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The Davis and Nelson Tragedy.


October 1862

From The Missouri Democrat, Thursday, October 2, 1862.


Maj. Gen. Nelson Insults Brig. Gen. Davis.

Gen. Nelson Insults Gov. Morton.



[From the Cincinnati Enquirer, Sept. 30.]

The city was yesterday morning startled at the telegraphic announcement that Major General Wm. Nelson had been shot and killed by Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis, of Indiana. The brief dispatches of the affray gave rise to much speculation as to the origin and cause of the affray, and as the day wore away the anxiety increased to learn of the particulars. In order that the reader may be fully acquainted with all the facts, we will give them from the very first acquaintance of Gen. Davis with Gen. Nelson.

When the alarm was raised in Louisville that the enemy were marching on that city, General Davis, who could not reach his command under General Buell, then at Bowling Green, went to General Nelson and tendered his services. Gen. Nelson gave him the command of the city militia so soon as they were organized. General Davis opened an office and went to work in assisting in the organization. On Wednesday last, General Davis called upon General Nelson in his room at the Galt House, in Louisville, when the following took place:

General Davis—I have the brigade, General, you assigned me, ready for service, and have called to inquire if I can obtain arms for them.

General Nelson—How many men have you?

General Davis—About twenty-five hundred men, General.

General Nelson—(roughly and angrily)—About twenty-five hundred! About twenty-five hundred. By G—d! you are a regular officer, and come here to me and report about the number of men in your command. G—d d—n you, don’t you know, sir, you should furnish me the exact number?

General Davis—General, I didn’t expect to get the guns now, and only wanted to learn if I could get them, and where, and having learned the exact number needed, would then draw them.

General Nelson—(pacing the room in a rage)—About two thousand five hundred. By G-d, I suspend you from your command, and order you to report to Gen. Wright, and I’ve a mind to put you under arrest. Leave my room, sir.

General Davis—I will not leave, General, until you give me an order.

General Nelson—The h–ll you won’t. By G—d, I’ll put you under arrest, and send you out of the city under a Provost Guard. Leave my room, sir.

General Davis left the room, and in order to avoid an arrest, crossed over the river to Jeffersonville, where he remained until the next day, when he was joined by General Burbridge, who had also been relieved by Nelson for a trivial cause. General Davis came to Cincinnati with General Burbridge, and reported to General Wright, who ordered General Davis to return to Louisville, and report to General Buell, and General Burbridge to remain in Cincinnati. General Davis returned on Friday evening, and reported to General Buell.

Nothing further occurred until yesterday morning, when General Davis, seeing General Nelson in the main hall of the Galt House, fronting the office, went up to Governor Morton and requested him to step up with him to General Nelson and witness the conversation that might pass between Nelson and him. The Governor consented, and the two walked up to General Nelson, when the following took place:

General Davis—Sir, you seemed to take advantage of your authority the other day.

General Nelson (sneeringly, and placing his hand to his ear)—Speak louder, I don’t hear very well.

Davis (in a louder tone)—You seemed to take advantage of your authority the other day.

Nelson (indignantly)—I don’t know that I did, sir.

Davis—You threatened to arrest and send me out of the State under a Provost Guard.

Nelson (striking Davis with the back of his hand twice in the face)—There, d—n you, take that.

Davis (retreating)—This is not the last of it; you will hear from me again.

General Nelson then turned to Governor Morton, and said: “By G—d, did you come here also to insult me?”

Governor Morton—“No sir; but I was requested to be present and listen to the conversation between you and General Davis.”

General Nelson (violently to the bystanders)—“Did you hear the d—d rascal insult me?” And then walked into the ladies’ parlor.

In three minutes General Davis returned, with a pistol he had borrowed of Captain Gibson, of Louisville, and walking toward the door that Nelson had passed through, he saw Nelson walking out of the parlor into the hall separating the main hall from the parlor. The two were face to face, and about ten yards apart, when General Davis drew his pistol and fired, the ball entering Nelson’s heart, or in the immediate vicinity.

