Thursday, May 28, 2009

Camp Nelson, Kentucky: On the Road to Freedom

Camp Nelson was established in June of 1863 by Major Gen. Ambrose Burnside, who commanded the Ninth Corps of the Army of the Ohio. The camp was founded in effort to provide a forwarding supply base for Burnside's campaign into East Tennessee. Since the beginning of the Civil War President Lincoln had expressed his concern for the Unionist population in East Tennessee and wished something could be done to relieve them of what he viewed as Confederate occupation. All of the previous military leaders before Burnside took command had not viewed East Tennessee as significant in the war effort, and although prodded by Lincoln, made no real effort to aid the Unionists. Burnside finally did campaign into East Tennessee in the fall of 1863, capturing Knoxville in September.

Camp Nelson became a beehive of activity during the East Tennessee campaign that lasted to the end of the war. Camp Nelson would always serve as a supply base, but after the Emancipation Proclamation, it also became the largest recruiting and training center for African American soldiers in Kentucky, and one of the largest in the United States.

Camp Nelson was named for Maj. Gen. William "Bull" Nelson (see 5/26/09 post), a native Kentuckian, and was chosen for its defensive position. It was located on a steep bluff in a sharp bend of the Kentucky River in Jessamine County, about 20 miles south of Lexington. It was also bordered by a creek on another side, giving it strong command of the ground it occupied. Although a railroad did not connect Camp Nelson to Lexington and Louisville, a rail line ran to Nicholasville, about six miles distant, and supplies were then brought by wagon to Camp Nelson.

Camp Nelson was usually garrisoned by anywhere from 3000 to 8000 soldiers and it employed over 2000 civilians. The civilian employees were carpenters, leather workers, and blacksmiths, and filled other necessary roles to support the army population. Camp Nelson had a prison brig that held unruly Union soldiers, troublesome civilians, and captured Confederates that were being held before being shipped off to prison camps in the North. Camp Nelson also had a hospital, a school, dormitories, dining halls, barracks, a commander's quarters, and numerous support structures such as blacksmith forges, laundries, bakeries, and barns.

When African American soldiers were recruited they not only brought themselves, they brought their families as well. These "contraband", many of them local runaways, saw Camp Nelson as their first steps toward freedom. One black soldier exclaimed, "Canada used to be 500 miles from its only 16 miles. Camp Nelson is our Canada." Camp Nelson became so burdened (in the eyes of commander Gen. Speed Fry) that in the late fall of 1864 he ordered the soldiers' families out of Camp Nelson. Many, without anywhere else to go, died of exposure. The order was later rescinded when black recruitment dipped due to this abuse. In fact, this incident at Camp Nelson was largely the reason that Congress passed an act to free the family members of men serving in United States Colored Troops regiments. Berea College founder, John G. Fee was instrumental in helping the freed people at Camp Nelson. He lobbied the army for supplies, medicine, and educational opportunities to help assist the freedmen in making the transition from slavery.

Camp Nelson functioned until 1866. It now contains a military cemetery, and due to the efforts of a determined group of individuals, Camp Nelson now has an interpretive center and conducts educational programs to help the public better understand the important role it played during the Civil War.

For more information on the wonderful work being done at Camp Nelson today, check out their website at:

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