W. Stephen McBride, Ph.D.
Camp Nelson Civil War Park
“See how much better off we are now than 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.”
“Camp Nelson was the rendezvous of soldiery and birthplace of liberty to Kentucky. It is hallowed in the minds of thousands.”
While these statements do not give the whole story of Camp Nelson as a U.S. Army supply depot, hospital, and recruitment camp, they do focus on the camps’ most significant story; that is its role in the destruction of slavery in Kentucky. It was the state’s, and one of the nation’s, largest recruitment and training centers for African-American soldiers and the state’s largest refugee center for African-American women and children, who were all attempting to escape slavery. The emancipation of the men, women, and children did not come without a struggle, however. Following the lead of the Rev. John G. Fee, missionary to the soldiers and refugees and founder of Berea College, I like to refer to these struggles as “the Battles of Camp Nelson”. These battles make Camp Nelson “Hollowed Ground” for Kentucky and the Nation, as they were battles for freedom and human rights.
The first battle occurred in May 1864 when 250, escaped slaves entered Camp Nelson, Kentucky to enlist into the United States Army. Initially the white officers refused to enlist these men, turned them over to the U.S. Sanitary Commission, and requested instructions from higher command. The problem was that in Kentucky, which was the last state in the Nation to allow the enlistment of African-American soldiers, only free blacks and enslaved men with their owner's written permission could enlist. As former slave Peter Bruner recalled,
“When I had run off before and wanted to go in the army and fight they said that they did not want [us], that this was a white man’s war.”
This policy had been in place since February 1864 and although individuals had tried to enlist at Camp Nelson, this policy was now being severely challenged by the shear numbers of enslaved men (without permission) wanting to join. Within a few days this number reached 400. A frustrated Col. Andrew H. Clark, commander of Camp Nelson, wrote that “Unless the Recruiting business is better managed it will cost the Government a great deal of money and very few Negroes will be recruited.”
A week later Col. Clark began enlisting the African-American men at Camp Nelson, who by early June had reached 1500 men. On June 13, 1864 the army officially removed the earlier restrictions. Upon enlistment these former slaves were emancipated and eventually over 10,000 men joined the army and were freed at Camp Nelson, making it the third largest recruitment camp for African-American soldiers (known a U.S. Colored Troops) in the Nation. Eight USCT regiments were organized at Camp Nelson and five others were stationed there. We are fortunate in having the escape and enlistment narratives of two members of the 12th U.S. Colored heavy Artillery. As Sergt. Elijah Marrs stated:
“I remember the morning I made up my mind to join the United States Army. I started to Simpsonville, and walking along I met many of my old comrades on the Shelbyville Pike. I told them of my determination, and asked all who desired to join my company to roll his coat sleeves above his elbows, and to let them remain so during the day. I marshaled my forces that day and night. I had twenty-seven men, all told, and I was elected captain to lead them to Louisville. We held council of war, and the conclusion of the boys was, that where I would lead they would follow. I said to them we might as well go; that if we staid at home we would be murdered; that if we joined the army and were slain in battle, we would at least die in fighting for principle and freedom” (Marrs, Life and History, 1885).
“The next morning about five o’clock I had gone twenty-one miles and had arrived at Richmond. After I had left Richmond I came upon sixteen colored fellows who were on their way to Camp Nelson and of course I did not get lonesome. Just a half hour before sundown we arrived at Camp Nelson and had come forty-one miles in that day. The officers asked me what I wanted there and I told them that I came there to fight the rebels and that I wanted a gun.” (Bruner, A Slave’s Adventures Toward Freedom, 1919).
“I enlisted in the 12th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery in the Fall of 1864, and my only sorrow is that I did not enlist sooner…I see, as it were, a nation born in a day- men and women coming forth from slavery’s dark dungeons to the noonday sunshine of the greatest of God’s gifts- Liberty.”
Camp Nelson’s USCT saw action in the major battles of Saltville, Marion, Petersburg, and Richmond, Virginia as well as numerous skirmishes in Kentucky. By the end of the war nearly 24,000 Kentucky African-American men had joined the army, the second largest number of any state. The African-American soldiers won a clear, although not easy, victory in this “First Battle of Camp Nelson”. This victory began the destruction of slavery in Kentucky.
The second battle was more complex and drawn out. This struggle involved enslaved African-American women and children, most of whom were the wives and children of the enlisting soldiers, versus the U.S. Army. The women and children came to Camp Nelson seeking freedom, escape from their owners, and to create a place for themselves in the landscape of Camp Nelson. Upon entering camp, these people created an even greater dilemma for the army. The army had no facilities or a policy to deal with these people. In loyal Kentucky, they were not "Contraband of War" as they were in Confederate states and unlike the men upon enlistment, they were still legally enslaved.
Initially the army did not have a clear policy for these refugee women and children and allowed them to establish their own encampments and even live in tents with their soldier husbands/fathers. By late May, the army began ordering that "the negro women here without authority will be arrested and sent beyond the lines." The army did not want the women and children in camp, and classified these Camp Nelson refugee women by such derogatory terms as "lewd" and elsewhere as "idle, lazy vagrants" probably as a pretext for ejecting the women and children who actively sought their own freedom by coming to the camp and engaging in whatever kinds of labor they could. Col. Clark was caught in the paradox of Civil War Kentucky; a slave state in a war, at least after the Emancipation Proclamation, to end slavery.
