• Battle of Richmond Commander Murdered

    Federal Major General William “Bull” Nelson, the commander of the Union forces at the Battle of Richmond, was known as “Bull” for his size as well as his personality.

    And that may have been his undoing one month after the Battle of Richmond, when he was killed by a fellow Union officer in Louisville’s Galt House Hotel.

    Nelson was a native of Mason County, Kentucky, and was a United States Naval officer when he was transferred to the Army at the beginning of the American Civil War.

    He established Camp Dick Robinson in Garrard County (in violation of Kentucky’s self-imposed neutrality) in the summer/fall of 1861, and his troops fought well at the Battle of Shiloh in early April 1862.

    Fearing a Confederate advance into the Commonwealth in the summer of 1862, Nelson was given command of a hastily organized and very inexperienced “army” with orders to defend the state.

    Unfortunately for Nelson, this force was utterly destroyed at the Battle of Richmond on August 29 & 30, 1862, with Nelson being wounded during the fight in the Richmond Cemetery.

    Fearing the loss of Louisville, Nelson was given command of the defenses of that city. One of his subordinate officers was a Hoosier and regular army officer named Jefferson C. Davis (no relation to the Confederate president of the same name). Nelson and Davis had known each other prior to the war.

    For various reasons, an incensed Nelson relieved Davis for Davis’ apparent failure to carry out Nelson’s orders. Nelson ordered Davis to Cincinnati.

    After meeting with superiors in Cincinnati, Davis returned to Louisville, along with powerful Indiana wartime governor Oliver Morton.

    On the morning of September 29th, Nelson had finished breakfast at the Galt House when Morton has his entourage ran into Nelson. Among Morton’s companions was Davis, and another heated argument ensued.

    Both Nelson and Davis had a reputation for being rather foul mouthed and we can only imagine what was said. Davis flipped a paper in Nelson’s face, and Nelson slapped the diminutive Davis twice.

    Davis retired from the confrontation, only to return moments later with a pistol and accosted Nelson at the base of the grand staircase. Davis shot Nelson in the chest from a distance of less than ten feet. Nelson died within the hour two days after his 38th birthday.

    Louisville was buzzing with news of Nelson’s death. Davis was arrested, but due to other issues (not to mention two Confederate armies in the Commonwealth), he was never brought to trial, and returned to duty later in the war.

    Nelson was originally interred in Louisville, but was re-interred after the war at the site of Camp Dick Robinson. He was moved to the Maysville Cemetery in the 1880s. Camp Nelson, a Federal training and recruiting station in southern Jessamine County, was named for Nelson in 1863. The camp’s cemetery became Camp Nelson National Cemetery in 1867, and still serves veterans of today.

    -- Phillip Seyfrit


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