Camp Nelson Heritage National Monument
Camp Nelson Heritage National Monument, formerly Camp Nelson National Monument and before that Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park, is a 525-acre (2.12 km2) national monument, historical museum and park located in southern Jessamine County, Kentucky, United States, 20 miles (32 km) south of Lexington, Kentucky. The American Civil War era camp was established in 1863 as a depot for the Union Army during the Civil War. It became a recruiting ground for new soldiers from Eastern Tennessee and escaped slaves, many of whom trained to be soldiers.
Camp Nelson Heritage National Monument
Camp Nelson in 2008
|Location||Jessamine County, Kentucky, U.S.|
|Nearest city||Nicholasville, Kentucky|
|Architect||U.S. Army of the Ohio Eng. Corps; Simpson, Lt.Col. J.H.|
|Architectural style||Greek Revival|
|NRHP reference #||00000861 (NRHP), 13000286 (NHL)|
|Added to NRHP||March 15, 2001|
|Designated NHLD||February 27, 2013|
On October 26, 2018, President Donald Trump proclaimed the site as Camp Nelson National Monument, the 418th unit of the National Park Service (NPS) system. It was renamed to include "Heritage" in the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, signed March 12, 2019. The forested portion overlooking Hickman Creek was funded by the Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves' Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund.
Camp Nelson was established as a supply depot for Union invasions into Tennessee. It was named for Major General William "Bull" Nelson, who had recently been murdered. It was placed near Hickman Bridge, the only bridge across the Kentucky River upriver from the state capital (Frankfort, Kentucky). The site was selected to protect the bridge, to have a base of operations in central Kentucky, and to prepare to attack the Cumberland Gap and eastern Tennessee. The camp was also used as a site to train new soldiers for the Union army. The Kentucky River's steep palisades contributed to the selection of the site—they would help defend the camp from Confederate attack.
Camp Nelson may have been the choice for a central Kentucky depot, but it had disadvantages. When Union Major General Ambrose Burnside attacked the Cumberland Gap and Knoxville, Tennessee, Camp Nelson's distance from the Gap and Knoxville, combined with lack of railroads and the weather, hampered the Union advance.
Its drawbacks as a well situated supply depot led General William Tecumseh Sherman to prioritize Camp Nelson to take a major role in training 10,000 black soldiers who volunteered there for the U.S. Colored Troops. He advocated this role in response to overall Union commander Ulysses S. Grant who visited Camp Nelson in January 1864. Grant had observed the inadequacies in the overland supply routes employed and leaned toward abandoning it entirely. Despite Grant's misgivings, Camp Nelson continued supplying major battles in 1864 such as Saltville VA I and Saltville VA II, as well as Atlanta for which the site provided 10,000 horses.
Recognizing that the Camp Nelson supply depot and the nearby Hickman Bridge were valuable targets for Confederate raider General John Hunt Morgan, Union forces geared up for attacks in July 1863 and June 1864. The most serious threat was mid-June 1864 when Brig. General Speed S. Fry called upon volunteers from among civilian employees. Six hundred were armed and performed guard duty at the northern fortifications around the clock for 6 days. Major C. E. Compton said that due to these civilians, “the depot was saved from capture and destruction.”
Black History: troops, impressed workers, refugees, and emancipationEdit
Kentucky was one of four slaveholding states which did not join the 11 other slaveholding southern states in forming the Confederate States of America which was in a rebellion which arose with decades of disputes over slavery. Kentucky blacks, enslaved and not, men and women, majorly contributed to the Union war effort in Kentucky initially as laborers, but ultimately as soldiers in infantry, artillery, and cavalry.
Because Kentucky was a slaveholding state, but not one in rebellion, those escaping could not be included as contrabands as defined by the Confiscation Act of 1861. This law applied to the Confederacy only and declared that if slaves are considered property, then the military has the right to not only deny the access to the owner but also to impress these individuals into work. Nonetheless, the Union Army in the state began impressing thousands of slaves, initially only of the disloyal or those who had already fled into Union camps. In the case of disloyal owners, wages and subsistence were paid to the slave. Loyal owners were compensated.
Specific to Camp Nelson August 1863, Brig. General Jeremiah Boyle, ordered Commander Speed S. Fry to impress male slaves, ages 16–45, up to one-third of the owner's workforce with the owner receiving compensation. No mention is made of the owner's loyalty. Consequentially, an estimated 3,000 impressed workers were stationed at Camp Nelson in 1863 performing labor-intensive tasks critical to the camp's founding and defense. Starting with fortifying the strategic Hickman Bridge in May, 1863, they aided in the construction of railroads, the northern fortifications and forts, and the 300 buildings.
