William “Bull” Nelson Major General (b. September 27, 1824, Mason Co.,
Ky; d. September 29, 1862, Louisville, Ky). The peculiar death and controversial bearing of this Civil War general have caused him to be greatly misunderstood rather than praised for his selfless actions that helped keep Kentucky loyal to the Union. Characterized as an ox of a man, William Nelson stood six feet four, weighed some 300 pounds, and had flashing black eyes that accented his excitable temperament. He was the son of Dr. Thomas W. Nelson and Frances Doniphan. His maternal grandfather, Dr. Anderson Doniphan, influenced Nelson toward his dreaded anger, whereas his paternal grandfather, “Captain” Thomas Nelson (ca. 1770–1841), provided him with invaluable social and political connections. William Nelson attended the Maysville Academy and graduated from Norwich Academy (university) in Vermont.

In 1840 he was appointed a midshipman in the U.S. Navy. The impressionable 15-year-old Nelson set off and, for the next five years, sailed the South Seas and experienced the hard ways of Navy life. In fall 1845 Nelson reported to the newly established Naval School (academy) at Annapolis, Md. He graduated as a midshipman in July 1846 and was
posted to serve in the Mexican War. He saw duty at Naval Battery No. 5 in the siege of Vera Cruz, Mexico, and with the 2nd Artillery Division in a military action known as the Tabasco Expedition. At the conclusion of the war, Nelson was given a sword for his heroism and proficiency as an artillerist.

By February 1848 Nelson had become acting master on the Scourge. He was serving in that same capacity when the famed Hungarian revolutionary Louis Kossuth boarded the Mississippi at Smyrna, Turkey, on September 1, 1851. The following December Nelson became an escort for Kossuth’s famous tour of the United States. Nelson joined U.S. commodore Matthew C. Perry’s second voyage to Japan in 1854, becoming a sailing master on September 19, 1854, and a lieutenant on April 18, 1855. He then commanded the store ship Fredonia at Valparaíso, Chile, an assignment of
civil charity that endeared him to the people of that country. In September 1858 he joined the steam frigate Niagara and helped return captured
slaves to Monrovia, Liberia. When Nelson became an ordnance officer at the Washington Navy Yard in 1860, Kentucky’s allegiance to the Union appeared suspect. In April 1861 he went to Louisville and reported on how the political currents seemed to be running, and his report led to a meeting with President Abraham Lincoln (1861–1865), at which Nelson received permission to distribute federal arms within Kentucky. On May 7 he met with Union leaders at Frankfort and arranged for 5,000 “Lincoln Guns” to be put in the hands of loyal Kentuckians. Soon afterward, the U.S. War Department detached Nelson from the Navy to organize a military campaign into East Tennessee. He recruited Union soldiers throughout July, and on August 6, 1861, those volunteers marched into Camp Dick Robinson in Garrard Co., Ky., under his orders.
Nelson became a brigadier general of volunteers on September 16, 1861, and in the months that followed, he drove the Confederates from the
Big Sandy Valley of Eastern Kentucky. He then joined the Army of the Ohio and received command of its 4th Division. Nelson became the first
to enter the Confederate stronghold of Nashville, and his extraordinary performance at the battle of Shiloh in Tennessee led to a promotion to major general. The 4th Division led the way into Corinth, Miss., and Nelson soon had the key command for the ill-fated Chattanooga, Tenn., Campaign. The Confederates Heartland Offensive into Kentucky brought Nelson to Louisville on August 22, 1862.

He took command of the newly organized Army of Kentucky at Lexington, and seven days later his field commander committed raw Union recruits against a seasoned Confederate army. Nelson raced to the field, receiving a serious thigh wound when he desperately tried to rally the panicked
troops. He managed to elude capture but could not escape the severe criticism connected to this horrendous defeat.

By September 18, 1862, Nelson had recuperated enough to command the forces at Louisville. Days later he gave Brig. Gen. Jefferson Columbus Davis
(1828–1879) responsibility for organizing the Home Guard troops. Davis considered the assignment demeaning, and when his view became apparent to Nelson, the fiery Nelson became incensed. On September 29, 1862, Nelson publicly shamed Davis in the main lobby of the Galt House in Louisville. In response, Davis obtained a pistol from a lawyer friend and shot Nelson in the heart. Davis was returned to duty and never received any punishment for this perceived “affair of honor.” Out of respect for the victim, however, authorities named the newly formed Camp Nelson in Jessamine Co., Ky., in the slain commander’s honor on June 12, 1863.
Nelson was buried in the family plot at the Maysville Cemetery.

The Camp Nelson National Cemetery, established below Nicholasville in 1868, represents a lasting memorial to the praiseworthy service of
Kentucky’s “quarterdeck general.”

Ellis, Anderson Nelson. “Sketch of William Nelson.” In
The Biographical Cyclopedia and Portrait Gallery with an Historical Sketch of the State of Ohio. 6 vols. Cincinnati: Western Biographical, 1894.
Fry, James B., Killed by a Brother Soldier. New York: G. P. Putnam’s, 1885.
Stevenson, Daniel. “General Nelson, Kentucky, and Lincoln Guns.” Magazine of American History 10 (August 1883).
Donald A. Clark