William "Bull" Nelson - Facts

September 27, 1824 - September 29, 1862

Key facts about William "Bull" Nelson who simultaneously served as a major general in the U.S. Volunteer Army and as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War.

William Bull Nelson, General, USA, Civil War, LOC

On September 29, 1862, Union Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis shot and killed William Nelson after a heated argument in the Galt Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. Military officials never tried Davis for Nelson’s death. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Full Name:

  • William Nelson

Birth Date:

  • September 27, 1824

Birth Location:

  • Maysville, Kentucky


  • Thomas Washington Nelson and Frances “Francie” Doniphan Nelson


  • Naval School (now the United States Naval Academy)


  • Naval officer, Army officer

Career Summary:

  • U.S. Navy lieutenant commander
  • U.S. Volunteer Army major general


  • None


  • Bull

Place of Death:

  • Louisville, Kentucky

Date of Death:

  • September 29, 1862

Place of Burial:

  • Maysville Cemetery, Maysville, Kentucky


  • William Nelson was the third of four children and youngest of three sons born to Thomas Washington Nelson and Frances “Francie” Doniphan Nelson.
  • William Nelson’s father was a prominent physician who also served in the Kentucky state legislature and on the board of trustees of Transylvania University.
  • William Nelson received his primary education at the Maysville Academy.
  • At age thirteen, in 1840, William Nelson enrolled at Norwich University, a military school in Vermont.
  • William Nelson received an appointment as a midshipman in the U.S. Navy on January 28, 1840.
  • When the Naval School (now the United States Naval Academy) was established in 1845, Nelson received an appointment to the first class of fifty midshipmen.
  • William Nelson graduated from the Naval School on July 1, 1846, and was assigned the rank of “passed midshipman” (a midshipman who had passed the lieutenant’s exam and was eligible for promotion to lieutenant as soon as there was a vacancy in that grade).
  • During the Mexican-American War, William Nelson served at the Siege of Veracruz and during the Tabasco Expedition.
  • On September 19, 1854, William Nelson was promoted to sailing master, and shortly thereafter, on April 18, 1855, he achieved the rank of lieutenant.
  • In 1858, Nelson served aboard the U.S.S. Niagara on a mission to return native Africans who had been illegally transported to North America aboard the slave ship Echo.
  • When the Civil War erupted, President Abraham Lincoln approved William Nelson’s plan to arm loyal Kentuckians.
  • On July 1, 1861, William Nelson received instructions from the adjutant general of the army to muster troops in Tennessee and Kentucky.
  • During the summer of 1861, William Nelson established Camp Dick Robinson, a training facility about thirty-five miles south of Lexington.
  • On September 16, 1861, William Nelson was commissioned as a brigadier general in the U.S. Volunteer Army (General Orders, No. 106) and he was placed in command of Federal troops operating in Eastern Kentucky.
  • In October 1861, Nelson led twelve units on the Big Sandy Expedition to drive Colonel John S. William’s Confederate forces out of Eastern Kentucky.
  • On November 8-9, 1861, Federal troops commanded by William Nelson were victorious at the Battle of Ivy Mountain.
  • On December 2, 1861, Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell issued Special Orders, No. 19 (Department of the Ohio) organizing the soldiers under his command into five divisions and assigning William Nelson to command of the 4th Division of the Army of the Ohio.
  • On February 25, 1862, William Nelson’s division marched into Nashville unopposed, making it the first Confederate capital to fall into Union hands during the Civil War.
  • During the night of April 6-7, 1862, William Nelson’s command played a major role in the Union victory at the Battle of Shiloh.
  • From April 29-May 30, 1862, William Nelson’s command took part in the Siege of Corinth.
  • On August 2, 1862, the War Department published General Orders, No. 93 announcing William Nelson’s promotion to Major General in the Volunteer Army, effective July 17, 1862.
  • On July 16, 1862, William Nelson was promoted to the rank of lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy.
  • In August 1862, Major General Horatio Wright placed William Nelson in command of two brigades that would become known as the Union Army of Kentucky.
  • On August 29-30, 1862, General Kirby Smith’s Confederate Army of Kentucky badly defeated William Nelson’s Union Army of Kentucky at the Battle of Richmond (Kentucky).
  • William Nelson was shot in the thigh while trying to rally his troops during the Battle of Richmond on August 30, 1862.
  • On September 29, 1862, Union Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis shot and killed William Nelson after a heated argument in the Galt Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky.
  • Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis was never tried for murdering William Nelson.
  • On the day following his murder, William Nelson was temporarily interred at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville. Two months later, his remains were moved to Camp Dick Robinson. On March 8, 1872, his body was moved to its final resting place in his family plot at Maysville Cemetery in Maysville, Kentucky.
  • William Nelson was a hulk of a man, standing over six feet four inches tall and weighing in excess of 300 pounds.
  • William Nelson’s nickname was “Bull.”
  • Camp Nelson, established in Jessamine County, Kentucky, in 1863, was named for William Nelson and served as a major recruiting and training base of African American Kentucky troops.
  • Nelson was the only naval officer to become a major general for either side during the Civil War.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title William "Bull" Nelson - Facts
  • Date September 27, 1824 - September 29, 1862
  • Author
  • Keywords William "Bull" Nelson
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 16, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 12, 2024