William "Bull" Nelson, Lajos Kossuth and the Hungarian Forty-Eighters
The Civil War, once described by Abraham Lincoln as a "fiery trial" though which America must pass, was one of the pivotal events in the history of the United States. The victory of the Union arms over the breakaway Confederacy assured the abolition of slavery, confirmed the indivisibility of the nation, and propelled the country to global political, military and economic leadership.
The Civil War has been an inspiration and inexhaustible source of material for generations of historians, writers, and film-makers. Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage is one of the signal books of the conflict. Few can depict the horrors of war as well as Ambrose Bierce, a veteran of the Union Army. The movie Gone with the Wind, based on Margaret Mitchell's epic novel and featuring a star-studded cast, remains a cinematic masterpiece, not the least bit dulled by the passage of time.
While Abraham Lincoln is undoubtedly and deservedly the central figure of the Civil War, the conflict also spawned countless remarkable characters, some remembered, others forgotten. Falling somewhere in between is William Nelson, nicknamed "Bull." He earned the nickname for his ungovernable temper as well as his massive stature. Standing 6 feet 5 inches and weighing nearly 300 pounds, he was indeed a colossal figure. Famed British war correspondent William Howard Russell met Nelson in Washington, DC, just as events were moving towards the bombardment of Fort Sumter, and noted in his diary for March 29, 1861: "At dinner there was the very largest naval officer I have ever seen in company; [...] This lieutenant, named Nelson, was certainly greater in one sense than his British namesake, for he weighed 260 pounds."
Born on September 27, 1824, in Maysville, Mason County, Kentucky, he was the son of Dr. Thomas W. Nelson and Frances Doniphan. Alexander Doniphan, his mother's brother, was one of the celebrated heroes of the Mexican War. Young William attended Maysville Academy and graduated from Norwich Academy in Vermont. Playmates and teachers regarded him as a studious and bright boy, a born leader. On January 28, 1840, he was appointed a midshipman in the U.S. Navy. During the ensuing five years, he sailed various parts of the world. The demanding conditions on the seas undoubtedly had a powerful effect on the development of his character.
The life of a mariner in the mid-1800s was anything but glamorous; it was harsh and fraught with danger. There are numerous vivid portrayals of the conditions endured by the crews of military and commercial vessels. Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, himself worked aboard a whaler. But perhaps the most evocative account and certainly one of the most highly regarded is Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, the chronicle of the voyage he undertook on the brig Pilgrim in 1835. Dana is also remembered for several other works on the same topic: the article "Cruelty to Seamen," published in the American Jurist, and his 1841 opus The Seaman's Friend, intended to show sailors their legal rights and duties.
Globetrotting gave Nelson a cosmopolitan education and helped his acquisition of foreign languages. Friends and acquaintances knew that there were two distinct sides to Nelson, a private one and a public one. In public, he could be overbearing, coarse, vulgar, dictatorial and dogmatic and wasn't above lacing his speech with profanity. The private Nelson was a far cry from his public persona; he appreciated all forms of culture and could conduct an intelligent conversation on a multitude of subjects. He was indeed a complex man.
In the autumn of 1845 Nelson enrolled in the newly established Naval School at Annapolis, Maryland, graduating as a midshipman in July of the following year. During the war with Mexico he served with the fleet that supported General Winfield Scott's landing at Vera Cruz in March 1847 and commanded a battery during the siege of that city. For heroic conduct and skill as an artillerist, he was presented with a sword.
In September 1851 he was one of the officers of the steam frigate Mississippi, dispatched to the Near East by the Fillmore administration to bring Lajos Kossuth, the leader of the 1848-49 Hungarian War of Liberation, and his companions from exile to the United States. Nelson became an unabashed admirer of Kossuth and remained in close touch with him until the great patriot returned to Europe in July of 1852. Nelson then continued his naval career, participating in Commodore Matthew C. Perry's voyage to the Far East in 1857. On April 18 of the ensuing year, he attained the rank of lieutenant, a relatively advanced grade in the navy. At the commencement of the Civil War he was an ordnance officer at the Washington Navy Yard.
