William Nelson was born in Maysville, Kentucky, on September 27, 1824. He was the third of four children and youngest of three sons born to Thomas Washington Nelson and Frances “Francie” Doniphan Nelson. The elder Nelson was a prominent physician who also served in the Kentucky state legislature and on the board of trustees of Transylvania University.
Raised in an affluent household, William Nelson received his primary education at the Maysville Academy. At age thirteen, in 1840, he enrolled at Norwich University, a military school in Vermont. After studying at Norwich for two years, Nelson received an appointment as a midshipman in the U.S. Navy on January 28, 1840.
Assigned for duty aboard the Delaware in April 1840, Nelson spent the better part of the next five years sailing around the globe on various tours of duty. During that time, he also served on the Yorktown, Shark, Erie, and Falmouth.
U.S. Naval Academy
When the federal government established the Naval School (now the United States Naval Academy) in 1845, Nelson received an appointment to the first class of fifty midshipmen. A few months later, Nelson volunteered for naval duty when war with Mexico erupted. Although he had attended the Naval School for less than a year, Nelson passed a battery of examinations and graduated on July 1, 1846. The Navy then assigned Nelson to 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, Nelson first saw action with the fleet that supported General Winfield Scott‘s invasion of Central Mexico. He then went ashore as a member of Naval Battery No. 5 and took part in the bombardment and Siege of Veracruz in March 1847. Subsequently, in June 1847, he served as a member of a flotilla of nine warships during Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s Tabasco Expedition.
Following the Mexican-American War, Nelson served in Florida, on Lake Erie, and in the Mediterranean Sea. On September 19, 1854, the Navy promoted him to the rank of sailing master. A few months later, on April 18, 1855, Nelson achieved the rank of lieutenant. In 1858, Nelson served aboard the U.S.S. Niagara on a mission to return native Africans who slavers had illegally transported to North America aboard the slave ship Echo.
Action in Kentucky
When the Civil War erupted, Nelson visited the White House and presented a plan to President Abraham Lincoln to arm Unionists in Kentucky. Lincoln approved the plan of his fellow Kentuckian and agreed to furnish Nelson with 5,000 muskets to distribute to loyalists in the Bluegrass State. By early June, Nelson had accomplished his mission, and he received another 5,000 guns to dispense in Kentucky. Nelson’s efforts buoyed the resolve of loyalists within the state and helped keep Kentucky in the Union.
On July 1, 1861, Nelson received instructions from the adjutant general of the army to “muster into the service of the United States five regiments of infantry and one regiment of cavalry in East Tennessee, and one regiment of infantry in West Tennessee . . . . You will also, at the same time, muster into the service, or designate some suitable person so to do, in Southeast Kentucky, three regiments of infantry, to be commanded and officered in the same manner as herein provided for the Tennessee regiments.” Nelson immediately moved to implement his orders and quickly established Camp Dick Robinson, a training facility about thirty-five miles south of Lexington.
Union Army Officer
On August 13, Nelson received additional authorization from the War Department to “accept and muster in wherever offered regiments for service in Tennessee and Kentucky in such numbers and of such arms as you may consider necessary for the best interests of the country.” One month later, on September 16, the War Department commissioned Nelson as a brigadier general in the U.S. Volunteer Army (General Orders, No. 106) and placed him 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, the two sides engaged in the Battle of Ivy Mountain. Following two days of fighting, Nelson’s soldiers prevailed and forced the Rebels to withdraw to Virginia.
On November 9, 1861, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 97, which dissolved the Department of the Cumberland and expanded the Department of the Ohio (including eastern Kentucky) commanded by Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell. Nearly one month later, on December 2, 1861, Buell issued Special Orders, No. 19 (Department of the Ohio) organizing the soldiers under his command into five divisions and assigning Nelson to command the 4th Division.
In February 1862, Buell sent Nelson and his division to Northern Tennessee to help Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant subdue Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. By the time Nelson arrived, Grant had already captured the Rebel stronghold, opening the way for the occupation of Nashville. Grant ordered Nelson to move upriver and occupy the city. On February 25, 1862, Nelson’s division marched into Nashville unopposed, making it the first Confederate capital to fall into Union hands during the Civil War. Buell entered Nashville with the rest of the Army of the Ohio the next day.
Battle of Shiloh
Following the fall of Nashville, President Lincoln issued War Order No. 3, which merged Major General Henry W. Halleck‘s command in the West by creating the Department of the Mississippi. The consolidation eliminated the Department of the Ohio and placed Buell and his army under Halleck’s command. Soon thereafter, Halleck ordered Grant to march his Army of the Tennessee south to Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, near the Tennessee-Mississippi border, to await the arrival of Buell’s Army of the Ohio. Halleck’s intention was to merge the two armies and move south to cut the Memphis & Charleston Railroad line at Corinth, Mississippi.
