Hall, Kentucky - Camp Nelson - Refugees
Kim A. McBride, Ph.D.
Department of Anthropology
University of Kentucky
Photos courtesy Dr. Kim McBride
NOTE: The photo captions just state cottages, office, school and ward. The structures were dismantled circa the 1867-1868 period, and there are no pictures for the post-bellum period.
Copyright 2002. Dr. Kim A. McBride, Lexington, Kentucky. Reprinted and posted by permission.
One of the principal components of Camp Nelson to outlive the Civil War was the refugee camp which became the community of Ariel, later called Hall, named after the community "benevolent hall." The history of the refugee camp is closely tied to that of the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) who were recruited and trained at Camp Nelson. The majority of refugees, and especially those who remained following the closing of Camp Nelson in 1866, were the wives and children of USCT. Some of these troops were in Texas on military service until 1867, and their families did not want to leave Camp Nelson until they returned.
The refugee camp had been officially established as a part of Camp Nelson in December 1864. Up until this time the army lacked a coherent policy of providing for the wives and children of the USCT, who sometimes came along with their husbands and fathers in hopes of their own freedom, or out of fear of harsh treatment from angry masters. The death of over a hundred Camp Nelson refugees from exposure in November 1864 led to a formal change in federal policy and the creation of refugee camps not only at Camp Nelson, but also at recruitment stations nationwide. The refugee camp was administered by the camp's Assistant Quartermaster, Theron E. Hall, aided by missionaries from the American Missionary Association, and later the U.S. Sanitary Commission. The most prominent of these missionaries was the Reverend John G. Fee, a noted abolitionist and believer in racial equality. Fee had originally come to Camp Nelson to provide religious and educational training to the USCT, but soon became one of the leading supporters of the refugee camp, and the post-war community which developed from it.
The refugee camp was located on about 11 acres set aside some distance from the most populated parts of the main military camp. By the war's end, the camp consisted of 121 buildings, 97 of which were small duplex cottages, measuring 16 x 16 ft and intended to hold about 10 to 12 persons, and a series of large barracks and institutional structures such as a hospital, school, mess hall, and land for vegetables gardens. Despite its large size, the refugee camp buildings could not accommodate the refugee population, which grew in the summer of 1865 to over 3,000 persons. Many refugees lived in tents or erected their own shanties from scrap materials, and the poor sanitary conditions, shortage of food, and weakened state of many refugees led to high death rates.
During 1866 and 1867, the Freedmen's Bureau struggled to close the refugee camp. Missionaries helped to relocate hundred of refugees to northern states, and arrangements were made for some refugees to relocate on plantations in Arkansas and Mississippi. Relocation was very difficult due to a lack of funds and resentment against the camp by many in the surrounding community. However, by the spring of 1867, only several hundred refugees remained. Most of these were either too ill to travel, or they were awaiting the return of family members who were still serving their USCT duty out of state.
During the dismantling of Camp Nelson, Fee and others were able to negotiate the sale of some of the former refugee camp buildings to the Freedmen's Bureau, the department of the U.S. Government which took over control of the refugee camp from the army. A formal school, called Ariel Academy, was founded in 1868. This school was funded by the American Missionary Association, and led by John G. Fee's son, Howard Fee, and Gabriel Burdette, an ex-slave from Garrard County who had been instrumental in helping set up the initial refugee camp after his enlistment into the USCT. The school served not only the local population but attracted some returning USCT to settle nearby when their military duty was finished. It operated until the early 1900s, under the names of Ariel Academy, Ariel Normal Institute, and Camp Nelson Academy.
John Fee had argued frequently with the army that the refugee camp should not only provide for the immediate physical needs of the refugees, but should help them establish the habits needed to care for themselves once they left the camp, or help them make a transition to self-sufficiency in the local, perhaps even immediate area. When his requests that the government provide land to the refugees were not answered, Fee in 1968 used $7,000 of family savings to purchase 130 acres of land around the refugee camp. He then divided this land into small lots ranging in size from half an acre to several acres, and sold them, in his words, at about 1/5 their real value. Deeds in the Jessamine County courthouse suggest that payment was usually from $5 to $150.
The transition from slavery to wage labor was not an easy one in central Kentucky. Initial reports from the Freedman's Bureau office in Lexington suggest that negotiated contracts for payment of wages to ex-slaves were widely ignored, but initially better honored in Jessamine County because of the presence of Camp Nelson. However, Bureau officials also testified of widespread resentment against the camp, leading to several attacks in the fall of 1868 by local gangs, often called Raiders or Regulators. One of the leading missionaries, Abisha Scofield, was forced to leave Ariel and several African Americans were badly injured. Despite this violence, many USCT families and other refugees did permanently relocate around the old refugee camp, perhaps encouraged by the chance to buy land cheaply and the educational opportunity offered by Ariel Academy.
A land plat showing the community around the turn of the 20th century suggests that the community gradually shifted south of the original cabin locations, to the higher and better ground. Several period accounts and census records suggest that the population around this time was about 40 households, which remained pretty constant through the 1920s. The federal census shows that with the exception of two stone masons, a carpenter and one blacksmith, and minister, and later a black teacher, the overwhelming occupation for the men of the community from the 1870s through 1900 was farm laborer. However, between 1900 and 1910 a significant number of men worked in a local distillery. This source of employment ended with Prohibition in 1919, and according to oral history informants, started the chain of migration out of the community. Most women worked at home, although some provided additional wages to the family by working as laundresses or domestics, and several taught in the Academy or in public schools, which were provided after 1874.
At least through the early 1900s, Ariel, or Hall, retained some connection to John G. Fee, and Berea College, which Fee founded and which some Ariel citizens attended. A visitor to Hall from Berea in 1902 commented on the neatness of the community and that nearly every home boosted such refinements as a sewing machine or organ. The visitor was much impressed by a local choir of 25 girls, called the Jubilee Singers. Music seems to have flourished in the community, which besides the Jubilee Singers, included a brass band of at least 16 members and a string band of four or five who recorded several songs, one called the Camp Nelson Blues, in the 1920s. Besides the 30 to 40 residences, Hall included one to two stores, and two churches. The first church, founded by John G. Fee and the other missionaries in the 1860s, was originally non-denominational but later became part of the Presbyterian church. A Baptist church was organized in Hall in the early 1900s. A small cemetery is located on the western edge of the community, and includes the graves of several USCT veterans.
Today the Hall community is much smaller and most of the original buildings are gone, as are the descendants of the original settlers. But the stories and memories of local characters live on, like those about resident John Booker, remembered for his musical abilities as leader of the string band, and for his nighttime fox hunting. Prior to the hunts, Mr. Booker would round up his hounds by blowing a large horn inherited from his slave grandfather. This artifact, like the many memories of the remaining residents, provides a connection to the rich history of this community. A connection is also provided by the still flowing "Refugee Spring," the original water source.
The Fee Memorial Chapel and a frame house which served as the residence for teachers or ministers, are still standing today and will help preserve the history of Ariel. These structures have been purchased by a local preservation association, which has plans for their restoration and interpretation.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
August 11, 2009
Lucy’s Story: Right Choices But Wrongs Still Left
by Larry Hamilton
A compelling story of Lucy Sams' (the author's great great grandmother) life during the Civil War as a slave in Madison County, Kentucky, through her flight to Camp Nelson, Kentucky, a haven of refuge.