The secession of the states of the Deep South left the so-called border states in a delicate position. Kentucky, strategically located with a large population of divided sentiment, was one of these states. Hoping to avoid the bitter internecine struggle raging in Missouri, Governor Beriah Magoffin declared Kentucky neutral and warned both sides to keep their troops out. For political reasons, Washington as well as Richmond professed to observe Kentucky's stance initially, biding their time for the appropriate moment to include the state in their respective camp. Meanwhile, both sides initiated a vigorous propaganda campaign, accompanied by clandestine recruiting and arming.
Because Nelson's pro-Union sentiments were well known in the capital, the Lincoln administration sent him to Kentucky to recruit a home guard loyal to the old flag. To accomplish this assignment, Nelson set up Camp Dick Robinson, in the vicinity of Frankfort and Lexington, and enlisted and armed around 10,000 like-minded Kentuckians. Neutralists and pro-secessionists protested but in vain. In recognition of his accomplishments, Nelson was commissioned brigadier-general of volunteers on September 16, 1861.
In December Nelson was assigned to command a division in the Army of the Ohio, headed by General Don Carlos Buell. Although Nelson's hot temper made enemies among the politicians and alienated many of his fellow soldiers, Buell appreciated him, because Nelson was a thorough disciplinarian and a loyal subordinate, who supported Buell's policies.
Citizen-soldiers on both sides chafed under discipline and resented peremptory orders, particularly when they appeared unreasonable. Officers who failed to recognize the attitude of their men and were unable to develop a working relationship with them were unpopular and disliked. Nelson fell into this category and some comrades didn't hesitate to declare a murderous hate towards him. "Nelson had been schooled in the navy, and made the mistake, when he entered the volunteer army, of supposing that volunteer soldiers could be treated and disciplined in the same manner that the jack tars of his man-of-war had been," explained William F. G. Shanks, a well-known reporter of the times. Compounding the discipline issue was interference by prominent politicians with scant knowledge of army realities but intent on safeguarding the welfare and interests of their constituents which led to frequent clashes with military brass.
General Robert E. Lee and his lieutenants masterfully outmaneuvered the Federal armies in the eastern theater of the war, but in the Mississippi Valley the Union commanders gained the upper hand. Particularly noteworthy was Ulysses S. Grant, who quickly established a reputation for sound strategy and bold moves. After capturing Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in February 1862, Grant began to move south, planning to unite with Buell's forces against Albert Sidney Johnston's Confederates concentrated around Corinth, Mississippi. Nelson led the vanguard of the Army of the Ohio.
Grant set up his headquarters at Savannah, on the eastern side of the Tennessee River, where he awaited Buell's arrival. He had five divisions in camp at Pittsburg Landing, a steamboat stop on the river, nine miles higher up and on the west side, the side toward the enemy. In the middle of this Union encampment was Shiloh Church, a crude log Methodist meetinghouse, approximately two miles from the landing. Although Grant knew that a large Confederate army had assembled at Corinth, he didn't anticipate an attack and hence disposed his troops accordingly.
Johnston, one of the best Southern leaders, was well aware of Grant's and Buell's intentions and decided to strike first. He hoped to crush Grant before Buell could join him. Leaving Corinth on April 3, Johnston expected to make the attack two days later, but due to a number of delays didn't reach his destination until the early morning of Sunday, April 6.
Meanwhile, Nelson and his division had reached Savannah during the day of the 5th. Grant ordered him to take a position on the east bank of the Tennessee River, where the men could be quickly ferried to Pittsburg Landing or to Crump's Landing, another nearby steamboat stop, depending on the developing situation. Buell reached Savannah the same evening.
The Confederate onslaught struck all along the Union front and caught the bluecoats by surprise. Later tales would be told that the troops were still sleeping in their beds, which wasn't correct according to reporters on the scene. But Grant's men were certainly not in a battle-ready mode. "The surprise was complete," wrote Johnston's aide-de-camp. "Colors, arms, stores and ammunition were abandoned. The breakfast of the men were on the table, the officers' baggage and apparel left in the tents."
Grant, at his headquarters in Savannah when the fighting began, sprang into action to rectify the mistake resulting from his careless disregard of the enemy. He dispatched an order to Nelson to take his division to Pittsburg Landing, and then embarked on the steamer Tigress to the battlefield.