Before Buell arrived at Pittsburg Landing, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston‘s Army of the Mississippi surprised Grant’s bivouacked forces on the morning of April 6, 1862. In the ensuing confusion, many of the federal troops fled in panic. Others gradually formed battle lines and mounted some resistance, but the Rebels gradually drove the Yankees back to a defensive position behind Shiloh Church. As the first day of the Battle of Shiloh concluded, Grant’s men found themselves in a precarious situation.
Overnight, Nelson and his men hurried to the battlefield and reinforced Grant’s troops. They also secured a landing that enabled Buell to bring the rest of his army across the Tennessee River to Grant’s aid. On the morning of April 7, 1862, Grant and Buell launched a counterattack. Outnumbered and running low on ammunition, the Rebels began falling back. Despite several attempts to turn the tide, the Confederates gradually lost the ground that they had captured the previous day. Eventually, the Greycoats began an orderly retreat to Corinth, Mississippi.
Siege of Corinth
Following the Union victory at the Battle of Shiloh, Halleck assumed personal command of the combined armies of the Ohio, Mississippi, and Tennessee. On April 29, 1862, Halleck ordered his massive force of 120,000 soldiers to advance in three columns against the strategically important rail hub at Corinth. During the march on Corinth, Nelson’s 4th Division bolstered the center column, which the Army of the Ohio manned. From April 29-May 30, 1862, Nelson and his men took part in the successful one-month-long siege of the Confederate stronghold, forcing yet another Confederate retreat.
Major General of Volunteers
On August 2, 1862, the War Department published General Orders, No. 93 announcing Nelson’s promotion to major general in the volunteer army, effective July 17, 1862. While serving in the volunteer army, Nelson remained in the U.S. Navy, and on July 16, 1862, he received a promotion to the rank of lieutenant commander.
Confederate Heartland Campaign
Meanwhile, Rebel leaders were smarting from the string of Union victories in the West. On July 31, 1862, Major General Braxton Bragg and Major General Kirby Smith met at Chattanooga, Tennessee, and developed plans to reverse Confederate fortunes by launching a two-pronged invasion of Kentucky. On August 14, 1862, Smith put their stratagem into action when he headed north out of Knoxville with a force of roughly 15,000 soldiers. Two days later, he passed through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. Leaving roughly 9,000 soldiers behind to guard the gap, Smith headed north with 6,000 seasoned infantrymen and 850 cavalry troopers that would soon become the Confederate Army of Kentucky.
As Smith moved north, Buell sent Nelson back to Kentucky to “assume command of the troops arriving in Kentucky, to repel the threatened invasion of Kentucky . . .” When Nelson arrived in Louisville, on August 23, 1862, he learned that the War Department had issued General Orders, No. 112 on August 19, re-creating the Department of the Ohio under the command of Major General Horatio Wright. Unsure of who he reported to in the new command structure, Nelson wired General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck on the day he arrived in Louisville asking for instructions. Halleck responded on August 23 that “You and the officers under your command will remain in the new Department of Ohio, and render all possible assistance to General Wright in driving the enemy from Kentucky.”
Wright quickly dispatched Nelson to Lexington and placed him in command of Major General Lew Wallace‘s troops in central Kentucky with instructions to thwart Smith’s advancing Rebel army. When Nelson arrived at Lexington on August 24, 1862, he determined he had eight infantry regiments and one cavalry regiment near Richmond, Kentucky, about twenty-seven miles south of Lexington. Three days later, he complained to Wright that “there is no discipline among these troops. Straggling, marauding, plundering is the rule; good conduct the exception.” Despite anxieties about the fitness of his soldiers, Nelson reported he had organized them into two brigades commanded by Brigadier General Mahlon Dickerson Manson and Brigadier General Charles Cruft. By August 30, 1862, Wright had begun calling the two brigades under Nelson’s command the Union Army of Kentucky.
Soon after he arrived at Lexington, Nelson informed Wright that he feared Kirby Smith “has come up” and Nelson implored his superior to “Send me all the troops possible.” Wright promptly went to work trying to get the governors of the surrounding states to provide more soldiers to augment Nelson’s force at Richmond. In the meantime, Wright instructed Nelson “If enemy is in force get your troops together, and do not risk a general battle at Richmond unless you are sure of success.” Nelson ordered his brigade commanders to do the same.