By July 1864, orders originating with Brig. Gen. Lorenzo Thomas, who was in charge of African-American recruitment in the Mississippi Valley, and carried out by district commander Brig. Gen. Speed Fry clarified that only women "in Government employ" were allowed to stay in camp. All others were ordered or escorted back "home" to slavery, where their owners, according to the army "were legally bound to care for them". But the second battle was not over as the women and children kept returning to Camp Nelson, and the ejection order had to be reissued at least seven times between July and November 1864, when a more dramatic ejection occurred. As the Rev. John G. Fee stated on September 22,
"For months the officials have tried the experiment of sending the women and children out of camp. Like flies they soon come back..."
Exactly how the women and children were able to remain or return to camp is unclear, but there is mention of the women bribing guards and it is probable that the women and sympathetic officers and employees used the "government employ" exception to stay in camp. Only two legitimate employment opportunities are mentioned in the documents; washerwomen and cooks. Documents do not list any African-American employees at this time, but they were likely operating independently as entrepreneurs.
Archaeological excavations at a refugee encampment site within Camp Nelson strongly support laundry as a major activity performed by the women. The large quantity and variety of buttons, eyelets, and seed beads, as well as a sad iron, indicate that the women did laundry for men and women, civilians and soldiers, including officers and enlisted men. At Camp Nelson, the demand for washerwomen made these women indispensable and gave them a legitimate reason for staying in camp. It gave them the power to stay in camp and create and economically support their own homes and community.
Unfortunately this adaptation, by itself, could not overcome the politics and legal situation of Kentucky. On November 22-25, 1864, District Commander Brig. Gen. Speed Fry, (a native Kentuckian himself) succumbed to pressure from the Army and slave owners, and expelled all of the 400 enslaved women and children from Camp Nelson. Fry utilized armed White troops to forcibly load the women and children onto wagons and escort them out of camp. Following the ejection, white soldiers destroyed and burned the refugee cabins, which is also evidenced archaeologically.
While this ejection was a tragedy for the women and children, it was not the end of the second battle. The harshness of this action, which caused the death of 102 refugees from exposure and disease, created an uproar that the women's allies, particularly Capt. Theron Hall and Rev. John Fee, used to reach the ear of high ranking Washington officials and the northern public. Ultimately, these actions were reversed and army policy amended so that refugees were resettled in a newly constructed "Home for Colored Refugees" within Camp Nelson. Finally on March 3, 1865 a Congressional Act freed the wives and children of U.S. Colored Troops. In this latter case, the events at Camp Nelson led directly to policy with national repercussions. So, by March 1865 the “Second Battle of Camp Nelson” was a victory for the African-American refugees: they gained their freedom and created a home for themselves within Camp Nelson, although at a high cost.
The Third Battle
The third battle revolved around the “Home for Colored Refugees”, involved two stages, and pitted former ally and abolitionist Capt. Theron E. Hall and the army against the refugees and the Rev. John G. Fee. The initial battle was over the type of housing and food available at the “Home”, with Hall and the army wanting to place the refugees (whom they referred to as “inmates”) in barracks and feed them army rations in a mess hall. Fee and the refugees wanted to live as family units in individual houses and prepare their own food. Eventually a compromise was reached with the refugees being housed in duplex cottages (one family in each half), but without chimneys, so they were still fed in the mess house. Family level cooking was apparently just too disorderly for the army to tolerate.
As the number of refugees increased to over 3000 people, they eventually built their own cabins, with chimneys, and cooked their own food the way they were used to. As a result, the families in the cabins were much healthier than those in the cottages, who typically ate army rations.
The “Home” battle entered its second stage after the Civil War, when it was taken over by the Freedmen’s Bureau. The ultimate goal of the Freedmen’s Bureau was to break up the “Home” and resettle the refugees as farm laborers in the Midwest and surprisingly, in the Lower South. This resettlement was bitterly fought by Rev. Fee, Rev. Abisha Scofield, and the refugees, most of whom wanted to stay until their husband returned. Although some refugees were resettled, this battle was eventually won, and the “Home” continued, first being operated by the American Missionary Association, then purchased by John Fee and resold to the refugee families and eventually becoming the community of Aerial, now Hall, which still exists today.
Conclusion: The Fourth Battle
What I like to call the “Fourth Battle of Camp Nelson” is continuing today. This is the effort to create a park at Camp Nelson to tell the story of these women and children and the African-American soldiers. At present we seem to be winning this battle, as a county park, covering 500 acres, and a museum have been created. But exactly what story is to be told at the site is an ongoing battle. The creation of the park is a great victory of sorts for a site that was forgotten, perhaps purposefully, by at least the white population of Kentucky. In fact, until the recent creation of Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park, the only reminders that anything happened at Camp Nelson were the Camp Nelson National Cemetery and the “Camp Nelson” historical highway marker that memorialized Gen. William “Bull” Nelson, for whom the camp was named. No mention was made of the struggle for freedom for thousands of enslaved African-Americans on this marker (put up in the 1970s). Fortunately this maker is now gone and has been replaced by one that focuses on and celebrates the site’s African-American history.
Hopefully, continued research, preservation, and interpretation will make Camp Nelson and its “battles” a place of history – to inscribe in our collective memories, and in our history texts.