The furious Confederate assault overran the Union position at Shiloh Church and kept pushing the bluecoats closer and closer to the river. The intense fighting and the sheer number of combatants involved produced staggering casualties. Among them was General Johnston; he sustained a wound and bled to death. Taking command from the fallen Johnston, General P. G. T. Beauregard ordered the attack to continue all along the front.
As the ferocious Confederate onslaught shattered regiments and companies, thousands of Union soldiers took refuge at Pittsburg Landing, congregating in a disorganized, frightened mob. "These men were defeated, beaten, cowed," wrote Ambrose Bierce in his What I Saw of Shiloh. "They were deaf to duty and dead to shame. A more demented crew never drifted to the to the rear of broken battalions." They refused to heed any call to reform their units and join the raging battle; nothing mattered to them except saving their own lives.
Nelson's men crossed the river late in the day. Almost as soon as the boat touched the landing, Nelson sprang on Ned, his massive black stallion, and rode towards the stragglers. Going from one group to another, he exhorted them to rejoin the battle. But no one listened. Cursing as only a seasoned navy man can, Nelson called them miserable cowards and a variety of colorful terms. Failing to rally the skulkers, he sought permission to open fire upon them. However, this drastic persuasive tactic wasn't granted.
Grant managed to rally a portion of his army and, with Nelson's troopers, establish a defensive formation around the landing. Nelson's division was assigned to the left of the Union line, near the river, where the Confederates had tried so desperately to break through earlier in the afternoon. Despite the gains, the Confederate advance petered out as evening descended. Beauregard was confident that he held the upper hand and would enjoy success on the following day as well.
The battle lasted more than 12 hours and was a Confederate victory, since the Union troops were driven back close to two miles and lost Shiloh Church, the key to their position. The rest of Buell's army crossed the river during the night. A different scenario unfolded the next day, Monday, April 7. The remnants of Grant's army and Buell's fresh troops drove the Confederates from the field. Beauregard's army, badly mauled and demoralized, withdrew to Corinth. Losses were heavy on both sides. Union casualties totaled a little over 13,000, including nearly 2,000 killed. The Confederates suffered around 11,000 casualties, and like the Federals, had 2,000 killed. "War is an embodiment of Hell," Nelson wrote to Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase.
After a successful campaign against Corinth, Buell's army returned to Kentucky. Nelson was stationed at Lexington, the most important town in central Kentucky. Most of his troops were raw recruits. On July 16, 1862, his naval rank was advanced to lieutenant commander, and the next day he was promoted to major-general of volunteers.
In August 1862 two Confederate armies, one under General Braxton Bragg and the other led by General Edmund Kirby-Smith, launched an invasion of Kentucky aimed to coincide with Lee's incursion into Maryland. While Bragg moved northward from Chattanooga, Kirby-Smith marched from east Tennessee into eastern Kentucky, towards Lexington and Frankfort. On the 29th Kirby-Smith approached Richmond, a mere 30 miles south of Lexington. Nelson rushed to the scene but the battle was lost by the time he arrived. His heroics were in vain and he sustained painful wounds. Nelson withdrew to Louisville and assumed command for the defense of the city until the arrival of Buell. He made his headquarters at the Galt House, the city's finest hotel.
The Confederate advances created great consternation in Louisville and the surrounding region. Ordinary citizens were mobilized as home guards. Officers and men on furlough or leave reported for duty. One such officer was General Jefferson C. Davis (no relation whatsoever to the president of the Confederacy) from Indiana, a protégé of Governor Oliver Morton.
Upon reporting to Nelson, Davis was assigned to recruit, organize and train the citizen volunteers. A professional soldier, Davis did not relish the chore, considering it demeaning. His less than enthusiastic attitude, disparaging comments, and indifferent results infuriated the volatile Nelson, still smarting from his wounds. He did not hesitate to unleash his famous verbal tirades upon Davis.
