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The burly "Bull" takes command
General William O. Nelson - from Wikipedia

(August 17, 2012) - On this date in 1862, an ex-navy lieutenant turned army major general was the new Union commander in Kentucky.

     Mason County native William O. Nelson was the only naval officer to become a two-star general in the Civil War. He was also one of the largest commanders in blue or gray. The burly, bearded Nelson was six-feet-four and weighed 300-pounds, hence his nickname “Bull.”

     "No commander during the war enjoyed the confidence of his troops in greater degree than did General Nelson,” said Maj. General Don Carlos Buell, who named the Kentuckian to command in the Bluegrass State.

     Though he was a sizeable target, Nelson had emerged unscathed from the Battle of Shiloh. Fought on April 6-7, 1862, it was one of the bloodiest battles of America's bloodiest war.

     Like many Union and Confederate generals, Nelson was a combat veteran of the Mexican-American War. But he was a naval officer, a midshipman who was presented a sword for his bravery.

     Having spent considerable time aboard warships at sea, Nelson, promoted to lieutenant in 1855, was ashore at the Washington Navy Yard in when the Civil War started in April, 1861. A staunch Unionist, he was eager to help keep his native state from seceding.

     A majority of Kentuckians were pro-Union, too. But Union supporters feared Gov. Beriah Magoffin, a Southern sympathizer, might use the well-armed, pro-Confederate Kentucky State Guard to force the state out of the Union.

     Kentucky Union men sought weapons from the federal government to offset the State Guard. Nelson visited President Abraham Lincoln in early May and persuaded “him that the Kentucky Unionists should be afforded arms immediately,” E. Merton Coulter wrote in The Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky.

     The president put Nelson in charge of an initial consignment of 5,000 arms. The ordnance was shipped to Cincinnati for distribution to pro-Union Home Guards which were being organized statewide, Coulter added.

     Nelson ordered some of the weapons to Louisville and hastened to the Falls City himself to see Joshua F. Speed, a friend of the president’s. Nelson and Speed were to plan how the weapons were to be parceled out, according to Coulter.

     At the same time, a small group of leading Unionists, including Senators John J. Crittenden and Garret Davis, gathered in Frankfort, the state capital, “where in a session lasting almost all night, allotments were made and methods of distribution were formulated,” the author wrote, explaining that “a nominal price of one dollar apiece was charged against those receiving these ‘Lincoln guns,’ as they soon came to be called."

     After the Union party increased their majorities in the legislature in the August, 1861, elections, Nelson helped open Camp Dick Robinson, the first recruiting point for Union troops on Kentucky soil. Located in strongly Unionist Garrard County, the camp was named for the owner of the farm on which it was laid out.

     Gov. Magoffin protested that Camp Dick Robinson violated Kentucky neutrality, which he had proclaimed in May. But the facility stayed.

     Nelson’s work did not go unrewarded. He was made a brigadier general in September, 1861, when Kentucky abandoned neutrality for outright support for the Union war effort.

     Afterwards, Nelson commanded a brigade of Kentucky and Ohio volunteers who swept the Confederates out of eastern Kentucky, decisively defeating the enemy at the Battle of Ivy Mountain in Floyd County on Nov. 8, 1861. He was promoted to major general in July, 1862.

     Though beloved by his troops, Nelson had a volcanic temper that would contribute to his death—at the hand of a fellow Yankee general.

    -- 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 berry.craig@kctcs.edu.

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