From USNA Virtual Memorial Hall

William Nelson '46

Date of birth: September 27, 1824

Date of death: September 29, 1862

Age: 38

Lucky Bag

The Lucky Bag was first published in 1894.


1846 Nelson 1.jpg

From Find A Grave:

Civil War Union Major General. Born in Mayville, Kentucky, for over twenty years he served as an officer in the US Navy. Just after the outbreak of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln authorized him to arm Kentucky loyalists with 5,000 muskets. This led to him being detached from the Navy to recruit 10,000 troops for a campaign into East Tennessee. He was appointed to Brigadier General of US Volunteers on September 16, 1861 and promoted to Major General in July 1862. During the defense of Louisville, Kentucky, in September 1862, his disdain lackadaisical behavior led Nelson to angrily dismiss Union Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis from his corps after a battle. On September 29, 1862, during an argument at the Galt House in Louisville, Kentucky, Nelson was shot and killed by Union Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis. Davis was never prosecuted for the murder and both generals became better noted for that affair rather than the commendable service they both gave to their country.

He was born in, and appointed to the Naval Academy from, Kentucky.

There is more on his life at Wikipedia.


From an article, "A Most Unusual Alumnus: William Nelson 1846; LCdr. USN, MGen. U.S. Volunteers," by Joseph F. Paull '58, in the September 1973 issue of Shipmate:


One of the strangest incidents of the War Between the States occurred on September 29, 1862 at the Gait House hotel in Louisville, Ky., when Brigadier General Jefferson Davis (a most improbable name for a Union General) shot and killed his companion in arms Major General William "Bull" Nelson, twelfth graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy. The incident was made even stranger by the fact that Davis was never tried for Nelson's murder, even though it was witnessed by a host of persons including the Governor of Indiana.

Nelson's death, to say the least, was unusual, but then. Nelson was a very extraordinary individual—one of the type that often precipitates as well as participates in atypical events.

Nelson The Man

"The very largest naval officer I have seen in company," wrote William H. Russell, a correspondent of the London Times after having met him at dinner. This was no mean exaggeration, for physically Nelson was six feet four inches and weighed some three hundred pounds. Yet, for all his bulk, he was infected with tireless energy and, when he took a stance on a subject, he was sharply outspoken. This tall Kentuckian seems to have had a photographic memory, for he could repeat page after page of his favorite authors and could speak several languages.

Admiral Edward Simpson remembered that the "Gas House" shown in early drawings of the Naval Academy obtained its name from "the rather inflated tendency of one of its occupants," Nelson. Henry Villiard, a war correspondent, described him as having Jupiter's head on a Herculean figure and as he rode among the cringing stragglers at the battle of Shiloh "raising himself in his stirrups, his stentorian voice thundering against the bluffs, he had seemed like a legendary figure from a Grand Opera." In short. Nelson left an indelible impression on the minds of those he met.

As members of Nelson's profession resigned their commissions and went south, he spoke coarsely and fiercely against them. Again Russell remembers the egotistical and outspoken lieutenant as he vented his pro-Union sentiments against the then embryonic South. "Sumter and Pickens are to be reinforced (this was in March 1861), Charleston is to be reduced to order, and all traitors hanged, or he will know the reason why, and, says he, I have some weight in this country." It is easily deducted that one so forceful and quick to express his opinions could not also count popularity as his strongest suit. In fact, during the Mexican War he drew the ire of Commodore Matthew Perry by his know-it-all attitude. Later it is said that when Secretary of Navy Toucey tried to transfer him to the Pacific Squadron he tore up the papers before Toucey's face. Doubtless very few men disdaining service with the Pacific Squadron would have expressed their displeasure in quite so abrupt a manner. But Nelson, during the height of his career while a Union general, showed himself to be so capable and efficient that perhaps these same virtues helped balance against the unsavory mannerisms of his earlier naval career. In fact, later we will see that Nelson was so capable on the battlefield that the New York Times would compare him with General W. T. Sherman, certainly one of the most capable generals in the history of the U.S. Army.

