General Jefferson C. Davis shot and killed General Bull Nelson
(November 2, 2012) - On this date in 1862, Union Gen. Jefferson C. Davis of Indiana was expecting to be tried for killing Gen. William O "Bull" Nelson of Kentucky. A Jefferson County grand jury had just indicted the Hoosier brass hat for manslaughter.
On September 29, 1862, Davis and Nelson, his superior officer, got into an argument at the old Galt House Hotel in Louisville. After Nelson slapped Davis, the Indianan shot and mortally wounded the Kentuckian, who at 6-4 and 300 pounds must have been a target hard to miss.
Davis was immediately arrested and the next day, Nelson, a Maysville native, was buried in Louisville's Cave Hill Cemetery. The fatal dustup was something of a distraction for Gen. Don Carlos Buell, superior to both Davis and Nelson. He and his army were trying to run the Confederate forces of Gens. Braxton Bragg and Edmund Kirby Smith out of Kentucky.
On Oct. 3, five days before Buell would meet Bragg at the Battle of Perryville, Buell sent a telegram to Gen. Henry W. Halleck, Union army general-in-chief, in Washington, seeking permission to convene a military tribunal to try Davis. Halleck contacted Gen. Horatio G. Wright in Cincinnati. Wright said that since Buell himself had not charged Davis with killing Nelson, Davis should be restored to duty and not punished.
Davis was never tried, purportedly because the Yankees concluded they couldn't afford to lose a capable commander like him. At the same time, Davis was friends with Indiana Gov. Oliver H. Morton, who was present when he shot Nelson. Morton was an important ally of President Abraham Lincoln.
In any event, Davis went back to fighting the Confederates. Kentucky civil authorities were outraged, but powerless to try Davis. Yet in 1863, they named a large Union base in Jessamine County for him. Camp Nelson became the largest recruit depot for African American troops in Kentucky. (Columbus was second.) Later in 1863, Nelson's remains were transferred from Cave Hill to Camp Nelson. After the Civil War, he was reburied in his family's plot in Maysville.
Nelson's name also lives on in the Camp Nelson National Cemetery. It is near the site of Camp Nelson, which is preserved as a park.
-- Berry Craig is a professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and is the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers and Hidden History of Western Kentucky. The books are being sold to raise money for scholarships at WKCTC. They are available by contacting Craig by phone at (270) 534-3270 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org<email@example.com>.