A Peculiarly Unfortunate Affair: Bull Nelson’s Not-So-Grand Review

 In the aftermath of the Federal defeat at the Battle of Richmond, newly raised troops from throughout the Midwestern states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois converged on the city of Louisville, Kentucky. It was a confusing and perilous situation: Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith’s army had entered Kentucky and after brushing aside the scratch force of raw levies at Richmond was poised to march on either Louisville or Cincinnati.  Reports that General Braxton Bragg’s army was also on the march in Kentucky (with Buell’s army in pursuit) made it clear that the seat of war had been transferred to the Bluegrass.

The defenses of neither city were ready to resist to an attack, and frantic efforts were made to secure these two bastions of Federal power. In Louisville, confusion and panic was the order of the day, not helped at all by General Jeremiah T. Boyle who commanded the district. His frantic telegrams to President Lincoln led to General William “Bull” Nelson being assigned to take command of the forces gathering in the city. Still suffering from his wound at Richmond and from gout, Nelson spared no efforts (and no one’s feelings) in his effort to ready his troops for the shock of battle.

General William "Bull" Nelson


Among the new troops who marched into Louisville in early September 1862 was the 105th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. The 105th Ohio had left Ohio on August 22nd, one day after mustering into service, and was in camp being equipped and learning the school of the soldier at Lexington, Kentucky when they heard the sounds of the battle at Richmond in the dim distance. The rookies formed ranks and marched to the sounds of the guns, but soon met stragglers who told them the sad tale of defeat at Richmond. “They came by twos and threes at first then in larger squads,” recalled Captain Ephraim Kee of Co. B. “Finally, they came in scores on foot and on mules each telling the same doleful story: ‘Our regiment all cut to pieces- the Colonel and Major dead, only us left.’ When asked how many Rebels had attacked, one six-foot specimen sitting astride a broken-down mule with a friend riding behind him said, ‘Oh, there was a heap of ‘em. You fellers will have a right smart fight if you keep on,’ and the second edition of Ichabod Crane vanished as did the first at the sight of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow.”

The regiment soon met Ichabod Crane’s polar opposite, the corpulent General Nelson, upon the road “wounded in the foot, raging with pain and chagrin.” Nelson confirmed the tale, and ordered the column back to Lexington, The next day, the regiment embarked on the “hell march” to Louisville; it was remembered as the hell march by the men due to the fact that nearly a third of the regiment fell out along the way, struck down by the heat and exhaustion endemic from carrying full military kit in the stifling heat at a 20-mile-a-day pace. Some officers commanding the march berated the men for falling out. “There were certain officers who damned the men because they fell out and kicked them because they did not get up,” Private Tilden Porter of Co. E reported. “So famished were the men for water than whenever they caught sight of a well or spring, they rushed from the ranks to the water and all efforts of the officers to stop them were utterly futile.”

Upon arriving at Louisville on Friday September 5th after a 150-mile march, the 105th was assigned to Brigadier General William R. Terrill’s brigade of General James S. Jackson’s division. General Terrill, a West Point-trained Virginia-born artillerist who broke with his family to support the Union, was new to command and “commanded respect by scrupulous attention to duty but awakened no enthusiasm in those under his command.” General Jackson was likewise new to divisional command, but the new troops were kept busy building fortifications and learning drill. After a week in camp, Bull Nelson decided that it was time to stage a review so that he could gauge the condition of his command, and perhaps show the panicked citizens of Louisville that he had the situation well in hand.

Brigadier General William R. Terrill

First Lieutenant Albion W. Tourgee of Co. G of the 105th Ohio described the hellish conditions of this review. “Why anyone would wish to review troops who had never had a dozen days of drill passes reasonable comprehension, especially in heavy marching order. This review was a peculiarly unfortunate one. The day was the hottest 16th of September ever known in the sultry humidity of the Ohio valley. The thermometer was said to have reached 100 degrees in the shade.

 [A bit of weather science here: the Louisville Journal of September 17, 1862 reported that the peak air temperature in Louisville on the 16th was 87 degrees, but the dew points were sky high (86 degrees at 2 p.m.) giving a relative humidity of 97%, or a heat index of 114 degrees. Winds were light to calm, so there was no breeze to help cool the men. It was hot, sticky, and miserable, even more so in full kit in a woolen uniform marching on sunbaked pavement.]

"The line of march was long, the paved streets were glistening hot beneath our feet while the unpaved ones were deep with dust. As usual, there were numerous delays and then a killing pace to make up for them. Everybody was ill-tempered; the officers because it was impossible to march well and wheel with precision without training, the men because the officers were nervous and irritable, and all because the weather was hot, the service onerous, and the reviewing officer [Nelson] exacting to say the least,” Tourgee commented. “The net result in the division was a dozen or two men taken with sunstroke and a score or two of breakdowns. The ambulances were full before the reviewing stand was reached and the march back to camp was one of the sorriest sights an unsympathetic populace ever beheld,” Tourgee concluded.