The Struggle for Kentucky

In the early stages of the American Civil War, Nelson was to play several major roles of inestimable service to the nation. The first of these concerned the struggle to maintain Kentucky in the Union.

Kentucky was a crucial area for the Union, so crucial that Lincoln had remarked, "To lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game." Lincoln's reasoning was thus expressed, "Kentucky gone, we cannot hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job in our hands is too large for us. We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of the capital." In short, Lincoln had declared that the fate of the nation rested on Kentucky. Bruce Catton in The Centennial History of the Civil War shows that Lincoln humorously summed up the situation by remarking "while he hoped to have God on his side, he had to have Kentucky." In further commenting upon Kentucky, Catton states "The danger was greater for the Federals. If the Ohio River should be the northern boundary of the Confederacy, Confederate independence was all but assured."

Initially Kentucky tried to hide behind a veil of neutrality. However, anyone with a basic knowledge of geography could see that neutrality was either just a poor disguise for future intentions or just plain procrastination. Kentucky constituted an invasion corridor for either Southern or Northern armies, and her people consequently would be involved whether they wanted to or not. From the Alleghenies clear to the Mississippi River, contact by Federal and Confederate armies could be accomplished only by marching through Kentucky.

The question at hand was how to win Kentucky. Most circumspect Union men felt that Kentucky would have to be handled by kid gloves and that even a hint of force might drive the state into the Confederate camp. Governor Magoffin was slowly equipping secessionists in the state militia, even though the state legislature appeared to be predominantly Union. A way had to be found to put guns in the hands of Union men. Nelson was to find it.

During the Spring of 1861 Lieutenant Nelson visited his home state of Kentucky and observed the Southern sympathizers holding most of the state's guns. Nelson was not the type of individual to sit idly by. He immediately got involved. His actions are best described by Robert Bowe in Lincoln and the Tools of War as follows: "As soon as he returned to Washington, he called on Lincoln to warn him that arms must be given to the Union men of Kentucky. Lincoln assented heartily, and then, pointing out the risks involved, asked expectantly where he could find the man for the job. 'Cast your eyes,' said the fierce lieutenant, 'on a little man of my size.' That was all Lincoln needed, he began at once to discuss the details of Nelson's mission."

Lincoln gave Nelson 5,000 muskets and verbal instructions for staunch Union leader Joshua Speed of Louisville. Nelson contacted Speed and subsequently the arms began to filter to key positions throughout Kentucky. Later, Lincoln gave Nelson 5,000 more muskets and the U.S. Navy presented him with 300 Sharps breech-loading rifles and a Dahlgren howitzer. Thus, through Nelson's efforts, pro-Union homeguard units were armed to counterbalance the state's militia. Nelson's next task was to help set up Camp Dick Robinson as a depot for training Union troops, located about 100 miles north of the Tennessee border, deep in Kentucky. Nelson participated in these events, of course, while Kentucky was declaring itself neutral, and his efforts at this time greatly helped tip the scales toward Union advantage. Nelson had recognized one of the key crises of the Civil War and had acted accordingly to influence it. His services at this juncture were invaluable to the Union.

With the establishment of Camp Dick Robinson, Nelson was put in charge and was commissioned a Brigadier-General. He then commenced turning raw recruits into soldiers. Once again he proved his worth, for it was an almost impossible task to discipline the western soldiers. Nelson, though he was absolutely hated for his "quarterdeck discipline," was able to handle the western recruits and to organize Camp Dick Robinson into one of the main training centers for the Union armies of the West. Later Camp Dick Robinson was named Camp Nelson in his honor.

Nelson at War

The initial war of words in Kentucky soon moved to more serious phases. The Confederacy boldly invaded Southern Kentucky, setting up a defense line throughout the state near the Tennessee border. Part of the Confederate rationale for movement of units into Kentucky was the overt training and equipping of Union forces on her soil. Naturally this referred to the Union capers of which Nelson was so much a part—the supply of guns to Union militia and Camp Dick Robinson.