On the morning of September 29th the lobby of the Galt House was packed with people, including a group of newspaper reporters and a host of military and civilian dignitaries. Foremost among the last named was Governor Morton. Davis entered and walked up to Nelson and tried to speak with him. While everyone thronging about agreed about the chief aspects of the events that unfolded, the details varied considerably. Nelson barely acknowledged Davis' presence and when the Indiana soldier persisted, the gigantic major-general spewed forth a stream of invectives, called Davis an "insolent puppy" and smacked him in the head. Davis walked away, secured a pistol, and shot Nelson point blank. Gasping "I have been basely murdered," Nelson died a half-hour later.
Special Order No. 47-A, dated September 29, 1862, from Headquarters of the Army of the Ohio, General Don Carlos Buell commanding, acknowledged Nelson valiant endeavors to keep the Bluegrass State in the Union:
The deceased was bred a sailor, and was an officer of the Navy, while holding his commission in the military service. History will honor him as one of the first to organize by his individual exertions a military force in Kentucky, his native State, to rescue her from the vortex of rebellion toward which she was drifting.
He was a man of extensive information, comprehensive views, and great energy and force of character. By his nature he was intolerant of disobedience or neglect of public duty, but no man was more prompt to recognize and foster merit in his inferiors, and in his own conduct he set an example of that vigilance, industry and prompt attention to duty which he extracted from others. In battle his example was equally marked. On more than one field - at Shiloh, Richmond and Ivy Mountain - he was conspicuous for his gallant bearing.
News of the shooting flashed across the nation. Most major dailies devoted considerable space in describing the sequence of events as gathered by their own reporters or obtained from other sources. Typical subheadings read: "The Killing of General Nelson," "The Nelson-Davis Tragedy" and "A Deplorable Homicide." Scientific American covered the incident in its October 11, 1862, edition. The murder even made headlines in the belligerent South; the Richmond Inquirer, October 3, 1862, gave an entire column to the story. The piece concluded by saying that Nelson's death was the "fate which we trust awaits all the invaders of our Southern homes." The news also crossed national borders; for example, Toronto's Globe & Mail reported on Nelson's demise in its September 30, 1862, edition.
The Baltimore Sun, October 1, 1862, commented that Nelson "was bluff, passionate and impetuous but under other leadership than his own, was a valuable fighting general." Opined the Salem Register on the following day: "This lamentable tragedy is bad in all its aspects," The article in the October 7, 1862, issue of the Joliet Signal of Joliet, Indiana, said: "Although the extreme course adopted by Gen. Davis to resent the harsh treatment he received is not justifiable, yet surprise is expressed by military men that Nelson has not met a similar fate long ago."
Indeed, Davis' act came as no surprise to most and was widely approved by many. William Tecumseh Sherman wrote to his wife: "What a sad thing was Nelson's fate. I knew him well. He was a clever fellow but very overbearing & blustering. I cannot justify the act, but do not condemn it."
Davis was never prosecuted for the heinous deed. This omission was attributed to the political influence wielded by Governor Morton. Rumors of a conspiracy were also rife and surreptitious allegations flew about. Conspiracy theories are not the product of our times. According to the gossip bandied about, it was orchestrated by Morton, a Radical Republican, to eliminate Buell and Nelson, men labeled as harboring pro-slavery sentiments. Some theories had Morton coaching Davis how to arouse the temper and fury of Nelson.
There were those who felt that regardless of Nelson's abrasive personality and political bias Davis' act demanded an impartial investigation and that the assassin be held responsible. In a long letter to President Abraham Lincoln, dated October 23, 1862, Chase, referring to Nelson's killing and the absence of prosecution toward Davis, said: "I cannot think that this action has received your sanction; [...] Under no circumstances whatever, in my judgment, can personal violence by one officer to another - much less the killing of one officer by another, be passed over without the arrest and trial of the offender, [...] should it not be remembered how generous, patriotic & brave man was killed?"
The callous killing enraged many of Nelson's troopers. Although they didn't like the rough manner in which the general treated them, they were always confident confronting the enemy under his leadership.
The shooting of Nelson by Davis is one of the remarkable incidents in the annals of American history. It hasn't lost its fascination for writers and historians over the years; the notorious murder continues to receive more than its fair share of attention. Given the current global social and political atmosphere, the conspiracy angle is especially popular.
