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If Maj. Gen. William Nelson is mentioned at all by Civil War buffs, it is usually only as the answer to the trivia question, “Name the Union general murdered by the other Jefferson Davis.”
This is unfortunate because “Bull” Nelson (all six-foot four-inches and 300 pounds of him) deserves to be remembered for more than his unfortunate encounter with Indiana Maj. Gen. Jefferson Columbus Davis.
Born in eastern Kentucky in 1824, Nelson began a career in the U.S. Navy in 1840. Following a long period of active duty, (including the 1847 Siege of Veracruz during the Mexican War, he engaged in escorting and rallying support for Hungarian revolutionary Louis Kossuth.
The majority of this well-written biography quite properly deals with Nelson’s invaluable service to the Union during the Civil War. When the war began, Lincoln personally dispatched Nelson to his home state with thousands of weapons to arm Kentucky’s Home Guards.
The aggressive naval officer quickly established Camp Dick Robinson, a training camp for the state’s Unionists. Named a brigadier general of volunteers in September 1861, Nelson advanced with a force into eastern Kentucky that fall. There he scored a victory at Ivy Mountain and dispersed Confederate units in his wake.
In the spring of 1862, Army of the Ohio division commander Nelson marched his men across Tennessee from Nashville to Pittsburg Landing, where they performed well during the second day of the Battle of Shiloh. Following the Siege of Corinth, Nelson was promoted to major general.
In his last test under fire, Nelson had the unenviable job of leading raw Union forces during the disastrous Battle of Richmond, Ky. He was killed by Jeff Davis only a month later.
Donald Clark faced a daunting challenge in crafting this biography since no sizeable collection of Nelson’s papers exists. Nevertheless, he does a very good job pulling together a significant amount of information, including “the words of those who knew him well,” to explain this polarizing character.
It is readily apparent from Clark’s study that Nelson was both a capable and energetic battlefield commander and, quite often, a less than personable individual when dealing with subordinates.
Described as a “burly brute with the boatswain’s voice,” Nelson could quite literally “swear like a sailor.” His encounters with enlisted men and other officers became part of the Nelson legend.
Clark also thoroughly examines the fatal Davis-Nelson encounter from all angles. What to some might appear to be a clear-cut case of assassination is instead a nuanced event in which both men escalated tensions and contributed to the unfortunate outcome.
Clark’s extensive notes conclude a very readable and entertaining study of one of Kentucky’s most colorful officers. Unless some hidden cache of personal papers is discovered, it is likely that Donald Clark has produced the definitive account of the life and work of this Union sailor-turned-soldier.
— Jeff Patrick