, and their men arrived near the end of the day.

On the second day, the reinforced Grant counterattacked. The discipline and élan Buell’s troops displayed, and their overwhelming numbers, helped drive the Confederates into a disorderly retreat. William Nelson’s division fought superbly. The huge “Bull” proved to be a ferocious battle leader, relentlessly pressing home attacks on Confederate strongpoints and repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire to embolden his troops.

To the men on the field, Buell emerged as the hero of Shiloh. One Iowa soldier wrote that he “could go to bed and forget more generalship in one night than Grant ever knew.” Nelson, too, shone, earning a second star and the admiration of General Buell. He called Nelson “an officer of remarkable merit” and put him in command of the center corps of his army, which joined in the pursuit of the beaten Rebels until they made a stand in and around Corinth, Mississippi.

The war settled into a stalemate. Command of the Western army had passed to a cautious general, Henry Halleck, who sought in his first and only field command to avoid the horrendous casualties of Shiloh by taking Corinth with siege tactics.

Nelson’s behavior during these difficult days did not endear him to others. At one point, as his division advanced to the front, a brigade crossing the road ahead of them interrupted his march. Nelson ordered the Ohio regiment in his path to let his men pass. The colonel of the regiment claimed he had the right of way. Nelson replied with a stream of profanity. The outraged colonel reached for his pistol. “Goddamn you, don’t you look at me that way!” Nelson roared. He ordered the colonel to go to the rear of his regiment and wait until Nelson’s men passed.

The Corinth campaign ended in disappointment for the Union. On May 30, with his men finally positioned for a victorious assault, General Halleck attacked at dawn, only to find that the Confederate army had vanished. Inside the breastworks on a blue-uniformed dummy stuffed with straw was a mocking message: “Halleck outwitted. What will Old Abe say?”

Instead of pursuing the Confederates, Halleck decided to try to pacify the large swath of Mississippi and Alabama now under his control. This proved far more difficult than Buell, Halleck, and other Regular Army officers, notably McClellan, had expected. A great many Southern civilians became guerillas, sniping at the invaders from cover and showing no inclination to cooperate with a restoration of Federal government.

Union newspapers and politicians regarded Halleck’s failure to destroy the Confederate army as a black mark against him and the other West Pointers who were in control of the Federal armies, east and west. No one was more dismayed than President Lincoln, the man on whose desk most of these criticisms eventually landed, and he decided to remove Halleck and summon him to Washington as commanding general of all the Union armies, a paper title with no real power.

For Buell and Nelson, Gov. Oliver Morton of Indiana was the most vociferous of the critics of the Union military campaign. A violent Radical Republican, Morton despised Buell because he had become the owner of eight slaves when he married his Georgia-born wife. The couple had discharged all but one house servant in the 1850s, when the national quarrel about slavery became ominously intense. But Buell remained a conservative Democrat, although devoted to preserving the Union, which he considered the war’s purpose. He rejected the Radical Republicans’ contention that the war’s goal should be ending slavery. He was even more opposed to their view that anyone who owned slaves or even tolerated slavery was a moral reprobate, undeserving of protection.

In a postwar memoir, Buell bitterly recalled how the bulky, angry-eyed Morton constantly interfered with the Indiana troops in the Army of the Ohio. The combative governor was openly contemptuous of Buell’s insistence on training his men before sending them into battle. Like amateur strategists before and since in American history, Morton thought “spirit” was more important than discipline. He encouraged Indiana’s officers and men to send him complaints about General Buell and filled the mails to Washington with sneers and abuse. Similar invective emanated from the Indianapolis Daily Journal, a newspaper the governor controlled.

On May 2, 1862, Illinois troops under the command of Russian-born Col. John B. Turchin burned and pillaged Athens, Alabama, for resisting the Union army’s occupation. An enraged Buell court-martialed Turchin and called for his dismissal from the service. Northern newspapers lauded the policy of making Rebels pay for their disloyalty, while Morton and his fellow Radical Republican governors in Illinois and Ohio exerted fierce political pressure on the president. Lincoln not only dismissed the court’s guilty verdict but also promoted Turchin to brigadier general.The ruling was an obvious rebuke—even an insult—to General Buell, who had been insisting that Southern civilians be treated as noncombatants.

