Monday, April 9, 2012

Getting away with murder!  Part One
The battlefield claimed many a brave officer, but there were a few others who met not-quite-so-honorable ends

The death toll among general officers during the Civil War was staggering. Because military necessity often placed a general officer at the head of the army, generals were killed leading hopeless charges (Lewis A. Armistead), engaging in skirmishes (J.E.B. Stuart), reconnoitering occupied territory ("Stonewall" Jackson) and mounting impossible frontal attacks (Patrick R. Cleburne). The cost was incalculable. Here, after all, were officers who—political favoritism aside—presumably rose to their rank because of their experience, judgment and valor, the men who were best qualified to achieve their respective armies' objectives. And yet they fell in alarming numbers. At Franklin alone, the number of Confederate generals killed or wounded ran in the double digits.

Such a death was almost expected. However tragic a general's demise might be, however demoralizing to his troops, it was a risk every soldier anticipated his leaders taking, sharing with the lowliest private the ultimate possibility of a noble, if gory, demise.

And then there were the generals whose violent departures had little if anything to do with the field of battle.

 Jefferson Columbus Davis
Library of Congress: LC-USZ62-129704

The killer was a Union general who bore the unenviable name of Jefferson C. Davis—a fact that doubtless caused him no end of embarrassment. Davis was born in 1828 near the town of Charleston, Ind., and had been soldiering since his teens, when he volunteered for service as a private in the Mexican War. As a lieutenant five years later, he fought in the last Seminole campaign. And when Fort Sumter was fired on in 1861, Davis was inside the walls, commanding a four-gun battery. Throughout the war, he demonstrated unusual bravery and tenacity in battle, and distinguished himself in the Blackwater Expedition and at Pea Ridge. He was made brigadier general of volunteers in May 1862.

After a brief leave due to illness and exhaustion, Davis reported in early September 1862 to General Horatio G. Wright, commanding the Army of the Ohio. Wright in turn directed Davis to report to his second in command, Maj. Gen. William Nelson, in Louisville, Ky. A worse pairing could not have been conceived.

At 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighing 125 pounds, Davis looked a bit hangdog and considerably older than his 34 years. Although generally quiet in his demeanor, he was often intractable and given to displays of temper. One biographer described Davis as "aggressive, feisty, and confrontational" with a "fiery and combative spirit." The bombastic Nelson stood 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighed some 300 pounds—a veritable bearded, curly haired giant. Nelson was four years Davis' senior and had joined the Navy as a midshipman in 1840. He, too, had seen his share of action and in 1847 had commanded a battery at the Battle of Vera Cruz. A lieutenant when the Civil War began, he swiftly rose to the rank of major general in Don Carlos Buell's Army of the Ohio. Apparently Nelson was something of a bully and in his Navy days had been given the nickname "Bull."

Further exacerbating the situation was the sectional enmity that existed between Indiana and Kentucky. Never one to mince words, Kentuckian Nelson was known to refer to Hoosiers as "poor trash"—an attitude unlikely to endear him to Jeff C. Davis, one of Indiana's favorite sons. Davis, an Army veteran of countless engagements, might also have resented having to report to a man who had spent his entire career in the Navy and had only recently been given command of troops. And when Davis reported to Nelson, he was ordered to organize and train the "home guard"—an assignment Davis almost certainly would have considered beneath him.

Some, or perhaps all, of these factors were at play when, two days after receiving his assignment, Davis reported to Nelson at the Galt House, a luxurious hotel that also served as Army offices and Nelson's quarters. Nelson asked Davis for the number of troops mustered and the number of weapons required. When Davis replied, "I don't know," Nelson became indignant. He then asked for details relating to recently formed regiments and companies, and again Davis answered that he didn't know. Davis later averred that after only two days on the job and still lacking some crucial reports, he couldn't possibly have answered otherwise.

Nelson exploded. Rising to his full height, he dressed Davis down: "But you should know. I am disappointed in you, General Davis. I selected you for this duty because you are an officer in the regular Army, but I find I made a mistake."

According to Maj. Gen. James B. Fry, Buell's chief of staff, an old friend of Davis and a witness to the encounter:
"Davis arose and remarked in a cool, deliberate manner:

"'General Nelson, I am a regular soldier, and I demand the treatment due to me as a general officer….I demand from you the courtesy due to my rank.'

"Nelson replied: 'I will treat you as you deserve. You have disappointed me; you have been unfaithful to the trust I have reposed in you, and I shall relieve you at once….You will proceed to Cincinnati and report to General Wright.'

"Davis said: 'You have no authority to order me.'
"Nelson turned toward the Adjutant General and said: 'Captain, if General Davis does not leave the city by nine o'clock tonight, give instructions to the Provost-Marshal to see that he shall be put across the Ohio!'"

Furious, Davis reported to Wright, who defused the situation by temporarily reassigning him. On September 25, Buell took over from Nelson, and Wright felt it safe to send Davis back to Louisville. Davis was elated with the assignment; he relished a chance to serve under Buell as he planned a major campaign against the Rebels in Kentucky. On September 29, Davis entered the Galt House to report and immediately found himself among several friends, including Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton. Shortly thereafter, Nelson entered the hotel. Davis, still smarting from the insult, approached Nelson and demanded an apology. Morton stood near enough to hear the exchange, as did the ubiquitous Fry. According to Fry, Nelson answered, "No!" and "said in a loud voice for all to hear, 'Go away, you damned puppy, I don't want anything to do with you!'"

Davis was holding a piece of paper, which—as the shocked assemblage watched—he wadded up and flicked into Nelson's face; a startled Nelson responded by slapping Davis with the back of his hand. He made an indignant comment to Morton, and stalked away toward the staircase leading to his room. Infuriated, Davis borrowed a pistol from a friend, and walking to within three feet of Nelson, shot the unarmed general in the chest. Nelson, mortally wounded, managed to climb the stairs before he collapsed. "Send for a clergyman," he gasped, "I wish to be baptized. I have been basely murdered."

Fry immediately arrested Davis, who pleaded that, while he had sought an apology, it was never his intention to shoot Nelson. The shooting created a furor among the officers at the hotel, some of whom called for Davis' immediate hanging. Buell, who had doted on Nelson, was outraged and considered the act "a high crime and gross violation of military discipline." He wanted to take swift action, but timing worked in Davis' favor.

With his huge offensive in the works, Buell simply could not spare the officers or the time needed to convene a court-martial, and requested that Davis be tried in Washington. Morton lobbied on Davis' behalf, however, and nothing further was made of the affair. After a week of incarceration, Davis was released, and within two weeks of murdering "Bull" Nelson, he was given division command in General William S. Rosecrans' Army of the Cumberland. He fought gallantly throughout the remaining years of the war, but he would always be remembered as the only Union general to have murdered a brother officer.

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