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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
Early on the morning of September 29, Davis walked into the Gait House in strange company. With him was Thomas W. Gibson, a Louisville lawyer originally from Indiana, who had tried and failed to organize a civilian defense before Nelson had arrived in the city; an unnamed captain from Indiana who had been a companion of Davis in the Mexican War; and Governor Morton. It was said that the Governor was seeing to it that no more Indiana officers were replaced. As they crossed the lobby, Nelson emerged from the breakfast room. He went to the clerk’s desk, inquired for Buell, then turned around. Davis and his friends confronted him.
The Indiana general now charged Nelson with having insulted him and demanded satisfaction. Nelson told him to go away. Davis repeated his demand. If this was not a challenge to duel, it was at least a request for a public apology.
“Go away, you damned puppy!” Nelson cried. “I don’t want to have anything to do with youl”
Davis had picked up a card from the counter and crumpled it into a small wad. At these words he snapped it into Nelson’s face. Nelson slapped him with the back of his hand and turned to Morton.
“Did you come here, sir, to see me insulted?”
Yet it seems obvious that Morton knew in advance what Davis intended to do.
William Dudley Foulke, Morion’s biographer, exculpates his hero with a different story. He relates that on the fateful morning Nelson and Governor Morton were breakfasting together. When they went out into the lobby, Davis came up and demanded satisfaction for the previous day’s ill-treatment. Nelson then turned on the Governor with the question: “Did you come here to see me insulted?” Morion’s reply was: “You astonish me, General. You know I just had breakfast with you.” (This version astonishes this writer, too.)
From this point on, however, the siories are in agreemenl. According Io a more detailed accounl lold by Colonel James B. Fry, Buell’s chief of slaff, Nelson turned and walked upstairs toward his office and Buell’s room. Davis lost his head. He borrowed a revolverhe was unarmed—and stalked afier Nelson.
Meanwhile, Nelson had relraced his steps from the second floor. Davis met him and at the distance of a yard fired at his chest. Nelson was able to walk up the steps again before collapsing. The hotel manager and other officers aroused by the shot carried him into the closest room. He was breathing heavily.
“Send for a clergyman,” he murmured. “I wish to be baptized. I have been basely murdered.”
U.S. Senator John J. Crittenden hurried down to the breakfast room to bring the news to his son, Major General Thomas L. Crittenden. The latter rushed up to his stricken friend.
“Nelson, are you seriously hurt?”
“Tom, I am murdered.”
In less than an hour Nelson was dead.
The Indianapolis Daily Journal , still loyal to Governor Morton, wasted no sympathy on the victim. Nelson, it said, “was overbearing, harsh, inconsiderate, and impatient, with no regard to the feelings of others, and none for the ordinary decencies of life. He was heartily hated by every man he ever commanded, and not a few have threalened that if they ever got into battle with him they would not be under him long.” These sentiments apparently justified his death in the eyes of the editor. However, even a reporter for the Cincinnati Times did not hesitate to say at the time: “Everybody who witnessed the affair justifies Davis.”
Yet it was still a clear case of murder in the second degree, if not in the first.
Buell ordered Davis arrested, and Colonel Fry took him to his room, where Davis related what had happened. Fry gained the impression that Davis, since he was unarmed, had sought the interview with Nelson only to provoke him to a duel. What he had not expected was that Nelson would reply to his challenge by slapping him in the face. With the initiative returned to Davis, he had taken the fatal step of asking for a gun.
Some of Nelson’s closest military friends—Generals Crittenden, James S. Jackson, and William R. Terrill—favored drastic and immediate punishment for Davis. But Buell was fighting a war. He could not spare officers to sit on a court-martial. The second day after Nelson’s death he marched off in pursuit of Kirby Smith. On October 3 he telegraphed the news of Davis’ arrest to General Henry W. Halleck, President Lincoln’s military adviser and general in chief, and suggested he be tried in Washington.