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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
The sudden departure of Buell was but the first of several circumstances favorable to Davis. The War Department strangely did nothing about ordering a trial. Was it because Governor Morton went promptly to the capital? Colonel Fry thought so, and Morton felt called upon to explain afterward that he went east only to see about getting Indiana prisoners of war exchanged. Then on October 8 at the Battle of Perryville Nelson’s friends Jackson and Terrill were both killed. Back at Cincinnati Major General Wright ordered Davis released from arrest on three grounds. He said no charges had been preferred, which was perhaps true if Buell’s telegram is disregarded. He added that he believed Davis had acted in self-defense, which no one had even remotely suggested. And he said that Buell held a similar view. (Buell later denied this, and in his telegram he gave quite the opposite view.) Then on October 24 Buell was relieved of his command by President Lincoln. Thus the military case against Davis fell apart.
However, on October 27 Davis was indicted by the Jefferson Circuit Court, Louisville, on a charge of manslaughter and admitted to $5,000 bail. Davis engaged, as counsel, James Speed, later to be President Lincoln’s Attorney General. The case was continued from time to time until May 24, 1864, when it was “stricken from the docket, with leave to reinstate.” That was the end of the legal farce. Davis was a free man by default.
Restored to duty in 1862, Davis commanded a division at Murfreesboro and at Chickamauga. On the march to Atlanta he became a fast friend of General Sherman and was commander of the 14th Corps on the march to the sea. According to Lloyd Lewis, Sherman’s biographer, Davis was both admired and feared for his assassination of Nelson. “He threw his whole soul into the contest,” Sherman said, “and wherever fighting was hardest for four years, we find him at the front. To recount his deeds would require a volume.” In August, 1864, he was brevetted a major general of volunteers, but the rank was never made permanent despite recommendations from Rosecrans and Grant. In 1866, after volunteer commissions had lapsed, he was appointed a colonel in the Regular Army.
From 1867 till near the end of 1870 Davis served as commander of the Department of Alaska. Later he was stationed in California and was active in the Modoc Indian war of 1873.
“The last years of his life were passed in broken health,” Fry wrote, “and were somewhat embittered by disappointment at not receiving the brigadier-generalcy, for which he felt qualified and which he, as well as others, thought he had earned by his services in the Civil War; but I never heard that he expressed, and I do not believe that he felt, any regret for having killed Nelson.”
Davis contracted yellow jaundice in 1875 and never completely threw it off. He was stationed at Fort Leavenworth in 1879. From there he went to Washington to attend the reunion of the Society of the Army of the Cumberland and to witness the unveiling of a monument to Major General George Thomas. He caught cold, but stopped off in Chicago on his return to participate in a board of inquiry. There he developed pneumonia and—at the Palmer House on November 30, 1879—he died.
General Philip Sheridan, on duty in Chicago, called at once on Mrs. Davis and notified Sherman, Benjamin Harrison, the governors of Illinois and Indiana, and Davis’ mother in Memphis, Clark County. Only she and his wife survived him. The body was escorted through Indianapolis to Clark County for burial.
Early in 1866 Davis had prepared an autobiographical sketch of his military career by way of strengthening his case for a higher permanent rank in the Regular Army. The sketch provided him a splendid opportunity to air his side of the shooting in Louisville. Here is what he wrote:
“Gen. Wright assigned me to duty with Maj. Gen. Nelson commanding the troops for the defense of Louisville. On the arrival of my division with Buell’s army, I assumed command of it, but a few days after, a personal difficulty with Gen. Nelson caused my arrest and again Gen. Mitchell assumed command. On being released from arrest Gen. Wright assigned me …”
And that was that!