The Union army’s tactics in Kentucky soon demonstrated how little regard the Lincoln government had for the Constitution when it interfered with winning the war. On July 21, 1862, Brig. Gen. Jerry T. Boyle, in charge militarily in Kentucky, threatened to arrest any Democrat who dared to run against Republican candidates in the upcoming congressional elections. Lincoln’s party made life even more difficult for pro-Democratic editors. Mobs smashed no fewer than 17 Kentucky newspaper offices, often while Union soldiers in uniform watched or even helped carry out the destruction.

When Democrats such as former Kentucky governor John Morehead objected to these tactics, they were arrested and incarcerated in Federal prisons, where they endured verbal abuse and semistarvation until they pledged allegiance to the Federal government.

This flouting of the law offended some native Kentuckians like General Nelson, and Buell, who had grown up in southern Indiana. When Buell departed for Louisville to take command of the Army of the Ohio, General McClellan had told him that he should “constantly bear in mind the precise issue for which we are fighting—the preservation of the Union and the restoration of legitimate governments in the seceded states.” This could only be achieved by “religiously respecting the Constitutional rights of all.”

Buell was not the kind of man who sought a sympathetic reporter to reply to his critics with vigor and venom. He continued trying to fight the war with a minimum of attention to politics.

The outspoken Nelson, however, thought this was a mistake and said a great deal on the record, particularly about Morton’s Radical Republican views on slavery.

In 1849, when Nelson was in his mid-20s, Kentucky became the only state in the Union to put the issue before the voters. Antislavery advocates called for a constitutional convention to ban the “peculiar institution.” The voters elected an overwhelming number of proslavery delegates to the conclave, and the convention wrote the most proslavery constitution in the Union.

Many, probably including Nelson, thought this made slavery permanent in the state, despite the forced reversal at the polls with the election of Abraham Lincoln in the summer of 1861. But Nelson also disliked Governor Morton’s interference with and constant denigation of his commanding general, Buell. Soon Nelson was calling Morton the self-appointed “Department President of the West.”

After Corinth, the military struggle shifted to Tennessee, another sharply divided state. General Buell devoted most of his army to this contest, virtually stripping Kentucky of troops. All the principal Confederate armies sought to take the war beyond Confederate borders in late summer 1862. The new Confederate commander of the Army of Tennessee, Gen. Braxton Bragg, ordered Maj. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith to invade Kentucky while he kept Buell busy in Tennessee. Marching from Knoxville, Smith entered Kentucky with 10,000 veteran troops, unopposed. An alarmed Buell, who had been advancing on Chattanooga, ordered Nelson, now a major general, first to Nashville and then back to Kentucky to organize a defense.

The situation was not promising. The only troops on hand were 7,000 raw recruits rushed to Kentucky from Ohio and Indiana, not one of whom had spent more than three weeks in uniform, and many only three days.

They were under the command of two former civilians, now brigadier generals, who, like Governor Morton, thought their men’s spirit and patriotism would sustain them in battle. They positioned their soldiers across Kirby Smith’s path near the town of Richmond, 20 miles southeast of Lexington.

When he arrived to take command, Nelson expressed grave doubts about the recruits’ ability to fight veterans in the open. But before he could withdraw them to a better defensive position on the bluffs overlooking the Kentucky River eight miles away, the aggressive Smith sent his howling veterans forward at dawn on August 30, 1862. Rushing to the battlefield from Lexington, Nelson arrived to find the Union recruits “in a disorganized retreat or rather rout.” He rallied them in a shaky line in and around a cemetery and strode up and down in front of them to show his contempt for Confederate marksmanship. “If they can’t hit me, they can’t hit anything,” he roared.

Confederate sharpshooters put two bullets into Nelson’s huge frame, both flesh wounds that he dismissed. But his heroics were in vain. After firing three rounds, the recruits, struck by a panic, fled in utter disorder. Cursing spectacularly, Nelson slashed at the fugitives with the flat of his sword and damned them to everlasting infamy. But he soon found himself “left with my staff, almost alone.” The general and his aides were forced to join in the headlong flight— made doubly painful for Nelson by a bullet in his thigh. Behind him Nelson left 4,403 captives and more than 1,000 killed and wounded. Also lost were his train, nine artillery pieces, and 10,000 stands of small arms.

