Camp Nelson Heritage National Monument

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Camp Nelson Heritage National Monument
Camp Nelson landscape.JPG
Camp Nelson in 2008
Camp Nelson Heritage National Monument is located in Kentucky
Camp Nelson Heritage National Monument
Camp Nelson Heritage National Monument is located in the United States
Camp Nelson Heritage National Monument
LocationJessamine County, Kentucky, U.S.
Nearest cityNicholasville, Kentucky
Coordinates37°47′16″N 84°35′53″W / 37.78778°N 84.59806°W / 37.78778; -84.59806Coordinates: 37°47′16″N 84°35′53″W / 37.78778°N 84.59806°W / 37.78778; -84.59806
ArchitectU.S. Army of the Ohio Eng. Corps; Simpson, Lt.Col. J.H.
Architectural styleGreek Revival
NRHP reference #00000861 (NRHP),[1] 13000286 (NHL)[2]
Significant dates
Added to NRHPMarch 15, 2001
Designated NHLDFebruary 27, 2013[2]

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.[3] On October 26, 2018, President Donald Trump proclaimed the site as Camp Nelson National Monument,[4] 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.[5]


Early years[edit]

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.[6] 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.[7]

Camp Nelson may have been the best 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.[8]

Its drawbacks as a well situated supply depot led General William Tecumseh Sherman to prioritize Camp Nelson to take a major role in training black soldiers who volunteered 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.[9]

In July 1863 and June 1864, Union forces feared that the camp might be attacked by Confederate general John Hunt Morgan, who was conducting raids in Kentucky and other border states, as well as Ohio. In 1863 Morgan was headed for Indiana and Ohio in his most famous raid. It was never confirmed whether he intended to attack the camp in 1864.[10]

Black History: troops, impressed workers, refugees, and emancipation[edit]

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. [11] Nonetheless, in 1861, the Union Army in the state began impressing slaves, but only of the disloyal.[12] By August 1863, Brig. General Jeremiah Boyle, ordered Camp Nelson 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.[13]

Consequentially, an estimated 3,000 impressed workers were stationed at Camp Nelson in 1863. Starting with fortifying the strategic Hickman Bridge in May, 1863, they aided in the construction of railroads, fortifications, the 300 buildings.[6]

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 did not apply. The 1860 census showed the availability of about 40,000 draft age Kentucky slaves.[14][15] 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.[16][15]

Replica of a refugee shanty used at Camp Nelson

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.[4]

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 Kentuckian, under pressure from slave-owners, reversed this practice.[16] 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.[6][16]

Camp Nelson Chief Quartermaster Theron E. Hall and Reverend John Gregg Fee of the American Missionary Association lead 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.”[16]

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.[17]

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.[18]This blow to slavery caused the population of the Home to peak at 3,060 by July 1865.[6] 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.[16]

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.[16] Burdett was also a USCT soldier and assisted Fee in ministry work.[16]

Also included were two barracks that became the refugee hospital. Infectious disease was prevalent and some 1300 refugees died at Camp Nelson.[6]

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.[17] Units raised at Camp Nelson are the 5th and 6th U.S. Colored Cavalry (USCC), the 114th, 116th, 119th, and 124th Colored Infantry, 12th and 13th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery.[6][19]

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.[19] Of the colored troops, 10 were killed in action and 37 wounded.[20] 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.[21]

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 prominent Kentuckian, 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.[20]

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.[22][23]

White Refugees and Union Troops from East Tennessee

Though Tennessee was a 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.[14]

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 in route with the family. He escaped, journeyed to Camp Nelson where the family was reunited.[19]

Several East Tennessee regiments were trained and organized here.[19]

  • The 8th Tennessee Volunteer Infantry organized at Camp Dick Robinson and Camp Nelson from November 1862 to August 1863 the Knoxville Campaign and subsequent East Tennessee operations during the American Civil War from November 4 to December 23, 1863.
  • Five companies of the 5th East Tennessee Calvary (also known as the 8th Tennessee Calvary) June to August 1863
  • The 10th, 12th, 13th Calvary and Battery E of First Tennessee Light Artillery

Post War

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".[6]

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.

Recent times[edit]

Camp Nelson Interpretive Center
Oliver Perry House, the only remaining original structure, now a house museum

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.[24] The camp is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) and was declared a National Historic Landmark District (NHLD) in March 2013.[25] 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.[24]

During its existence as Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park, Camp Nelson was controlled by the Jessamine County Fiscal Court. In August 2017, 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".[26]. 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.[27] 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.[4] 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.[28]

The park has five miles of walking trails 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.

