Camp Nelson National Monument

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

Camp Nelson, circa 1864.   
 Camp Nelson Photographic Collection, 1864, University of Kentucky Special Collections Research Center.

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.

“I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game,” [Lincoln] commented in justifying his cautious policy in that state. “Kentucky gone, we can not hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us. We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of this capitol.”

Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Society

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.

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.

Its hallmarks include wide bands of trim beneath the roof line, porches, prominent columns, and doorways with side and transom lights. The White House has a two-story entry porch supported by square columns — a local interpretation of Greek Revival style. The house has remarkably well preserved interior features, including doors, windows, wood trim, and mantles that also reflect the Greek Revival influence.

Historical Marker Database
The Oliver Perry House photographed at Camp Nelson during the Civil War.
Camp Nelson Photographic Collection, 1864, University of Kentucky Special Collections Research Center. / NPS

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 also served as a recruiting post for White soldiers and a refugee camp for White Unionists fleeing Confederate occupation in East Tennessee and the surrounding region. Camp Nelson was instrumental in the US war effort to liberate East Tennessee from Confederate control.

National Park Service

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.

Wooden Cottages, Tents, and Huts at Camp Nelson during the Civil War / National Archives and Records Administration via NPS

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.

In total, eight regiments of USCTs were organized at Camp Nelson: 4 infantry, 2 cavalry, and 2 heavy artillery units. Camp Nelson was the largest of USCT recruitment centers in Kentucky and the third largest in the entire nation. By the time the 13th Amendment was finally ratified on December 6, 1865, ending slavery throughout the United States, a total of 23,703 African American men had enlisted as soldiers in Kentucky, with over 10,000 at Camp Nelson.

National Park Service

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.

Finally, on March 3, 1865, an Act of Congress officially emancipated the wives, children, and mothers of US Colored Troops.

National Park Service

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.

In the Civil War’s aftermath, the US government initiated a program to recover the bodies of Federal soldiers from scattered battlefields and military posts across the country and reinter them in national cemeteries. Camp Nelson contained four cemeteries during its existence as a military base. The largest of these graveyards, known as Graveyard No. 2, was converted into one of Kentucky’s national cemeteries in 1866. The original tract was eight acres, with seven acres comprising the cemetery and the remainder forming a driveway from the main entrance to the old Danville Turnpike.

National Park Service

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.

Visiting Today

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.

Happy Travels!

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