A Fortified Union Supply Depot, Recruitment Center, and African American Refugee Camp in Central Kentucky
W. Stephen McBride, Ph. D.
Wilber Smith Associates
Permission to reprint and post granted by Dr. W. Stephen McBride, Lexington, Kentucky.
Camp Nelson was an important Union quartermaster and commissary depot, recruitment center, and hospital facility located in Jessamine County, Kentucky. It was the largest depot and permanent encampment in Kentucky outside of Louisville and served a critical function to the Union war effort by providing supplies, livestock, and troops for the Army of the Ohio. Besides its general everyday supply functions, Camp Nelson was also critical in the support of a number of offensive campaigns into Tennessee and Virginia.
The greatest national significance of the camp, however, was as one of the largest recruitment camps for African American troops, Eight regiments of U.S. Colored Troops, as the African American regiments were designated, were founded at Camp Nelson, and three others were trained there. A refugee camp for these soldiers' families was also established within Camp Nelson.
Camp Nelson, as a recruitment and refugee camp for ex-slaves and as a recruitment camp for whites from slave-holding Kentucky and Tennessee, represents a microcosm of the social and political issues that divided the nation and brought on the Civil War. Camp Nelson as an encampment allows us to examine the more typical day-to-day lives of the soldiers who, after all spent very little of their total enlistment time in battle.
Construction of Camp Nelson was begun in June 1863 following orders from Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, commander of the newly formed Army of the Ohio. Burnside wanted a large and secure supply depot and encampment for his planned campaign to capture Knoxville, Tennessee. This campaign addressed President Lincoln's long-standing promise to free Pro-Union sections of East Tennessee from Confederate control. A site at the southern tip of Jessamine County was chosen because of its location on a major turnpike and river, and because of the natural defenses provided by the limestone palisades of the Kentucky River and Hickman Creek, which extended 400 to 500 feet in height. The depot and encampment established there was officially named Camp Nelson on June 12, 1863, after the late Major General William "Bull" Nelson, who founded Camp Dick Robinson, the first Union recruitment camp in Kentucky.
When completed, Camp Nelson contained over 300 wooden buildings, numerous tents, and nine forts. The core of the camp covered over 800 acres on either side of the Lexington-Danville Turnpike (present day U.S. 127). The structures included 20 warehouses to store two million rations, clothing, and equipment, stables, cribs, barns, sheds, and corrals to house thousands of horses and mules and their feed. Six industrial-sized work shops were within the camp to build and repair wagons and ambulances, to make and repair harnesses, to shoe horses, and to provide lumber for building construction. Two ordnance warehouses and a large powder magazine were also present to house cannons, small arms, ammunition, and powder. Administrative buildings included the camp headquarters, the quartermaster and commissary office, the provost marshal's office, and numerous smaller offices. Other support structures included two barracks, many mess houses, two taverns, numerous sutler stores, and a bakery. The camp also contained a large hospital facility, which included ten large wards, the "Soldiers Home," and a prison.
To operate these facilities, maintain the camp, build roads, and haul supplies, the camp had a staff of supervisory officers and over 2,000 civilian employees. The employees included carpenters, blacksmiths, wagon makers, harness makers, teamsters, cooks, clerks, and laborers, Including many impressed slaves.
Canip Nelson was generally garrisoned by 3,000 to 8,000 soldiers. It provided supplies for soldiers stationed in Central and Eastern Kentucky and East Tennessee. Camp Nelson was also the staging ground and supply center for three important campaigns. These were Major General Ambrose E. Burnside's August-November 1863 Knoxville campaign, Major General Stephen G. Burbridge's October 1864 Southwestern Virginia campaign, and Major General Burbridge's wing of Major General Stoneman's December 1864 Southwestern Virginia Campaign. All three campaigns involved crossing rugged terrain over rough roads which made the supply network all the more difficult to maintain. But, it was maintained.
From its establishment, one of the missions of' Camp Nelson was to recruit and train soldiers. Early regiments or companies organized at Camp Nelson include the 47th and 49th Kentucky Mounted Infantries, Battery E of the 1st Kentucky Light Artillery, Companies E-K of the 8th Tennessee Infantry, the 8th Tennessee Cavalry, Companies B and C of the 9th Tennessee Cavalry, Companies A-D of the 11th Tennessee Cavalry, and Batteries B and E of the 1st Tennessee Light Artillery. These units performed a variety of duties throughout the war including garrison duty in Kentucky and Tennessee, and participated in a number of skirimishes, battles, and campaigns.
Camp Nelson's great significance as a recruitment center is most closely tied to African American troops, however, being Kentucky's largest recruitment and training center for U.S. Colored Troops (USCT). Because of Kentucky's situation as a Union slave holding state, the Federal government delayed the recruitment of African American troops, which would free them from slavery. This delay was the result of fear of violent retaliation or even secession on the part of the Commonwealth. It was not until the passage of the Conscriptive Act of February 1864, that enlisting of slaves and free blacks began over the entire Commonwealth.
In the spring of 1864, the recruitment of Kentucky's African Americans greatly accelerated and a flood of slaves and free blacks began arriving at Camp Nelson. Many had risked great peril to reach the camp and attain their freedom and fight for the freedom of others. By August 1864, 2,000 black enrollees were at the camp. By the end of 1865, about 10,000 men or forty percent of Kentucky's African American soldiers, had passed through Camp Nelson. Eight USCT regiments were founded at Camp Nelson making it the third largest such center in the United States. The regiments formed at Camp Nelson included the 114th, 116th, 119th, and 124th U.S. Colored Infantry; the 5th and 6th U.S.Colored Cavalry; and the 12th and 13th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery Regiments. The 115th, 117th and 123rd U.S. Colored Infantries were also stationed at Camp Nelson for a time. African American men continued to be enlisted at Camp Nelson as a means of emancipating them until December 1865 when the 13th Amendment was ratified.
At Camp Nelson, many enlistees got their first taste of freedom although one tempered by army life. Life in the army could be difficult, but as Sergeant Elijah Marrs of the 12th USCHA stated:
I can stand this said I.. this is better than slavery, though I do march in line at the tap of a drum, 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.
At Camp Nelson, both the newly won freedom and army life offered new experiences and a sense of great optimism for many, as Sergeant William A. Warfield of the 119th USCI stated:
This is an age of wonders, and not the least among them is the celebration of the Fourth of July at Camp Nelson, Ky., by the colored people. To see so many thousands, who a year ago were slaves, congregate in the heart of a slave State and celebrate the day sacred to the cause of freedom, "with none to molest or make afraid," was a grand spectacle. It was the first time we have ever been permitted to celebrate the Nation's Day.
The Camp Nelson African American troops performed a variety of duties after their training. They did garrison duty at Camp Nelson; at other camps or forts in Kentucky such as Covington, Paducah, Smithland, Bowling Green, and Camp Burnside in Pulaski County; and at fortifications along the Louisville and Nashville and Kentucky Central Railroads. This duty was critical in holding Union territory and protecting supply lines.
While stationed at various posts in Kentucky, the Camp Nelson USCT were involved in a number of small engagements at Big Springs, Ft. Jones on the L,&N Railroad, Glasgow, Taylorsville, Harrodsburg, Simpsonville, and Smithfield.
