Posted by: Democratic Thinker | April 15, 2015

Encounter Between Generals Nelson and Davis

Weekly Story

A dispute between General Jefferson C. Davis and his superior, General William “Bull” Nelson, ends badly.

General Nelson—roughly and angrily—“About twenty-five hundred! About twenty-five hundred! By G—d! you a regular officer, and come here to me and report about the number of men in your command. G—d d—n you, don’t you know sir, you should furnish me the exact number?”


Encounter Between Generals Nelson and Davis.


Encounter Between
Generals Nelson and Davis.


The most striking incident which occurred while the regiment [Fifty-Ninth Illinois Volunteers] lay at Louisville, was the shooting of General Nelson by Jeff. C. Davis. It is to be hoped that the act was morally and legally justifiable.

GENERAL Jeff. C. Davis was at home on leave of absence, which he obtained a short time before his division left the State of Mississippi, on a plea of ill health. When the alarm was raised in Louisville that the enemy were marching on that city, General Jeff. C. Davis, who could not reach his command under General Buell, then at Bowling Green, went to General Nelson and tendered his services. General Nelson gave him the command of the city militia, so soon as they were organized. General Davis opened an office and went to work in assisting in the organization. On Wednesday, General Davis called upon General Nelson in his room at the Gait House, in Louisville, when the following took place:

General Davis said, “I have the brigade, General, you assigned me, ready for service, and have called to inquire if I can obtain arms for them.”

General Nelson—“How many men have you?”

General Davis—“About twenty-five hundred men, General.”

General Nelson—roughly and angrily—“About twenty-five hundred! About twenty-five hundred! By G—d! you a regular officer, and come here to me and report about the number of men in your command. G—d d—n you, don’t you know sir, you should furnish me the exact number?”

Davis—“General, I didn’t expect to get the guns now, and only wanted to learn if I could get them, and where, and having learned the exact number needed, would then draw them.”

Nelson—pacing the floor in a rage—“About two thousand five hundred. By G—d, I suspend you from your command, and order you to report to General Wright, and I’ve a mind to put you under arrest. Leave my room, sir.”

Davis—“I will not leave, General, until you give me an order.”

Nelson—“The h—l you won’t. By G—d I’ll put you under arrest, and send you out of the city under a provost guard. Leave my room, sir.”

General Davis left the room, and in order to avoid an arrest, crossed over the river to Jeffersonville, where he remained until the next day, when he was joined by General Burbridge, who had also been relieved by Nelson for a trivial cause. General Davis came to Cincinnati with General Burbridge, and reported to General Wright, who ordered General Davis to return to Louisville, and report to General Buell, and General Burbridge to remain in Cincinnati. General Davis returned on Friday evening, and reported to General Buell.

Nothing further occurred until yesterday morning, when General Davis seeing General Nelson in the main hall of the Gait House, fronting the office, went up to Governor Morton and requested him to step up with him to General Nelson, and witness the conversation that might pass between Nelson and him. The Governor consented, and the two walked up to General Nelson, when the following took place:

General Davis—“Sir, you seemed to take advantage of your authority the other day.”

General Nelson—sneeringly and placing his hand to his ear—“Speak louder, I don’t hear very well.”

Davis—in a louder tone—“You seemed to take advantage of your authority the other day.”

Nelson—indignantly—“I don’t know that I did, sir.”

Davis—“You threatened to arrest and send me out of the State under a provost guard.”

Nelson—striking Davis with the back of his hand twice in the face—“There, d—n you, take that.”

Davis—retreating—“This is not the last of it; you will hear from me again.”

General Nelson then turned to Governor Morton and said: “By G—d, did you come here also to insult me?”

Governor Morton—“No, sir; but I was requested to be present and listen to the conversation between you and General Davis.”

General Nelson—violently to the bystanders—“Did you hear the d—d rascal insult me?” and then walked into the ladies’ parlor.

In three minutes General Davis returned with a pistol he had borrowed of Captain Gibson, of Louisville, and walking toward the door that Nelson had passed through, he saw Nelson walking out of the parlor into the hall separating the main hall from the parlor. The two were face to face, and about ten yards apart, when General Davis drew his pistol and fired, the ball entering Nelson’s heart, or in the immediate vicinity.

General Nelson threw up both hands and caught a gentleman nearby around the neck, and exclaimed, “I’m shot.” He then walked up the flight of stairs towards General Buell’s room, but sank at the foot of the stairs, and was unable to proceed further. He was then conveyed to his room, and when laid on his bed, requested that Rev. Mr. Talbott, an Episcopal clergyman stopping at the house, might be sent to him at once. The reverend gentleman arrived in about five minutes.

Mr. Talbott found General Nelson extremely anxious as to his future welfare, and deeply penitent about the many sins he had committed. He knew he must die immediately, and requested the ordinance of baptism might be administered, which was done. The General then whispered: “It’s all over,” and died in fifteen minutes after he was conveyed to his room. His death was easy, the passing away of his spirit as though the General had fallen into a quiet sleep. His remains lay in state two days, and his funeral was witnessed by many of the Fifty-Ninth and other regiments.

General Davis immediately gave himself up to the military authorities to await a trial by court-martial.

This is the first case of the kind that has ever occurred in the American army, and its effect both North and South, will be startling. Nelson, although rough, tyrannical and insulting to General Davis, yet in a military point of view, General Davis was unjustifiable in shooting. Davis, however, has the sympathies of the people, both in Louisville and in the army, and would undoubtedly be pardoned by the President had a court-martial found him guilty.

—Dr. David Lathrop, The History of the Fifty-Ninth Regiment Illinois Volunteers (1865).