1st Quarter 2009
Vol. 3, No. 1
Richmond, Ky.

Kentucky’s Civil War leaders
Nelson only naval officer to become major general

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the eighth in a series about Kentucky officers and battle leaders during the Civil War.)

Bugle Staff Writer

Union Major Gen. William (Bull) Nelson, a member of an old Kentucky family, was the only naval officer – Union or Confederate – to become a full-rank Civil War major general.

Born in Maysville, Nelson attended Norwich Academy (now Norwich University) in Vermont from 1837-39, and, in 1840, was appointed to the United States Naval Academy.

Nelson served in the Navy during the Mexican War and, by 1855, achieved the rank of lieutenant, considered no small feat in the mid-1850s. His brother, Thomas, had been appointed minister to Chile by President Abraham Lincoln in 1861 and, by political and social contacts, William Nelson was sent by Lincoln back to Kentucky to recruit troops for the Union. He established Camp Dick Robinson in Garrard County as a rallying point for loyal Kentuckians.

In September 1861, Nelson was appointed brigadier general for volunteers and saw action under Gen. Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio at Shiloh, Tenn., in April 1862. He also participated in the advance upon Corinth, Miss., with Gen. Henry Halleck and Buell’s movement toward Chattanooga.

Appointed major general in July 1862, Nelson was sent north into Kentucky by Buell to counter Generals Braxton Bragg and Edmond Kirby Smith and their Confederate advances into the Commonwealth.

Nelson’s troops were soundly defeated at the Battle of Richmond (Aug. 30, 1862) and Nelson was wounded during the fighting and suffered the loss of nearly his entire command.

A giant of a man (6-foot-4, 300 pounds) who was known for his terrible temper, Nelson was shot and killed later in 1862 at the Galt House in Louisville by Union Brig. Gen. Jefferson Davis over a matter of honor. He was buried at age 38 in Maysville.

Articles and photos appearing on www.thekentuckycivilwarbugle.com may be used with permission. For permission, contact Bugle editor Ed Ford at fordpr@mis.net.

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