General Nelson threw up both hands and caught a gentleman near by around the neck, and exclaimed, “I’m shot.” He then walked up the flight of stairs towards General Buell’s room, but sank at the foot of the stairs, and was unable to proceed further. He was then conveyed to his room, and when laid on his bed, requested that Rev. Mr. Talbott, and Episcopal clergyman stopping at the house, might be sent to him at once. The reverend gentleman arrived in about five minutes.

Mr. Talbott found General Nelson extremely anxious about his future welfare, and deeply penitent about the many sins he had committed. He knew he must die immediately, and requested the ordinance of baptism might be administered, which was done. The general then whispered: “It’s all over,” and died in fifteen minutes after he was conveyed to his room. His death was easy, the passing away of his spirit as though the General had fallen into a quiet sleep.

His remains lay in state to-day, and his funeral, we understand, will take place to-morrow afternoon.

Gen. Davis immediately gave himself up to the military authorities, and is at the Galt House under military arrest to await a trial by a court martial, which will probably be convened in a few days.

The article of war, under which General Davis will be arraigned, reads as follows:

“Article 9. Any officer or soldier who shall strike his superior officer or draw or lift up any weapon or offer any violence against him, being in the execution of his office, on any pretence whatsoever, or shall disobey any lawful command of his superior officer, shall suffer death, or such other punishment as shall, according to the nature of his offense, be inflicted upon him by the sentence of a court martial.”

This is the first case of the kind that has ever occurred in the American army, and its effect, both North and South, will be startling. Nelson, although rough, tyrannical and insulting to Gen. Davis, yet in a military point of view Gen. Davis was unjustifiable in shooting. Davis, however, has the sympathies of the people both in Louisville and this city, and would undoubtedly be pardoned by the President should a court-martial find him guilty.

A brief review of Gen. Davis’s military career may not be uninteresting. He was born in Indiana, and is now about thirty-four years of age. He was married about six months since, and his wife is living fourteen miles back of Jeffersonville. He went to Mexico as a private when only sixteen years of age; and on June 17, 1848, entered the regular army as Second Lieutenant of artillery. He was with Major Anderson at Fort Sumter, and fired the first gun on the rebels at that celebrated engagement. His services as officer of the guard are well known to the public.

After the surrender of the fort, he sailed in the Baltic for New York, and was ordered to Indianapolis as mustering officer, Quartermaster and Commissary. Remaining in this duty three months, he was appointed Colonel of the 22d Indiana regiment, and was ordered to Jefferson City, Missouri, to command that post with 12,000 men under him. It was here he held important correspondence with Gen. Fremont upon the necessity of reinforcing Col. Mulligan at Lexington.

He was ordered to report himself on the Potomac, with other regular officers. Arriving at St. Louis, Gen. Halleck ordered him to report by letter and remain with him. Davis was then sent to Tipton, and there moved in junction with the forces of Gen. Curtis to Lebanon, Springfield and Pea Ridge. At the latter place, in the great battle, Gen. Davis commanded the third or center division. After the battle the officers of his division petitioned the President to appoint him a Major General.

At Blackwater, in Missouri, General Davis captured one thousand three hundred prisoners, with two hundred and forty cavalry, and three pieces of artillery. Among the number was Col. Magoffin and three other Colonels, four Majors, and a number of inferior officers.

The President forwarded a commission for a Brigadier General, and he was ordered to Corinth, at which place he arrived with his command two days before the evacuation. He continued with General Buell until at Jacinto, Mississippi, he obtained twenty days to leave to return home. He was unable to return and join his command, and thus he was thrown into Louisville.

Gen. Nelson went from Kentucky into the Navy as a Lieutenant, and with his movements and actions in the army in Kentucky, since the war broke out, every one is familiar. He was made a Brigadier General on the 15th of September, 1862, and afterwards promoted to the rank of Major General. He was formerly a resident of Maysville, and never was married. He has a large circle of relatives in the State, and a few residing in the East. He was also a relative of Mrs. Lincoln.