This Southern triumph took place on the same day that Robert E. Lee shattered Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Army of the Potomac at the Second Battle of Bull Run in Virginia, sending it fleeing to the shelter of the fortifications around Washington, D.C. Lee began marching his army north, threatening Maryland and central Pennsylvania. The Union cause began to look like a sinking ship.

Kirby Smith marched triumphantly into Lexington, where thousands of cheering pro-South Kentuckians greeted him, telling him of their abuse and oppression by Union men. Smith swiftly occupied other towns in central Kentucky, including the capital, Frankfort, forcing the governor and legislature into ignominious flight. To further rattle the Federals, Smith ordered his cavalry to skirmish on the outskirts of Louisville, which caused the panicked Union general in command at Cincinnati, Maj. Gen. Lewis “Lew” Wallace, to declare martial law and require all civilian men to labor in support of the military.

Meanwhile, General Bragg had decided to imitate Smith. While General Buell was preparing for an all-out battle in defense of Nashville, Bragg marched his 30,000-man army into Kentucky. Along the way he overawed a Federal outpost at Munfordville with a demand for unconditional surrender and bagged another 4,267 Union prisoners. As he advanced, he issued a resounding proclamation, saying he had come to free Kentucky “from the tyranny of a despotic ruler.” A delighted Smith urged him to unite with his army and confront Buell’s 50,000- man force, which was certain to follow them into Kentucky.

At this point, Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis was recuperating from a physical collapse. In the late spring of 1862, Davis’s division was transferred from Missouri to the army under Halleck and Buell for the campaign against Corinth. The blazing heat of Mississippi in midsummer sapped Davis’s strength and an intermittent fever left him dependent on quinine, a drug with some unpleasant side effects, notably diarrhea. On July 28, 1862, a badly debilitated Davis asked the War Department if “twenty two months of arduous service in this war” entitled him to request “a few weeks respite from duty.” Davis was given 20 days’ leave and he retreated to Indianapolis.

After Bull Nelson’s rout at the battle of Richmond, Kentucky Unionists panicked. Though far from well, Davis rushed to Cincinnati, where he reported to Gen. Horatio Wright. Wright himself was a new arrival, with the title of commander of the Department of the Ohio, with theoretical authority over Kentucky. Where this left General Buell, commander of the Army of the Ohio, was something the rattled Lincoln administration had not bothered to explain to anyone.

Wright sent Davis across the river to Louisville, after telling him that General Nelson did not seem to have any interest in obeying his orders. Nelson was not in the best of moods. He, too, was a convalescent, barely recovered from his thigh wound. Two Confederate armies were heading for Louisville. Somewhere behind them marched General Buell with the Army of the Ohio. No one knew whether the Confederates would attack Buell or Louisville when they joined forces.

It was imperative to prepare the city of 70,000 for battle. Virtually every man who could carry a gun was drafted. On September 22, Nelson had a pontoon bridge built across the Ohio River and evacuated women and children to the Indiana side.

Nelson welcomed General Davis, appreciating that his experience was badly needed. He ordered him to take charge of turning the 20,000 drafted amateurs into a semblance of a fighting force. Davis seems to have been miffed by Nelson’s assumption of a commander’s role. Influenced by General Wright, Davis apparently thought Nelson had no authority to give him orders. Perhaps he had also absorbed some of the hostility his friend Governor Morton felt toward the outspoken Nelson. Still, Davis found it difficult to argue with the gigantic major general. This was clearly an emergency and he might expose himself not only to Nelson’s wrath but to ridicule if he started bickering about who was in charge in that situation.

On September 22, Davis took command of the recruits. He had virtually no staff and the so-called soldiers he was supposed to train appalled him. They ranged, he said, from “squirrel hunters to people picked up off the streets.” For the next four days, Davis barely came out of his room in the Galt House, leaving the task of turning the squirrel hunters into soldiers to junior officers.

