Defenses of Camp Nelson

An open field with trees. An earthwork, Fort Putnam, is under construction.
View of Fort Putnam [U-Shaped earthwork in the middle of the photograph] under construction from the Inspection Station. The fort was designed and built by the US Army's Engineering Battalion by order of Major James Simpson. A wooden mold used to construct the walls can been seen on the earthwork.

National Archives and Records Administration

Holding the High Ground

The camp is protected on the south and west mainly by the high bluff of the Kentucky River, and on the east by Hickman Creek. The defensive works required were a continuous line across the neck of the peninsula thus formed, and detached works at the accessible points of the cliffs of these streams.
-Report of John R. Gilliss, Assistant US Engineer, Camp Nelson, Kentucky, June 30, 1864

The US Army designed an elaborate system of fortifications to protect Camp Nelson during the Civil War. Following the establishment of the base in late April 1863, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, commanding the Department of the Ohio, ordered his engineers to fortify the area. US Army Engineers, Major James H. Simpson and Captain Orlando M. Poe, were tasked with the elaborate construction program. They were assisted by civilian engineer John R. Gilliss, who supervised the project once the army departed for the Knoxville Campaign in August 1863.

The supply depot and forward-operating base was located on defensible ground and secured by the winding Kentucky River to the west and south, and Hickman Valley Creek to the East. The defenses featured seven forts and several artillery batteries that were connected by rifle pits. The Northern Defenses spanned 1.5 miles from the Kentucky River east across the Lexington-Danville Turnpike (US-27). The line continued south, paralleling Hickman Creek, and protected the camp to the east. The final defensive line consisted of earthworks that guarded Hickman Bridge, the critical crossing point that spanned the Kentucky River directly south of Camp Nelson.

Civil War Earthwork Design Elements from a birdseye and side view, and include terms such as abatis, parapet, magazine and embrasure
Earthwork Design Elements - The Defenses of Camp Nelson included these major elements, especially parapets, cannon embrasures, ditches [moats], and abatis.


Constructing the Defenses

The intrenchments at Camp Nelson have been pushed forward as rapidly as the number of men at my disposal for work would admit... During the month of July [1863] three thousand days' work were expended upon these intrenchments. Now that the harvest is over, I am in hopes that the negroes which have been returned to their owners will be returned to me for work.
-Major James H. Simpson, Chief Engineer Department of the Ohio, August 11, 1863

Brigadier General Jeremiah T. Boyle, commanding District of Kentucky, issued General Orders No. 41 from his headquarters in Louisville on August 10, 1863. The order authorized the impressment of enslaved African Americans from 14 counties in Central Kentucky for military labor projects, especially road construction. The orders codified the US Army's policy of impressing enslaved people for military necessity, which began earlier that summer with the Defenses of Camp Nelson.

US Army engineers developed earthwork plans according to their training, notably at the United States Military Academy at West Point, based upon their instruction from Professor Dennis Hart Mahan, who wrote, A Treatise of Field Fortifications. The work, published in 1836 and revised in 1852 and 1860, was based off European models of earthworks design and construction.

The Defenses of Camp Nelson, featuring 7 major forts, were connected by rifle pits and mounted 21 artillery pieces: eighteen 12-pounder Napoleons and three 30-pounder Parrott rifles. The forts were designed with flanking walls that provided multiple fields of fire on attacking enemy columns. US Army engineers designed the blueprints then allocated the construction to civilian engineers, who supervised the labor. Enslaved people felled trees and excavated dirt with picks and shovels to build the walls. Revetments, wooden or stone support posts/planks, reinforced the interior of the walls.


  • Abatis: a field fortification consisting of an obstacle formed (in the modern era) of the branches of trees laid in a row, with the sharpened tops directed outwards, towards the enemy.
  • Battery: a group of artillery pieces organized as a single unit; an unclosed earthwork consisting of artillery positions/platforms.
  • Bombproofs: earth covered rooms that shelter gun crews and officers in the interior of the fort.
  • Earthwork: a large artificial bank of soil, especially one used as a fortification.
  • Embrasures: a small opening in a casemate splayed so that it diverges or is wider on the inside of the wall allowing the cannon to be aimed. The muzzle of the cannon would extend outside the embrasure for firing.
  • Ditch: a deep, broad trench, usually 6 ft. deep, surrounding a fortification.
  • Glacis: an artificial slope as part of a fortification.
  • Magazine: a store for arms, ammunition, explosives, and provisions for use in military operations. Eight magazine rooms were originally located near the gorge angles on both the first and second tiers and were protected by copper doors.
  • Parapet: a low protective wall along the outer edge of the terreplein.
  • Scarp & Counterscarp: are the inner and outer sides, respectively, of a ditch or moat used in fortifications.
Historic Map of the Defenses of Camp Nelson that shows the fortification line and names of the forts.
Map of the Defenses of Camp Nelson - The Northern Defenses can be seen near the top of the map at the bend of the Kentucky River and east 1-mile to Hickman Creek on the far right.

Library of Congress

The Northern Defenses

As a defensible position it has probably no equal in the state, surrounded as it is upon two sides (South and West) by the Kentucky River whose banks are high and precipitous, and inaccessible by Artillery; and upon the East bounded by Hickman Creek, a tributary of the last named river, with almost equally formidable natural defenses upon the Western bank.
-War Department Report, May 13, 1865

The US Army understood that Camp Nelson was most vulnerable to the north. The Northern Defenses were constructed to guard the approaches and deter any attempt by the enemy to attack the base by advancing south from Nicholasville and Lexington.