On August 29, 1862, while Nelson was in Lexington, Manson’s brigade encountered the lead elements of Smith’s army south of Richmond. Despite Nelson’s previous instructions to fall back rather than risk a general engagement, Manson attacked Smith the next morning. On the other side, Smith did the same.
Battle of Richmond
On the morning of August 30, 1862, the two Armies of Kentucky engaged at the Battle of Richmond. After an early Union advance stalled, the Confederates began pushing the Yankees back. At about 10:30, the confidence of some inexperienced federal troops faltered. Individual soldiers turned and ran, prompting a mass disorganized retreat. Union officers reorganized their fleeing soldiers at Rogersville, but their attempts to hold a new line proved futile. Soon thereafter, Manson apprised Nelson that:
We have had severe battle this morning from 8 to 11; had to fall back, but are in good shape now; will fall back farther, near to town (Richmond). Enemy in large force and perhaps flanking us; some regiments behaved well, some badly. You should come at once with all re-inforcements you can.
Nelson quickly headed south to join his beleaguered army. In his after-action report written the next day, Nelson recalled that:
I went on to Richmond, and arrived upon the field about 2 o’clock and found the forces entirely disorganized. After much labor I succeeded in rallying them and forming a new line of battle, but the line was hopelessly broken and scattered and I was left on the field and am now having a ball cut out of my leg.
The Battle of Richmond was a resounding Confederate victory. During the fighting, Nelson barely escaped, but most of his 6,500 soldiers were not as fortunate. The Union Army of Kentucky suffered 5,553 casualties, including 206 killed, 844 wounded, and 4,303 captured or missing. On August 31, 1862, Wright dejectedly informed General-in-Chief Halleck that “Nelson has been badly beaten, I fear, in an encounter with the enemy near Richmond, Ky.; his force being, as he says, hopelessly broken and scattered.” Many Civil War scholars deem the Confederate triumph at the Battle of Richmond as the most sweeping victory by one side during the entire conflict.
Clash with Brigadier General Jefferson Columbus Davis
After his defeat at Richmond, Nelson returned to Louisville to recuperate. While there, General Wright charged Nelson with bolstering the city’s defenses in anticipation of an assault from Braxton Bragg’s Army of the Mississippi, which was moving north through Western Kentucky in tandem with Kirby Smith’s incursion into Central Kentucky. To help Nelson accomplish his task, Wright sent Brigadier General Jefferson Columbus Davis (not to be confused with Confederate President Jefferson Finis Davis) to Louisville.
In more ways than one, Nelson and Davis were opposites. Nelson was a hulk of a man, standing over six feet four inches tall and weighing over 300 pounds. Through his years at sea, he had developed a brutish nature that did not sit well with many of his subordinates and fellow officers. It is uncertain whether his size or his temperament contributed more to his acquisition of the nickname “Bull.”
Davis was a small man who weighed only about 125 pounds. As an officer in the regular army, he did not like Nelson’s notorious bullying. When Nelson upbraided Davis for his failure to perform up to Nelson’s expectations, Davis lashed back, prompting Nelson to order him back to Cincinnati. Davis used his dismissal as grounds to travel to Indianapolis and complain to his friend Governor Oliver P. Morton, who was a harsh critic of Nelson.
Murdered in Louisville
Upon hearing Davis’ grievances, Morton traveled with his maligned colleague to Louisville, along with Captain Thomas W. Gibson, to confront Nelson. On the morning of September 29, 1862, the three men encountered Nelson at the Galt Hotel as the general was finishing his breakfast. An argument ensued that prompted Davis to crumple a nearby card into a ball and dash it in Nelson’s face. Nelson responded by slapping Davis and walking away. Humiliated, Davis hastily borrowed Gibson’s pistol and followed his tormentor. As Davis approached Nelson, he shot the unarmed general in the chest at point-blank range. Nelson climbed the stairs leading to his room before collapsing. After being treated by a doctor and baptized by a minister who was in the hotel, Nelson died at 8:30 a.m., one-half hour after Davis shot him.
Curiously, the army never prosecuted Davis for his crime, even though several people witnessed the murder. Officials should have court-martialed Davis, but they never did, perhaps because of Morton’s influence, or because they needed Davis’ services in the Western Theater, or because they disliked Nelson. After the military did not act on Nelson’s behalf, civilian authorities filed charges in the Jefferson County Circuit Court. By then, the army had transferred Davis out of the court’s jurisdiction and no one ever pursued the matter.
On the day following Nelson’s murder, soldiers temporarily buried him at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville. Two months later, his remains were moved to Camp Dick Robinson. On March 8, 1872, Nelson’s body was moved to its final resting place in his family plot at Maysville Cemetery, Maysville, Kentucky.