Anyone who has ever served in uniform, during any era or age, can remember that one superior that they would have loved to have seen knocked off. But, they did not do it for a lot of reasons, chief among them it is wrong and that's it. However, Union Brevet Major General Jeffferson Columbus Davis didn't seem to get that memo in 1862, when he murdered General William "Bull" Nelson after an altercation at a hotel in Louisville, Kentucky.
|Major General Jefferson C. Davis|
At the outset of the Civil War, Jefferson C. Davis (March 2, 1828 - November 30, 1879) was already a seasoned soldier who had distinguished himself during the War in Mexico (1846-1848). He had signed up as a private and, through distinguished service, he received the rank of sergeant. Before the end of the Mexican Campaign, he had obtained a battlefield commission to the rank of second lieutenant.
The Civil War
When the Civil War (1861-1865) broke out, Davis was a first lieutenant in the garrison at Fort Sumter. He was actually present for the Confederate bombing of the installation. The following month, he was promoted to the rank of captain. At Sumter, Davis' duties were largely administrative and logistical. However, with the war just beginning, Davis was given command of the 22nd Indiana Regiment, and promoted to the rank of full colonel.
By August, Davis replaced then-Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant as commander of Union forces in northwest Missouri. He took over the 3rd Division in the Army of the Southwest and attacked Confederate forces in southern Missouri and drove them back into Arkansas after his victory at Pea Ridge, and was rewarded with being promoted to brevet brigadier general for his efforts.
Following his success with the 3rd Division, he was given command of the 4th Division and oversaw the month-long siege of Corinth, Mississippi, in May 1862.
|Gen. Nelson's murder made headlines|
By the end of August, 1862, Davis was exhausted and had become ill from lack of sleep, stress and a poor diet. Accordingly, the battle-hardened general was given two weeks leave from the Army of the Mississippi.
Davis intended to return to his native Indiana for some rest and relaxation. However, he could never have expected the Confederate Army would make a new push, with Major General Edmund Smith and General Braxton Bragg, each commanding an army, sweeping Union forces out of Kentucky by attacking into both Kentucky and Tennessee.
Where the Trouble Began
In order to respond to the new threats offered by Smith and Bragg, Union Brigadier General Don Carolos Buell was forced to split his force. Buell took half of his Army of the Ohio into Tennessee, where he would attack Chattanooga. Meanwhile, thee hundred miles of rail lines lay between Chattanooga and Louisville, Kentucky. And, Confederate forces were busy tearing up those tracks at a fast pace. Accordingly, Buell sent a large slice of his command, under the command of General William "Bull" Nelson (September 27, 1824 - September 29, 1862) to stop the rebel advances and preserve the rail line.
After a string of Confederate victories, not the least of which being the rebel win at Richmond, Virginia on August 29-30, Davis was aware of the precarious situation the Union Army was in. So, he traveled from his home to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he reported to Major General Horatio Wright. In turn, Wright dispatched Davis to Louisville, where his mission was to arm the town's citizenry and prepare its defense. In addition, he was ordered to report to Nelson.
|Gen. Wm. Nelson|
Two days after he had reported to Nelson, Davis was summoned to the Galt House by Nelson. The burly Nelson was dissatisfied with the contribution Davis made to preparing Lousiville's defenses. Meanwhile, Davis was incensed that Nelson was not treating him as his rank demanded. So, Nelson relieved Davis of his command and sent the veteran commander back to Cincinnati, where he reported to Wright again.
The Day of the Killing
Two days after the altercation between Nelson and Davis, Davis returned to Louisville, where he demanded an apology from Nelson. To this demand Nelson said, "Go away you damned puppy, I don't want anything to do with you." Then, Davis reached for a piece of paper, crumpled it up and threw it at Nelson. In return, the much-larger Nelson stepped forward and struck Davis with the back of his hand.
Angry and indignant about the disrespect Nelson had shown him, Davis left the hotel and borrowed a pistol from a friend. He then returned and shot Nelson in the chest, striking his heart. Nelson struggled for some moments, but ultimately fell dead. Davis shot Nelson at 8 a.m. and by 8:30 a.m. he was dead.
A Word About Nelson
Nelson was not, by training, a soldier. In fact, up until the Civil War, Nelson had served as a career naval officer. Nelson was enrolled at Norwich University, in Vermont, at the age of 13. Two years after that, he was made a midshipman and was assigned aboard the USS Delaware. For the next five years, Nelson served as a junior officer at sea.
|MG Horatio Wright saved Gen. Davis|
In 1845, Nelson went on to attend the first-ever class at the United States Naval Academy, in Annapolis, Maryland. He graduated from Annapolis in 1846, and earned the rank of passed midshipman. At the time the Civil War broke out, Nelson was an ordnance officer, holding the rank of lieutenant commander at the Washington Navy Yard.
Two days after the onset of the war, though, Nelson presented himself to President Abraham Lincoln, with a proposal to arm Kentucky Unionists. And, that is how a U.S. Navy officer became a general in the Union Army.
Davis Faces the Music
After Davis shot Nelson to death, he did not run or hide, protest or shift responsibility. He was taken into custoday and placed under arrest at an upstairs room of the Galt House. He was not bound or a guard used to keep him in custody.
Upon questioning, Davis admitted that he wanted to publicly confront Nelson for the indignity of their prior conversation. However, he did not expect the slap that he received from his superior. Consequently, Davis did not attempt to use any legal afeguards, as was his right as a general officer.
Buell wanted Davis to be executed on the spot. But, it was Wright who came to the assistance of Davis. Indeed, Davis was notified he was no longer under arrest on Oct. 13, 1862. As it turned out, the Union was in dire need of competent combat commanders, of which Davis was one.
During those days in the Army, a soldier had 45 days to be charged following an alleged criminal incident. In short, 45 days came and went and there was no warrant for the arrest of Davis
Davis went on to a very successful military career during and after the Civil War. As one of Lieutenant General William T. Sherman's favorite division commanders, he played a pivotal role in later campaigns, especially the Battle of Atlanta. After the war, Davis rose to become commander of the Department of Alaska and later the Department of Vancouver, respectively.
|MG Don Carlos Buell wanted Davis executed|
However, Nelson never had justice done for his murder. The Union was on the brink of destruction during 1862 and every experienced fighting general, particularly the ones who were successul against the Confederate onslaught, were too valuable of a commodity to execute or imprison. While this is not an excuse for the actions of Davis, it is a reason to keep him in the war.
Despite his long service in the U.S. Navy, Nelson was a relative outsider in the Army. Between West Point graduates and veterans of the Mexican-American War, the Army's officer corps was a tight-knit group. Though Davis was not a West Pointer, he had certainly 'earned his spurs' in combat and had managed an incredible career in uniform, impressing a host of superior officers along the way. It would, no doubt, have been a different matter entirely if Davis had shot Grant, Sherman or one of the other luminaries in uniform. He had not, though. He killed a naval leader-turned Army officer.
There are several ways to see the Army's decision not to prosecute Davis. First, it was an absolute travesty of justice for Nelson and his family. On the other hand, Davis played a major role in defeating Confederate forces. I am not going to second-guess a decision made more than 150 years ago. It does go to show that what is 'justice' can sometimes depend on the circumstances.
Davis had a talent for winning against an enemy that was powerful, determined and crafty, which is something many Union generals struggled with during the first years of the war. With those abiities being needed in that moment in history, a judgement call was made...for the right or wrong of it.
(Jim Purcell is a retired print journalist. He resides in Western North Carolina with his wife, Lita.)