During the American Civil War, violent fatal confrontations were not confined to opponents on the battlefield. Occasionally, the antagonists could be persons who wore the same uniform. In 1862, the conflict provided one such instance when erstwhile comradeship-in-arms turned to a bloody encounter that left one Union general officer dead at the hands of another. The victim in this instance was an individual who had already demonstrated himself to be a formidable force with which to be reckoned in the service of the United States. A powerful physical presence with a commanding style, William “Bull” Nelson, as Donald A. Clark has depicted, was a complex and controversial figure who helped to create the circumstances of his demise by virtue of his irascible nature and fiery temperament.
The William Nelson who came to hold the position of major general of volunteers in the armed forces of the United States during the Civil War was the product of long prior service at sea. In that arena he honed the gruff and demanding characteristics that defined him, first as a seaman and later as a soldier. As an officer commanding volunteers, he seemed too little like a gentleman to many compatriots, some of whom [End Page 112] came to loathe him, particularly after Nelson had berated them publicly and profanely. Yet, the Kentuckian made early tangible contributions to the Union cause. He bore responsibility for helping prevent secession in his native state and worked tirelessly to assemble and organize recruits in a way that would prove useful in waging war and nudging Kentucky from armed neutrality in the burgeoning conflict to a firm adherence to the Union. Along the way, the hot-tempered Nelson continually harangued those with whom he disagreed or for whom he had no respect, challenged peers to rise to the level of his lofty expectations, and exerted an unbounded energy and dedication to each of his endeavors. None who crossed his path or felt the fury of his wrath would have disputed that the powerfully built officer rightfully earned the nickname “Bull.”
William “Bull” Nelson was the complicated mixture of personality features who could win renown among close associates for his generosity and admiration for his intellect and conversational skills while instilling a strong sense of disdain in those who knew only his brash public persona. Author Donald Clark has succeeded in capturing these complexities well. Nelson’s vulgarity won him few friends, but his devotion to his duty and insistence that others demonstrate similar zeal and fidelity could not be questioned. He had an uncompromising demand for competent performance among his subordinates, which led to dismissive responses on his part when they fell short of the mark he had set for them, but he willingly expressed respect on those rare occasions when an individual refused to be intimidated.
Nelson’s enthusiasm for raising troops and exerting the force of his personality led to the creation of a command that won an early, if exaggerated, success at Ivy Mountain, in the chaotic and uncertain world that was 1861 Kentucky. A welcome demonstration of stoutness followed at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, in April 1862 at the close of the first day of the fighting that had unfolded there after Nelson pushed his men aggressively toward the scene of action. But, other laurels eluded the “hot-blooded quarterdeck general” as operations ground to a crawl, first against Confederate-held Corinth, Mississippi, and later in the defense of Middle Tennessee and Central Kentucky as Braxton Bragg and Edmund Kirby Smith advanced invading Confederate columns against the Federals (166). In the midst of a defeat at Richmond, Kentucky, in late August, Nelson suffered a serious, if not permanently debilitating, wound that forced him from the field while the remainder of the Kentucky campaign unfolded. He was recovering rapidly at the Galt House in Louisville when a heated exchange and initial blows led to a fatal clash with fellow Union officer Jefferson C. Davis.
Davis’s actions stemmed from his...