|William "Bull" Nelson attended Maysville Academy (Seminary) and Norwich University before receiving an appointment to become a midshipman in the U. S. Navy in 1840. After sailing the South Pacific for five years, he joined the first class to attend the newly established Naval School (Academy) at Annapolis, Maryland. In July 1846, Nelson became a passed midshipman and received orders to report for duty aboard the USS Raritan, the flagship for the Home Squadron in the Gulf of Mexico. He was with Naval Battery No. 5 at the Siege of Veracruz and served with the Second Artillery Division on the Second Tabasco Expedition. In February 1848, Nelson became acting master of the USS Scourge. At the conclusion of his service, he received a sword for heroism and proficiency as an artillerist. In the summer of 1849, Nelson joined the Mediterranean Squadron, and on September 1, 1851, he was "Acting Lieutenant" of the USS Mississippi when exiled Hungarian revolutionary Louis Kossuth boarded the vessel to come to the United States. In December, Nelson became an escort for the Magyar’s famous tour of the United States. He became a sailing master on September 19, 1854 and achieved the rank of lieutenant on April 18, 1855. In September 1858, Nelson helped return captured slaves to Monrovia, Liberia. In August 1860, he reported to the Washington Navy Yard for duty as an ordnance officer.
In April 1861, Lieutenant Nelson went to Louisville to determine how the political currents were running. President Abraham Lincoln authorized Nelson to distribute arms to the loyal citizens in his native state, and on July 1, 1861, he was detached from the Navy and given orders to organize a campaign into East Tennessee. On August 6, Nelson brought those recruits into Camp Dick Robinson. He became a brigadier general of United States Army Volunteers on September 16, 1861 and organized a new brigade that assembled at Olympian Springs, Bath County, Kentucky. At the end of the third week in October, those troops from Ohio and Kentucky routed the Rebels at Hazel Green and West Liberty. On November 8, the Rebels fought a delaying action against Nelson at Ivy Mountain. The following day Union troops under Col. Joshua Sill secured Piketon (Pikeville, Ky.) and that effectively ended the Big Sandy expedition.
At the end of November 1861, Nelson joined the Army of the Ohio at Louisville. He received command of the Fourth Division and became the first to enter Nashville on February 23, 1862. The following month, Nelson obtained the lead for the advance to Savannah, Tennessee. His division arrived at Savannah two days before their expected arrival. At dawn the next morning, the enemy assaulted the Federal positions below Shiloh Church. By 4:30 p. m., Confederate forces were preparing to drive the Union army off the bluff above Pittsburg Landing. Some 500 troops under Nelson reached the top of that hill between 5:20 and 5:35 and that timely arrival gave much needed hope to a desperate situation. Monday morning, April 7, 1862, Nelson’s Fourth Division bore the brunt of the fighting on the left. Late that afternoon, the Confederates withdrew and the bloodiest fighting that had ever occurred in the Western hemisphere was over. On May 30, 1862, Nelson became embroiled in a disgraceful fight with Brig. Gen. John Pope over who was first to enter the abandoned town of Corinth after a long siege. Several weeks later, Nelson became a pawn in the ill-fated advance against Chattanooga. The subsequent Confederate invasion of Kentucky brought him back to Louisville with instructions to re-open the line of communication with Nashville. Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright had received command of the troops in the commonwealth and he ordered Nelson to Lexington to organize the Army of Kentucky and defend against the veteran army of Confederate Maj. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith. Nelson left Brig. Gen. Mahlon D. Manson in charge of troops at Richmond, Kentucky and he returned to Lexington to assemble a relief force to come to the aid of Buell in Tennessee. Two days later, Manson disregarded standing instructions not to engage the enemy with raw levies and that indiscretion resulted in one of the most conclusive defeats in the Civil War. Nelson arrived in mid-afternoon and rallied the untrained soldiers. Nelson received a wound in the upper thigh and he heaped abuse men who fled in panic. Reports of that behavior brought severe condemnation from the public.
By September 17, Nelson had recuperated to the point where he could resume command of the forces at Louisville. This was a grand opportunity for him to overcome the negativity associated with Richmond and he assigned Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis to the temporary command a motley group of Home Guard. Nelson relieved Davis of that command because it appeared he was treating the assignment with indifference and disdain. On September 29, 1862, Davis sought a public apology in the lobby of the Galt House and Nelson publically shamed him. Davis obtained a Tranter pistol from a lawyer friend and shot the Nelson in the heart. Many saw this as a justifiable honor killing and that enabled Davis to return to duty. Efforts to prosecute the matter in the Jefferson County Circuit ended two years later. On June 12, 1863, a new supply depot in Jessamine County, Kentucky became Camp Nelson. Two months later, an escort detail removed Nelson’s remains from Cave Hill Cemetery to Camp Dick Robinson. On March 8, 1872, the family plot at Maysville Cemetery became the final resting place for a hot-blooded quarterdeck general who had simply wanted to be useful to his country.
Donald A. Clark- 08/092010
Sources: Donald. A. Clark, The Notorious "Bull" Nelson: Murdered Civil War General (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010) ; A. [Anderson] N. [Nelson] Ellis, "Sketch of William Nelson," The Biographical Cyclopaedia and Portrait Gallery with an Historical Sketch of the State of Ohio 6 vols. (Cincinnati: Western Biographical Publishing Co., 1894) ; Arthur A. Griese, "A Louisville Tragedy-1862." Filson Club History Quarterly 26 (April 1952): 133-154; E. Hannaford, The Story of A Regiment (Cincinnati, Private Printing, 1868) ; James B. Fry, Killed by a Brother Soldier (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1885) ; Daniel Stevenson, "General Nelson, Kentucky, and Lincoln Guns," The Magazine of American History 10 (August 1883) ; General, Special, and other Orders, Department of the Ohio General Orders August 1862 – February 1864, Part 1, Para. 2, Entry 3493, General Order # 99, RG 393, National Archives, Washington, D. C. ; Maysville Bulletin, March 9, 1872.