          Back in camp the following day, Corporal Edwin R. More of Co. F penned the following missive to the editors of the Cleveland Morning Leader panning the review and making public the men’s complaints about their ill-usage at Bull Nelson’s hands. More makes the point that after one march and one review under Nelson’s command, the health of the 105th Ohio was already bordering on ruinous. “Another such march would ruin the regiment,” he reported the surgeon as saying. And the regiment had yet to fire a shot at the Rebels.

It is worth noting that Corporal More was also assigned to the regimental hospital and as such was an eyewitness to what he describes in the letter concerning the medical condition of the men.

 

Camp near Louisville, Kentucky

Wednesday, September 17, 1862

Editors Leader,

          Did you ever feel yourself wantonly misused, and that too, when you had no means of redress? If you have, then you may be able to understand the feelings of every person of the 105th Ohio, from the highest officer down to the high private in the rear rank. I make no complaint against any officer, for the reason that a complaint is likely to be lodged in the hands of the proper person that will relieve us of that which sets on us like an incubus. At least, I have been informed by one who ought to know that the initiatory steps have been taken to rid ourselves of the cancer that is destroying us.

          Yesterday morning, the whole brigade was busily engaged in taking down tents and loading them upon the wagons. Breakfast over, two days’ rations were distributed and a little after 7 o’clock, the whole brigade was under arms with knapsack, haversack, and canteen slung over the shoulders. After equalizing the companies by taking from one enough to bring another up to a certain point, we were marched down to the city through the hot sun and dust to be reviewed by the General commanding the station [General Nelson] in one of the close streets of the city. Why a street with brick walls on each side was selected instead of the open fields I cannot understand.

  “General William Nelson was peculiarly unfitted for the task assigned him. Impetuous and daring to a fault, he lacked the power of conciliating and inspiring others. He treated his superiors with arrogance and his inferiors with brutality. If invective could have destroyed, he would have annihilated both his enemies and his friends. Such a man, no matter what his military capacity, was certainly not likely to succeed in the command of raw troops whose intelligence he insulted with profane diatribes, whose ardor he cooled by harsh rebuke, and whose effectiveness he well-nigh destroyed by lack of confidence.” ~First Lieutenant Albion W. Tourgee, Co. G, 105th Ohio

After going through the evolutions and drill of review and dress parade, we were marched up and down the hot and close streets of Louisville until we were nearly worn out. Persons on horseback were riding up and down the lines to prevent the sympathetic citizens of Louisville giving water to the thirsty and dust-covered soldiers. Our company officers were ordered to keep persons with pails of water away from their lines and I noticed some of them were very careful not to order the pails removed until at least three-fourths of their contents were in the mouths of their soldiers. Had it not been for this careful obedience to orders on the part of our lieutenants and captains, the men would have suffered much more than they did.

We were, unexpectedly to us, marched back to the very campground left by us in the morning which we then hoped we had seen for the last time. One company in the 105th that left with 66 men in the morning returned at 3 p.m. minus the captain and 36 men. Another returned with 25, one with 29, and one with 5 men. I could give you the letter of each company, but I do not think it best to do so. I know of three captains of the 105th who fell out of the ranks from fatigue. I saw one in convulsions, another gasping for breath, and a third with a small jet of blood spirting from his left temple from an opening made by the surgeon’s lance. Another was crazy and was taken up with the idea that he was at home, and it was difficult for his comrades to keep him in the ranks so anxious was he to get home. Poor fellow, he came into camp with the few but was so exhausted that he sank upon the ground and the surgeon was soon taking the red life current from his veins, too. More I could tell, but it is not pleasant to dwell upon.

Colonel Hall gave the order to halt and rest, but the bugle sounded ‘forward march’ and the Colonel had to obey. It was plainly seen by the countenances of Colonel Hall and Lieutenant Colonel Tolles that they sympathized with the men, but it was of no avail. Their bearing has won for them the respect and esteem of the entire regiment. Our surgeon said today that another such march would destroy the regiment. Many that stood the march through from Lexington are today compelled to go into the hospital. The report is current today that six men died from the effects of yesterday’s march. Had the men been allowed water and rest at proper intervals, all would have been well and today, instead of murmuring and resting, we would have been hopeful and preparing ourselves for battle.

 

Sources:

Letter from Corporal Edwin R. More, Co. F, 105th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Cleveland Morning Leader (Ohio), September 23, 1862, pg. 1

Letter from Captain Ephraim Kee, Co. B, 105th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Western Reserve Chronicle (Ohio), October 1, 1862, pg. 1

Letter from Private Tilden W. Porter, Co. E, 105th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, [Chardon] Jeffersonian Democrat (Ohio), September 19, 1862, pg. 2

Tourgee, Albion W. The Story of a Thousand, Being a History of the Service of the 105th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in the War for the Union from August 21, 1862 to June 6, 1865. Kent: Kent State University Press, 2011, pgs. 101-102

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