Getting away with murder
The battlefield claimed many a brave officer, but there were a few others who met not-quite-so-honorable ends
The death toll among general officers during the Civil War was staggering. Because military necessity often placed a general officer at the head of the army, generals were killed leading hopeless charges (Lewis A. Armistead), engaging in skirmishes (J.E.B. Stuart), reconnoitering occupied territory (“Stonewall” Jackson) and mounting impossible frontal attacks (Patrick R. Cleburne). The cost was incalculable. Here, after all, were officers who—political favoritism aside—presumably rose to their rank because of their experience, judgment and valor, the men who were best qualified to achieve their respective armies’ objectives. And yet they fell in alarming numbers. At Franklin alone, the number of Confederate generals killed or wounded ran in the double digits.
Such a death was almost expected. However tragic a general’s demise might be, however demoralizing to his troops, it was a risk every soldier anticipated his leaders taking, sharing with the lowliest private the ultimate possibility of a noble, if gory, demise.
And then there were the generals whose violent departures had little if anything to do with the field of battle.
The killer was a Union general who bore the unenviable name of Jefferson C. Davis—a fact that doubtless caused him no end of embarrassment. Davis was born in 1828 near the town of Charleston, Ind., and had been soldiering since his teens, when he volunteered for service as a private in the Mexican War. As a lieutenant five years later, he fought in the last Seminole campaign. And when Fort Sumter was fired on in 1861, Davis was inside the walls, commanding a four-gun battery. Throughout the war, he demonstrated unusual bravery and tenacity in battle, and distinguished himself in the Blackwater Expedition and at Pea Ridge. He was made brigadier general of volunteers in May 1862.
After a brief leave due to illness and exhaustion, Davis reported in early September 1862 to General Horatio G. Wright, commanding the Army of the Ohio. Wright in turn directed Davis to report to his second in command, Maj. Gen. William Nelson, in Louisville, Ky. A worse pairing could not have been conceived.
At 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighing 125 pounds, Davis looked a bit hangdog and considerably older than his 34 years. Although generally quiet in his demeanor, he was often intractable and given to displays of temper. One biographer described Davis as “aggressive, feisty, and confrontational” with a “fiery and combative spirit.” The bombastic Nelson stood 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighed some 300 pounds—a veritable bearded, curly haired giant. Nelson was four years Davis’ senior and had joined the Navy as a midshipman in 1840. He, too, had seen his share of action and in 1847 had commanded a battery at the Battle of Vera Cruz. A lieutenant when the Civil War began, he swiftly rose to the rank of major general in Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio. Apparently Nelson was something of a bully and in his Navy days had been given the nickname “Bull.”
Further exacerbating the situation was the sectional enmity that existed between Indiana and Kentucky. Never one to mince words, Kentuckian Nelson was known to refer to Hoosiers as “poor trash”—an attitude unlikely to endear him to Jeff C. Davis, one of Indiana’s favorite sons. Davis, an Army veteran of countless engagements, might also have resented having to report to a man who had spent his entire career in the Navy and had only recently been given command of troops. And when Davis reported to Nelson, he was ordered to organize and train the “home guard”—an assignment Davis almost certainly would have considered beneath him.
Some, or perhaps all, of these factors were at play when, two days after receiving his assignment, Davis reported to Nelson at the Galt House, a luxurious hotel that also served as Army offices and Nelson’s quarters. Nelson asked Davis for the number of troops mustered and the number of weapons required. When Davis replied, “I don’t know,” Nelson became indignant. He then asked for details relating to recently formed regiments and companies, and again Davis answered that he didn’t know. Davis later averred that after only two days on the job and still lacking some crucial reports, he couldn’t possibly have answered otherwise.
Nelson exploded. Rising to his full height, he dressed Davis down: “But you should know. I am disappointed in you, General Davis. I selected you for this duty because you are an officer in the regular Army, but I find I made a mistake.”
According to Maj. Gen. James B. Fry, Buell’s chief of staff, an old friend of Davis and a witness to the encounter:
“Davis arose and remarked in a cool, deliberate manner:
“‘General Nelson, I am a regular soldier, and I demand the treatment due to me as a general officer….I demand from you the courtesy due to my rank.’
“Nelson replied: ‘I will treat you as you deserve. You have disappointed me; you have been unfaithful to the trust I have reposed in you, and I shall relieve you at once….You will proceed to Cincinnati and report to General Wright.’
