William Nelson, member of an old Kentucky family intimate with the Clays, the Crittendens, and the Breckinridges, was born near Maysville, Kentucky, September 27, 1824. He attended Norwich Academy (now Norwich University) in Vermont from 1837 to 1839. Aside from the tragic circumstances which surrounded his death, his chief distinction lies in the fact that he was the only naval officer, Union or Confederate, to become a full-rank Civil War major general. Nelson was appointed midshipman in 1840, served in the fleet which supported Winfield Scott's landing at Vera Cruz in 1847, and by 1855 had reached the grade of lieutenant. This was a relatively much higher grade than it is today, since he was then ranked only by the 164 men ahead of him on the lieutenants' roster, by 97 commanders and by 68 captains. In early 1861 Nelson, whose brother Thomas had just been appointed United States minister to Chile by his old friend President Lincoln, made several surveys of political sentiment in Kentucky and reported his findings directly to the President. In April Lincoln sent him into the state to recruit for the Union, and he established Camp Dick Robinson in Garrard County, a rallying place for loyal Kentuckians. He was made brigadier general of volunteers on September 16, 1861. Nelson's first important field service came at Shiloh in April, 1862, when the leading brigades of his division of D. C. Buell's Army of the Ohio arrived on the field in the nick of time to repel the almost victorious Confederates and to participate in the Union counterattack of the next day. He then took part in the snail-like advance upon Corinth under Henry W. Halleck and in Buell's advance upon Chattanooga; he was promoted major general on July 19, 1862, to rank from the seventeenth. The same month he was detached from Buell's column and sent to Nashville and then into Kentucky to oppose the invading Confederates under Braxton Bragg and E. Kirby Smith. At Richmond, Kentucky, August 30, 1862, Nelson was badly defeated by Kirby Smith's forces: he was slightly wounded himself and lost over 5,300 men, his trains, nine pieces of artillery, and 10,000 stand of small arms, whereas the Confederate loss numbered only 451 killed, wounded, and missing. A month later Nelson was shot down in the Gait House in Louisville by a fellow-officer, Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis, who felt he had been insulted on a prior occasion and whose face had been slapped a few moments before by Nelson. He expired in a few minutes, and his remains now lie in Maysville.
Reference: Generals in Blue. Lives of the Union Commanders by Ezra J. Warner. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge.