Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Just finished reading - Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History by Richard D. Sears

Author Richard D. Sears is an English and Theatre professor at Berea College, and has previously written, A Utopian Experiment in Kentucky: Integration and Social Equality at Berea, 1866-1904, so he is very familiar with many of the personalities that had a significant impact on Camp Nelson.

Since I recently posted about Camp Nelson (see May 28, 2009), I will reserve my comments here to this specific book rather than another review of the history of the place.

When I found this book I was sincerely eager to get started reading it. I have always been interested in the African American Civil War experience and thought this would be a great look into that world, and specifically from a Kentucky viewpoint. Upon perusing the book I was somewhat disappointed to find that, while the first part of the book contained an approximately 50 page narrative history about Camp Nelson, the rest of the book contained what appeared to be upon first glance, an eclectic collection of letters and memos from the period the camp existed. Nevertheless, I was determined to learn more about Camp Nelson, and with this being the only recent book on the subject, I promised myself I would wade through it. I was certainly happy I did.

It turns out that Sears organized the book quite well indeed. His narrative introduction laid the foundation for the plethora of primary sources that filled the remaining majority of the book. I found that without the narrative section many of the primary sources would been obscure, and not very beneficial, and that without the primary sources in their original context, the narrative would not have been so strongly supported.

The collection of primary sources is impressive. There are memos from General Burnside establishing Camp Nelson in the spring of 1863; letters from John G. Fee soliciting personnel and monetary help from the American Missionary Association; letters from white Union soldiers stationed at Camp Nelson; letters from the numerous commandants on rules and regulations of the camp; excerpts from slave narratives of slaves that became soldiers there; affidavits from slaves that ran away to come to Camp Nelson to enlist and or seek protection...and many, many more. Sears went to great lengths to collect as many of these pertinent documents that deal with Camp Nelson as possible. He then carefully edited them to take out insignificant or redundant information to make them more relevant and readable. His numerous footnotes do not detract from the flow of the document, but instead help the reader become better informed by filling in historical holes.

I highly recommend Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History to anyone that wants to learn more about the Civil War in Kentucky and the African American experience in a slave state. It is a highly informative, well researched, and organized work.

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