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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
He was a sallow man with a bushy beard, and his subordinates said that he seemed to be haunted, somehow. He was a brigadier general of volunteers in the United States Army, a major general by brevet, commander of an army corps to the satisfaction of a taskmaster as exacting as William Tecumseh Sherman: a successful soldier, of proven valor under fire, liked by his troops. Only two things were wrong. His name was outlandish—for a Union general in the Civil War, anyway—and he once shot and killed his commanding officer in a hotel lobby full of witnesses: an offense for which he never drew so much as a reprimand.
This man was General Jefferson Davis—a staunch Unionist in the great war of the 1860’s even though he bore the same name as the President of the Confederate States of America, which he did his best to help destroy. It was his unhappy fate to be overshadowed, as far as postwar renown went, by his great Confederate namesake; also, there was that matter of the homicide, performed with a revolver in the fall of 1862 in circumstances guaranteed to win the greatest possible amount of publicity.
The General’s full name was Jefferson Columbus Davis. He was born on a farm in Clark County, near Charlestown, Indiana, in 1828, and although he did not go to West Point he became a Regular Army officer. When the Mexican War broke out he enlisted in the 3rd Indiana Infantry; served under General Zachary Taylor in such battles as Monterey, Saltillo, and Buena Vista; and won enough distinction to be offered a second lieutenancy in the ist U.S. Artillery when the war ended. He accepted the offer, made first lieutenant in 1852, served in various army posts in the South, and in the spring of 1861 was part of the Fort Sumter garrison in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, under Major Robert Anderson. When Anderson moved this little garrison from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter, it was Lieutenant Davis who got the assignment to spike Fort Moultrie’s guns. On the surrender of Fort Sumter, following the bombardment which touched off the Civil War, Davis with the other officers was evacuated to New York. There he was made a captain.
War fever was running high that spring, and from New York Davis went back to his home state of Indiana, where he was granted leave to raise a regiment of volunteers. By August he had organized the 22nd Indiana Infantry, had got it into camp at Madison, Indiana, and had been commissioned its colonel. Almost immediately afterward the regiment was moved to Missouri, where fighting between Confederates and Unionists was under way.
Promotions came early for veteran soldiers in the fall of 1861. By December Davis had been made brigadier general of volunteers, under the flamboyant Major General John Charles Frémont. He fought a successful engagement at Blackwater, Missouri, got a leave of absence, went back to Indianapolis and married Miss Maretta Athon, and returned to duty in Missouri. In March of 1862 he won distinction in battle at Leetown, Missouri, and then went into Arkansas with General Samuel Curds’ Union army as commander of a division. He fought in the Union victory at Pea Ridge, Arkansas, crossed the Mississippi to serve with the Union forces in the siege of Corinth, Mississippi, and at the end of August, 1862, found himself back in Indiana on a twenty-day sick leave.
Now began the series of events which involved General Davis in a case of homicide. The other actors in the sequence were an oddly assorted lot, most of them men of prominence and quite a few of them from Indiana. They included, among others, Major General Don Carlos Buell, a serious, talented, but unfortunately rather deliberate officer, then commanding the Union Army of the Ohio; Governor Oliver P. Morton of Indiana, an all-out-war man who disliked General Buell and had vast influence in Washington; and Major General William Nelson, a 300-pound Kentuckian who had started out as a lieutenant in the Navy but had shifted to the Army and got himself commissioned a major general. On the fringe was another major general, Lew Wallace, an Indianian who never quite made a reputation as a soldier but who, some years later, was to write a book called Ben Hur that would win him much fame and fortune.
In the early fall of 1862 Kentucky was suddenly overrun by Confederates. General Buell, whose army had been down along the Tennessee-Alabama border, was outmaneuvered, and a Confederate invasion force came north, driving toward the Ohio River, with Buell in hot pursuit. On August 30 the Confederate General Kirby Smith caught Indiana’s Brigadier General Mahlon D. Manson at Richmond, Kentucky, and routed him. Nelson, coming up near the end of this disastrous battle, blamed the defeat on Manson and relieved Lew Wallace (Manson’s superior) of his command. This did not endear Nelson to Governor Morton, who considered himself more or less responsible for officers and men who came from Indiana, and Morton hurried down to Louisville, where he and Nelson had rather a stormy session.
Then came more trouble. Another Indiana brigadier general, Ebenezer Dumont, was put under arrest by Nelson for evacuating a post at Lebanon Junction without orders. A little later, on September 18, the Confederates captured Munfordville, Kentucky, and made prisoners of about 5,000 Indiana soldiers—at which point Governor Morion’s fury became boundless.
By this time Union folk in Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana were getting badly worried. Davis, still at his home on leave, hurried to Cincinnati and offered his services to Major General Horatio G. Wright, Union commander in that area. Wright promptly sent him to Louisville to assist Nelson.
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.
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.
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!