150 Years Ago This Week: Jefferson Davis kills a general

September/October 1862

On Saturday, Sept. 27, the Second Conscription Act of the Confederate Congress authorized President Jefferson Davis to call out men between the ages of 35 and 45 for military service. In Washington, President Lincoln interrogated Maj. John Key and ordered his dismissal from military service for allegedly saying that the object of the Battle of Antietam or Sharpsburg was “that neither army shall get much advantage of the other; that both shall be kept in the field until they are exhausted, when we shall make a compromise and save slavery.” Such views were widespread in Gen. George McClellan’s army and Mr. Lincoln was particularly aggravated with Gen. McClellan’s lack of aggressive action since Sept. 17.

Jefferson Davis.
Jefferson Davis.

In Kentucky, both Federal and Confederate forces were marching north. A Federal expedition from Columbus to Covington took place on Sept. 28. The next day, at a hotel in Louisville, the Galt House, Union Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis (no relation to Confederate President Jefferson F. Davis) got into a verbal altercation with Brig. Gen. William “Bull” Nelson. Gen. Davis had been slapped in the face by Gen. Nelson after he said Gen. Davis had insulted him. Gen. Davis walked out and returned a few minutes later with a revolver and shot Gen. Nelson, mortally wounding him. Gen. Davis was arrested by Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell’s chief of staff, but the murder charges were never prosecuted, and Gen. Davis was restored to service with the help of his politically powerful friend, Gov. Oliver Morton of Indiana.

September closed with Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army in Virginia marching south towards Culpeper County, and in Mississippi, the Confederate Army of West Tennessee, numbering some 22,000 under Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn, marched north from Ripley to Corinth, Miss., where Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans was in command of Union forces. President Lincoln traveled from Washington to Gen. McClellan’s headquarters near Sharpsburg, Md., to confer with his army commander and try to get him to march his army south to destroy Gen. Lee’s army. Mr. Lincoln noted that Gen. McClellan’s troops numbered 88,000 officers and men. The president felt that the Maryland campaign had been a half-hearted effort on Gen. McClellan’s part, and, looking at the thousands of men in the Army of the Potomac, the President remarked, “this is Gen. McClellan’s bodyguard.”

On Oct. 1, Maj. Gen. John C. Pemberton assumed command of the new Confederate Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, replacing Maj. Gen. Van Dorn, who was with his troops in northeast Mississippi. Gen. Pemberton, a Pennsylvanian by birth, established his headquarters at Vicksburg, Miss., on the Mississippi River. In reaction to President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the Richmond Whig editorialized: “It is a dash of the pen to destroy four thousand millions of our property, and is as much a bid for the slaves to rise in insurrection, with the assurance of aid from the whole military and naval power of the United States.”

At Corinth, Confederates under Maj. Gens. Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price attacked the Federal forces under Gen. Rosecrans. After severe fighting and piecemeal assaults, the Federals were driven back into strong defensive positions closer to the city. By nightfall Oct. 3, the fighting ended, with the issue of which army was successful very much in doubt. The overall Union commander, Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant, at Jackson, Tenn., was not sure where the Confederate attacks would be made or what the outcome of the battle might be. Fighting resumed again early on the morning of Saturday, Oct. 4.

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Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.