Reminiscing about Union generals some two decades after the war in a magazine article, the aforementioned Shanks, who was personally acquainted with Nelson, admitted that the late major-general had character defects but emphasized that he also possessed an array of virtues: "There were few men of tenderer heart or more affectionate disposition than 'Bull Nelson.' [...] He was the firmest of friends [...] he never failed, when he found himself in the wrong and when unexcited by his passion, over which he possessed not the slightest control, to make amends, not in formal apologies merely, but in deeds as well. He was a great loss to the Army of the Ohio, for he was among the ablest officers it possessed."
Nathaniel S. Shaler, who served briefly under Davis in the Civil War and authored Kentucky - A Pioneer Commonwealth, published in 1888, refers to Nelson as "a man of singularly furious nature" and "an able but erratic general" but acknowledges him to be "one of the most remarkable soldiers that Kentucky produced during the war." "General Nelson was an excellent division commander, as was well proven at Shiloh, where he won distinguished credit. He was, however, unfitted by his furious nature for independent command." The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky likewise recognizes the significant role he played, adding that "the peculiar death and the controversial bearing of this Civil War general have caused him to be greatly misunderstood rather than praised for his selfless actions that helped keep Kentucky loyal to the Union."
Succinct biographies of Nelson appear in a host of reference works, Civil War related books, and similar writings. All of them tend to dwell on his exemplary conduct at Shiloh and tragic demise, providing but meager details on other facets of his life. Only the odd American publication even mentions Nelson's interaction with Kossuth and the Hungarian refugees. However, the vast Hungarian émigré literature has interesting and revealing details which help to fill this void. In order to understand and appreciate Nelson's involvement with Kossuth and the exiles, it's necessary to give a brief historical review.
When the great revolutionary tide swept over Europe in 1848, Hungary, or more properly the Kingdom of Hungary, was part of the Hapsburg Empire. This political status was acceptable to some Hungarians, but others resented it. Liberal elements, in particular, desired a more democratic government, less restrictions on economic growth, and the elimination of restrictive, archaic traditions and practices. Peaceful negotiations with the Hapsburg central government in the spring of 1848 brought a wide array of reforms and concessions. However, the new Emperor, Franz Joseph, and his inner circle reneged on their promises and applying the age-old principle of divide and conquer had the whole realm in flames. A complex series of events unfolded with great rapidity, described and analyzed in a host historical treatises. Suffice to say, that the revolutionaries, led by the charismatic Lajos Kossuth, were able to score an impressive array of victories by the early days of 1849 but when the Hapsburg government appealed to Czar Nicholas I for military help, which the Russian autocrat was only too glad to oblige, the outcome of the struggle was sealed. Kossuth and thousands of other patriots sought refuge abroad, mainly in the neighboring Ottoman Empire.
To satisfy international diplomatic concerns, Kossuth was interned. It wasn't a prison as certain writings purport. As a matter of fact, he received a steady stream of European and American visitors during the internment. One of the most remarkable among them was Charles Frederick Henningsen. Of Scandinavian descent but a British citizen, Henningsen was perhaps the 19th century most colorful soldier of fortune. He fought in the Carlist War in Spain and while in Russia he became an admirer of Shamyl and his Circassians. But he was more than an intrepid adventurer; he was a talented poet drawing praise from Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the author of several well-regarded books. Henningsen was planning to join the Hungarian revolutionaries but the war was over by the time he arrived.
Throughout the War of Liberation the American people expressed a strong sympathy for the revolutionaries. President Zachary Taylor even contemplated recognizing the Kossuth government. Exile coming to America immediately after the war were hailed as heroes. While Kossuth was interned, a grassroots movement, supported by a wide spectrum of organizations and individuals, lobbied to bring him to America as the "Nation's Guest." Bowing to public pressure, the Fillmore administration dispatched the Mississippi, under Captain John Long.
On September 11, 1851, Kossuth, his wife and three children, along with some fifty other exiles boarded the ship. Most of them were scions of prominent families, well educated, and fluent in at least one foreign tongue, usually German and French, but not English. As the Mississippi traversed the Mediterranean towards the pillars of Hercules, it stopped at several ports. On each occasion, thousands of people gathered to cheer Kossuth.
