Campaigning with the "old tub of guts" William Nelson

     John Purvis of the 51st Ohio had seen his fair share of general officers during the war, but William “Bull” Nelson was a favorite. “General Nelson is well liked by all his men as he has a brave generous heart beneath his forbidding exterior,” Purvis noted in July 1862. “We were all glad to see ‘old tub of guts’ as his boys call him. The cares and trials of the war have stamped their mark upon him, making him look much older than when we saw him only five months ago. His then smooth brow is deeply furrowed and his hair, which was dark as the raven’s wing, is now quite gray. But he is substantial as ever, as caustic too, as any offending person soon finds out.”

          In this letter dating from July 27, 1862, Purvis recalls a series a marches his regiment undertook under Nelson's command in middle Tennessee chasing after roving bands of Confederate cavalry. Just two weeks before, Forrest and his troopers had swooped down on Murfreesboro and captured most of the garrison in what was a hugely embarrassing defeat for the Union army. The arrival of Bull Nelson from Alabama was an attempt on Buell’s part to infuse some drive into the middle Tennessee troops in the wake of Murfreesboro, and Purvis appreciated Nelson’s arrival. Within a month, Nelson would be sent north to Kentucky to organize raw troops and would be caught up in the opening strokes of Kirby Smith’s Kentucky campaign.

          Purvis was a regular writer to the Tuscarawas Advocate; this letter saw publication in its August 15, 1862 edition.


Brigadier General William "Bull" Nelson of Kentucky became a legend in the western Federal armies. A giant of a man at over six feet in height and over 300 lbs, he possessed a booming voice and command of profanity that shocked and delighted his troops. His best day of the war was at Shiloh where his drive and energy made a significant contribution to victory. The troops had a host of nicknames for Nelson including "Bull," "Old Buster," and as Purvis points out, the "old tub of guts."

 Murfreesboro, Tennessee

July 27, 1862         

Mr. Patrick,

When we left Camp Meigs last November, two large trains were required to take us to Wellsville, now the whole regiment can travel on one train of less than a dozen ordinary freight cars, which it did in coming from Tullahoma to this place. Not that we are so reduced in numbers, for though many have fallen victims to disease and exposure, this is one of the biggest regiments in the field. But those cars were all crowded inside, on the top, and even hanging to the sides with human freight in a way that was never dreamed of before this war began, reminding one of bees clinging around the hive when about to swarm. This way of traveling was far from pleasant, certainly. The hot sun and black dust from the engine made it every disagreeable, but it was better far than marching on dusty roads through the scorching heat with a small supply of water, and no one complained of the scanty room.

All were glad, too, to get away from that poverty-stricken place, Tullahoma, where nothing was to be obtained of any kind, every store and grocery being cleaned out and the woods nearly cleaned of pigs, calves, and other game, which at first were plenty and where the people live almost exclusively upon cornbread, innocent of salt or any other seasoning; surely this was no desirable abiding place, and we left our laboriously formed fortifications and entrenchments with little regret. Upon reaching Wartrace, we found it as it was when we left it a few days previous, though a rumor was afloat that the guerillas had destroyed the depot-but no Rebels had been there at all.

          We are again under our old commander, General William Nelson, he having come up from Alabama immediately after hearing of the fight here. The rough and ready old general is vowing vengeance against the guerillas, swearing he will have them or follow them to hell and he is just the man to clean them out. He has the same men who were under him last winter at Camp Wickliffe and who came with us to Nashville, and we renewed our acquaintance with our old friends in the 6th and 24th Ohio, and the 36th Indiana. General Nelson is well liked by all his men as he has a brave generous heart beneath his forbidding exterior. We were all glad to see ‘old tub of guts’ as his boys call him. The cares and trials of the war have stamped their mark upon him, making him look much older than when we saw him only five months ago. His then smooth brow is deeply furrowed and his hair, which was dark as the raven’s wing, is now quite gray. But he is substantial as ever, as caustic too, as any offending person soon finds out.