Unlike their Union counterparts in the Eastern theater, who were routed at the First Battle of Bull Run and then went into recluse. Union forces in the West took the bold initiative and rapidly struck the Confederacy several devastating blows. Foremost of these was General Grant's capture of Fort Donelson which, though it was in Tennessee, constituted the Southern anchor and key bulwark of the Confederate defense line in Kentucky. With Donelson in hand, the Union forces controlled a strategic highway into the western Confederate heartland. Donelson controlled the Tennessee River, which gave Union forces—via the U.S. Navy—access into northern Mississippi and Alabama.

Grant's army slowly moved south via the Tennessee until its forward units were camped within about two days marching distance of Corinth, Mississippi. Here Grant waited to be reinforced by another Union Army hurrying forward from Eastern Tennessee. The van division of this army was commanded by none other than General William "Bull" Nelson.

Grant's plan was obvious; merge the two Union armies in Southern Tennessee, and then go forward to strike Southern forces which had concentrated at Corinth. Unfortunately, the Confederates had had their fill of running and, since it was obvious that Grant was going to strike them at Corinth, why not do the unexpected and strike him first.? Confederate forces moved forward and, in the early dawn of April 5, 1862, Grant's forward units were completely surprised. The bloody battle of Shiloh commenced. Throughout the day the Confederate Army slowly drove back Union forces until by dusk it appeared that victory was in the making. A determined effort was made by the Southerners to cut off the Union Army from the Tennessee River. This doubtless would insure success for Southern arms and it would mean a defeat of tragic consequences for Union operations in the West. However, at this critical time, by a forced march. Nelson arrived on the scene and his forward brigade crossed the Tennessee to reinforce the Union line.

The scene of war before Nelson was a dreadful one. The wounded on the river bank had been trampled by fugitives and sailors had dragged large cables over them. They were so covered with mud and dried blood that they were completely black. Great masses of skulkers and stragglers were sitting around campfires making coffee, remaining completely oblivious to the desperate attempts of officers to rally them. One officer exclaimed that it looked like Bull Run all over again. This scene caused Nelson to react vigorously.

Nelson's actions are best described by Emmet Crozier in Yankee Reporters:

"Fall in, boys!" he shouted. "Fall in and follow me!" From one group to another he rode with his hoarse appeal. "Men will you listen? Get your rifles and fall in! Come, follow the old flag!" But no one listened, none fell in to form a line. None cheered. Nelson called them all miserable cowards and struck at the nearest with the flat of his sword. Cursing as only old navy men can, he rode back where General Buell was watching. "They ought to be lined up and shot," he said.

Rows of wounded, lying close packed along the bank, were watching Nelson's fresh regiments march ashore. Some raised themselves on their elbows, crying and feebly hurrahing as the Army of the Ohio vanguard began to climb the road to join the battle weary Army of the Tennessee. Touched by this welcome from the wounded. Nelson's men turned on the skulkers under the bluffs crying out, "Cowards! Crybabies! Why don't you get up and fight.?" "You'll see!" the stragglers yelled back, "You'll catch it. Just wait 'till you get up there; they'll cut you to pieces!"

However, this was not so. Nelson's timely arrival with fresh troops was sufficient to halt the already battle weary Confederate Army, providing the turning point which later led to victory. A Union disaster at Shiloh was narrowly averted, and many feel that Nelson was largely responsible for the rescue.

Confederate General Beauregard, Commander of Confederate forces at Shiloh, leaves no question in our minds as to how and why he feels the Federal forces were saved, as he justified his retreat from the field the following day.

"My depleted and exhausted forces were now facing at least 20,000 fresh troops in addition to Lew Wallace's command, in addition also to Jacob Ammend's brigade of Nelson's division, whose timely crossing the day before had saved the Federals from annihilation (emphasis added."

However, it should be noted that many historians feel that Grant's army could have held the line against the weary Confederates, and that Nelson's force only provided a clincher. This has been debated for over a century but, be that as it may, the fact that Nelson arrived at the scene at such a critical moment reflects an amazing propensity to be in the right place at the right time. In Kentucky had he not also placed himself at the pulse of one of the key Union problems of that time and acted to solve it? These two instances taken in the flood of events at that time were two of the most critical of that era, and Nelson lent tremendous force to rectify both in favor of the Union.

