Friday, November 7, 2014

Murder In The Civil War- The Deaths of Major Generals Earl Van Dorn And William (Bull) Nelson

Major General Earl Van Dorn

  There were several famous generals killed in the Civil War. Albert S. Johnston at Shiloh. Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson would die as a result of his wounds at Chancellorsville. John Reynolds at Gettysburg. Leonidas Polk at Pine Mountain Georgia. John Sedgwick at Spotsylvania Court House and Patrick Cleburne at Franklin. Two famous generals however died under unusual circumstances. They were both murdered. Confederate Major General Earl Van Dorn and Union Major General William (Bull) Nelson. Earl Van Dorn was born in Mississippi in 1820. His mother was a niece of Andrew Jackson. Through her influence he received an appointment to West Point in 1838 and graduated near the bottom of his class in 1842. He fought in the Mexican War and against the Seminole Indians in Florida. He was so seriously wounded fighting the Comanche in Texas that he was not expected to live. He made a miraculous recovery in five weeks however.

  When Mississippi seceded from the Union Van Dorn resigned from the U.S. Army and joined the Confederate Army. Van Dorn was sent to command the Trans Mississippi Department and suffered a decisive defeat at Pea Ridge Arkansas. He would be defeated again at the battle of Second Corinth. After Corinth Van Dorn would be assigned to the Calvary where he would enjoy more success. On December 20, 1862 he raided Holly Springs Mississippi capturing 1,500 soldiers,and destroying 1,500,000 dollars worth of Union supplies. This action combined with Nathan Bedford Forrest's raid into West Tennessee caused General U.S. Grant to abandon his first attempt at capturing Vicksburg. On March 5, 1863 Van Dorn and Forrest won a resounding victory at Thompson's Station Tennessee. Van Dorn was given command of the Army of Tennessee's cavalry on March 16, 1863. On April 10, he was defeated by General Gordon Granger in the first battle of Franklin. This would be his last battle.

  Van Dorn loved the women and regularly committed adultery. He had been married for twenty years and had two children He met a Mrs. Jesse Peters at some point in 1863.She was beautiful and much younger than than her husband Dr. George Peters. She was Dr. Peters third wife and his cousin. He outlived his first two wives. Peters was a member of the Tennessee State legislature and he had to be gone for long periods. During his absence Mrs. Peters was seen at Van Dorn's headquarters and had taken a carriage ride with him, On one occasion Jesse violated protocol by going to Van Dorn's bedroom to be alone with him. It was customary that whenever a married lady visited a male the lady was supposed to wait in the parlor and a servant would be sent to notify the man that the lady was waiting to see him. The meeting was to take place in full view of others. Van Dorn was asked by the owner of this home to move his headquarters. The man's wife was distressed over the impropriety of the situation. Van Dorn moved to the Martin Chears home. Upon Dr. Peters return he heard much of the gossip about Van Dorn and his wife Jesse. On May 7, 1863 Van Dorn was sitting at his desk in his new headquarters in Spring Hill Tennessee. Dr Peters asked for a pass through Confederate lines. While Van Dorn was writing the pass Dr. Peters walked behind the general and shot him in the back of the head. The daughter of the mansions owner, sobbed, " The doctor has shot the general" The small caliber bullet lodged in his brain but he was still alive. He would die four and a half hours later without regaining consciousness.

  Dr. Peters, with pass in hand, tried to pass through Confederate lines but was captured in Mississippi. He was tried in a Confederate court but was acquitted. The crux of his defense was that he was defending the sanctity of his home. The irony of all this was that that Dr. Peters and Jesse reconciled. Jesse swore to her dying day that nothing happened between her and Van Dorn. Van Dorn's family however believed that Peters was a Union spy and that Van Dorn's death was an assassination.
The Martin Chears Mansion In Spring Hill

Major General William (Bull) Nelson


  Major General William (Bull) Nelson was born on September 27, 1824 in Maysville Kentucky. As a teenager he reported for training aboard the USS Delaware in 1840. He sailed the South Pacific and received brutally harsh treatment from his officers. In 1846 after attending the first class of the US Naval Academy at Annapolis he became a Midshipman. He served with bravery and distinction during the Mexican war. Although he was a good officer he could be obnoxious and dictatorial. When the Civil War started he made himself available to Lincoln as a naval officer and was assigned as commander of the Washington Navy Yard. On July 1, 1861 He was a large man weighing 300 pounds. Nelson was detached from the Navy, promoted to general and ordered to raise 10,000 troops for an invasion of East Tennessee. He was sent to fight under Buell at Shiloh however. After Shiloh General Braxton Bragg organized an invasion of Kentucky. Nelson was sent to Louisville to organize a defense.

  For whatever reason Nelson developed an intense dislike of men from Indiana. He called them “uncouth descendents of ‘poor trash’ from the mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina.” Rumors were circulating that his Indiana troops would kill him in the next battle. A Union General with the unfortunate name of Jefferson C. Davis, an Indiana man, was assigned to work under Nelson building up the Louisville defenses. Davis didn't want to be assigned to Louisville and whenever he was asked a question by Nelson he would give a flippant answer like "I don't know". Nelson would answer "You should Know". Davis was a regular Army officer and he resented being under the command of Nelson. Nelson gave him a good chewing out. He tried to have Davis reassigned but Davis protested. Nelson threatened him with arrest however. Davis traveled to Indiana to see Governor Oliver Morton. He was obsessed with General Nelson and Morton returned with him to Louisville.

  They found Nelson in the lobby of the Galt House on the morning of September 29, 1862, The Galt House was an exclusive hotel in Louisville that was popular with Union officers. When Davis spotted him he told Nelson that he didn't like being dressed down by him and he was demanding satisfaction. Nelson shouted "Go away you damned puppy". Davis grabbed a hotel card, crumpled it up and threw it in Nelson's face. Nelson backhanded Davis and turned to Governor Morton and asked him "Did you come here to see me insulted"? Nelson turned and began to walk upstairs to his room. He asked a nearby reporter “Did you hear that insolent scoundrel insult me, sir? I suppose he didn’t know me, sir. I’ll teach him a lesson, sir.” Davis was enraged and asked for a pistol. An attorney from Indiana named Thomas Gibson handed him one. Davis shouted, "Nelson, not another step sir!" Nelson started to face him but Davis shot him before he could complete the turn. The bullet was fired from just three feet away and hit Nelson in the chest. In a state of shock Nelson staggered up the stairs and collapsed on the second floor. Nelson was still conscious. He said “Send for a clergyman. I want to be baptized. I have been basely murdered.” General Thomas Crittenden, who was eating breakfast, rushed to his side and asked “Are you seriously hurt,” Nelson answered “Tom, I am murdered.” By 8:30 AM Nelson was dead.

Davis shooting Nelson at the Galt Hotel


  Jefferson C. Davis was arrested but would never be charged for the death of Nelson. Davis was supported by his men in the ranks. He would become one of the most dependable and aggressive commanders in the Union Army. During Sherman's March to the Sea on December 8, 1864 at Ebenezer Creek Davis would be embroiled in another controversy when many slaves, fleeing from Confederate cavalry, were stranded on the west bank of the creek by Davis. Many of them panicked at the thought of possibly being killed, or being returned to slavery by the Confederates. As a result many of them would drown after jumping into the creek.

The man who murdered General Nelson - Major General Jefferson C. Davis



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