President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 freed slaves only in the rebellious 11 states in the Confederacy. The War Department then publicly authorized the recruitment and training of African Americans in these states. Though a slave holding state, Kentucky was not in rebellion, so the proclamation and the military authorization did not apply.
With the goal of enlistment of Kentucky blacks into the Union Army, Lincoln authorized a special census in 1863 which showed 1,650 freemen and 40,000 enslaved males of military age. Given this figure and using the justification that whites were not fulfilling the state's draft quota, Governor Thomas E. Bramlette reluctantly agreed in March 1864 that African-American men in Kentucky were allowed to join the US Army without consent of their owners. Large numbers arrived with women and children.
Upon enlistment African Americans were emancipated from slavery in exchange for service in the Union Army. Kentucky recruited and trained more that 23,000 of the Colored troops, making it the second largest contributor of any state. Camp Nelson was the largest state site with more than 10,000. Eight regiments were founded at Camp Nelson and five others were stationed there during the war.
Among groups of African-American recruits, the largest arrived between June and October 1864, with 322 men enlisting on a single day on July 25. In May, 1864, the first large group arrived, 250 recruits from Danville, a distance of 16 miles. These groups and others en route to Camp Nelson were subject to harassment and violence. For example, this group “was assailed with stones and the content of revolvers,” reported Thomas Butler, superintendent of the United States Sanitary Commission.
Rev. John Gregg Fee of the American Missionary Association observed that “three of five recruits bore on their bodies marks of cruelty.” Despite this, army surgeons upon examining recruits found the vast majority to be physically fit to serve.
Families of soldiers and others fleeing slavery seeking refuge at Union camps such as Camp Nelson were referred to as refugees. Unlike the soldiers, the refugees were not eligible for emancipation. The army did not have a clear policy for refugees, but they were allowed to establish shanty villages at Camp Nelson.
However, on November 22–25, 1864, District Commander Speed S. Fry, native of Danville, KY, under pressure from slave-owners, reversed this practice. He ordered soldiers to force out under threat of death 400 women and children onto wagons and escort them out of the camp. Soldiers then burned the refugee huts. The refugees suffered 102 deaths due to exposure and disease until allowed to return to camp.
Camp Nelson Chief Quartermaster Theron E. Hall and Reverend John Gregg Fee of the American Missionary Association led a public outcry to newspapers, high ranking Washington officials, and the northern public. The New York Tribune published a front page account on Nov. 28, 1864 entitled Cruel Treatment of the Wives and Children of U.S. Colored Soldiers. “At this moment, over four hundred helpless human beings....having been driven from their homes by United States soldiers, are now lying in barns and mule sheds, wandering through the woods....literally starving, for no other crime than their husbands and fathers having thrown aside the manacles of Slavery to shoulder Union muskets.”
By December 1864, the military reversed its policies, and authorized the construction of the Home for Colored Refugees. Included were 16 by 16 foot duplex cottages for families, a mess hall, barracks, a school, teachers’ quarters and a dormitory.
Spurred by these events, on March 3, 1865, a Congressional Act was passed that freed the wives and children of the U.S. Colored Troops. This blow to slavery caused the population of the Home to peak at 3,060 by July 1865. This surpassed capacity, and added were 60 army supplied large wall tents as well makeshift housing constructed by the refugees, similar to before the expulsion.
The two story school was staffed by the American Missionary Association and the Western Freedman's Aid Commission. Two African Americans were included, E. Belle Mitchell and Reverend Gabriel Burdett. Mitchell's stay was brief due to prejudices of other staff. Burdett was also a USCT soldier and assisted Fee in ministry work.
Also included were two barracks that became the refugee hospital. Infectious disease was prevalent and some 1300 refugees died at Camp Nelson.
Notable engagements of Camp Nelson Colored Troops
Among notable engagements of the 5th and 6th USCC are the Battle of Saltville I and the Battle of Saltville II in southwestern Virginia. Brig. General Stephen G. Burbridge lead the Ill-fated Saltville I, the objective of which was to destroy the Confederate saltworks. Though Saltville I in October 1864 was a defeat, Colonel James Sanks Brisbin reported his admiration for the bravery and tenacity of the 400 soldiers, noting that he'd been in 27 battles with the white troops and seen none more courageous. Of the colored troops, 10 were killed in action and 37 wounded. Post battle, a scene of criminal violence followed. Soldiers in the 5th USCC and in two companies of the 6th USCC were murdered, totaling 47. Leading these attacks was Champ Ferguson, who after the war was tried in Nashville, TN for War crimes, sentenced to death, and hanged in October 1865.
