The Bull on the Battlefield
“The men were plucky, and the officers spirited, but the fatal want of discipline was felt and seen.”
~ Cincinnati Daily Commercial
The Federal army outside of Richmond, Kentucky was in a perilous state by 2 o’clock on the afternoon of August 30, 1862. Hammered by veteran Confederate infantry, the bulk of the army had been shattered from their second defensive line along the Richmond-Kingston Pike and were streaming back towards Richmond in confusion when a raging, heavyset bearded man in civilian clothes rode amongst them atop a frothing sweating horse, bellowing at the men to rally as he swung his sword and cursed the cowards. “The Bull” had arrived on the battlefield and his electrifying arrival on the field after riding more than 40 miles, killing several horses in the process, was the first ray of hope in a day that had gone badly against the fortunes of his army.
Even though the men had been in service for mere days, all of them already knew or had heard about the legendary General William “Bull” Nelson. The former Navy lieutenant turned infantry general had been recently assigned to command in Kentucky, much against his wishes, and had been tasked with getting these green troops into shape for service. The fact that he had arrived just five days before and discovered his command to be completely bereft of discipline or training compounded his daunting task of defending Kentucky. He ordered the men into camp and prescribed daily company and battalion drills to familiarize the men with military movements. Before departing for Lexington on the 28th, Bull left positive orders to his two brigade commanders Charles Cruft and Mahlon Manson not to risk the rookies in a fight, and if pressed to fall back west along Lancaster Road towards Federal forces stationed at Lancaster, Danville, and Camp Dick Robinson. Those orders were not followed.
Bull first learned this when he received a message at 2:30 in the morning on Saturday the 30th reporting that Manson had fought an engagement the previous day at Rogersville and had captured a mountain howitzer. Fearing this was the advance elements of Kirby Smith’s invasion column, he sent orders to Manson and Cruft to execute the retreat to Lancaster as previously directed. But by the time Nelson’s orders arrived at Richmond, Manson had already sent his entire brigade south to Rogersville to follow up on this small victory, where it soon found itself confronted with the leading divisions of Edmund Kirby Smith’s invasion force. The hard fight which ensued led to Manson asking for Cruft to reinforce the line with his brigade, and by mid-morning the entire Federal garrison at Richmond was engaged. The greenhorns put up a game fight, but command confusion and the lack of training soon manifested themselves and the line cracked, then completely came apart under a Confederate attack on Cruft’s left flank.
When Bull heard the guns thundering in the distance from Lexington, he gathered his staff and set out on horseback heading for Lancaster, thinking that Manson and Cruft would be there with their brigades. They were not, and the firing was clearly heard to be coming from Richmond, so Bull dashed east until upon approaching the outskirts of Richmond, he found Confederate cavalry in the area. He took to some byroads to avoid them, but fearing the worst, he galloped into town where he discovered the army falling back in great confusion. Demoralization read on the faces of many, and the Bull saw red.
“The general was raving mad,” remembered Sergeant H. Warren Phelps of the 95th Ohio. Bull rode among the troops, alternatively cursing, berating, shouting, and striking men with the flat of his sword to get them back into line. He presented a remarkable spectacle; a towering 300-pounder, he was dressed in a blue blouse with white pants, much like the former sailor that he was, while his bullhorn-like voice echoed and boomed over the confusion and racket of an army in retreat. While the Bull was angry with the rookies, he was especially livid at the folly of his two brigadiers and lit into them with raw, unpolished, and sea-worthy sailor’s prose. “The battle had been brought on against his positive orders. He soon brought order out of disorder and soundly berating the colonels and generals, he ordered a fire upon the advancing foe,” Phelps recalled.
In his attempts to rally the men, the Bull repeatedly told them that 12,000 troops were on the march to join them. As the Bull rode among the troops, he came across the 16th Indiana and was accosted by the regimental adjutant who wished the Bull had arrived earlier in the day. “I have come 41 miles, I did not intend to have this battle fought today,” he replied. He also told the men that he was glad to have the Hoosiers with him as the bravest regiment of his division at Shiloh was the 9th Indiana.
Nelson managed to rally roughly 2,500 men, less than a third of the force with which Manson and Cruft had started the engagement, into a ragged line that rather appropriately ran through the town cemetery. “Every man knew that it was the last and most desperate battle of the day,” wrote an officer from the 12th Indiana. “That upon his own nerve depended the entire result of whether we were to remain there or retreat to the Kentucky River.” The Confederates attacked this third Federal line around 5 in the afternoon; they, too, were weary, sweaty, and fatigued from the heat and long day of combat but they smelled victory and pushed the assault with much vigor. Nelson rode back and forth along the lines, wearing his hat and making a conspicuous mark for a Rebel sharpshooter. “Boys, if they can’t hit me, they can’t hit a barndoor!” he roared before a well-aimed Minie ball penetrated his thigh and groin. The Federal line soon crumpled for the last time and the retreating legions turned Richmond into mass confusion and panic. Confederate cavalrymen swooped in to capture Federals by the bushel, but the Bull escaped through the general maelstrom and headed back on horseback towards Lexington.
Escorted by a squad from the 7th Kentucky Mounted Infantry, the Bull rode 16 miles with his painful bleeding wounds before being overcome by the excruciating pain, he climbed off his horse and took a rest in a fence corner of a cornfield. Major Green Clay found him, got the Bull back on his horse, and led him to safety. They soon met a column of reinforcements heading towards Richmond. The Bull, “raging with pain and chagrin,” and knowing that the battle was irretrievably lost, directed the men to about face and return to Lexington. The following day, he directed the remnants of his army to march west towards Louisville while the Bull went to Cincinnati to receive treatment for his wounds. A month later, he would be murdered in his office at Louisville by Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis, a subordinate officer whom he had grossly insulted.