Artifact of the Month

Artifact of the Month | The Other Jeff Davis


Jefferson C. Davis is probably best remembered for two things: the similarity of his name to the President of the Confederate States (Jefferson F. Davis, twenty years his senior and not related), and for killing a fellow officer after an argument.

Jefferson C. Davis was born in Indiana in 1828. His military career started at the age of nineteen when he joined the 3rd Indiana Volunteers and was cited for bravery during the Mexican-American War when he received his commission as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He was present at Fort Sumter during the bombardment that started the Civil War and fought in a number of battles including Pea Ridge, Arkansas, after which he was given the brevet rank of brigadier general of U.S. volunteers. He was next put in charge of the defense of Louisville, Kentucky, under threat by the Confederate advance into that state. He quickly fell afoul of his commanding officer, Major General William “Bull” Nelson. When asked how the defensive preparations were going and how many men he had mustered for the defense of Louisville, Davis was unable to give any specifics, replying, simply, that he did not know. Nelson flew into a rage and dismissed Davis, ordering him to report back to General Wright in Cincinnati. “You have no authority to order me,” replied Davis. Nelson told the provosts to forcibly remove Davis if he did not go on his own. Davis reported to General Wright in Cincinnati.

When General Buell took over command from Nelson, Davis was sent back to Louisville as the army was in need of experienced officers. While Nelson was no longer in overall command, he was still present. Davis ran into Nelson at the hotel desk of the Galt House, used as U.S Army headquarters in Louisville. He demanded an apology from Nelson for his earlier reprimand and dismissal. “Go away, you damned puppy,” Nelson replied. “I don’t want anything to do with you!” Events quickly spiraled out of control after Davis angrily threw a registration card, which he had balled up in frustration, in General Nelson’s face. Nelson’s response was to backhand Davis across the face. As “Bull” Nelson was six inches taller and twice his weight, Davis’s immediate response was to ask Oliver Norton, Indiana’s governor, standing nearby: “Did you come here, sir, to see me insulted?” General Nelson stormed off. Davis went looking for a pistol. 

Davis found Nelson in his office, aimed the pistol at his chest and pulled the trigger. Nelson died a half hour later. Oddly, charges were never filed, there was no court-martial, and Davis, never denying (or regretting) shooting Nelson, simply returned to duty. He was later given command of XIV Corps during the Atlanta Campaign.

Controversy continued to plague his career. During Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” the U.S. Army found themselves responsible for thousands of recently freed slaves. After Davis’s men crossed the river near Savannah, he had the pontoon bridge taken up, leaving about 600 people stranded and at the mercy of the pursuing Confederates. Those who could not escape were captured and returned to bondage.