Ever since I can remember, Kentucky had one National Park which was, of course, Mammoth Cave. Now, I know that Camp Nelson is not a National Park, it’s a National Monument, but that’s beside the point. My point is, Camp Nelson did not exist when I was a kid growing up in Kentucky. So, when a family member of mine mentioned it to me earlier in the year, I was baffled about its existence. Why did Camp Nelson not exist when I was a kid? What was this NEW historical place? I had to go and find out about this NEW history.
Upon arrival I asked when Camp Nelson became a National Monument. The answer, 2018. Yep, that’s pretty new, considering COVID wiped out a few of those years. So, my next question became, “Why did we just begin talking about Camp Nelson in 2018?” The answer became obvious… History. History was the reason we weren’t talking about Camp Nelson’s history sooner.
Camp Nelson; Civil War Camp
Sitting up on top of a rolling hill in Nicholasville, Kentucky are 380 beautiful acres of land. In 1864, those acres and many more, were used as a supply depot, hospital, recruitment and training center, and refugee camp for 23,000 African-Americans. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take a little step further back into history.
Kentucky and the Civil War
When the Civil War began on April 12, 1861, Kentucky quickly declared itself neutral. On May 16th of that year, the state legislature declared that Kentucky would take no part in the Civil War. Instead, it would take on the roll of a mediator between the two sides. Deciding neutrality was driven by politics, the economy, and Kentucky’s history. While Kentucky’s population included 225,483 slaves, it also had numerous ties to the North. Much of its trade was with the Northern states. Very little trade was done with the Southern states because Kentucky didn’t care for its anti-tariff policies. However, slavery was essential to the state’s economy. Being split between both sides, neutrality was the best option.
To the Union as well as the Confederacy, Kentucky was too important to the war and both sides wanted Kentucky on its side.
While President Abraham Lincoln was carefully and strategically dealing with the border states (including Kentucky) to keep them in the Union, the Confederacy was hoping Kentuckians would leave the state and head for the South.
The Confederacy pulled its recruiting officers out of the state and set up Camp Boone, a recruitment center in Tennessee, right on the border of Kentucky. This somewhat backfired on the Confederacy however, when Kentucky recruits took state-owned weapons with them to Tennessee. Kentucky was not all too thrilled with this dirty move from the South and felt the South had no regard for its neutral stance. In addition, a radical Unionist by the name of Judge Joseph Holt, was holding numerous speeches that were becoming very well attended. Kentucky’s sympathy for the South was beginning to shift.
Then, on September 3rd, 1861, Confederate Major General Leonidas Polk ordered Brigadier General Gideon Johnson Pillow to occupy Columbus, in far Western Kentucky. Columbus was a railroad junction that sat at the foot of a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River and Polk believed its occupation was necessary in order to defend the Confederacy and aid Kentuckians. Once that occurred, Brigadier General Felix Kirk Zollicoffer then led his rebels into Southeastern Kentucky to prevent Federal occupation in that area.
Polk (upper left), Pillow (lower left), and Zollicoffer (right) / Photo Credit: American Battlefield Trust and Tennessee Civil War trails
The Kentucky Legislature had had it with the South ignoring its neutrality at this point, so on September 18, 1861, Kentucky declared the end of its neutrality. It had officially joined the Civil War on the side of the Union.
Battles between Brothers
13 Kentucky Battles
- Battle of Barbourville (September 19, 1861)
- Confederate Victory with 1 Union and 7 Confederate Deaths
- Battle of Wildcat Mountain (October 21, 1861)
- Union Victory with 25 Union and 53 Confederate Deaths
- Battle of Ivy Creek or Ivy Narrows (November 8 – 9, 1861)
- Union Victory with 6 Union and 31 Confederate Deaths
- Rowlett’s Station (December 17, 1861)
- Inconclusive Victory with 40 Union and 91 Confederate Deaths
- Middle Creek (January 10, 1862)
- Union Victory with 27 Union and 65 Confederate Deaths
- Mill Springs (January 19, 1862)
- Union Victory with 39 Union and 125 Confederate Deaths
- Richmond (August 29-30, 1862)
- Confederate Victory with 206 Union and 451 Confederate Deaths and 4,303 Union Captured
- Munfordville (September 14-17, 1862)
- Confederate Victory with 4,148 Union Casualties and 714 Confederate Deaths
- Perryville (October 8, 1862)
- Union Victory with 894 Union and 532 Confederate Deaths
- Somerset / Dutton’s Hill (March 31, 1863)
- Union Victory with 10 Union and 290 Confederate Deaths
- Lebanon (July 5, 1863)
- Confederate Victory with 41 Union and Unknown Confederate Deaths
- Paducah (March 25, 1864)
- Confederate Victory with 90 Union and 50 Confederate Deaths
- Cynthiana (June 11-12, 1864)
- Union Victory with 1,092 Union and 1,000 Confederate Deaths
Oliver Perry’s Confiscated Land
By April 1863, Kentucky had seen nine Civil War battles. The Union Army needed to establish a supply station in Central Kentucky, so they confiscated the home and land of Oliver H. and Frances Perry, to establish Camp Nelson.
Oliver H. Perry and his new wife, Frances had built a most beautiful 2 story, 14-room Greek-revival style home around 1855 on the land of Robert and Mary Sappington Scott who were Frances’s parents.