With a crisis gripping the city, General Davis was being extremely reckless. He was also setting in motion the chain of events that would turn him into a murderer.

In central Kentucky, Gen. Braxton Bragg made one of the many strange decisions that would cause more than one historian to assign him major responsibility for the Confederacy losing the Civil War. Instead of ordering General Smith to join him in assaulting either General Buell on the march or General Nelson in Louisville, he tried to tempt Buell into attacking him, while Smith dispersed his troops throughout central Kentucky, around Lexington, Frankfort, and Harrodsburg.

When the cautious Buell declined to fight, Bragg decided he could not attack an enemy that he mistakenly thought outnumbered him two to one. In fact, Buell was still desperately trying to concentrate divisions he had left behind in Tennessee to safeguard Nashville. The two armies then were roughly equal in size.

Bragg was discouraged by a shortage of provisions in what he suddenly called “a hostile country.” He swung east toward Bards – town, from which he sent the Confederate government a lamentation: “We are sadly disappointed at the want of action of our friends in Kentucky.” The army had brought 30,000 muskets in their wagon train, but no soldiers had volunteered to use them. Kentuckians had seen others suffer for supporting secession, and would do little or nothing as long as General Buell’s Army of the Ohio remained armed and dangerous.

Bragg’s move left Buell a clear path to Louisville. To the vast relief of General Nelson and everyone else in the city, the Army of the Ohio marched through the city’s fortified outworks without incident on September 25. The men were exhausted and hungry. Straggling and sickness during the weeks on the road had diminished their numbers from 50,000 to 40,000. But Louisville was safe from assault.

Buell immediately reorganized his army. He divided it into three corps, naming Nelson commander of one. As the army’s second in command, Buell chose the gifted, Virginia-born major general, George H. Thomas, who had become one of his favorite soldiers in the struggle to keep Tennessee in the Union.

By this time, a political event in Washington had become a factor in the drama unwinding in the West. On September 22, 1862, President Lincoln had issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that as a war measure he would free all the slaves in the seceded states if they did not return to the Union by January 1, 1863. He had been emboldened to take this step by Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s repulse of Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland at the Battle of Antietam on September 17.

The proclamation was aimed at restoring unity to a Republican Party that was growing increasingly divided by Lincoln’s reluctance to declare war on slavery. It wouldn’t take effect for months, and the border states were exempt. Still, nowhere did this decision have greater impact than on the soldiers and leaders of the Union army in Kentucky. The critics of Buell and Nelson sensed the political wind had shifted in their direction.

One of General Buell’s first questions to Nelson was about the readiness of Louisville’s new recruits. An aide reported that General Davis had done little or nothing about training and organizing them. As he was staying at the same hotel, an angry Nelson sent for Davis, who came to his room in the Galt House “appearing offended,” the aide who summoned him later said.

“Well Davis, how are you getting along with your command?” Nelson asked.

“I don’t know,” Davis said.

“How many regiments have you organized?”

“I don’t know,” Davis replied.

“How many companies do you have?”

“I don’t know,” Davis answered.

Nelson stood up, his temper rising. “I am disappointed in you, General Davis. I selected you for this task because you are an officer of the Regular Army. But I find I made a mistake.”

Davis’s reply was coolly obnoxious. “I am a Regular soldier and I demand the treatment due me as a general officer.”

Nelson may have then made a threatening gesture. Davis retreated across the hall to the office of the medical director of Nelson’s army corps. The brigadier asked the doctor to witness the conversation. Nelson concurred in this proposal. Davis again demanded to receive “the courtesy due my rank.”

“I will treat you as you deserve,” Nelson snarled. “You are relieved from duty here. You will proceed to Cincinnati and report to General Wright.”

“You have no authority to relieve me,” Davis snapped.

Drawn by the raised voices, Nelson’s adjutant came to the door. Nelson ordered him to be sure that Davis left Louisville by 9 that night. If he refused, the adjutant was to summon the provost marshal and take him across the Ohio River by force.

