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The Notorious "Bull" Nelson

Murdered Civil War General

Donald A. Clark

Publication Year: 2011

This first biography of Union general William Nelson (1824-1862) shows both his strengths and weaknesses and describes his death at the hands of Union general Jefferson Davis. Prior to his Civil War service in the army, Nelson was a naval officer who fought in the Mexican War.

Published by: Southern Illinois University Press


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pp. Cover-i

The Notorious "Bull" Nelson

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pp. ii-vi


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

"Many years ago, a first look into the life of Dr. Joshua Taylor Bradford revealed that my distant relative once served as a personal physician to Maj. Gen. William 'Bull' Nelson. It was puzzling to find that a kind and gentleman like Bradford enjoyed the company of a notorious brute who, when 'irritated or opposed,' was disgustingly 'dictatorial and dogmatic.' The mystery of that relationship started to unravel when I discovered he considered..."

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pp. xv-xviii

"A fantastic group of people helped bring this work to fruition. I am particularly appreciative of my wife, Barber, for the understanding, love, and patience she gave to this effort. I am also very indebted to Sylvia Frank Rodrigue, executive editor at Southern Illinois University Press. Her thoughtful guidance and support are special gifts. Likewise, I sincerely appreciate..."

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The Roots of Imperfection

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pp. 1-12

"William 'Bull' Nelson was an ox of a man who carried his three-hundred-pound weight on a sturdy six-foot four-inch frame. A meticulous dresser who always stood ramrod straight, this dashing tar had a booming voice, long curly black hair, and piercing black eyes that gave the appearance of someone who was ready to fight at the drop of a hat. One newspaper reporter captured the essence of his manner when he described him as 'a go ahead, ..."

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A Taste of War

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pp. 13-21

"As Nelson wrapped up his affairs at Annapolis, Don Antonio López de Santa Anna, the exiled dictator of Mexico, was meeting in secret with special diplomatic agent Alexander Slidell Mackenzie and other United States officials at Havana, Cuba. During their talks on July 6–7, 1846, Santa Anna convinced those men that if they arranged for his return to Mexico he would facilitate the sale of contested territory to the United States."

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Worldly Affairs

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pp. 22-36

"At Pensacola, Nelson became acting lieutenant of the supply ship Relief while he waited for reassignment. There was a great deal of excitement over the discovery of gold in California, and that brought up talk of building a railroad across the Isthmus of Panama. Because Cuba served as a gateway to the isthmus, some feared that Spain would obstruct commerce in the region. That concern led President Polk and his cabinet to broach the subject of a ..."

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Measuring the Political Currents

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pp. 37-48

"In early August 1860, Nelson crossed the neatly shaded grounds of the Washington Navy Yard and reported to Capt. Franklin Buchanan. This old friend was the commandant, but this was his first introduction to Capt. John A. Dahlgren, the chief of the Bureau of Ordnance. New buildings supported the production of light brass ordnance, boat howitzers, shot, shells, percussion caps, musket balls, and projectiles."

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“Neutrality with a Vengeance”

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pp. 49-62

"Nelson reached Louisville Monday evening, May 6, 1861. The next morning, the Kentucky General Assembly was meeting in special session at Frankfort when he arrived at Joshua Speed’s office. This was the first encounter between the two men, and they went into an adjoining room and engaged in small talk until each felt comfortable enough to openly discuss arming Unionists and meeting with the key leaders in Frankfort."

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“A Showman’s Caravan”

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pp. 63-78

"On Tuesday, September 3, 1861, Nelson was in Frankfort protecting the Kentucky General Assembly. Optimists among the newly elected lawmakers wanted to believe the threat of war would be over in three to four months. Pessimists, on the other hand, worried that 'Southern leaders [would] force the fight up to the Ohio River, obstruct its navigation, seize Frankfort, occupy Louisville, threaten Cincinnati, . . ."

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“March of Their Life”

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pp. 79-98

"Soon after Don Carlos Buell assumed command of the Army of the Ohio at Louisville, a letter published in the Covington Journal advised, 'All eyes are turned to the impending battle in Kentucky. Gen. Buell will be provided with all the men he can use, and will have everything at his command to make his army irresistible."

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Disputed Glory

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pp. 99-118

"April 6, 1862, was Palm Sunday, and the few members of the dislodged congregation of Shiloh Methodist Church who remained nearby felt uneasy as the first rays of light passed across the quiet fields. At 4:55 a.m., the advancing Confederate troops became engaged in a fight with the 250-man reconnaissance patrol from the Twenty-fifth Regiment Missouri Volunteer Infantry and the Twelfth Regiment Michigan Volunteer Infantry."

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The Road to Calamity

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pp. 119-136

"On July 4, 1862, black contrabands and a 'poor class of [white]citizens' gathered at the Limestone County fairgrounds in Athens, Alabama, to see Nelson’s troops conduct a traditional Independence Day parade. As those men marched through ankle-deep dust with 120 brass artillery pieces, it seemed like they were 'scowled at from almost every [Rebel] house."

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Fatal Conceit

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pp. 137-152

"Late Saturday and early Sunday morning, the city of Lexington was overcome by 'chaotic masses of men, horses and wagons, cursing and swearing officers who had deserted their regiments; stragglers who wanted to be captured; refugees who wanted to get away.' At the depot, the implacable drone of the 'grapevine telegraph' bedeviled frightened civilians who anxiously awaited the first available train to Louisville or ..."

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A Martyr to Political Expediency

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pp. 153-166

"At 9:00 a.m., Monday, September 29, 1862, the U.S. Military Telegraph Service informed authorities in Washington that Brig. Gen. Jeff. C. Davis had killed Maj. Gen. William Nelson and would be brought before a local police court judge. Halleck’s messenger, Colonel McKibbin, had not received the wire to hold delivery, and one half-hour after Nelson’s death, that overeager courier handed Buell the orders that relieved him of command."

Abbreviations / Notes / Bibliography / Index

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pp. 167-168


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pp. 169-170


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pp. 171-212


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pp. 213-242


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pp. 243-254

E-ISBN-13: 9780809386031
E-ISBN-10: 0809386038
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809330119
Print-ISBN-10: 0809330113

Page Count: 272
Illustrations: 9 B/w halftones, 8 maps
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Generals -- United States -- Biography.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Biography
  • United States. Army -- Biography.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Campaigns.
  • Murder victims -- Kentucky -- Biography.
  • Nelson, William, 1824-1862.
  • Maysville (Ky.) -- Biography.
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