(September 28, 2012) - On this date in 1862, bad blood was brewing between two Civil War generals that would end in fatal gunplay.
Both brass hats were Yankees. One had almost the same name as the Rebel president.
Gen. Jefferson C. Davis of Indiana shot and killed Gen. William O. "Bull" Nelson of Kentucky at the old Galt House Hotel in Louisville on Sept. 29, 1862.
The bizarre slaying triggered a rumor that the Confederacy’s Jefferson Davis had somehow sneaked into town and assassinated Nelson, according to City of Conflict: Louisville in the Civil War 1861-1865 by Robert Emmett McDowell.
Anyway, a state historical society marker at Second and Main streets, the hotel site, commemorates the 1862 assassination, one of the strangest episodes in America’s bloodiest war. (The current Galt House is at 140 N. 4th St.)
At 6-4 and 300 pounds, Nelson, from Maysville, was a big target. “He was said to be pretty mean and nasty-tempered, too,” said George H. Yater, who wrote Two Hundred Years at the Falls of the Ohio: A History of Louisville and Jefferson County.
Nelson hated Hoosiers, and Davis was from Indiana. The two started feuding after the Confederates invaded Kentucky in August, 1862.
The Rebel forces threatened Louisville, where Nelson was in command. He charged Davis, who was under him, with incompetence. But Davis wasn’t the only Indiana Yankee stung by Nelson’s wrath.
The Kentuckian claimed another Hoosier general’s “stupidity and disobedience” lost the battle of Richmond, Ky., to the Rebels. Nelson was wounded in the fight.
He also tried to hound an Indiana colonel out of the army, claiming the officer had “pusillanimously” run from the Rebels in a scrap at Lexington, McDowell wrote.
Never mind that Davis’ parents were Bluegrass State-born. Nelson claimed Indiana was inhabited by “uncouth descendants of ‘poor trash’ from the mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina,” according to McDowell.
Davis didn’t confront Nelson solo. With him were Indiana Gov. Oliver P. Morton, a powerful political ally of Lincoln; and Thomas W. Gibson, a Louisville lawyer and Indiana native, McDowell added.
Davis told Nelson he had insulted him. He demanded satisfaction from the Kentucky giant. “Go away, you damned puppy,” Nelson roared, according to McDowell. “I don’t want anything to do with you.”
Davis flipped a crumpled hotel card in Nelson’s face. Nelson slapped Davis, then walked toward the stairs.
Enraged, Davis grabbed Gibson’s pistol and shot the unarmed Nelson in the chest. Nelson managed to climb the steps, but collapsed at the top. “Send for a clergyman,” McDowell quoted the general’s dying whisper. “I wish to be baptized. I have been brutally murdered.”
Nelson died minutes later.
Davis pleaded self-defense though Nelson was weaponless. He was briefly jailed but released and restored to duty. He fought in several battles and survived the war.
Kentucky Unionists were outraged when Davis was not punished for shooting Nelson. They charged that the Hoosier got away with murder thanks to his friend Morton, who used his political pull to prevent a trial. McDowell said the governor helped perpetrate a “cold-blooded and cynical miscarriage of justice.” He praised Nelson as a hero who was “murdered with impunity.”
-- 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.