In December 1864, in the successful second assault on Saltville were the 5th and 6th USCC, units which included survivors of the first battle. General George Stoneman and Burbridge engaged General John C. Breckinridge, a Kentuckian and former Vice President, in nearby Marion, VA, outnumbering their opponents by four to one. Breckinridge retreated after two days. Union troops destroyed the saltworks, and considerably damaged neighboring lead mines and railroads. The USCC troops continued to add to their hard-won reputation.
The USCC 5th were again subjected to a murderous assault like that of Saltville I in January 1865 in Simpsonville, KY. Assigned to herd about 1,000 cattle from Camp Nelson to Louisville, KY, 80 soldiers of Company E 5th USCC were ambushed by Confederate guerrillas led by Capt. Dick Taylor. First attacked were the 41 soldiers bringing up the rear, most of whom could not fire due to fouled powder. Locals found 15 dead and 20 wounded and reported Taylor's men boasting about murdering 19 Union soldiers. Lt. Colonel Louis H. Carpenter of the 5th documented the names of the guerrillas and urged a prosecution. This never happened. In 2009, a memorial was placed on the site of the ambush.
The 6th USCC and the 116 Colored Infantry were active in General Grant's Appomattox Campaign, March to April 1864. These units took part in the both the siege of Petersburg, VA and of Richmond, VA, the capitol and seat of government of the Confederacy. These soldiers were engaged in the pursuit of Confederate General Robert E. Lee to the Appomattox Courthouse where they witnessed the surrender of the Confederate Army.
White Refugees and Union Troops from East Tennessee
Though Tennessee was officially a state in rebellion, loyalty to the Confederacy was weak in its eastern Appalachian section. This may be attributable to the comparably low rate of enslaved population, which ranged from 3.5 to 11% as opposed to the 40% to 50% in the western part of the state. View this on an 1860 U.S. Census map, which shows this rate for all counties in slave-holding states.
Thousands of the destitute from this area came in a constant steam seeking succor at Camp Nelson. Thomas D. Butler, a superintendent of the United States Sanitary Commission, who had as his responsibility their care, described the situation of one refugee family with six children, “...the rebels had driven her and her children from their home, and destroyed their property...for many weeks...wandered, homeless, hungry and sick, through cold and stormy weather, to reach Camp Nelson.” The husband was a discharged Union soldier who was captured en route with the family. He escaped and journeyed to Camp Nelson where the family was reunited.
Several East Tennessee regiments were trained and organized here.
- The 8th Tennessee Volunteer Infantry, organized at Camp Dick Robinson and Camp Nelson from November 1862 to August 1863, participated in the Knoxville Campaign and subsequent East Tennessee operations from November 4 to December 23, 1863.
- Five companies of the 5th East Tennessee Cavalry (also known as the 8th Tennessee Cavalry) June to August 1863
- The 10th, 12th, 13th Cavalry and Battery E of First Tennessee Light Artillery
For a 10-minute video summary of the site's history and significance narrated by Dr. W. Stephen McBride, director of interpretation and archaeology, go to this link.
After the war, Camp Nelson was a center for giving ex-slaves their emancipation papers. Many have considered the camp as their "cradle of freedom".
After the war, the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC) operated a soldiers' home for a time at Camp Nelson, in former barracks. It was one of a series of homes and rest houses they operated for soldiers.
Here are some post-war achievements of Camp Nelson U.S. Colored Troops.
Angus Burleigh was literate and enlisted at age 16, becoming a sergeant with the 12th Regiment Heavy Artillery U.S. Colored Troops after an escape from an Anderson County farm. In 1875, he was the first black graduate of Berea College as well as the first black adult male to enroll. The college was founded by John Fee and the American Missionary Association in 1855 and students, black and white, were enrolled. He was among blacks from Berea and Oberlin College who taught in Freedman's Schools, conducting a school in Garrard County in 1869. Later he was ordained a Methodist Episcopal minister and held pastorates in several states and served as chaplain to the Illinois State Senate. He lived until 1914 when he was Berea's oldest living graduate.
