Bull Nelson and the heavy hand of discipline

William "Bull" Nelson

For the boys of the 36th Indiana, the first few months of 1862 were filled with learning how to be soldiers while trying to stay healthy at Camp Wickliffe in Kentucky. During this time, General Buell assigned the 36th Indiana to the Tenth Brigade of the Fourth Division, William “Bull” Nelson commanding.

General Nelson was known as a strict disciplinarian. Colonel William Grose of the 36th called him a “complete disciplinarian, who taught us to act like soldiers in camp life, and informed us not to be uneasy about not getting into a fight, for we would have as much of that business as we desired in the coming two years.”

Nelson was known to be “overbearing, inconsiderate, tyrannical, easily giving offense.”  In spite of these traits, or maybe because of them, he was beloved by the enlisted men who served under him.  Their love for him may also have derived from the fact that he saved most of his outbursts and overzealous discipline for the officers.

Many of the enlisted men in the volunteer regiments during the Civil War had a low opinion of their officers.  Discipline was hit-and-miss among these independent men and boys who had volunteered their service to their country.  Most didn’t want to be ordered around by their friends and neighbors–their fellow volunteers.

Officers from the ranks of the volunteers found themselves in a challenging position. They reported to men like General Nelson who were trained military men with high expectations and often blustery attitudes.  At the same time, they were responsible to lead rowdy, independent volunteers, many of whom were young men out for adventure.

L.K. Harris was one of these officers–a young man himself at twenty-three years old in the spring of 1862 and serving as a second lieutenant in Bull Nelson’s division. Nevertheless, he shared responsibility for hundred or so men in Company F of the 36th Indiana.

L. K. Harris

Lieutenant L.K. Harris

I haven’t found any letters or stories that indicate the soldiers’ opinion of Lieutenant Harris the spring of 1862.  Nor have I found any official records that explain why he was promoted to first lieutenant in March of 1862.

At Shiloh, in April of 1862, L.K. Harris may have had the opportunity to see Nelson in all his glory.  On the first day of the battle, Nelson led his division–with the 36th Indiana at the forefront–on a double-quick march to reach the battlefield at Shiloh.  Arriving in the evening, they found soldiers from Grant’s army fleeing from the battle by jumping into the Tennessee River. As Nelson and several companies from the 36th Indiana were ferried across the river, Nelson shouted at the men fleeing battle and threatened to kill them himself as deserters.

Nelson was known for his temper and in late 1862 he paid for it.  He was shot to death by a brigadier general under his command.  General Jefferson Davis from Indiana felt slighted by an assignment from Nelson;  when he confronted Nelson and asked for an apology, Nelson publicly shamed him.  Davis came back with a gun and shot him dead in a Louisville hotel.  Governor Oliver Morton made sure that Davis went free and many saw the killing as a justifiable homicide of a tyrannical leader.

I can’t be sure L.K. was with Nelson on that night at Shiloh.  And I can’t be sure he ever interacted with him directly.  But since he was an officer and served in Nelson’s division, there’s no doubt he was exposed to Nelson’s bigger-than-life personality on some level.

It makes me wonder whether he loved him or wanted to shoot him.

— — —

To learn more about General William “Bull” Nelson, see the recent biography by Donald A. Clark, The Notorious “Bull” Nelson.

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