Here's a post I am republishing from the fall of 2010. If you use the search function in the right column, you can find a list of sources I consulted for this entry, which proved to be a fairly popular topic.
A few weeks ago, I made an entry about the Battle of Richmond (Ky)
and mentioned Major General William "Bull" Nelson who commanded Union
troops during that defeat and who was murdered a month later by a
subordinate officer, Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis.
Recently, I have had a conversation with a friend about that killing
and, especially, about the lack of prosecution of Davis for this blatant
murder he committed in the Galt House hotel in Louisville on September
(Photographs of Davis, left, and Nelson, right, courtesy of the Library of Congress)
we discussed this, I decided to research it and see if I could find
any good answer to the questions of how and why Davis escaped his crime
unpunished. As I looked through books and online sources, I found no
consensus on any single answer, but, rather, several plausible theories
about the affair. None of them seem to offer a definite solution, but
each may have contributed in some way to the end result of Davis going
In this entry, I will discuss my findings,
and then post a follow-up with a list of sources I used to try to solve
this riddle. I freely admit that my "research" is only through secondary
sources and limited ones at that - books I happen to own, and websites I
happen to find. I also make no claim on the reliability of these
websites, though most contain similar descriptions so I have chosen to
use them for this entry.
(I have edited this post to add a link to my bibliography, right here )
I also have learned during this effort that a new book on the life of General Nelson is due out later this year. It is The Notorious Bull Nelson: Murdered Civil War General by Donald A. Clark.
This book may shed more light or put a new perspective on this
incident, so perhaps I should just wait for it instead of posting this
now, but this topic has won my interest so I am forging ahead with my
exploration of it. Hopefully I will get that book early next year and
then can add additional thoughts on the subject to this blog.
some of the language used in these sources make it hard to determine if
some of these theories are separate or closely-related enough to be the
same thing, I have broken my findings down into five basic categories
The first is that Davis had very
influential friends working on his behalf. These mentions almost always
mention Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton, an influential Republican from the west. Among the sources that follow this line of thought is the Encyclopedia of the American Civil War. See pages 572-3 for a biography of Davis by by Frank Levstik. Also, the book Don Carlos Buell: Most Promising of All by Stephen Engle (pages 297-8) makes it clear that Buell believed it was Morton's fault that no prosecution happened.
also found two mentions that Horatio Wright had Davis released from his
arrest, and I counted that in this same category as people using their
power or influence to aid Davis, though I have not seen any specific
information about Davis and Wright's relationship.
second popular explanation of the reaction to this incident focuses on
Nelson's personality, and his reputation as a "bully," a word used in
more than once source to describe him and his relationships with
subordinate officers and soldiers. Though not all the sources
specifically claimed this was the reason Davis was not punished for the
murder, this information comes up often enough to make it seem at least
like a contributing factor. See Kenneth W. Noe's Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle
(page 93) for one description of reaction to Nelson's death. He does
not tie this reaction to Davis's release, and a comment by an anonymous
poster on the Random Thoughts About History blog states a belief that this line of thinking is incorrect.
this theory ties in closely to a third one I found - that this incident
was a "matter of honor" and Nelson's insult of Davis made the shooting
justified. With the "Nelson deserved it" line of reasoning, this
particular theory may be just about the same as the previous one, but I
separated them since the previous one focused on Nelson and his
personality and this one looks more at the actual incident. Among the
sources mentioning this idea is a recent article by the Richmond Register and a file at the Camp Nelson National Cemetery website.
line of thinking believes that the lack of prosecution had to do with
happenings in and about Don Carlos Buell's command of the Army of the
Ohio. The Kentucky Civil War Bugle
reports that officials in Washington D.C. were investigating Buell's
performance and thus the Davis-Nelson affair received little attention
from them. (On September 30, one day after the killing, Union leaders
asked George Thomas to replace Buell , but Thomas refused the offer
since a campaign was in progress.)