“Davis said: ‘You have no authority to order me.’
“Nelson turned toward the Adjutant General and said: ‘Captain, if General Davis does not leave the city by nine o’clock tonight, give instructions to the Provost-Marshal to see that he shall be put across the Ohio!’”
Furious, Davis reported to Wright, who defused the situation by temporarily reassigning him. On September 25, Buell took over from Nelson, and Wright felt it safe to send Davis back to Louisville. Davis was elated with the assignment; he relished a chance to serve under Buell as he planned a major campaign against the Rebels in Kentucky. On September 29, Davis entered the Galt House to report and immediately found himself among several friends, including Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton. Shortly thereafter, Nelson entered the hotel. Davis, still smarting from the insult, approached Nelson and demanded an apology. Morton stood near enough to hear the exchange, as did the ubiquitous Fry. According to Fry, Nelson answered, “No!” and “said in a loud voice for all to hear, ‘Go away, you damned puppy, I don’t want anything to do with you!’”
Davis was holding a piece of paper, which—as the shocked assemblage watched—he wadded up and flicked into Nelson’s face; a startled Nelson responded by slapping Davis with the back of his hand. He made an indignant comment to Morton, and stalked away toward the staircase leading to his room. Infuriated, Davis borrowed a pistol from a friend, and walking to within three feet of Nelson, shot the unarmed general in the chest. Nelson, mortally wounded, managed to climb the stairs before he collapsed. “Send for a clergyman,” he gasped, “I wish to be baptized. I have been basely murdered.”
Fry immediately arrested Davis, who pleaded that, while he had sought an apology, it was never his intention to shoot Nelson. The shooting created a furor among the officers at the hotel, some of whom called for Davis’ immediate hanging. Buell, who had doted on Nelson, was outraged and considered the act “a high crime and gross violation of military discipline.” He wanted to take swift action, but timing worked in Davis’ favor.
With his huge offensive in the works, Buell simply could not spare the officers or the time needed to convene a court-martial, and requested that Davis be tried in Washington. Morton lobbied on Davis’ behalf, however, and nothing further was made of the affair. After a week of incarceration, Davis was released, and within two weeks of murdering “Bull” Nelson, he was given division command in General William S. Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland. He fought gallantly throughout the remaining years of the war, but he would always be remembered as the only Union general to have murdered a brother officer.
George Wythe Baylor was not a man to trifle with. A strapping 6-foot-2-inch Texas frontiersman, he had killed more than his share of men. Baylor harbored a psychopathic hatred of Indians, once boasting that he had “killed and scalped six Indians one morning before breakfast.” He listed his occupation as “Indian killer” in the 1860 census and chronicled his deeds of mayhem in a local newspaper.
When the war broke out, Baylor was reputedly the first man in Austin to raise the Confederate flag. He served briefly as General Albert Sidney Johnston’s senior aide-de-camp. After Johnston’s death at Shiloh, Baylor returned to Texas as lieutenant colonel and commander in Henry H. Sibley’s Second Battalion. He commanded a cavalry regiment in the Red River Campaign of 1864, twice receiving commendations for gallantry.
In 1864 Baylor found himself under the command of Maj. Gen. John Austin Wharton. A Texan since infancy and an educated and cultured man, Wharton had distinguished himself as a lawyer and plantation owner, and had married the daughter of the governor of South Carolina. Baylor’s biographer describes Wharton as a “wealthy and arrogant orator and jurist,” but he also was a brave soldier. When the war began, he enlisted as a captain in Company B, 8th Texas Cavalry—the famed Terry’s Texas Rangers—and was soon commissioned a colonel. Wharton fought courageously at Shiloh and Murfreesboro, sustaining wounds in both actions. After distinguishing himself at Chickamauga, he was promoted to major general and given command of the Rebel cavalry in the Trans-Mississippi Department in Louisiana.
