“See how much better off we are now then we was four years ago. It used to be five hundred miles to get to Canada from Lexington, but now it is only eighteen miles! Camp Nelson is now our Canada.”
U.S.C.T. Sergeant, 1865
“Our story starts with the United States Colored Troops,” says Dr. Stephen McBride, the Director of Interpretation and Archaeology at Camp Nelson National Monument. Objects like glass bottles, pottery shards, and buttons from recent exploratory digs sit on his office shelves—revealing there is still much to discover about the life and times of the camp.
“Oftentimes, on the whole, as archeologists, we’re trying to use those artifacts to answer those questions,” he points out.
Those questions comprise a life’s work of searching for answers for Dr. McBride. After the Civil War was over, all of the buildings at Camp Nelson were torn down and destroyed, leaving no remnants of its former life. At least, that is, on the surface.
The first time Dr. McBride came to research Camp Nelson, he worked for UK’s Archaeology Department and, later on, a private company hired him to do more digging.
Jessamine County officials’ concern for their growing community increased when the need for more development and a wider highway. They knew Camp Nelson would need to be protected, and the time to act was imminent if they wanted to preserve this site.
Eventually, a grant from the Kentucky Heritage Council and other Federal monies came through and gave their project wings to more fully develop their mission. They acquired close to 500 acres of land, which was essentially the core of the Camp Nelson complex.
“The war between the North and South was upon us, and ideas of freedom began to steal across my brain,
and my mind was active with the probabilities of being able some day to put into actual practice
the scattering thoughts of my earlier years.”
Sergeant Elijah Marrs, 12th US Colored Heavy Artillery
Born a slave in Shelby County, Kentucky, 1840.
In April 1863, the Union Army claimed nearly 4,000 acres of land that comprised what would become Camp Nelson. The Union supply depot, named for native Kentuckian Major General William “Bull” Nelson, had a prime location, was on an easily navigable spot on the Kentucky River, and had a natural barricade by the limestone cliffs of the Kentucky Palisades. Its proximity to Lexington and Louisville also made the location more than ideal.
The camp grew from the ground up, using slave labor to build earthen forts and over 300 buildings for supplies, artillery, a commissary, a bakery, prison, and hospital, to name a few. Dr. McBride says they even unearthed a space that served as a photo gallery. Many soldiers got their picture taken for the first time as freedmen in uniform to send back to their family or a sweetheart. Camp Nelson could also boast of a daring and progressive feat of engineering for the day: a massive water pump which stored 500,000 gallons of water for use all across the camp, including some of the first indoor plumbing.
“Oh, how hard some of us poor slaves labored to gain our freedom…Burnside was at Camp Nelson
just preparing to start out and I thought if I could only make it to that place I would be all right.”
Pvt. Peter Bruner, 12th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery
Born a slave in Winchester, Kentucky, 1845.
By the time the Civil War began in April 1861, social reformer and former slave, Frederick Douglass consistently pressured President Lincoln to let African Americans enlist in the Union army. By the fall of 1862, African American regiments began to pop up.
Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, liberating all slaves in the Confederate states, making enlistment in the Union Army possible for those who were willing.
However, in Kentucky, the situation was much more complicated.
As a slave state, Kentucky continued to support the Confederate cause throughout the Commonwealth. But, in the eyes of the Federal Government, it never seceded from the Union and was thereby considered a neutral border state. So, the Emancipation Proclamation did not extend to the Commonwealth, and slavery remained a legal institution. The Kentucky government thought staying in the Union would protect their interests, their property, and their way of life—which included their slaves—gambling that their loyalty to the Federal government would ultimately protect their interests in the long run.
At the beginning of Camp Nelson’s history, if enslaved men wanted to enlist, they could, but were required to either already be free or receive their owner’s permission. As whispers of the Emancipation Proclamation spread and the prospect of freedom upon enlistment was a viable option in other states, many slaves made plans to escape from bondage for good.
Of the 180,000 African-American men who joined the fight, more black men enlisted in the Union army in Kentucky—and, nearly 10,000—gained their freedom and prepared for battle here at Camp Nelson.
Camp Nelson was overrun with troops at that time, and the place looked gay. Thousands of people were coming in from all directions, seeking their freedom. It was equal to the forum at Rome. All they had to do was to get there and they were free.
Sgt. Elijah Marrs, 12th US Colored Heavy Artillery
By the springtime of 1864, a record number of African-Americans made their way to Camp Nelson. “Two hundred fifty escaped enslaved men came to Camp Nelson in one day,” says Dr. McBride, “They seemed to be from south of here mostly—Boyle and Lincoln County, and they picked up Garrett and Jessamine County people. Obviously, word got out they’d take them on without more permission.”
It was a perilous journey and many men brought their families with them, fearing retribution from their owners. Initially, the army let their families construct makeshift cabins and huts, but ultimately camp officials did not know how to manage the extra residents. They were asked to leave camp at least seven times but kept returning to the safety of its walls.
