LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY, MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 29, 1862.
Major General William "Bull" Nelson, 38, commanding the defenses of Louisville, was shot and killed at the Gait House in Louisville early this morning. The fatal shot was fired by Brigadier-General Jefferson C. Davis, 34, commanding officer of the Ninth Division. General Davis, a native of Indiana, is known to enjoy the patronage of Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton.
The startling incident occurred at about 8:00 a. m., following a heated exchange between the two officers. General Nelson died a half hour later, after being baptized by a clergyman who was hastily summoned at the dying man's behest.
Shortly after breakfast this morning, General Davis, accompanied by Governor Morton, arrived at the Gait House, headquarters of Army of the Ohio commander Major General Don Carlos Buell. The pair encountered General Nelson and others in the lobby of the hotel and, according to eye-witnesses, General Davis commenced an animated conversation with Nelson, demanding an apology for an insult he felt he had suffered from Nelson last week.
The discussion reached a climax when Nelson, never known as a man of temperate speech, assailed Davis as "an insolent puppy." Davis thereupon hurled a crumpled card he had been holding into Nelson's face. Nelson directed a powerful blow with the back of his hand to Davis' face. He then turned to Governor Morton and demanded whether he, too, had come to insult him. Morton hastened to deny any such purpose. Nelson then denounced the governor as an abettor of the insult from Davis, and stalked off towards the stairway leading to the second-floor office of General Buell.
Staggering from Nelson's blow, the enraged Davis turned to the assembled officers and demanded the loan of a pistol. Captain Gibson stepped forward and offered the general a revolver. Seizing the weapon, Davis hurried after Nelson. There is no report that either Governor Morton or any of the army men present made an attempt to deter Davis or even to counsel him on the folly of his apparent intentions.
General Nelson had reached the top of the stairs and was approaching General Buell's door when he heard Davis call out his name. He turned and saw Davis at the head of the stairs about eight feet away. Davis immediately raised his pistol and sent one shot smashing into Nelson's chest. The three hundred pound Nelson staggered back, reeled, and crashed to the floor just outside General Buell's door.
Officers from the lobby rushed up the stairs at the sound of the shot, lifted Nelson from the floor and carried him to a bed in a nearby room. "Send for a clergyman," the mortally wounded Nelson cried. "I wish to be baptized."
The Reverend Mr. Talbot soon arrived and performed the ministrations of the church. "I have been basely murdered," groaned General Nelson. According to a statement by Major-General Buell, the dying man forgave his assailant just before he died.
THE EVENTS LEADING UP TO THE TRAGEDY
Jefferson C. Davis served in the Mexican War as an enlisted man and during that conflict was commissioned into the regular army. Davis was on duty at Fort Sumter when the rebels fired upon it in April, 1861, after which he returned to his native state of Indiana and, making himself agreeable to the Governor, Oliver P. Morton, soon received a commission as colonel of volunteers.
In September 1862 Davis, now a brigadier-general, was assigned to the defense of Louisville under Major-General William Nelson.
William Nelson, a former naval lieutenant and Mexican War veteran, commanded part of Major-General Don Carlos Buell's Army of the Ohio. Since early summer the army had been trying to turn back a Confederate invasion of Kentucky.
Nelson met the invaders at Richmond, Kentucky, on August 30, 1862, and was soundly defeated. Nelson's command included several regiments of Indiana troops which were badly mauled by the rebels. Two weeks later at Munfordville four complete Indiana regiments were surrounded and captured by the Confederates.
Governor Morton felt a proprietary interest in the troops Indiana supplied to the Federal government, and the poor showing by the Hoosiers in Kentucky meant only one thing to him—they had been poorly commanded and grossly mishandled. The governor did not intend that this flagrant misuse of "his" troops should go unprotested.
After the battle of Richmond, General Nelson withdrew to Louisville and began preparing its defenses. General Buell had not yet arrived in Louisville when General Davis reported there for duty. Dissatisfied with Davis' performance, Nelson chastised him in his customary blustery and insulting manner and ordered the brigadier out of the department, directing him to report to General Wright at Cincinnati.
When Buell reached Louisville, Wright ordered Davis to report to him. Davis detoured through Indianapolis on the way and picked up his friend, Governor Morton. Both these gentlemen would have something to say to General Bull Nelson when they reached Louisville.
After the shooting, Davis went about his business, making no attempt to flee. General Buell ordered the killer's arrest and requested General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck to convene a court martial.
Halleck determined that the Davis matter was not a case for the military and directed that it be turned over to the civil authorities. Buell reluctantly complied, grousing about how "the military authority of the Government was abased over the grave of a high officer." A Louisville grand jury indicted Davis for manslaughter on October 27, 1862, and bail was set. The general returned to command of his division in time for the Union victory at Stone's River at the end of the year. Kentucky authorities declined to prosecute the case, and the charge was finally dropped on May 24, 1864.
Davis rose to command the XIV Corps under Sherman in the Atlanta campaign and the subsequent march to the sea. Although brevetted a major- general, he never received a permanent promotion above brigadier general's rank. After the war he served as colonel of an infantry regiment.
Though never a brilliant strategist or an inspiring leader, Jefferson C. Davis did gain one distinction—as the only general to lead his troops into a major battle while out on bail for a felony.