Deadly Altercation
The Shooting of Major General William "Bull" Nelson


     In a war fought with so many top ranking field commanders there will always be disputes among them, however few go beyond a hot tempered argument with a compromise of sorts to follow. On the 29th of September 1862, one of the few had taken a deadly turn. Brigadier General Jefferson Columbus Davis had murdered Major General William "Bull" Nelson in the lobby of the Galt House Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky.

     This event flared up from a sensor that Davis received in the handling of his recent assignment to organize the Kentucky Militia in defense of a state about to be invaded. Unsatisfied with the progress made, the three hundred pound superior dismissed his subordinate to Cincinnati, Ohio. Nelson wanted nothing more to do with him.

     General Davis did not take the insult lightly and before many days, he returned to Louisville with his friend, Governor Oliver P. Morton of Indiana. Confronting his boss over the matter in the lobby of Galt House, Nelson did not wish to hear anymore, however, Davis demanded satisfaction. As his answer, Nelson brashly slapped Davis' face, the added insult provoked Davis, who, moments later produced a pistol, and shot him close to the heart, dying minutes later.

     Davis attempted to explain himself to the Army's commander, Major General Don Carlos Buell, who decidedly favored Nelson very much. His appeal fell on deaf ears as he was placed under arrest with charges pending.

     In kind, Nelson's death was officially announced to the Army of the Ohio in General Orders Number 47a, painting precisely the opposite picture of what General Davis had killed him for. Nelson, a disciplinarian, would not tolerate disobedience or neglect of public duty, however, no one in the eyes of the army commander was more prompt to recognize and foster merit in his inferiors. The affair seemed to be going against the man holding the smoking gun.

     Major General Don Carlos Buell had notified Washington of the incident and placed Davis under arrest making recommendations that a military commission or trial by court martial be served back in Washington City rather than Kentucky. Both armies at the moment were imminently about to clash somewhere north of Tennessee.

     While Davis waited, Buell's command and control of events in Kentucky fell under scrutiny by the Washington officials, and with no formal charges thus pending against Davis for the murder, the event was almost entirely forgotten about. Kentucky filed no formal charges, nor did the army and later appealing for field command, Jefferson Davis returned to combat duty.

     He spent the latter half of the war touring through Georgia with the three great northern armies blazing a path from Atlanta to the Atlantic Ocean. Although, talented enough for higher command, the stained brigadier never rose in rank from there on out. Ego deflating as that may have been, it was certainly an inexpensive price to pay when you've just taken the life of your superior officer and all in the name of insult and injury.


Dan (Aldie) Daniel Moran
© 2002

Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at dmoran@us-civilwar.net