Davis retreated to Cincinnati and caught a train to Indianapolis, where he told Governor Morton the story. Morton said that Nelson had relieved Davis as a calculated insult to the people of Indiana. On September 28, Davis returned to Louisville, accompanied by Morton. The brigadier first visited his old division in General Buell’s army. There he probably learned that Buell had placed the division in Nelson’s third corps of the reorganized army. This made Davis’s expected resumption of command out of the question.

No one knows what Davis said to the Indiana men with whom he discussed his dilemma, but that night a friend of Nelson’s heard a rumor that a group of Indiana officers was plotting to kill Nelson. They hoped to bait him into an argument and shoot him dead. After thinking it over, the friend decided the rumor was too preposterous and did not mention it to Nelson.

The next morning, General Nelson ate early and strolled across the great hall of the Galt House hotel to ask the clerk at the front desk if General Buell had eaten breakfast yet. Told that the general was still upstairs, Nelson turned and gazed across the crowded hall, looking for friends or acquaintances. He quickly spotted Governor Morton with a group of men around him. General Davis emerged from the group and walked toward him. Morton and another Davis friend, Thomas M. Gibson, a prominent Louisville attorney, followed him. Gibson had been Davis’s sergeant in the Mexican War. Davis often called him his military mentor. He had a temporary title as commander of Louisville’s Home Guard.

“General Nelson,” Davis said, “I want to know why you disgraced me by putting me under arrest. If you refuse to answer me, I intend to seek satisfaction.” This was the terminology of a would-be duelist.

Nelson’s temper skyrocketed. “Do you know who you are talking to, sir?” he bellowed.

“Yes! Bill Nelson!” Davis snarled.

“Go away, you damned puppy,” Nelson said. “I don’t want anything to do with you.”

Davis grabbed a visiting card from the hotel desk and crumpled it into a ball in his clenched fist. His mouth contorted with rage, and he flipped the crumpled card into Nelson’s face.

Nelson slapped him in the face. Davis staggered back and raised his fist. “I demand an apology!” he cried. Nelson slapped him again and Davis fled into the startled crowd.

Nelson turned on Governor Morton. “Did you come here to see me insulted?” he roared.

“No sir,” Morton replied. “I came because my friend, General Davis, asked me to.”

Seething, Nelson shoved his way through the crowd and headed for his first-floor room. Davis suddenly emerged from the crowd with a pistol he had obtained from Thomas Gibson, who later disingenuously explained he never went anywhere without a pistol under his coat. It was an absurd statement for one of Louisville’s leading lawyers—and it strongly suggests that this confrontation with Nelson was carefully planned.

The enraged Davis found Nelson had returned to the foot of the stairway to the second floor. Perhaps he had decided to see General Buell immediately, hoping to get Davis thrown out of the Army of the Ohio. The brigadier strode toward him, the pistol cocked, calling: “General Nelson, take care of yourself.” Davis later claimed he thought Nelson had gone to his room to get a gun. If so, he never gave Nelson a chance to draw this nonexistent weapon.

At a distance of about 8 feet, Davis fired. The bullet struck Nelson above the heart. The man’s strength was so enormous, he was able to climb the stairs to the second floor where he collapsed outside General Buell’s office. As many rushed to his side, he whispered, “Send for a clergyman. I wish to be baptized.” They carried him into a nearby room and laid him on a bed. His medical director rushed to his side, but Bull Nelson was beyond help.

When the news of Nelson’s death reached some Ohio and Indiana regiments who disliked Nelson, the men cheered and threw their hats in the air. But Kentuckians were outraged at what many onlookers considered cold-blooded murder; some of them called for the immediate execution of Davis. Later in the day, Gen. Jerry Boyle confronted Governor Morton in front of Galt House and called him a murderer. The two men exchanged punches before bystanders separated them.

General Buell was appalled and ordered Davis arrested immediately. Before he could convene a court-martial, however, a messenger arrived from Washington, D.C., relieving him as commander of the Army of the Ohio. Lincoln had decided that the critics were right; that Buell was at fault for allowing Bragg to invade Kentucky. The president ordered General Thomas to take Buell’s place.

