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“I Have Been Basely Murdered”
So spoke the Union general a few minutes after he was shot in the crowded lobby of a hotel in Louisville. His killer, a fellow general and subordinate, never regretted the deed—and never paid for it
August 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 5
Nelson had been in Louisville for a little more than three weeks. The city was full of refugees, running north to get out of the way of the Confederate invaders; various detachments of partly trained troops were coming in; and it was up to Nelson to check panic, restore order, and prepare for a big fight. In many ways he was just the man for it: huge, imposing, imperious in manner, hot-tempered, a stout patriot, and an executive of vast energy. When he left the Navy for the Army, in the summer of 1861, the Secretary of War had sent him to his native Kentucky to raise troops for the Union. He was a successful recruiter and deserved a good deal of the credit for keeping Kentucky in the Union column. A veteran of the great Battle of Shiloh, he had been slightly wounded in the fight at Richmond. Buell considered him one of his ablest lieutenants, and now he was trying to perfect the defenses of Louisville.
Nelson’s voice and manner matched his size. He bellowed his orders, swore like a mule skinner, and drove soldiers and civilians ruthlessly. He was used to the harsh discipline of the regular Navy, and he tended to be somewhat tactless; it is no surprise to learn that he was commonly known as “Bull” Nelson.
Two anecdotes tell something of his quality. In one battle, leading raw troops into action, he saw the men flinching and dodging as the bullets whined about. He reassured them by shouting jovially: “If they don’t hit me you needn’t be afraid, for if they can’t hit me they can’t hit the side of a barn.” Another time, in camp, a burly civilian hired to haul forage came angrily to headquarters demanding his overdue wages. Nelson was asleep in his tent, and one of his aides—recently a civilian, something of a wag, and wholly unindoctrinated about the respect due a major general—sent the man to Nelson’s tent, telling him to go in, waken the big fat man, and insist on his money: the fat man, he said, was especially hired to pay teamsters, and although he was bad-tempered he would finally pay if the teamster really insisted. The teamster, armed with a loaded whip, broke into the tent—and nearly got murdered before the matter was at last explained. The aide lost his connection with Nelson’s staff forthwith.
This, then, was Bull Nelson: hard-driving, coarse, able. He was working hard at Louisville, and at first he was glad to have Davis, a Regular Army veteran, on hand to help. He immediately gave him the job of organizing and arming the local citizens and the refugees who kept piling into the city.
The contrast between the two men could hardly have been greater. Davis was quiet, obliging, humorous in disposition, brave, and ambitious; slight, standing less than five feet nine inches and weighing only 125 pounds, blue-eyed, sallow, and rather dyspeptic-looking. He was reputed to rival Nelson as a talented user of profanity.
Shortly after the middle of September, when Davis had been on duty a couple of days, Nelson questioned him about his progress. The interview took place in the Gait House, a hotel where Nelson had established his headquarters.
“Well, Davis,” Nelson asked, “how are you getting along with your command?”
“I don’t know,” said Davis.
“How many regiments have you organized?”
“I don’t know.”
“How many companies have you?”
“I don’t know.”
“But you should know!” Nelson snapped, rising from his chair. “I am disappointed in you, General Davis. I selected you for this duty because you are an officer of the Regular Army, but I find I made a mistake.” Davis was stung and stood on ceremony. “General Nelson, I am a Regular soldier, and I demand the treatment due me as a general officer.” He noticed that the door to the office of Dr. Irwin, the medical director, was open, and called to the medical director to witness the conversation.
Nelson was exasperated at Davis for standing on his rank. “I will treat you as you deserve! You have disappointed me, you have been unfaithful to the trust which I reposed in you, and I shall relieve you at once.” He paused to catch his breath. “You are relieved from duty here, and you will proceed to Cincinnati and report to General Wright.”
“You have no authority to order me,” Davis retorted. He was wrong, since Nelson outranked him, although Davis may have considered that he was responsible to Wright, who outranked Nelson.
Nelson turned to his adjutant general, Captain Kendrick, who had just joined them. “Captain, if General Davis does not leave the city by nine o’clock tonight, give instructions to the provost marshal to see that he shall be put across the Ohio.”
This account of their conversation is probably reliable. Newspapers at the time reported in summary form much the same argument. Whatever the exact words, it is clear that Davis felt Nelson had insulted him, and his service in Louisville came to an abrupt end. In the circumstances related, a disciplinarian would say that Davis had indeed made a poor showing and deserved a rebuke.
Major General Buell and his army arrived in Louisville at midnight on September 24. The city was now presumably safe against Confederate attack, and Buell began preparations at once to take the offensive and recover the lost ground. Wright ordered Davis back to Louisville to report to Buell and to take command of his division, which was now part of Buell’s army.