John Wharton almost made it through the war alive, but shortly before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, fate brought him together with George Wythe Baylor. The trouble began when Wharton dressed Baylor down for failing to attack a Union line—an allegation the prickly Baylor vigorously denied. Next day, a number of the brigade’s colonels—including Baylor—were treated to another of Wharton’s tongue-lashings. Around this time, Baylor discovered his wife was deathly ill, and he requested leave. Generals Edmund Kirby Smith, John G. Walker, Walter P. Lane and John Bankhead Magruder gave their approval, but Wharton wrote on the request, “I know nothing of Mrs. Baylor’s health. Colonel Baylor is needed with his regiment.” Baylor interpreted this as a challenge to his veracity. “Here was a pretty broad hint,” he later wrote, “that I had lied to get an extension of my furlough!”
Then came the final affront. Baylor saw no reason why he should remain a colonel when he had commanded a brigade throughout the campaign. He put his case to Wharton, who—according to Baylor—promised him a promotion to the rank of brigadier general. Wharton then proceeded to “dismount” Baylor’s regiment—reduce them to the status of infantry, a serious insult to the Texas horsemen—and placed Baylor under the command of David S. Terry, a junior colonel to whom Wharton had also promised a generalship. Terry, a known scoundrel, was Wharton’s close friend and a particular personal enemy of Baylor.
Baylor’s ego could take no more. He sent word to Wharton that he would see him in hell before he served under Terry. He then set out for Houston to put his case before General Magruder. Unfortunately, Baylor ran into Wharton, who was passing by in General J.E. Harrison’s carriage, and a battle of words commenced. Baylor accused Wharton of doing him an injustice and called him a demagogue; Wharton responded by calling Baylor a “damned liar.” Baylor lunged at Wharton, and after a brief exchange of blows, Baylor stepped back and half-drew his Navy Colt. Harrison attempted to drive away, but Wharton restrained him. After a few more harsh words, the combatants agreed to direct their hostility at the enemy and settle their differences after the war.
Baylor, enraged and frustrated, sought out Magruder in his private quarters at the Fannin Hotel. Magruder attempted to calm his furious subordinate, then left for a few moments, whereupon an angry but unsuspecting Wharton—also seeking Magruder—entered the room in the company of General Harrison. The war of words began anew and quickly escalated. As Baylor later recalled, Wharton “struck me a glancing blow on my cheek, throwing me on my back on the bed,” from which position Baylor raised both feet and kicked the general in the stomach. Harrison jumped between them, whereupon Baylor drew his revolver and shot Wharton in the side; he died almost at once. Harrison braced Baylor and said, “Colonel, he was totally unarmed!” Baylor, writing later, claims to have fired on the assumption that Wharton was armed, or “I should never have used my pistol.” More likely Baylor simply drew and fired in the heat of anger, with no thought as to whether his adversary had a weapon.
Baylor was arrested on the spot. Wharton’s friends were rumored to have formed a lynch mob, but nothing came of it. The war ended before a court-martial could be convened, and Baylor’s case was transferred to the civil courts. John Wharton had been an only child, and his wealthy and embittered mother did everything in her power to see Baylor convicted. The case dragged on for three years, ending in a hung jury, and six months later, in an acquittal.
After the war, George Baylor worked at a number of professions before finally re-joining the Rangers and resuming his chosen calling—Indian fighting. Baylor was permanently scarred by the murder of John Austin Wharton and spent the rest of his life either justifying the deed or expressing his sadness over it. In 1898 he wrote that Wharton “struck me in the face and called me a liar. He ought to have known I would resent it at once, for he had seen me in battle.” Yet friends and relatives noted he could not mention the incident without tears. “I trust everyone who knows me personally,” he wrote, “will believe me when I say the whole thing was a matter of sorrow and regret to me.”
The Civil War was fought in an age when flair counted for nearly as much in society as character—and a number of generals outdid themselves. The North had Custer. With his starred sailor’s blouse, silk cravat and broad-brimmed hat, the “boy general” cut an unmistakable figure. But for sheer flamboyance, no one outdid the soldiers of the romantic South. Many, including J.E.B. Stuart, John Hunt Morgan and the diminutive “Gray Ghost” John Singleton Mosby, affected the appearance of the beau sabreur. George Pickett’s curly locks were so heavily perfumed that the scent was said to precede him into a room. But the pantheon of cavalier dandies would not be complete without General Earl Van Dorn. What he lacked in height—he stood only 5 feet 5 inches tall—he more than compensated for in overweening self-satisfaction. A fine horseman and self-styled poet and painter, Van Dorn cultivated his appearance to reflect his talents. A photograph of Van Dorn shows a reasonably handsome man with styled pomaded hair, a flowing mustache and collar, and velvet cape and waistcoat. The portrait suggests Lord Byron rather than a professional soldier—an image cultivated to further his other main interest: Married though he was, Van Dorn loved the ladies, and apparently it didn’t matter whether they were already spoken for. One Vicksburg reporter branded him “the terror of ugly husbands and serious papas.” Ultimately, the womanizing proved the general’s undoing.