That remarkable soldier revealed a personal independence that astonished everyone. He declined to obey the president’s order. Thomas wired General Halleck in Washington that General Buell had been about to take the offensive against the Southern armies, and that confronting imminent battle he was insufficiently informed of Buell’s plans to take command of his troops. This telegram, sent in the immediate aftermath of General Nelson’s murder, was the reaction of a soldier of surpassing integrity to what he saw as the low—and now vicious—political machinations of Gov. Oliver Morton and his circle. Much later Thomas commented that he thought Buell’s removal was “unjust to him and to me.”

The day after Nelson’s murder, Governor Morton left for Washington, D.C., where he had several meetings with President Lincoln and with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, an old friend. Morton did his utmost to convince the president that Nelson’s slaps had warranted Davis’s reaction, failing to mention that Davis had first flipped a hotel card into Nelson’s face. (Not until 1885 did this fact become public knowledge.)

At a cabinet meeting a few days later, a majority felt that Davis should be court-martialed—which was hardly a surprising recommendation. But Secretary of War Stanton stonily dismissed the suggestion. The president apparently said nothing. His close friendship with General Nelson’s brother makes his silence doubly baffling. There would seem to be only one explanation: War and politics had created an explosive situation that left Abraham Lincoln with no alternative but agonized silence.

Meanwhile, Morton was busy in Congress and elsewhere, telling everyone that the Emancipation Proclamation was crucial to winning the war. He made a speech on its behalf that won cheers from his listeners. One newspaper reported that some Washington admirers had “serenaded” Morton to express their enthusiasm. Morton was making it clear to Lincoln that the president needed his political support.

Years later, a bitter Buell would write that “the dignity of a state was abused by the attitude of its governor….and the authority of the general government was degraded by its condonement of [Nelson’s murder]—a condonement made virtually, if not actually, at [Morton’s] dictation.”

On October 1, General Buell had marched the Army of the Ohio against Braxton Bragg. A prolonged drought, the worst in years, forced the army’s three corps to advance separately in search of water. On October 8, an inconclusive battle was fought at Perryville that involved only one of Buell’s corps. An acoustic shadow phenomenon had prevented the sound of Bragg’s attack from reaching the other corps, only a few miles away.

After forcing the Union troops to fall back more than a mile, Bragg abandoned the assault and retreated from Kentucky to Tennessee. Gen. Kirby Smith soon followed him. Buell’s critics raised an almost predictable cry that he should have pursued and destroyed the enemy. At their head was Governor Morton, who had repeatedly denounced Buell as incompetent when he visited the president in Washington and he continued the barrage from Indiana.

Although few Civil War battles led to a successful pursuit, by either side, this time Lincoln was implacable. He removed Buell and replaced him with Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans. Ten days later, he also fired General McClellan, supposedly for permitting Robert E. Lee to withdraw his army to Virginia without pursuit and attack after his repulse at Antietam. The fact that Buell and McClellan had kept Maryland and Kentucky in the Union was brushed aside as irrelevant.

To the Union Army high command, the message was unmistakable. Henceforth, the Radical Republicans were in control of the war, and any general who did not satisfy them was in trouble. In this atmosphere, all talk of a court-martial for Jefferson C. Davis vanished. He was released and allowed to resume his rank and duty as a brigadier general. Nelson’s murder was passed to the civil authorities in Louisville. A grand jury indicted Davis for manslaughter but his Radical Republican friends saw to it that he had the best legal counsel available. James Speed, who would become the president’s attorney general in late 1864, took the case. (His brother, Joshua, had been Lincoln’s closest friend in Springfield.) Speed and Thomas Gibson repeatedly asked for postponements until in May of 1864 the indictment was “stricken from the docket.”

Jefferson C. Davis spent the rest of the war leading a division in the Western army. General Rosecrans recommended promoting him to major general, but was ignored. Davis served ably as a corps commander in Sherman’s army in the invasion of Georgia, but once more promotion eluded him.

He stayed in the army for the rest of his life, for many years as colonel of the 23rd infantry. But Davis never became a Regular Army general, and rarely commanded troops again. He was sent all over—as far away as California and Alaska—on trivial assignments, including three years as a recruiting officer in New York City. Friends noticed he was frequently depressed. In the end, he appears to have realized he had committed a crime that most of his fellow officers found impossible to forgive.


Originally published in the Winter 2010 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

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