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Camp Neslon

photo courtesy of the National Park Service

Camp Nelson was a large Union quartermaster and commissary depot, recruitment and training center, and hospital facility located in southern Jessamine County, Kentucky, six miles south of Nicholasville. Camp Nelson is the nation's best preserved large Civil War depot, hospital, and recruitment and refugee camp because of its landscape and archeological deposits. Camp Nelson played an important role in the freedom of Kentucky's enslaved population. It served as a Union depot within a slave-holding but Union-leaning state, and as a recruitment and refugee camp for formerly enslaved African Americans. After March 1864 it became Kentucky's largest recruitment and training center for African American troops. It also contained a large refugee camp for the wives and children of these soldiers. The camp was established in June 1863, under orders of Major General Ambrose Burnside, commander of the Army of the Ohio, and it stood until June 1866. Historic maps, archeological investigations, photographs and detailed descriptions provide an idea of the appearance of the camp.

Camp Nelson's significance as an Underground Railroad site began with the Conscription Act of February 1864 which authorized the creation of United States Colored Troops in Kentucky. Soon after, thousands of enslaved men, women, and children escaped slavery and sought freedom in this Union enlistment camp. By the end of 1865, when the 13th Amendment finally ended slavery in Kentucky, 10,000 African American men had enlisted and been emancipated at Camp Nelson.

Unfortunately for the soldiers' wives and children, emancipation did not come immediately upon their husband or father's enlistment. They were still legally enslaved and in November 1864 they were ejected from camp. Due to freezing weather about 100 of the 400 refugee women and children died after this ejection and a national uproar occurred. This uproar led to a reversal in the army's policy and the construction of the "Home for Colored Refugees" at Camp Nelson. Ultimately, it led to the March 1865 Congressional act freeing the wives, children, and mothers of United States colored troops. To many African Americans Camp Nelson was synonymous with freedom, as a United States Colored Troops sergeant stated in 1865: "It used to be five hundred miles to get to Canada from Lexington, but now it's only eighteen miles! Camp Nelson is now our Canada."

Camp Nelson is now Camp Nelson Heritage Park which is located at 6614 Danville Road,
Nicholasville, Kentucky. For information call (859) 881-5716. The park is open Tuesday - Saturday 9 am - 5 pm and there is no admission fee.
There are over five miles of trails to explore at Camp Nelson, while learning about the significant role Camp Nelson played in the Civil War.

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