Elijah P. Marrs led 27 others from to Louisville from neighboring Simpsonville, Ky. to join the USCT. Marrs, another sergeant with the 12th US Colored Heavy Artillery, trained at Camp Nelson where he also taught reading. After the war, Marrs taught school and was ordained a Baptist minister. In 1879, he and his brother founded Baptist Normal and Theological Institute in Louisville, which became Simmons Bible College. Marrs was active with the Republican party in Kentucky. His autobiography is downloadable from the University of North Carolina's Documenting the American South Digital Publishing Initiative.
Peter Bruner wrote with his daughter his autobiography, A Slave’s Adventure Toward Freedom, Not Fiction, but the True Story of a Struggle, also included in the UNC's Documenting the American South. He recounts his frequently made unsuccessful escape attempts and severe punishments. Another member of the 12th, he enlisted with 16 other men, walking 41 miles from Irvine, Ky. Post war, Bruner moved to Oxford, Ohio and became the first African American to work at Miami University where he also enrolled. In addition to his work as a custodian and messenger, he served as a ceremonial greeter wearing a top hat and tails. He raised five children with his wife Frances Proctor. He is listed on plaque B-26 at the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington DC. His ceremonial top hat is on display at the McGuffey House and Museum of Miami University.
Presently, 525 acres (2.12 km2) of the original property are preserved as the Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park. Most of the buildings at the camp were sold. The camp is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) and was declared a National Historic Landmark District (NHLD) in March 2013. The site is also part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, which runs through several states and has sites in Canada and the Antilles.
In a more rural area than the other former USCT recruitment sites, Camp Nelson is the only one whose land was never developed after the war for other purposes.
During its existence as Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park, Camp Nelson was controlled by the Jessamine County Fiscal Court. The forested portion overlooking Hickman Creek was funded by the Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves' Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund. In August 2g017, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke suggested to President Trump that Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park be made into a national monument. On June 5, 2018, the United States House of Representatives approved U.S. Representative Andy Barr's sponsored H.R. 5655, "Camp Nelson Heritage National Monument Act". On July 26, 2018, a bill, S. 3287, titled the "Camp Nelson Heritage National Monument Act", was introduced in the United States Senate, aiming at establishing Camp Nelson as a part of the national park system. On August 15, 2018, a national park committee hearing was held regarding the bill, but Congress took no further action on the legislation. On October 26, 2018, President Trump used the Antiquities Act to approve the creation of Camp Nelson National Monument, transferring ownership and management of Camp Nelson to the National Park Service. On March 12, 2019, President Trump signed legislation that renamed the National Monument "Camp Nelson Heritage National Monument."
The Oliver Perry House is the only surviving structure from its years as a camp. It was built in about 1846 for the newlywed couple of Oliver Perry and the former Fannie Scott. General Burnside confiscated the house during the war to serve as officers quarters. In many official letters, the house was called the "White House". It currently is operated as a historic house museum for the park.
The park has five miles of walking trails open dawn to dusk that line the northern border where remnants of the forts and fortifications are marked with historic signage. Fort Putnam has been reconstructed to the specifications of the original engineering plan. Re-enactors of the USCC 5th fire the site's Napoléon 12 pound cannon here during the Annual Civil War Heritage Weekend held in mid-September. The date of President Lincoln's death, April 15, 1865, is commemorated with a ceremonial firing at Fort Putnam. The interpretive center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday with tours available 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Ghost tours are occasionally available.
Camp Nelson National Cemetery is one mile to the south. It has organized records of burials online so that families may trace relatives buried here, in addition to those who trained or lived at the camp.
- Colored Soldiers Monument in Frankfort
- United States Sanitary Commission, photo of Camp Nelson soldiers' home
- 12th Regiment Heavy Artillery U.S. Colored Troops, organized and sometimes stationed at Camp Nelson
- E. Belle Mitchell, first African American educator at Camp Nelson
- 5th United States Colored Cavalry Regiment
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- "AMERICA'S GREAT OUTDOORS: Secretary Salazar, Director Jarvis Designate 13 New National Historic Landmarks". US Department of the Interior. Retrieved 2013-03-11.
- Andy, Barr, (2 October 2018). "H.R.5655 - 115th Congress (2017-2018): Camp Nelson Heritage National Monument Act". www.congress.gov. Retrieved 28 October 2018.
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- Official site
- Kleber, John E. (1992). The Kentucky Encyclopedia. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0-8131-1772-0.
- Sears, Richard D. (2002). Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0-8131-2246-5.
- Strecker, Zoe Ayn (2007). Kentucky: A Guide to Unique Places. Globe Pequot. ISBN 0-7627-4201-1.