Battles & Leaders of the Civil War
NOTES OF A STAFF-OFFICER AT PERRYVILLE.*
BY J. MONTGOMERY WRIGHT, MAJOR, ASSISTANT ADJUTANT-GENERAL, U. S. V.
THE situation at Louisville in the latter part of September, 1862, was not unlike that at Washington after the first battle of Bull Run. The belief was entertained by many that Bragg would capture the city, and not a few had removed their money and valuables across the Ohio River, not over-assured that Bragg might not follow them to the lakes. Nelson had sworn that he would hold the city so long as a house remained standing or a soldier was alive, and he had issued an order that all the women, children, and non-combatants should leave the place and seek safety in Indiana. He had only raw troops and convalescent veterans, and few citizens believed that he could hold out against an attack. His tragic death occurred a few days later.**
Buell's arrival changed the situation of affairs. The uncertain defensive suddenly gave way to an aggressive attitude, and speculation turned from whether Bragg would capture Louisville to whether Buell would capture Bragg.
The country through which Buell's army marched is almost destitute of water, but at Perryville a stream flowed between the contending armies, and access to that water was equally important to both armies. Buell accompanied the center corps (Gilbert's), and the advance reached this stream on the evening of October 7th, From that time until the stream was crossed there was constant fighting for access to it, and the only restriction on this fighting was that it should not bring on an engagement until the time for the general attack should arrive. An incident will illustrate the scarcity of water. I obtained a canteenful, and about dark on October 7th, after giving myself a good brushing and a couple of dry rubs without feeling much cleaner, my careless announcement that I was about to take a tin-dipper bath brought General Buell out of his tent with a rather mandatory suggestion that I pour the water back into my canteen and save it for an emergency. The emergency did not coma to me, but on the morning of October 9th that water helped to relieve the suffering of some wounded men who lay between the two armies.
At Buell's headquarters, on the 8th, preparations were going on for the intended attack, and the information was eagerly waited for that Crittenden had reached his position on the right. Fighting for water went on in our front, and it was understood that it extended all along the line, but no battle was expected that day. McCook was at Buell's headquarters in the morning, and received, I believe, some oral instructions regarding the contemplated attack. It was understood that care would be taken not to bring on a general engagement, and no importance was attached to the sounds that reached us of artillery-firing at the front of the center. Of course the young officers of the staff, of whom I was one, were not taken into conference by General Buell, but we all knew that the subject of attention that morning was the whereabouts of Crittenden's corps, and the placing it in position on the right for the general engagement that was to be brought on as soon as the army was in line. We all saw McCook going serenely away like a general carrying his orders with him.
In the afternoon we moved out for a position nearer Crittenden, as I inferred from the direction taken. A message came from the line on the left center to General Buell, and in a few moments Colonel James B. Fry, our chief of staff, called me up, and sent me with an order to General Gilbert, commanding the center corps, to send at once two brigades to reinforce General McCook, commanding the left corps. Thus I came to be a witness to some of the curious features of Perryvilie.
I did not know what was going on at the left, and Colonel Fry did not inform me. Be told me what to say to General Gilbert, and to go fast, and taking one of the general's orderlies with me, I
*Condensed from a paper in "The Southern Bivouac."-EDITORS
**The facts in relation to the killing of General William Nelson by General Jefferson C. Davis are recounted by General James B. Fry in his pamphlet, "Killed by a Brother Soldier," from which the following account is condensed: Davis, who had been on sick leave in Indiana, hearing that general officers were needed about Cincinnati and Louisville to assist in repelling the invasion of Kirby Smith and Bragg, volunteered his services, and was sent by General H. G. Wright at Cincinnati to report to Nelson at Louisville. The latter assigned to Davis the work of arming the citizens of Louisville. A day or two afterward Davis called at Nelson's headquarters in the Galt House. Nelson inquired, "Well, Davis, how are you getting along with your command?" Davis replied, "I don't know," and gave similar answers to two or three questions as to the number of regiments and companies he had organized. Nelson, who was angered by his seeming indifference, rose and said, "But you should know. I am disappointed in you, General Davis; I selected you for this duty because you were an officer of the regular army, but I find I made a mistake." Davis replied, deliberately, "General Nelson, I am a regular soldier, and I demand the treatment due to me as a general officer." Dr. Irwin, Nelson's medical director, was called in by Davis to be a witness to the altercation. In his presence Nelson repeated the reprimand, and ordered Davis to report to General Wright at Cincinnati. Davis replied, "You have no authority to order me." Nelson turned to his adjutant-general and said, "Captain, if General Davis does not leave the city by 9 o'clock to-night, give instructions to the provost-marshal to see that he is put across the Ohio." Davis was highly incensed by the manner and bearing of Nelson. He withdrew, and that night reported to Wright in Cincinnati. When Buell reached Louisville on September 25th, Wright ordered Davis to return and report to Buell. He arrived at the Galt House on the morning of September 29th. Nelson, after breakfast, was standing in the hotel office, and was leaning against the counter when he was approached by Davis in Company with Governor Oliver P. Morton, of Indiana. Davis accosted Nelson with the remark that Nelson had insulted him at the last meeting and that he must have satisfaction. Nelson told him to go away. Davis pressed his demand and Nelson said, "Go away, you-puppy. I don't want anything to do with you." Davis who had picked up a blank visiting card and had squeezed it into a ball as he was talking, responded to the insulting words by flipping the card into Nelson's face. Nelson then slapped Davis in the face and said to Governor Morton, "Did you come here, sir, to see me insulted?" "No," replied Morton, whereupon Nelson walked toward his room on the office floor. After the slap Davis asked for a pistol, and a friend borrowed one and handed it to Davis, who started toward Nelson's room and met him in the corridor near the foot of the staircase, apparently on his way to Buell's apartment upstairs. When a yard apart Davis fired. Nelson walked upstairs and fell in the hall near Buell's door. To the proprietor of the hotel Nelson said, "Send for a clergyman; I wish to be baptized. I have been basely murdered." General T. L. Crittenden, who was at the breakfast table, hurried to the corridor, and, taking Nelson's hand, said, "Nelson, are you seriously hurt?" Nelson replied, "Tom, I am murdered." When Surgeon Robert Murray arrived Nelson was lying on the floor of a room near where he had fallen, insensible. The small pistol-ball entered just over the heart. In less than an hour Nelson was dead. General Fry was in the grand hall of the hotel at the time of the encounter. On hearing the sound of the pistol he made his way through the crowd that had surrounded Davis and arrested him in the name of General Buell. Fry took Davis's arm, and they went to Davis's room on an upper floor. When the door was closed Davis said he wanted to relate the facts while they were fresh in his mind, and among other details mentioned the flipping of the paper into Nelson's face. General Gilbert was appointed to succeed Nelson, and two days afterward the army marched for Perryville. Buell could not then spare officers for a court-martial, and suggested to Halleck that a trial by commission appointed from Washington should take place immediately. As no charges were preferred against Davis within the period fixed by military rules, he was released by order of General Wright.
On October 27th, 1862, General Davis was indicted by a grant jury for manslaughter, and was admitted to bail in the sum of five thousand dollars. The case was continued from time to time until May 24th, 1864, when "it was stricken from the docket, with leave to reinstate."-EDITORS.