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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.