As a soldier, Van Dorn proved something of a disappointment. His military career had started brightly enough. He fought in Mexico, where he was twice wounded and his gallantry in battle earned him two promotions. After the Mexican War, Van Dorn fought the Seminoles in Florida, and the Comanches in Texas and the Indian Territory. He was wounded four more times—twice seriously—by Comanche arrows.
Van Dorn resigned from the U.S. Army when his native Mississippi left the Union. In April 1861, as commander of the Confederate forces in Texas, he so impressed the South’s War Department that they brought him back to Richmond and gave him command of Virginia’s cavalry—the pride of the Confederacy. By the turn of the year, he was a major general in charge of the new Trans-Mississippi District. Earl Van Dorn’s star was clearly on the rise.
Soon, however, cracks began to appear in the plaster. Van Dorn played a significant part in the Southern defeat at Pea Ridge in early 1862. It was one of the rare instances in which Rebel forces outnumbered Yankee troops and lost. While Van Dorn was a fine cavalry officer, strategy was not his forte, and he was proving incapable of handling high command. Nor could he accept responsibility for his failures. In his official report, Van Dorn excused his role in the defeat by claiming “a series of accidents entirely unforeseen and not under my control and a badly-disciplined army defeated my intentions.” Writing to Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin, Van Dorn indulged in semantics: “I was not defeated, but only foiled in my intentions.” So poorly did he perform at the Second Battle of Corinth that he was accused of drunkenness, negligence, disregard for his men’s welfare and failure to adequately plan his charges. After his costly defeats at Pea Ridge and Corinth, Van Dorn’s embittered troops gave him a nickname: “Damn Born.” He was brought before a court of inquiry and, although acquitted, Van Dorn had commanded his last army. From then on, he was restricted to smaller commands, where his talents were better used.
Meanwhile, Van Dorn’s extracurricular activities did not go unattended. Assigned to command a cavalry division in the Army of Tennessee in early 1863, he made his headquarters in Spring Hill, Tenn., at the mansion of a local resident. In the vicinity lived a prominent middle-aged physician, land speculator and slave trader named George B. Peters, whose young wife, Jessie, had caught the general’s roving eye. They reportedly carried on a torrid affair, until one day in early May, when the outraged doctor walked up behind Van Dorn as he sat writing at his desk and shot him in the back of the head.
The details of the killing are shrouded in mystery. Some versions have Van Dorn writing a pass for Dr. Peters when he was shot. Other versions suggest there had been no illicit affair, and Peters was simply a Federal sympathizer acting for political reasons or profit. In any case, the shot was instantly fatal, depriving the Confederacy of a decent cavalry officer, Mrs. Van Dorn of her husband, Jessie Peters of a lover and the general himself of the opportunity to redeem his reputation in the field.
Peters was arrested but escaped prosecution, claiming Van Dorn had “violated the sanctity of his home.” This was an offense the South could not forgive, and the Southern press was brutal in its condemnation. “It is a happy riddance,” the Atlanta Confederacy trumpeted. “He was unfit to live.” And according to the Montgomery Weekly Advertiser, “The impression around Spring Hill is that Van Dorn was rightly killed.” The Advertiser goes on to say that Mrs. Peters—on hearing of Van Dorn’s death—exclaimed that “she was a widow indeed, as her husband had fled, and her sweetheart was dead.” The couple did, in fact, divorce, but later reconciled.
Throughout the war, there was no lack of enmity between generals—especially among the Confederates. Thin skins, the constant stress of war and the cultural expectation of manly conduct ensured that honor was easily offended.
Conflicts generally stopped short of bloodshed, but the possibility of mortal confrontation was never far removed. In a time when the horror of war was everywhere, and when violent death was an accepted part of daily life, it was inevitable that the fine line between defensible conduct and homicide would be crossed. Given the circumstances, it is not remarkable that three generals were murdered; it is, however, more than curious that none of the murderers—for murderers they clearly were—was ever punished.