William "Bull" Nelson is perhaps the best-known of Kentucky Civil War unknowns. Everything about him was larger than life from his reputation, credentials, size, and irascibility, but little is known of the man whom many claim died too early. In the first full biography of the subject, Donald Clark makes a strong case that Nelson, a great and flawed man, did his greatest service in keeping Kentucky in the Union during the first months of the war.
Nelson fit a lifetime of experience into the one year of war he survived. He helped the Lincoln administration conceive and implement its policy of arming Kentucky Unionists, led men in battle during this pivotal first year of war, and famously fell victim to a fellow Union officer. In reading Clark's biography, it is clear that he is not seeking to rehabilitate Nelson's image as a profane and volatile bully but to analyze him as a military man.
One of the legends surrounding Nelson was the depth of his loyalty to the Union cause. While it is clear that he held no truck with the Confederacy during the war, as the secession crisis played [End Page 591] out, he apparently considered what he might do if Kentucky left the Union. Clark writes that John C. Breckinridge "was not averse to offering him [Nelson] a place in the Confederate military," but does not explore Nelson's interest in such an opportunity (p. 42).
The most famous moment of Nelson's life was his death. Not surprisingly, his anger led him down the path that resulted in his insulting Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis and Davis's attempt to reclaim his honor publicly. In a well-written and richly detailed narrative, Clark explains the exchanges that resulted in Davis shooting Nelson through the heart at the Galt House Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. Clark's detail regarding the murder is excellent. He mined virtually every source available to gather the stories that explained the event and its background.
Some men are shaped by their surroundings and others do the shaping. Nelson molded his environment to the extent that by the time of his death, most Kentucky Unionists fell into either a pro-Nelson or anti-Nelson faction. By the final pages of Clark's book, it becomes clear that as much as Nelson alienated some, he inspired others, which is part of the problem with judging his assassination. Many considered Davis to have done good work when he killed Nelson and others wanted him charged and tried for the offense. For showing the high level of complexity in evaluating the crime, Clark's deft pen is to be congratulated.
As with all books, there are points at which improvement could be made. On several occasions, the author uses the antiquated term "Negro" for black or African American (pp. 79, 81). Ultimately, the press is responsible for lapses such as these, which could have been easily corrected in the various stages of reading and editing. It would have also been interesting to examine how the killing of Nelson affected Davis's life and career. Aside from a proposed promotion to major general being ignored by Abraham Lincoln, nothing more is said about the life Davis led after the Nelson affair.
In the end, Bull Nelson is still a combative, ill-tempered egomaniac, but at least he is now a better understood one, which is what [End Page 592] Donald Clark set out to do when he started writing the book. This excellent treatment of a multifaceted character will likely stand as the final word on Bull Nelson for many years.
Brian D. McKnight is associate professor of history at the University of Virginia college at Wise. Virginia. His books include Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia (2006) and Confederate Outlaw: Champ Ferguson and the Civil War in Appalachia (2011).