Camp Nelson is Established
Confiscating the Perry’s home and land, the US Army set up Camp Nelson to be a fortified supply station, hospital, and operating base to support the Army of the Ohio’s campaign to invade and liberate East Tennessee. The “White House,” as the Perry’s home came to be called, was used as the headquarters of Major General George L. Hartsuff, commander of the Twenty-third Corps. The home was later used as the US Army Quartermaster and Commissary officers’ quarters until the end of the war.
Camp Nelson grew to 300 buildings and hundreds of tents on 4,000 acres of land, and it’s purpose changed as the war waged on.
Training Camp for US Colored Troops
Beginning in 1864, thousands of black men, women, and children risked their lives to escape slavery in the South, and found refuge at Camp Nelson. Many of those men came to enlist in the US Army, so that they may fight for their freedoms. Enlisting in the Army provided a clear path to emancipation. So many African American men had been recruited by the late summer of 1864, that Kentucky had established eight training centers for US Colored Troops, one of which was at Camp Nelson.
Not a Safe Place for All
While the enlisted men found acceptance at Camp Nelson, the parents, women, and children that came with them did not. Those who had escaped slavery and were unable to enlist in the US Army were expected to leave the Army camp and return to slavery. In November 1864, Federal soldiers forcibly removed more than 400 women and children from Camp Nelson and then destroyed their makeshift refugee huts. Later, freezing temperatures and a winter storm caused more than 100 displaced refugees to die of sickness and exposure. Of course, the US Army reversed its policy on refugees after such a horrific event.
In January, 1865, Camp Nelson opened the government-sponsored “Home for Colored Refugees.” The camp included a community mess hall, a school, barracks for single women and the sick, and duplex family cottages. While the wives and children of the enlisted men were not emancipated, they were legally entitled to sanctuary.
Tens of thousands of men, women, soldiers, civilians, refugees, and enslaved people passed through Camp Nelson during the Civil War.
More History to be Told
Camp Nelson’s history not only includes tens of thousands of people, but also numerous places. Scattered over 4,000 acres, the Camp included supply facilities, a horse and mule center, earthen fortifications, hospitals, an officers’ spring, a waterworks pump station and reservoir, a military prison, a refugee community, and a wartime cemetery.
The US Army began closing Camp Nelson at the end of the war in 1865, taking down all the buildings and removing all the evidence of the Camp.
The “White Hall” that had been confiscated for the creation of Camp Nelson was returned to the Perry family. According to the Historical Marker database, “After the Civil War, Oliver and Frances and their sons Robert and John returned to the house. Oliver became a prominent farmer. John Perry and his wife, Tabitha Roberts Perry, continued to live in the house after Oliver and Frances died. The house stayed in the Perry family until 1948.”
The only other evidence of Camp Nelson ever existing was the wartime graveyard, that would go on to become a National Cemetery.
Camp Nelson Receives the Attention it Deserves
Now knowing the story of Camp Nelson, the answer to my original question, “Why did we just begin talking about Camp Nelson in 2018?” is quite clear. Camp Nelson is the story of the positive impact that emancipated slaves had on the winning of the Civil War and the role that the camp played in recruiting and training 10,000 black men. After the Civil War and a LONG TIME AFTER, the stories of African Americans in history were buried because we as a country struggled to change our mindset. (“We” meaning the ones with the most influence, i.e. those that were writing the history, which were predominately white males. Read about the Reconstruction Era in Kentucky here.)
Finally, in 2016, Camp Nelson Historic and Archeological District became a National Historic Landmark. The Perry House became a museum and reconstruction of a barracks building began. In 2018, President Donald Trump proclaimed its establishment as a National Monument and the lesser known stories began to be told. Camp Nelson has also been recognized as an official site on the NPS National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
Today, a new building has been erected that houses a wonderful museum with a plethora of information for adults to read and recreations to help younger children visualize the time period and way of life for these men, women, and children. There is a wonderful video that is well worth your time to sit down and watch before you tour the museum and grounds.
Above: Personal Photos of the Camp Nelson Museum
The Perry House is currently closed for more renovations but you can walk all the way around the home.
Above: Personal Photos of the Perry Home at Camp Nelson National Monument
Many acres on the property can be walked via moved paths that lead you to the remains of the earthen fortifications and the original graveyards.
Above: Personal Photos of the Grounds and Rollings Hills at Camp Nelson National Monument
Conclusion and Reflection
There is so much history at Camp Nelson that I can’t begin to cover it all. I didn’t even talk about the battles that the US Colored Troops fought in and the effects that they had on the outcome of the war. Those stories are better told by someone who better understands military battles and strategies than I do. There is so much information on the National Park Service website, and I have tried to link much of those resources within this post.
While there is not a lot to see, in regards to buildings on the property and the home not open for tours, Camp Nelson has done a fantastic job of telling the history through signage and photos, helping you to visualize how those wide open rolling hills would have looked between 1863 and 1865. I truly believe it is worth a visit. These lesser known stories need to be told and it will only happen when people stop in for a visit.
So, take a drive through the beautiful rolling hills of Kentucky, roll your windows down and enjoy the fresh air, and appreciate the America we have today because of the people that came before us – both black and white. While you’re out there, make a stop at both Camp Nelson National Monument AND Camp Nelson National Cemetery (cared for by the US Department of Veterans Affairs). Show your appreciation for the numerous men and women who have served to make Kentucky (and America) the wonderful place that it is today. May their stories continue to be told for centuries to come and never again be buried or forgotten.