An article from Historynet.com
claims that Buell did not have time to handle the court-martial and
asked Washington to handle it since his offensive operation was in
The final explanation mentioned in several
sources was that the Union army simply needed experienced and talented
leaders in the field in the Western Theater and could not afford to have
someone like Davis incarcerated, especially with Nelson already dead. Testament: A Soldier's Story of the Civil War
by Benson Bobrick reported that Davis's "talent, apparently was deemed
too great to spare." (See pages 95 and 96) in the army at this time.
that perhaps supports this idea can be found in the official records,
series one, volume XVI, part two. On page 510, a request from Horatio
Wright, head of the Department of Ohio, to General-in-Chief Henry W.
Halleck reads: "We have no good generals here and are badly in want
of them. Sheridan is worth his weight in gold. Will you not try and
have him made a brigadier at once? It will put us in good shape." This was from September 12, almost three weeks before Nelson's death and Davis's arrest.
I also found a copy of Davis's obituary in the New York Times of December 2, 1879 and it mentioned that Davis was "honorably acquitted on the trial." (Please see the link
here.) Since every other source indicates there was no trial, I did not
include this report in my thoughts on the matter but thought it
interesting enough to merit mention.
As I stated
previously, some of these are very closely related and a couple could be
categorized as being virtually the same theory, but, even so, no matter
how someone may list or separate these ideas, it seems clear that no
one theory is significantly more popular or seems more accurate or
probable than the others, but, rather, that they all worked in
combination to form the right atmosphere for Davis to avoid punishment.
One book previously mentioned and that seems to support this "fused" explanation is Engle's Don Carlos Buell: Most Promising of All.
On pages 297 and 298, he notes Buell's anger towards Morton, but also
points out that Buell did not have time to put together a court-martial
and asked officials in Washington D.C. to handle it. It was at this
point that Buell believes Morton interfered, keeping it lost in
"bureaucratic red tape." Engle then points out "Buell's immediate
problem was filling the vacancies" that the murder and arrest had
created (p.298), thus touching on most of the theories listed above.
(Engle also included a paragraph saying the murder failed to shock some
of Nelson's subordinates who were familiar with his personality. About
the only one of the categories I listed that was not present in Engle's
work was the thought that Davis's act was justified because of how
Nelson had insulted him.)
One thought that
came to my mind as I pondered the situation and these varying ways of
looking at it was perhaps this signaled an overall lack of leadership in
the department - no one person took charge of the situation and handled
it. Even Buell, who had Davis arrested, found reasons not to handle the
prosecution and tried to get officials in far-off Washington to take
over the case. Maybe in this sense it kind of "fell between the cracks"
(perhaps Morton widened those cracks as Engle suggests) with so much
going on at the time, both in the field and in Washington. Was this
Buell's fault since he was the army commander when it happened? Was it
Washington's? This line of thinking may be one theory to add to my list,
and it probably deserves more thought and exploration.
best conclusion I can draw for now is that it was mostly a matter of
circumstances and, for Davis at least, luck, that he was not prosecuted
or punished for the shooting of Nelson. Davis did have a powerful ally
in Morton, while Nelson's few supporters had no such influence or time
to exert it since they were in the field. The Army of the Ohio was in
the midst of a long campaign that would soon end at Perryville, its
commander lacked political support, and the Union army simply needed
all the experienced commanders they could get in the field during the
Confederate invasion of Kentucky. Add all these together - and perhaps
add the failure of Buell or any other Union leader to "take charge" of
the situation - and Jefferson C. Davis managed to continue his career as
a Union General even with the murder of Bull Nelson staining his
A few months ago, I wrote about Evergreen Cemetery in Southgate Kentucky needing assistance to raise funds for various maintenance issues,...
I left my role as a board member and volunteer at the James A.Ramage Civil War Museum at the end of 2020 as I had been there since 2006 (...
Flipping through a book I had acquired a few months ago, I saw a page that seemed much more brownish than all the others. Looking to find it...