The voyage was far from comfortable. Since the Mississippi was a military vessel, it didn't come with accommodations for civilians. As a matter of fact, considerable alterations had to be made on the deck to accommodate all the passengers. Even then, the living quarters were rather crowded. Seasickness compounded the daily monotony. The situation prevailing on the vessel is well documented not only in the captain's log and the bulletins issued at various ports of call, but also in the diaries and recollections of three of the émigrés: Miklós (Nicholas) Perczel, Károly (Charles) László and Gida (Gideon) Ács.
The attitude and conduct of the captain, his officers, and the crew towards Kossuth and the other passengers was far from uniform and was much discussed in the press during and after the voyage. According to the émigré literature, Captain Long was aloof and didn't exercise his authority to ensure a congenial atmosphere. Some of the officers shared the captain's stance and were outright rude. Others, foremost among them Nelson, became unabashed admirers of the illustrious guest and developed a strong rapport with the exiles. His cosmopolitan perspective, his familiarity with the culture and history of other countries, and his knowledge of foreign languages were undoubtedly all contributing factors.
As the Mississippi left Italian waters, a long-simmering issue became more acute. For some time Kossuth had been insisting on paying a brief visit to England before crossing the Atlantic Ocean, not only to thank the British people for support but also to renew contacts with various continental revolutionaries, especially Giuseppe Mazzini. Captain Long balked because his orders were to sail directly to New York. After some acrimonious wrangling, Kossuth, along with his family and a few retainers, left the ship at Gibraltar and caught a commercial steamer to Great Britain on October 15 with the understanding that he would follow as soon as his visit was over.
Kossuth's departure did not end the factionalism among the officers or reduce the tension prevailing. According to Perczel's diary, matters came to head on October 25, when a group, among them Nelson, called for a general meeting at which they vehemently reprimanded those wanting in respect and courtesy. The ensuing verbal exchange, says Perczel, was very heated but the meeting yielded results; those hitherto uncouth or churlish adopted - albeit reluctantly - a more civil attitude.
The Mississippi entered New York harbor on November 10. There was considerable disappointment that Kossuth was not aboard, but the émigrés were welcomed with the utmost courtesy. Nelson remained with them, assisting in a multitude of ways. Everyone settled down to await the arrival of Kossuth.
In the meantime, landing at Southampton, Kossuth immediately made a deep and lasting impression on the British public. Hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic admirers turned out to see and hear him. His eloquent speeches, delivered in excellent English, amazed everyone. Kossuth's every move was also reported in the American press, heightening the anticipation of his coming.
Upon the conclusion of the whirlwind visit to Britain, Kossuth and his wife, accompanied by Ferenc (Francis) Pulszky, the Hungarian government's representative in London during the events of 1848-49, and his wife, nee Terézia (Theresa) Walter, the daughter of a Viennese banker, along with several followers boarded the Humboldt. One of the other passengers was the international courtesan, Lola Montez, whose antics enlivened the voyage. The ship entered New York harbor around midnight, Thursday, December 4. The city fathers asked Kossuth to remain on Staten Island on Friday to give them enough time to set in motion the grand reception on Saturday.
After a few hours of sleep, Kossuth rose early in the morning, ready to receive the hundreds who came to see him. He also addressed the people of Staten Island. It was a festive occasion and Nelson was among the participants. Perczel mentions that he encountered Nelson riding about in a carriage with Madame Kossuth.
Saturday morning, December 6th, Kossuth and his party were whisked across New York harbor aboard the steamer Vanderbilt to the Battery on the southern tip of Manhattan. Greeting them at Castle Garden were Mayor Ambrose Kingsland and an enormous crowd, estimated in the many thousands. The official reception culminated with a parade up Broadway, appropriately decorated and lined with spectators, to City Hall.
