African American Refugees and Emancipation

Green historic marker that describes African American soldiers and refugees at Camp Nelson during the Civil War. Grass and a paved road behind the sign.
Commonwealth of Kentucky Historic Marker describing enslaved African American men who self-emancipated by enlisting with the US Army at Camp Nelson, and the Congressional Act that emancipated their families. Located north of the park between US 27 and Loop 2 Road.


The Uncharted Road to Emancipation

Had it not been for the inhuman treatment of these poor people we should have had a longer struggle, but great good resulted from the evil.
-Captain Theron E. Hall, Assistant-Quartermaster, US Army

As there was no national policy regarding African American enslaved refugees, civilians fleeing slavery to US Army bases such as Camp Nelson faced uncertainty and apprehension concerning their fate. This was especially the case in Kentucky, where there were no policies in place that offered emancipation to women, children, and others who could not enlist in the military. The lack of national guidelines meant that at Camp Nelson, some military officers turned away Black refugees and supported the periodic expulsion of them from the US Army base, while other officials granted permission for self-emancipating civilians to live in the camp. Many African American men enlisting were actually told that their families could stay with them in the camp.

The expulsion of November 1864 that resulted in the deaths of 102 formerly enslaved people was a direct result of the lack of Federal policy on Black refugees seeking freedom with the US Army. This tragic event, however, would set in motions events that would change that. The expulsion order was quickly overturned, and officials at Camp Nelson were instructed to provide care in the form of food, shelter, and clothing to the expelled refugees and future African American civilians looking for refuge at the Federal base. The new approach of welcoming and supporting refugees at Camp Nelson was soon embraced as official military policy by the US War Department. As officials described the new policy, “this would certainly be not only humane but just, as their husbands, fathers, and brothers are doing the country service in the field, and are, consequently, unable to care for and protect them."

With newspapers across the country circulating a graphic account of the expulsion, a public outcry arose over the cruel treatment of the refugees at the hands of Federal soldiers. Before long, reverberations of the expulsion reached the US Congress. While African American civilians fleeing slavery were now offered refuge at Camp Nelson, they were not legally free. Political leaders in Congress began to debate this issue and around three months after the expulsion, legislation was passed that provided freedom to the families of African American soldiers.

On March 3, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill into law. As the first part of the law read:

That, for the purpose of encouraging enlistments and promoting the efficiency of the military and naval forces of the United States, it is hereby enacted that the wife and children, if any he have, of any person that has been, or may be, mustered into the military or naval service of the United States, shall, from and after the passage of this act, be forever free.

Until the ratification of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in December 1865, this new law offered the only means that African American refugees in Kentucky could legally obtain their freedom. The lack of a national refugee policy led to the November 1864 expulsion at Camp Nelson and the over one hundred civilian deaths. This disaster in turn led to the establishment of official policies for receiving, caring for, and ultimately emancipating Black refugees in Kentucky, ensuring that such an event would never occur again.

Visit our Stories Page to learn more about The Expulsion.

The full text of the Congressional Resolution Freeing the Families of Black Soldiers, courtesy of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project.

Last updated: July 15, 2022

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6614 Old Danville Road Loop 2
Nicholasville, KY 40356


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