The policy stated only women employed by the army could remain, and camp officials forcefully ejected everyone else—approximately 400 people—into the brutal winter cold. Over 100 women and children died from exposure causing a public outcry across the nation. The backlash from this misstep fueled Union officials to rethink their strategy. By January 1865, the Union army began recruiting all black men, enslaved or free—and, they allowed their families to remain safe within the confines of Camp Nelson, as refugees.
The numbers of recruits and their family members began to swell at a record pace making Camp Nelson the third-largest USCT (US Colored Troops) recruitment center in the nation. New soldiers trained extensively here and received their marching orders.
Men who were too old or feeble and young boys who came to enlist were given jobs within the camp. Women found jobs cooking and doing laundry while their young children played.
Captain Theron E. Hall was in charge of outlining a plan for an official refugee camp on the premises called the “Home for Colored Refugees,” stating, “I propose to receive at the Home only families of colored soldiers or those dependent on them for support.” He hoped it would be a successful venture and one that would help be a “death blow to slavery in Kentucky.”
John G. Fee—future founder of Berea College—disagreed with Hall’s plans to only teach former slaves how to read. He thought it was important to also teach refugees skills to learn a trade so as they transitioned into life as free people, they would be more self-sufficient.
Fee brought in volunteers with the American Missionary Association and Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission and the population of the Home continued to steadily grow. By July 1865 over three thousand people found shelter there.
By the spring of 1865, with the last of the Confederate armies surrendered or captured, the war was officially over. The 13th Amendment, ratified in December 1865, freed all enslaved persons and Camp Nelson was no longer needed as a supply depot. Union forces tore down the majority of the Camp Nelson complex, and the surrounding acreage went back to rural farmland, though some refugees remained. A few USCT regiments did not finish their service until 1867, so many families stayed behind to wait for their loved ones.
John G. Fee and the American Missionary Association continued their service to the former refugees not only helping them find gainful employment but also by establishing a community school, Ariel Academy, to train African-American teachers.
“I felt freedom in my bones, and when I saw the American eagle, with outspread wings, upon the American flag, with the motto, ‘E Pluribus Unum,’ the thought came to me, ‘Give me liberty or give me death.’ Then all fear banished.”
Sgt. Elijah Marrs
Today, most passersby would think nothing of the white farmhouse sitting atop the hill. It might be any old farm that flies by during a routine car ride. But, to those who know, there is more than meets the eye.
Some descendants of the Camp Nelson refugee camp still live in the Nicholasville area, with a small number who reside in the historic Hall community.
Dr. McBride’s dedication continues to fill in the gaps of Camp Nelson’s story and he assists family members in the search for more genealogical information. “The community of descendants, the people descended from refugees and soldiers that were here, they’ll come to visit, and maybe some of them knew quite a bit about it—some of them don’t—and I’ll always try to help them do research and find out more.”
Over the years, resulting digs yielded crucial items from the refugee camp. “We can associate them with a group of people, the original refugee camps they were ejected from, the food they ate, and spiritual amulets in the form of silver coins that they carried with them spiritual objects,” says McBride. These items help develop the narrative of what day to day life must have been like and tells them how refugees passed their time. The artifacts tell about their diet, the state of their housing, consumer goods, and daily activities. “You have an object that was a part of that story and particularly with the settlement community because it could have been some of their people,” shares McBride.
Periodically, Camp Nelson also conducts public outreach to see if descendant families have any artifacts or information by hosting a School Days event, where school children participate in an archaeological dig. “It’s a good way to do to make history come to life,” he says.
“Without the military help of the black freedmen, the war against the South could not have been won.”
President Abraham Lincoln
Begin your journey at Camp Nelson with a tour of the reconstructed army barracks, built on the original site. Following an inspirational film, travel back in time by touring the inner sanctum of the museum for history come to life. The exhibits convey just how impressive the inner workings of Camp Nelson were with life-like recreations of camp scenes, refugee housing, and battle artillery, a room with Civil War-era medical equipment on display, and a recreated post office and commissary. You can also learn about notable descendants of the Hall community and see more Civil War relics in the Archaeology room.
Outside, explore the nearly five miles of interpretative trails that wind through the former encampment, and experience what it is like to walk in the shoes of the enslaved men, women and children who came here with the hope of a new life. Tours of the Oliver Perry House, used for officer housing, is available on a limited basis with coordination from Camp Nelson staff.
Be sure to visit the Camp Nelson National Cemetery, which remains a powerful tribute to the compelling legacy left behind by the 1,615 Union soldiers buried there.
Camp Nelson National Monument is one of the last, largest, and most significant sights remaining which speaks to this pivotal chapter of enslaved African-Americans during the Civil War. It carries a triumphant message about the basic human rights that we, as Americans, stand for, celebrate, and want to share with the world around us.
Thanks to the foresight of local private citizens in Jessamine County, receptive, preservation-minded County officials and the long-term commitment of archaeologist Dr. Stephen McBride, the story of Camp Nelson and its influence on the outcome of the tens of thousands of enslaved African-Americans who made the perilous trek to Nicholasville continues to affect lives today.
For more information about Camp Nelson story and to arrange a tour, call or visit their website:
Camp Nelson National Monument
6614 Danville Road, Loop 2
Nicholasville, Kentucky 40356