Ghost tours are occasionally available.[29]

Camp Nelson National Cemetery is two miles to the south.[3] 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.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ National Park Service (2008-04-15). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service.
  2. ^ a b "WEEKLY LIST OF ACTIONS TAKEN ON PROPERTIES: 3/25/13 THROUGH 3/29/13". National Park Service. Retrieved July 15, 2014.
  3. ^ a b Strecker p. 39.
  4. ^ a b c "Presidential Proclamation on the Establishment of the Camp Nelson National Monument - The White House". Retrieved 28 October 2018.
  5. ^ "Text - S.47 - 116th Congress (2019-2020): Natural Resources Management Act". United States Congress. 2019-02-26. Retrieved 2019-02-28.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Kleber, John E. "The Kentucky Encyclopedia". University Press of Kentucky. Retrieved 28 October 2018 – via Google Books.
  7. ^ Sears pp. 21–23.
  8. ^ Sears p. 28.
  9. ^ Sears pp. 29, 30.
  10. ^ Sears p. 42.
  11. ^ "Fort Monroe and the "Contrabands of War"".
  12. ^ Lucas, Marion Brunson, 1935- (1992). A history of Blacks in Kentucky. Wright, George C. [Frankfort]: Kentucky Historical Society. pp. 148–152. ISBN 0916968235. OCLC 26161170.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  13. ^ Sears, Richard D., 1940- (2002). Camp Nelson, Kentucky : a Civil War history. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. pp. 9–10. ISBN 9780813149523. OCLC 606914560.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  14. ^ a b Onion, Rebecca (2013-09-04). "The Map That Lincoln Used to See the Reach of Slavery". Slate Magazine. Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  15. ^ a b Lucas, Marion (2003). History of Blacks in Kentucky. The Kentucky Historical Society. pp. 152–153. ISBN 0-916968-32-4.
  16. ^ a b c d e f g McBride, W. Stephen. Seizing freedom archaeology of escaped slaves at Camp Nelson Kentucky.
  17. ^ a b Nicholasville, Mailing Address: 6614 Old Danville Road Loop 2; Us, KY 40356 Phone:881-5716 Contact. "Camp Nelson National Monument (U.S. National Park Service)". Retrieved 2019-04-23.
  18. ^ Miller, Stephen F. (May 6, 2019). "Freedman & Southern Society Project".
  19. ^ a b c d Sears, Richard D., 1940- (2002). Camp Nelson, Kentucky : a Civil War history. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. pp. 126, 127. ISBN 9780813149523. OCLC 606914560.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  20. ^ a b Mays, Thomas Davidson, 1960-. The price of freedom : the battle of Saltville and the massacre of the Fifth United States Colored Cavalry. pp. 69–70. OCLC 26567207.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  21. ^ Mays, Thomas D.D. (2008). Cumberland Blood. Southern Illinois University Press. pp. 134–145. ISBN 1280697261. OCLC 817089117.
  22. ^ Black soldiers in blue : African American troops in the Civil War era. Smith, John David, 1949-, Frank and Virginia Williams Collection of Lincolniana (Mississippi State University. Libraries). Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2002. ISBN 080782741X. OCLC 49529915.CS1 maint: others (link)
  23. ^ "Simpsonville Civil War Massacre | Armchair General Magazine - We Put YOU in Command!". Retrieved 2019-05-22.
  24. ^ a b ["Nelson's stock soars"], The Kentucky Civil War Bugle Second Quarter, 2008, pg.1-8
  25. ^ "AMERICA'S GREAT OUTDOORS: Secretary Salazar, Director Jarvis Designate 13 New National Historic Landmarks". US Department of the Interior. Retrieved 2013-03-11.
  26. ^ Andy, Barr, (2 October 2018). "H.R.5655 - 115th Congress (2017-2018): Camp Nelson Heritage National Monument Act". Retrieved 28 October 2018.
  27. ^ "Camp Nelson Heritage National Monument Act (S. 3287)". Retrieved 2018-10-13.
  28. ^ "Camp Nelson" Archived 2009-02-02 at the Wayback Machine, Jessamine County, KY official site, accessed November 7, 2008
  29. ^ "HUNT GHOSTS AT CAMP NELSON | Kentucky Civil War Sites". Retrieved 2019-05-22.


  • 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.

External links[edit]