          On the night of the 22nd we received orders to march the ensuing morning at daylight. Next morning at 3 o’clock, the bugle sounded for us to fall out and form in line of battle. Marching orders were countermanded, but at 5 we were again ordered to prepare to march as quickly as possible, taking only our canteens and two days’ rations in our haversacks, and to leaves tents together with other baggage as they were. Soon the advancing column began to file past our camp (we being farther out) toward Nashville. Regiment after regiment marched past, both of infantry and cavalry, then came the long line of artillery, the whole making a more warlike array than we had seen for months, isolated as we had been from the army. By 6 o’clock, the whole column was moving onward toward Nashville. As General Nelson had been marching all summer, he knew how men should go, so we went very leisurely, going only seven miles till noon. While coming from Nashville on the same road, we had marched 15 miles in the same time. We all turned into a wood and rested until 3 o’clock, then resumed our march, it being rumored that Nashville must be reached before next morning. We continued on until 8 o’clock, having then got within 12 miles of the city. However, here we halted at first thinking that it was only for a short rest, but the signal to move forward not being given at the usual time, all laid down in the road and slept until 4 o’clock next morning; many having nothing on except shirt and pants, and it rained, too, as usual.

"The men felt instinctively that they had a leader and although they still feared him to be a harsh, unbending disciplinarian, he had already secured their confidence and rapidly gained their esteem." ~ Corporal Ebenezer Hannaford, 6th Ohio Volunteer Infantry on General William Nelson 

          In the meantime, General Nelson (who never seems to sleep) and a portion of the cavalry had gone on to the city and found all right there; only some bridges had been burned within three miles of Nashville. The cause of our coming was the report that Beauregard was marching to take the city. And it is said by some of our soldiers who have come from there since, that many of the citizens were jubilant over the news, some of them even openly insulting Federal soldiers. But they said as the night passed away and no Beauregard came, the visages of the Secesh began to grow long and next day were of wonderful length and looking exceedingly crestfallen.

          Since all was right at the capital, it was useless to go there, so the column was about-faced and marched back the way it came for three miles, when we turned to the left, taking the Lebanon turnpike. Not having rested much the previous night, all were somewhat tired. It was a beautiful country through which we traveled that day- the best I have seen in Tennessee. There were large plantations, adorned with princely dwellings, an abundance of fruit trees which were groaning under their burdens of ripening fruit. And there were many broad acres of corn and beautiful fields of cotton. Altogether, everything looked well. There were also numerous streams and springs, so there was no lack of water. Though we marched fast and far, it was a pleasure to travel in such a country. But the inhabitants being rich aristocrats, are of course, all rampant Secesh, helping the Rebel bands to the extent of their ability in furnishing them with horses and equipment. We such people we can have no sympathy, so we carried off whatever of this we conveniently could.

A Federal foraging party goes after the swine in the shadows of a Southern mansion. By the summer of 1862, Buell's soldiers had started to rebel against their chieftain's strictures against unsanctioned foraging. The idea of guarding the livestock and gardens of unrelenting secessionists while scraping by on half rations of worse broke down morale and discipline as the summer continued. 

          In the evening, we came to where a party of guerillas had fed their horses; from appearances there must have been a considerable number, and as we were then but seven miles from Murfreesboro, it was feared they might have attacked the small force left there. A Negro informed us they had passed only two hours previous- so General Nelson sent the cavalry on as fast they could go. However, they saw nothing of the Secesh. But the frightened our men in town badly as they came dashing in amid a cloud of dust. The shadows of twilight were beginning to settle over the earth, so that they could not see whether friend or foe was coming. But they prepared to resist manfully, going into the courthouse and filling every door and window with their forces, and with bayonets fixed and guns loaded, would have given the enemy a warm reception, for some of the brave officers of the 51st commanded.

          They say when the Secesh citizens saw the cavalry coming and heard the order for them to fall in, they came out of their houses and began to strut around with heads erect and defiant looks; but when they saw the doors and windows of the courthouse bristling with muskets pointed at them, they quickly retreated within their houses; and when our cavalry came in, not a man dared show himself. Our boys in the courthouse would have liked nothing better than to give them a quietus.

          Towards 9 o’clock we reached Murfreesboro, having marched in two days 55 miles and having slept but little while gone, we were both wearied and sleepy. Thinking how pleasant it would be to have some warm coffee for supper and then go to sleep with our blankets between us and the hard damp ground, we drew near our camp where our tents had been left standing. But upon coming to where we left them, lo, no tents were there! All was a blank; nothing but the gloomy dark woods, a cheerless prospect for men as hungry and tired as we were; it was cold, too, as the nights here often are, however warm the day may have been. However, there was no help for it, nor was it any use to get out of humor, so we laid down under the trees as we had done many times before and went to sleep. Next day, we got our tents, knapsacks, etc. so we are all right again.

 Yours respectfully,

John H. Purvis




Letter from Corporal John H. Purvis, Co. B, 51st Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Tuscarawas Advocate (Ohio), August 15, 1862, pg. 1


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