Major General Jefferson Columbus Davis is branded by some historians as a Civil War Criminal or was he just General William T. Sherman’s Patsy. Jefferson C. Davis was a career army volunteer, from Indiana, serving in the Mexican War, as a sergeant and being promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in 1852. Davis’ battle experience included, Buena Vista, the Seminole War, Fort Sumter, Pea Ridge, Corinth, Stones River, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Kennesaw Mountain and Jonesboro. He was known for his bravery and unflinching loyalty to the Union cause, Davis was promoted to Brigadier General and developed an early congenial relationship with Sherman. Jeff Davis carried “a little baggage” from an incident in Louisville, Kentucky in 1862 and a bridging snafu at Ebenezer Creek in 1864, that haunted his military career for the remainder of his life.
After the engagement at Corinth, Davis suffered a health issue and traveled to Cincinnati to recuperate. After recovering he left to resume his command at Louisville, Kentucky, under General William “Bull” Nelson. Nelson, at 6’4″ and 300 pounds, was an over-bearing brute, with no management tact, a Naval Academy graduate and had spent most of his career at sea. “Bull Nelson”, a Kentucky native and friend of President Lincoln, had assured the arming, recruiting and loyalty of the residents of that border state. Nelson saw action at Shiloh, Corinth and Richmond, Kentucky and was preparing for the defense of Louisville, when an unfortunate confrontation with Jefferson C. Davis changed the military future of both officers.
General Nelson cursed and chastised Davis for the performance of his troops in the presence of many of his officers and men, dismissing him on the spot. Jefferson Davis, accompanied by the Governor of Indiana, Morton, confronted Nelson several days later in the lobby of the Galt Hotel in Louisville. Heated words were exchanged and “Bull Nelson” slapped the smaller Davis, twice, Davis retrieved a revolver and dispatched Nelson, with a single bullet to the heart. Jefferson Columbus Davis was immediately arrested and held for trial in Cincinnati. After 30 days, with no pending charges and citing a lack of experienced officers, in the field, Davis was released and returned to his command. Four years later Davis spoke calmly of the tragedy,
“General Wright assigned me to duty with Major General Nelson commanding the troops for the defense of Louisville. On the arrival of my division with Buell’s army, I assumed command of it, but a few days after, a personal difficulty with General Nelson caused my arrest and again General Mitchel assumed command. On being released from arrest General Wright assigned me — and that was that!”
In March of 1864, Brigadier General Jefferson Davis was recruited by General Sherman as a staff officer and commanded the XIV Corps. Sherman was thrilled to have an officer who would follow his edicts without question and whose manner lent itself to a relaxed headquarters atmosphere. Davis was either feared or admired for the killing of “Bull Nelson” and other staffers admired his pluck and daring in battle.
As General William T. Sherman left Atlanta and continued his “March to the Sea”, thousands of liberated slaves thronged his columns. Men, women, children, infants, mules and all their worldly possessions, joined Sherman’s march, helping when they could, but still needing sustenance, shelter and medical care. The General and his staff were overwhelmed with the added responsibility. Supplying the wants and needs of their troops was barely possible as it was, what was going to be done with all these extra mouths to feed? General Sherman tried to persuade the refugees to go back, but to what, a sure death or torture. A calamity was brewing and there were no easy answers.
On December 9, 1864, on Sherman’s approach to Savannah, General Davis deployed a pontoon bridge in order to cross Ebenezer Creek. After his Corps completed the crossing, his troops hurriedly retrieved the bridge, before the rapidly approaching Cavalry of General Wheeler could cross, stranding hundreds of African-American refugees on the far shore. Some of the desperate slaves tried to swim the swollen and frigid creek, drowning in the process, but most were rounded up by Wheeler’s Confederate troopers and suffered an unknown, but probably horrible fate.
News of the outrage finally reached Washington, politicians and the public were appalled at the atrocity and were holding General Sherman personally accountable. Rumors of Sherman’s racist tendencies had followed him for many years and now the proof could be read in the newspapers. General Jefferson C. Davis had also expressed negative views regarding unconditional abolition and both officers were now being accused of being War Criminals.
Maybe on the advice of his brother, Senator John Sherman, Jefferson Davis, War Criminal and murderer became Sherman’s Patsy.