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William 'Bull' Nelson
Civil War Encyclopedia >> People - Union Military
William 'Bull' Nelson
On the evening of April 6, 1862, Bull Nelson and his division began arriving at Pittsburg Landing, the lead division of the Army of the Ohio heading to relieve Major General Ulysses S. Grant at the Battle of Shiloh. As the U. S. gunboats Lexington and Tyler fired on Confederate positions near the landing, Nelson's men were ferried across the river. Grant led the first companies of Colonel Jacob Ammen's brigade to a low ridge south of the landing, probably the weakest point in Grant's last line. As soon as Ammen's brigade had crossed the rain-swollen Tennessee River the brigades of William Hazen and Sanders D. Bruce began their movement.
Nelson's arrival marked a major shift in the battle of Shiloh. With Nelson's men and the gunboats assuring the safety of the landing, Don Carlos Buell would be able to ferry the rest of the troops across the river. Early the next morning it was Bull Nelson, on Grant's extreme left, who began the Union counterattack on the bloody Shiloh battlefield. Crossing Dill Branch, his men ran into a company of Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry, easily brushing the outnumbered Rebels aside. As Nelson pushed due south a gap opened between the left of his line and the Tennessee River. Grant closed this gap with a brigade from the Army of the Tennessee. Nelson advanced so rapidly against the Rebels that he also opened a gap to the right, exposing his flank. Buell ordered Nelson to halt, awaiting the arrival of the rest of the Union line.
At 8:00am General James R. Chalmers [CS] realized the gap had formed and decided to attack, but by this time the Rebels were so poorly organized that Chalmers line was unsupported. About 10 a.m. Nelson began to advance once again through Sarah Bell's peach orchard. As the Confederate line repelled Nelson's advance, William Hardee ordered a second Confederate counterattack. They stuck Nelson's line, but William B. Hazen deftly led his brigade against the rag-tag force, turning back Hardee's men and advancing past the scene of the heaviest fighting the day before -- the Hornet's Nest.
Once again Nelson stopped, waiting for the rest of the Army of the Ohio to catch up. At noon they began to advance against a Confederate line that "fell back steadily, slowly," and by 2:00pm Nelson's men seized the Hamburg-Purdy Road. Once across the road Nelson stopped, although fighting continued to the west until sundown.
After Shiloh, Nelson participated in the march on Corinth under the direction of Henry Halleck, who had taken command of the combined Army of the Ohio and Army of the Tennessee. When P. G. T. Beauregard withdrew from Corinth, Halleck decided to split the armies to pursue separate targets, so Nelson went east with the Army of the Ohio towards Chattanooga. Because of Nelson's performance at Shiloh, Buell ordered his division to Murfreesboro, to protect against a surprise attack on Nashville. On July 21, 1862, Nelson tried to pursue Nathan Bedford Forrest following his destruction of three bridges. Although he came within half-a-mile of of "the devil himself," Nelson's men failed to capture The Wizard of the Saddle.
In mid-July Braxton Bragg took command of the Army of Mississippi in Tupelo and moved it 700 miles where it reappeared in Chattanooga as the Army of Tennessee. When Kirby Smith moved north from Knoxville Nelson prepared for an all-out assault on Nashville, but Smith continued north into Kentucky. On August 16, 1862, Buell realized that the Confederate activity might be aimed at Kentucky and not Nashville. He ordered William Nelson north without his division, to organize recruits and injured veterans into an army to resist the Confederate Invasion of Kentucky.
Nelson decided on laying in wait for Kirby Smith near Richmond, south of Lexington. After clashing at Big Hill, south of Richmond, Nelson's men withdrew to form a semi-circle south of Richmond. When word reached Nelson in Lexington that the Union Army was attacking in force, Bull Nelson mounted his horse and rode to the battle. By the time he arrived at a cemetery south of the city, the Rebels had broken his perimeter and Union troops were streaming north into the city.
Nelson began to organize a line near the top of a ridge. With the help of Generals Mahlon Manson and Charles Cruft, Nelson formed a thin line of some 2500 federal troops. At about 5:00 pm Kirby Smith's men reached the Union line. During the fighting Nelson was struck by a bullet and taken from the battle. Within a few minutes Nelson's cemetery line had crumbled and groups of soldiers continued their northward trek. Confederate cavalry Colonel John Scott had been ordered to circle north of Richmond. Soon, the defeated Yankees were running into the Confederate cavalry's line and surrendering. Bull Nelson was captured at dusk, but quickly escaped in the confusion, hiding in a cornfield before heading west. Nelson never really had a chance of winning the battle of Richmond.
After recovering from his wounds, William Nelson arrived at Louisville in time to relieve General Jeremiah Boyle, then in command. By the time he arrived, Louisville was in turmoil. Braxton Bragg [CS] had left Chattanooga and advanced to Munfordville where a small garrison was protecting an important railroad bridge over the Green River. On September 17, 1862, after the garrison had surrendered, Braxton Bragg's Confederates were closer to Louisville than any Union army.
As Bull Nelson ordered cannon to the heights across the river so he could bombard Louisville if Bragg took the key Kentucky city, Buell was desperately trying to swing around to the left of Bragg's army and bypass it. He didn't have much to worry about. For some reason unknown to this day Bragg decided to advance to Bardstown. Buell relieved Nelson at Louisville on September 24, 1862.
Over the next 5 days Union brigades arrived in Louisville, Kentucky. One of the brigades from Indiana belonged to Union General Jefferson C. Davis, who had begun the war a captain inside embattled Fort Sumter. Nelson, viewing the Indiana brigade's efforts to entrench, reprimanded Davis for poor work. Davis rode to Indianapolis and returned to Louisville with a friend -- Indiana governor Oliver P. Morton. On September 29, 1862 Davis and Morton confronted Nelson in the lobby of the Galt House (then on Second and Main St.)
Jefferson Davis and Oliver Morton approached Bull Nelson to "discuss" recent events. Davis accused Nelson of insulting him, which Nelson brushed aside. Continuing his tirade, Davis demanded "satisfaction" (a duel) and threw an object (probably a piece of paper) at Nelson. At this point Bull Nelson said something (the exact words are unknown), struck him in the face with the back of his hand and walked away. As he climbed the staircase Davis found a pistol and followed Bull Nelson to the second story hall where Davis fired a single shot, mortally wounding Nelson. According to one bystander, Nelson lived long enough for a local minister to baptize him. Buell appeared and arrested Davis, but he would never stand trial for the murder, protected by Governor Morton.
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Army of Tennessee
William 'Bull' Nelson was last changed on - November 17, 2007
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