Garrison duty could be difficult, because of poor living conditions, and tedious but it could have a positive side as Corporal George Thomas, of the 12th USCHA noted:
The first battalion is stationed here [Bowling Green] doing garrison duty, almost too easy for soldiers, me thinks. We have dress parade downtown ... and as we are drilled very well, the former slaveholders open their eyes, astonished that their former Kentucky "working stock" are capable of being on an equal footing with them at last
The Camp Nelson USCT were also involved in a number of larger battles and campaigns. The 5th and a portion of the 6th U.S. Colored Cavalry were involved in both battles of Saltville, Virginia, (October and December 1864), where the main saltworks for the Army of Northern Virginia were located. In fact, these regiments took the highest casualties at the first battle of Saltville and about 45 of its wounded and captured soldiers were murdered by Confederate Tennessee soldiers after the battle, which was a Confederate victory. On the way down to Saltville the USCT experienced some taunting and verbal abuse by the white troops, but on the return trip things were different. as Colonel James S. Brisbin, commander of the 6th USCC reported:
On the march the colored soldiers, as well as their white officers were made the subject of much ridicule and much insulting remarks by the white troops ... These insults, as well as the jeers and taunts that they would not fight, were borne by the colored soldier patiently. Of this fight [first Saltville] I can only say that the men could not have behaved more bravely. I have seen white troops fight in twenty-seven battles and I never saw any fight better.. On the return of the forces those who had scoffed at the colored troops on the march out were silent.
The December 1864 southwestern Virginia campaign resulted in the capture of Saltville and destruction of its saltworks, as well as the capture of Marion, Virginia, and the destruction of iron furnaces and lead mines. Both the 5th and 6th U.S. Colored Cavalry participated in these Union victories.
Two Camp Nelson infantry regiments, the 114th and 116th U.S. Colored Infantry, were transferred to Major General Benjamin Butler's Army of the James in October to December, 1864. Both regiments performed siege and fatigue duty at Bermuda Hundred and at Petersburg, and were with the Army of the James in its pursuit of Lee to Appomattox Courthouse in March-April 1865. Both regiments were at Appomattox Courthouse during the surrender. The 115th and 117th USCT, which passed through Camp Nelson, were also sent east. All of these regiments were sent to Texas after the war and were not mustered out until 1867.
When the African American recruits entered Camp Nelson they were often accompanied by their wives and children, who were also looking for freedom and opportunity. These family members lived either with the recruit or in hastily built shanties. Initially the army did not know what to do with these family members and had no clear policy. Finally in November 1864, Brigadier General Speed S. Fry, the commander of Camp Nelson, ordered these refugees out of camp. Over 400 refugees were forced out ------data missing ------. The order to remove them were eventually countermanded, but 102 ------ data missing ------ which followed this incident led directly to the February 1865 Congressional Act which freed the families of the recruits and to the establishment of a home for the refugees. This home eventually contained 97 cottages, over 50 tents, numerous cabins, a school, barracks, mess halls, a hospital, and a laundry, and housed between 1,200 and 3,000 women and children. The refugee home was administered jointly by the army, with Captain Theron E Hall as superintendent, and the American Missionary Association, particularly the Reverend John G. Fee.
Soon after the war ended in April-May 1865, military officials began preparing to close down Camp Nelson. Buildings, equipment, and supplies were described and inventoried, and decisions were made whether to keep, sell, or dispose of the various items and buildings. As was stated above, the U.S. Army continued to enlist African American soldiers in order to free them until December 1865. By the summer of 1865, nearly all soldiers at Camp Nelson were African Americans, primarily of the 123rd and 124th USCI.
In June 1866, the army finally abandoned Camp Nelson, ending the military occupation of the area. At this time, most buildings were sold for their lumber and quickly dismantled. The buildings in the refugee camp and the cemeteries remained, however. The school and other administrative buildings were purchased by Abisha Scofield, John G. Fee, and Gabriel Burdett of the American Missionary Association and the cottages continued to be lived in by the African American families.
In 1866, the main Camp Nelson cemetery was designated a National Cemetery. The original sections of the cemetery contain the remains of 1615 soldiers, including 837 USCT, and even some civilian employees who died at Camp Nelson. In the summer of 1868, 2,203 Union dead from Perryville, Richmond, Frankfort, London, and Covington were reinterred at the Camp Nelson National Cemetery. Since that time, veterans continue to be buried at the cemetery.
The remainder of Camp Nelson, except for the cemetery, returned to its residential and agricultural use. The civilian houses used by the army were reoccupied, generally by the original owners, and the land returned to pasture or cropland. It remains much the same today.
Camp Nelson, Kentucky