Thursday, February 10, 2011

Clark: "THE NOTORIOUS 'BULL' NELSON: Murdered Civil War General"

[The Notorious "Bull" Nelson: Murdered Civil War General by Donald A. Clark (Southern Illinois University Press, 2011). Cloth, maps, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:182/270. ISBN:978-0-8093-3011-9 $29.95]

The life and promising Civil War career of William "Bull" Nelson has always been overshadowed by his shocking demise at the hands of aggrieved Union general, Jefferson C. Davis of Indiana, on September 29, 1862 inside Louisville's Galt House hotel. Though relatively brief, Donald Clark's The Notorious "Bull" Nelson: Murdered Civil War General provides an unprecedentedly expansive look at the burly Kentuckian's public service, especially his important roles in organizing Kentucky unionists and leading brigade and division sized forces in the western theater.

Unfortunately, the lack of a significant body of Nelson papers leaves his inner world a mystery. Adding to the difficulty in getting to "know" the man was his incredible ability to inspire loathing and loyalty in equal measure. A huge, impulsive man who could be an astonishingly vulgar bully, Nelson could also inspire men with his aggressiveness and coolness under fire as well and his steadfast loyalty to the Union. In the latter capacity, he is often credited with helping to save Kentucky for the Union during the critical period in 1861 when it was unclear to many observers which way the Bluegrass State would go. While the 'savior' label appears to be something of an exaggeration, Clark clearly demonstrates how Nelson's indefatigable efforts to arm and organize Union regiments in Kentucky (as well as unionist fugitives from East Tennessee) bore fruit in the campaigns that followed.

A career naval officer before the war, Nelson's championing of the Union cause in Kentucky led to a brigadier general's commission and the task of heading a military expedition into the state's Big Sandy Valley. Clark recounts well this little known October-November 1861 campaign, one that culminated with Nelson's victory at Ivy Mountain. Although he does not believe that Nelson's evening arrival on April 6 saved the Army of the Tennessee from defeat at Shiloh, Clark does feel that the post-battle defensiveness of Grant and others in the face of a very public backlash helped deny Nelson his proper share of the credit for Union victory in the two day clash.

While Nelson's positive traits are generously extolled in the book, the general's professional flaws are not overlooked. At Corinth in 1862, the Kentuckian engaged in an unseemly quarrel with General Pope over who reached the town first, and, later that year, he thoughtlessly and needlessly forced marched his men in extreme heat, leading to several deaths. However, in Clark's discussion of Nelson's time at the helm of the Army of Kentucky, the author, while he does not completely exonerate the general, comes across as perhaps a bit too forgiving of Nelson's level of responsibility for the Battle of Richmond debacle.

In researching his account of Nelson's shooting death, it does not appear that Clark uncovered new details that alter our understanding of that unfortunate event. Readers seeking a clear answer to the question of why General Davis was not prosecuted for what would seem to be an obvious case of murder will not find a definitive one. This is not through any fault of Clark, but rather that a tidy explanation does not exist. Clark uncovered no conspiracy on the part of Indiana governor Oliver Morton (a popular accusation) and the frequently cited suggestion that the murder was an acceptable "honor killing" between gentlemen officers is not fully satisfying. The author himself offers an interesting interpretation, that the public at large viewed Nelson's constant string of violent physical and verbal assaults upon subordinate officers and common soldiers as a prime example of the outrageous level of abuse selfless volunteers had to endure at the hands of tyrannical members of the professional military caste. Rather than a personal conflict of honor between individuals, the killing was viewed publicly as a justifiable redress of a larger social violation of the rights of free citizens.

Without the discovery of a significant cache of Nelson papers, it is unlikely that a deeper personal portrait of this man who was a mass of contradictions is possible. Beyond providing a commendable military biography of William Nelson, Donald Clark's study is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the early war western campaigns in Kentucky and Tennessee.

Other CWBA reviews of SIUP titles:
* The Chickamauga Campaign
* Chicago's Irish Legion: The 90th Illinois Volunteers in the Civil War
* The Shiloh Campaign

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