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William "Bull" Nelson
[[Image:250px|center|200px|border]]Major General William "Bull" Nelson
Personal Information
Born: September 27, 1824(1824-09-27)
Place of Birth: {{{place of birth}}}
Died: September 29, 1862 (aged 38)
Place of Death: {{{place of death}}}
Nickname: "Bull"
Birth Name: {{{birth name}}}
Other Information
Allegiance: United States of America
Participation(s): {{{participations}}}
Branch: United States Navy
Union Army
Service Years: {{{service years}}}
Rank: Lieutenant (Navy)
Major General (Army)
Service number : {{{servicenumber}}}
Commands: {{{commands}}}
Battles: Mexican-American War
  • Siege of Veracruz

American Civil War

Awards: {{{awards}}}
Relations: {{{relations}}}
Other work: {{{otherwork}}}

William "Bull" Nelson (September 27, 1824 – September 29, 1862) was a United States Navy officer and later a Union general in the American Civil War who commanded the Army of Kentucky. He holds the distinction of being the only naval officer to achieve the rank of major general on either side of the Civil War.[1] He was shot and killed by a fellow Union general, Jefferson C. Davis, during an argument in 1862.

Early life[]


Gen. William "Bull" Nelson is shot by fellow Union Gen. Jefferson C. Davis at the Galt House in Louisville, Kentucky in 1862

The son of a physician, Nelson was born near Maysville, Kentucky, and attended Norwich Academy. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a midshipman on January 28, 1840, and achieved the rank of lieutenant by 1855. While in the Navy, he commanded a battery at the Siege of Veracruz in 1847, served in the Mediterranean and the South Pacific, and in 1858, as commander of the Niagara, transported to Africa the negroes who had been rescued from the slave ship Echo. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he was placed in command of the gunboats on the Ohio River.

Civil War[]

Nelson's family was friends with President Abraham Lincoln. While William's brother Thomas Henry Nelson of Terre Haute, Indiana, was appointed United States minister to Chile, William made several surveys of political sentiment in Kentucky and reported his findings directly to the president. In April, Nelson recruited for the Union in Kentucky and established Camp Dick Robinson in Garrard County, making it a rallying place for pro-Union Kentuckians. He was detailed for duty in the United States Army on September 16, 1861, with the rank of brigadier general. His first assignment was as a brigade commander in the Department of the Cumberland, but by December he commanded the 4th Division in the Army of the Ohio under Major General Don Carlos Buell.


Nelson's division first saw combat on the second day of the Battle of Shiloh (April 6–7, 1862). Nelson accompanied his lead brigade (under Jacob Ammen) toward the battlefield near Pittsburg Landing. Nelson personally arrived on the east bank of the Tennessee River in the closing hour of the fight. There he received an urgent message to bring his troops across the river for reinforcements. He was surprised at the urgency of message, as he looked at what he thought were thousands of able bodied Union soldiers milling about on the riverbank. While being ferried across, Nelson soon realized these were frenzied refugees from that day's fighting. Charging his horse off the river transport right through the frightened crowd, Nelson led his troops into action as the fighting died down around Pittsburg Landing. The next day, he led the attack on the Confederate left, supported by Thomas L. Crittenden and Alexander McCook. He suffered a counterattack, briefly taking his troops out of the fight. After Crittenden retook the Hornet's Nest, Nelson resumed the offensive and helped repulse Beauregard's final counterattack that day.

Army of Kentucky[]

Nelson's 4th Division was assigned to the "Center" of Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck's army group during the advance on Corinth. After the capture of that city he participated in Buell's advance upon Chattanooga. He was promoted to lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy on July 16 and to major general on July 17, 1862, and given command of the Army of Kentucky in August. This "army" consisted of two brigades under Mahlon D. Manson and Charles Cruft. On August 30, 1862, during the Confederate invasion of Kentucky, Edmund Kirby Smith's Confederate forces neared the town of Richmond, Kentucky, and began skirmishing with troops from Manson's brigade. In the ensuing Battle of Richmond, the green Union troops fled from the field. General Nelson arrived to personally rally the broken troops in front of a cemetery outside Richmond. This stand was likewise routed and Nelson was slightly wounded in the face but managed to escape whereas over 4,300 Union soldiers were taken prisoner.


After convalescing, Nelson was in command at Louisville, Kentucky, when Confederate General Braxton Bragg threatened that city. He was killed at the Galt House in Louisville, when he was shot in the chest by his fellow officer, Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis, who was offended by insults on prior occasions and whose face had just been slapped by Nelson. Nelson died within a few minutes and is buried in his place of birth, Maysville, Kentucky. Davis was arrested but never tried for killing Nelson.

See also[]

32x28px United States Army portal
32x28px American Civil War portal



  1. Eicher, pp. 167, 405. Naval officer Samuel P. Carter achieved a brevet (honorary) rank of major general, whereas Nelson was a full major general of volunteers.

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