Defense of Eastern Kentucky

While Grant's Army entered Northern Mississippi, the Confederates sent elements of their Army into Southern Alabama, and then suddenly north into Eastern Kentucky. It was in essence an "end around play" which caught the Yankees unprepared. This move left Louisville and Eastern Kentucky open to a Southern invasion.

Nelson was sent back into Eastern Kentucky and given command of the area. Until a Federal Army could be moved into position to challenge the Confederates he was supposed to organize a defense with any available forces. Forces available, unfortunately, consisted of only militia and green troops. At this juncture the New York Times reported:

"It is reported that General Nelson takes General Boyle's place. . . . General Nelson has abundance of vim and dash, but may not be without faults of manner and conduct, which, especially in his new position, he might do well to guard against. Like General W. T. Sherman, Nelson is in his element on the battle-field, and if there is to be heavy fighting in Kentucky, is just the man to pitch in and wipe out the foe."

Little did the editor of the Times realize how true his warning concerning conduct and manner would apply. In fact, these traits would presently be responsible for Nelson's death. Nelson busied himself in Lexington trying to organize its defense. A few miles south near Richmond, Kentucky, a veteran force under Confederate General Kirby Smith approached the green troops Nelson had rushed there. Smith's veterans attacked the Union troops and Nelson's subordinate Generals Manson and Cruft could not hold their positions. Nelson arrived at the scene to find the green Union troops in full retreat. Shelby Foote in The Civil War; A Narrative, best describes the scene:

With assistance of Manson and Cruft he got what was left of his army into line of the edge of town, partly under cover of rock walls and tombstones of a cemetery. Once the rallied men were in position, he walked up and down the firing line, exposing his huge bulk to enemy marksmen and talking all the while to encourage his nervous recruits. "If they can't hit me they can't hit anything!" he roared as he strode back and forth amid the twittering bullets.

In this he was mistaken, for he received two flesh wounds. His troops stood about three rounds and then fled, leaving only Nelson and his staff alone to face the enemy. Nelson subsequently made his escape and headed for Louisville to try to organize its defense, for he was trying to buy time until the veteran Federal Army of the Ohio, which was hurrying forward from Grant, could arrive.

Nelson's Death

In Louisville, Union General Jefferson Davis, on leave from Missouri, offered his services to Nelson. The combination of Nelson's overbearingness and Davis's touchiness resulted in a clash. Nelson ordered Davis out of his Department. Later Davis returned with Indiana Governor Morton, who blamed Nelson for the defeat of Indiana troops at Richmond. When Davis asked for an apology for Nelson's previous rudeness. Nelson called Davis an "insolent puppy." Davis then threw a wadded up calling card in Nelson's face whereupon Nelson laid the backside of his huge arm across Davis's face. Nelson asked Morton if he had come to insult him. When Morton answered in the negative Nelson turned and climbed the staircase toward General Buell's room. Davis, smarting under Nelson's blow, exclaimed to a bystander, "Did you hear that damned insolent scoundrel insult me, sir? I suppose he don't know me, sir. I'll teach him a lesson, sir." Davis moved up the staircase after Nelson. Before Nelson could enter Buell's room Davis called out for him to stop. At a range of eight feet he shot the big man fatally in the chest.

Davis was indicted by a Louisville grand jury but released on bail. Later the charges were dropped. Davis was one of Morton's favorite generals and the last thing Lincoln wanted to do was incite Morton, since he was one of the most active governors backing the Union army. Consequently, the military never got around to filing charges against Davis.

Evidently the memory of the encounter haunted Davis throughout the rest of the War. Emmet Crozier in Yankee Reporters states, "It would be necessary for him to explain it many times. In the campaign around Atlanta the following year, whenever a new general came down from the North, Davis lead the conversation to the Louisville tragedy and would tell how the impatient Nelson had slapped his face and called him puppy. 'What else could I do, I gave him a chance to apologize!' In the long campaign to Atlanta, around the campfire at night, on the march with Sherman to the sea, the brooding officer—now a Major General—eased the hurt conscience by telling again and again the grievous indignity which forced him to kill a companion in arms."