It took some time to organize the massive procession. Nelson was with the Pulszky couple as they awaited their carriage. Meanwhile several people came up to chat with them, including a particularly curious Alderman, leading to an amusing incident. This is how Madame Pulszky recorded it in White, Red, Black, a book she co-authored with her husband upon their return to England:
"Have you been long in England? you speak English with great ease," again asked the Alderman. "I was in England about two years." "And you?" he continued turning to Mr. Pulszky; who replied, that he had resided there yet longer, and consequently was familiar with the language. "And do you also speak our language?" continued the inquisitive Alderman, addressing Lieut. Nelson; "I calculate I do," was the answer. "Certainly you appear to talk with perfect facility; is it long since you have learned it? and where have you been thought so well?" "In my father's house, about twenty-six years ago," retorted the officer. The Alderman looked quite perplexed at the young man, and exclaimed, "How so! is English taught to infants in Hungary?" "This I don't know," replied Lieut. Nelson, "but I learnt it in Kentucky" and, pointing to his coat, said, "Don't you know your own navy?"
We laughed that our Kentuckian friend had, by his language, been mistaken for a Hungarian, and found that the Alderman had certainly much flattered us for our knowledge of foreign tongues.
Kossuth spent the ensuing couple of weeks meeting with hundreds of individuals and organizations, attending a multitude of banquets, and of course making speeches. All his listeners readily conceded that he was one of the greatest orators of all times. Towards the end of the month he traveled to Washington, DC, to meet with President Millard Fillmore and national politicians. While conveying his sympathies, Fillmore made it clear that no official diplomatic, military or commercial help would be extended.
A disappointed Kossuth then decided to bring his quest to the public and made a tour of the country east of the Mississippi River. There are American writings which state that Nelson accompanied Kossuth on the tour. Such assertion is incorrect. Károly László, a member of the ex-Governor's party, lists everyone who was in his diary and Nelson's name isn't among them. White, Red, Black likewise doesn't mention Nelson in this context. While Nelson didn't go around the country with Kossuth, he remained in touch with him and the Hungarian émigrés.
Traveling around the United States, Kossuth met a vast number of ordinary citizens, politicians, civic leaders, clergymen, literary figures, soldiers, people from every walk of life and social position. Like Nelson, the vast majority became captivated and cherished the memory of seeing and hearing Kossuth till the end of their lives. A multitude of reasons have been advanced to account for Kossuth's popularity, sometimes dubbed the "Kossuth craze." Perhaps the best explanation was offered by politician Galusha A. Grow: "Kossuth was worthy of all the honors that were heaped upon him. His handsome presence, the marble like paleness if his complexion, caused by hardship while in prison, and the picturesqueness of his foreign dress, captivated the popular fancy; while, more than all, his wonderful eloquence and the fervor with which he pleaded his country's cause, left an influence upon the hearts of those who heard him that nothing could destroy."
While in America Kossuth also had the opportunity to renew old acquaintances. Among them was Henningsen who came to the United States at the same time and made America his permanent home. Like Nelson, he gained a degree of fame in the Civil War but on the side of the Confederacy.
Although there were those who urged him to settle in America, Kossuth left on July 14, 1852, and took up residence in London in order to be closer to continental political developments. He never again set foot in the United States although he retained fond memories of America and Americans till the end of his long life.
During his tour of the South, Kossuth became acquainted with prominent expansionists and filibusters. He also became embroiled in a bizarre plot. Ostensibly this undertaking called for the participation of a Hungarian contingent in the invasion of San Domingo (Haiti). Before leaving the United States, Kossuth appointed Henningsen and Nelson to represent him in the venture:
According to Pulszky's memoirs and the writings of later historians, Kossuth's real purpose was to prepare and train a Hungarian legion to act in concert with an uprising in Italy orchestrated by Giuseppe Mazzini and initiate a struggle against the Hapsburg regime on a broad front. The plan as concocted was certainly questionable, its scope fantastic, and its chances of success doubtful to say the least. Indeed, nothing came of this grandiose and impractical scheme although Henningsen joined William Walker, the renowned filibuster of the time, years later in Nicaragua.
Kossuth became preoccupied with the Crimean War and other political events changing the map of Europe. He maintained an active role until the Compromise of 1867, the year in which the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary was established. Denouncing the new political accord in the most vehement terms, he withdrew from public life and spent the remaining years of his long life in exile in Turin, Italy. Nelson resumed his naval career, inching ever-closer towards to that fateful day at the Galt House.