Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Notorious "Bull" Nelson: Murdered Civil War General

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Notorious "Bull" Nelson: Murdered Civil War General

Article excerpt

The Notorious "Bull" Nelson: Murdered Civil War General. By Donald A. Clark. (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, c. 2011. Pp. [xviii], 254. $29.95, ISBN 978-0-8093-3011-9.)

Some readers might question the need for yet another biography of a Civil War general, but William Nelson proves a worthy subject. A veteran of the U.S.-Mexican War and an experienced naval officer by the time of the Civil War, the patriotic Democrat played a significant role in keeping his native Kentucky in the Union. Nelson communicated directly with prominent officials, including Abraham Lincoln, and raised and trained Unionist forces in his home state. Though he was relatively famous for his wartime service and his murder at the hands of a fellow Union officer, Nelson's opposition to secession in Kentucky was likely his most important contribution to American history.

Although it is clearly not author Donald A Clark's intent, the massive officer nicknamed "Bull" who emerges from the pages of this biography is a rather unlikable individual. One observer deemed Nelson "rough and high-tempered" even as a child, and Clark argues that harsh hazing in military school and the rugged lifestyle of a naval officer combined to form the domineering personality for which the general would become known in the Union army (p. 5). Though some contemporaries, including Lincoln, valued Nelson's merits as an officer above his personality defects, many soldiers and officers who served under Nelson considered him a tyrant who frequently meted out mindless punishment in the name of duty and who embarrassed men in front of their peers. Perhaps predictably, then, controversy followed the general. To cite just two examples, a delusional Nelson sought credit for saving Ulysses S. …

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