Although Davis was one of Sherman's best corps commanders, he was never promoted above Colonel in the regular Army. "Not being hung is sufficient reward" was Lincoln's reason.

Nelson's death was forgotten in the catastrophic events of war. Neither Grant nor Sherman cared to recall one who had outshown the former at Shiloh and the latter in Kentucky before they became the famous soldiers we know today.

General William B. Hazen, West Point 1855, didn't forget. He, like Davis, became a trusted subordinate of Sherman, and in 1885 he wrote: "I always felt the country never understood the loss it sustained in Nelson's death and that it little appreciated his real value and character."

We'll never know Nelson's full impact on history. Did Nelson save Grant at Shiloh? Had Grant been defeated at Shiloh, he doubtless would never have become Commander-in-Chief of the Union Armies. Could Lee have then been defeated? These are interesting questions, but that is all they will ever remain—interesting questions concerning an interesting man.


From the Naval History and Heritage Command:

Midshipman, 28 January, 1840. Passed Midshipman, 11 July, 1846. Master, 19 September, 1854. Lieutenant, 18 April, 1855. Lieutenant Commander, 16 July, 1862. Detailed for duty in United States Volunteer Army, and died as Major General, 29 September, 1862.

Note on William's Inclusion in Memorial Hall

Though normally murders are not considered an operational loss, it is our view that William's death was based on the performance of his duties.

Navy Directories & Officer Registers

The "Register of Commissioned and Warrant Officers of the United States Navy and Marine Corps" was published annually from 1815 through at least the 1970s; it provided rank, command or station, and occasionally billet until the beginning of World War II when command/station was no longer included. Scanned copies were reviewed and data entered from the mid-1840s through 1922, when more-frequent Navy Directories were available.

The Navy Directory was a publication that provided information on the command, billet, and rank of every active and retired naval officer. Single editions have been found online from January 1915 and March 1918, and then from three to six editions per year from 1923 through 1940; the final edition is from April 1941.

The entries in both series of documents are sometimes cryptic and confusing. They are often inconsistent, even within an edition, with the name of commands; this is especially true for aviation squadrons in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Alumni listed at the same command may or may not have had significant interactions; they could have shared a stateroom or workspace, stood many hours of watch together… or, especially at the larger commands, they might not have known each other at all. The information provides the opportunity to draw connections that are otherwise invisible, though, and gives a fuller view of the professional experiences of these alumni in Memorial Hall.

September 1842

Midshipman, Sloop Yorktown

January 1843

Midshipman, Sloop Yorktown

October 1843

Midshipman, Pacific Squadron

January 1844

Midshipman, Pacific Squadron

January 1847

Passed Midshipman, Frigate Raritan

January 1848

Passed Midshipman, Steamer Scourage

January 1849

Passed Midshipman, Steamer Michigan

Others at this command:

January 1850

Passed Midshipman, Razee Independence

Others at this command:

January 1851

Passed Midshipman, Frigate Cumberland

Others at this command:

January 1852

Passed Midshipman, leave of absence

January 1853

Passed Midshipman, waiting orders

January 1854

Passed Midshipman, waiting orders

January 1855

Master, Frigate Independence

Others at this command:

January 1856

Lieutenant, commanding officer, Store Ship Fredonia

Others at this command:

January 1857

Lieutenant, commanding officer, Store Ship Fredonia

Others at this command:

January 1858

Lieutenant, waiting orders

January 1860

Lieutenant, Sloop St. Louis

September 1861

Lieutenant, Special Duty, War Department

September 1862

Lieutenant Commander, Special Duty, War Department

January 1863

"Lieutenant Commander William Nelson, September 29, 1862, Louisville, Kentucky."

Class of 1846

William is one of 13 members of the Class of 1846 on Virtual Memorial Hall.

The "category" links below lead to lists of related Honorees; use them to explore further the service and sacrifice of the alumni in Memorial Hall.