- Jun 2, 2017
Louis Napoleon Nelson was born in 1846 in Ripley, Lauderdale County, TN. He died in 1934 at the age of 88. Louis served in an integrated unit for the Confederacy; the 7th Tennessee Cavalry Company M. Louis is a well-known Ripley native due to the efforts of his grandson. According to his grandson, Nelson Winbush, Louis Napoleon Nelson went to war with the sons of his owner, James Oldham, as their bodyguard. At first Louis served as a cook and look out, but he later saw action under the command of General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Louis also went on to serve as a Chaplain. He could not read or write, yet he had managed to memorize the King James Bible. He went on to serve as Chaplain for the next 4 campaigns, leading services with the soldiers before they went to the battlefield. He fought in battles at Shiloh, Lookout Mountain, Brice's Crossroads, and Vicksburg. After the war Louis lived as a freeman on the James Oldham plantation for several years. He built a yellow, two story house, with a wraparound porch in Ripley. Throughout the years Louis went to 39 Confederate reunions proudly wearing his Civil War uniform. When Louis Napoleon Nelson passed away a Confederate flag draped his coffin. According to a story in the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper in 1933 Louis described himself as the only colored Democrat in Lauderdale County, TN. His funeral the following year, which included a military procession, was described as "the largest colored folks funeral we had ever seen in our time."
"To the Confederacy also belongs a first in the history of military chaplains—the first black man known to minister to white soldiers. The September 10, 1863 issue of The Religious Herald, recounted how a Tennessee regiment was having difficulty securing a chaplain to conduct religious services for its soldiers. A slave in the regiment known by the men as “Uncle Lewis” enjoyed a reputation among the men of being devout. He was asked to fill in temporarily and conduct a worship service.
The soldiers were so pleased with his service that they asked him to continue to serve as their chaplain from the spring of 1862 until the close of the war, during which time the regiment experiences two revivals. The Religious Herald correspondent describing the services wrote, “He is heard with respectful attention, and for earnestness, zeal, and sincerity, can be surpassed by none.” To this Tennessee regiment, as well as the reporter who wrote the story, the service of their black chaplain was “a matter of pride.”
Uncle Lewis’s full name was Louis Napoleon Nelson and he served with Company M, 7th Tennessee Cavalry, which was part of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s command. According to Nelson’s grandson, Nelson Winbush, his grandfather told him that a number of Yankee soldiers once joined the Tennesseans during a worship service and, after its conclusion, “all shook hands and went back to fighting.”