This section of the line was anchored by two earthworks west of the Lexington-Danville Turnpike [US-27]: Fort Nelson and Fort Hatch. The line continued east 1.5 miles and consisted of three strongpoints: Fort Jackson, Fort Pope, and Fort Taylor. Fort Putnam, located behind the main line, was the first earthwork designed and constructed by the US Army Engineering Battalion, and served as a fallback position and rally point.

Engineer's Report

John R. Gilliss, Assistant US Engineer, described the Defenses of Camp Nelson in his report Major Simpson that was forwarded to Chief Engineer of the US Army in Washington DC:

An irregular flat ridge, in front of the large [area] containing depot buildings, was selected for the line. The ground for 1,000 yards to the front is undulating, but, excepting scattered sink holes, is entirely swept by the fire from three main forts.The line consists of eight forts and batteries connected by an infantry intrenchment. The length of the line is 8,805 feet.

Battery [Fort] Hatch assists in protecting ground to the WEST of Fort Nelson. It should have been built 300 feet farther to the left, as shown by the dotted lines at point B. There is now a good approach under the brown of the cliff along a terrace.

Fort Nelson is the highest point in the line or its vicinity, and the most important work on the line, not only from its range, commanding the other works, and fire on the main turnpike, but because it is on the summit of a ridge which prevents the fire from Forts Jackson and Taylor from covering the ground to the WEST of its salient. The three embrasures on the east and and barrette at the salient command all the works to the east as far as Fort McKee.

Fort Jackson is comparatively low, as a line from Nelson to Taylor passes about 15 feet above its crest. This allows Forts Nelson and Taylor to fire over it with safety in protecting each other. The guns on its faces protect the ground to the front while those on the flanks enfilade the abatis line from Fort Nelson has some fire into the hollows in front.

Battery [Fort] Putnam [an] interior work commenced by Captain Poe before the works to the east were located. It enfilades the east face of Jackson and will be useful should any of the works or infantry intrenchments to the east be captured.

Battery [Fort] Pope enfilades a branch of the main ravine in front. Much of the ravine is under direct fire from its two barrettes; the remainder can be reached by curved fire. The two embrasures to the east enfilade abatis and sweep ground in front of Taylor.

Fort Taylor, the angles of its embrasures being the same as angles between its faces, it has a continuous fire from Fort Nelson on the left to salient of infantry intrenchment on its right. Its barrette, like those of Nelson and Jackson, is protected by melons of gabions from sharpshooters. These are so arranged as not to interfere with fire in all directions. Between Forts Taylor and McKee the infantry line was extended to the front to enfilade a hollow road. An embrasure was set in it for this purpose, and a barbette platform laid in the salient to protect the front of Fort McKee.

Fort Mckee sweeps hill-side to the front and enfilades abatis line on each side of it and in front of infantry intrenchment.

Earthen walls in a section of woods with leafless trees. Blue sky with white clouds in the background.
Fort Jones anchored the Hickman Creek Line. The five-sided redoubt was fully enclosed and designed with 3 artillery platforms and a main traverse that ran the length of earthwork. The fort was protected by a deep ditch constructed along the base of the north and east walls.


Hickman Creek Defenses

It is naturally fortified on three sides by the river and creek, the cliffs of which average four hundred feet high and perpendicular. Across the narrow neck from the river are fortifications of a most formidable character connected by rifle pits and protected by abatis. Every approach to the camp is commanded by mounted guns and so far as its natural defenses are concerned it is one of the most impregnable points in the country.
Captain Theron E. Hall, Chief Quartermaster, Camp Nelson, 1865

The US Army fortified the Hickman Creek Valley with two major strong points: Fort Jones and Battery Studdiford. Two stone rifle intrenchments filled the ground between the earthworks. The four sites provided artillery and infantry fire to the eastern approaches to Camp Nelson, especially a wooden footbridge that crossed Hickman Creek. An earthwork connected Fort Jones to Fort McKee, part of the Northern Defenses to the northwest. Curiously, the army did not mount any artillery at the earthworks despite their strategic importance.

Fort Jones and the stone rifle intrenchments are among the best preserved earthworks at Camp Nelson National Monument.

Engineer's Report

Fort Jones forms the right flank of the line, and commands bridge over Hickman Creek, as well as roads and fords in the vicinity. It being of great importance to hold this position, and the hills across Hickman Creek looking down into it, the parapet was made 10 feet high inside, and the embrasures covered over as shown in plan. The site sloped toward the enemy. To diminish the earthwork in defiling an offset of 4 feet was made in the level of the crest line, and a traverse built across the fort; in this magazine was put, and a postern built, connecting upper and lower parts of the fort. This serves also as a bomb-proof. The work is surrounded by a brush fraise in scarp, a good ditch and glaces; a banquette in the ditch increases the amount of infantry fire it can employ.

To the right of Fort Jones the bank of the creek is a vertical limestone cliff 100 to 150 feet high. An infantry intrenchment has been made on the edge of this cliff, just beyond Jones, to sweep the approach to the forts and the roads and fords near bridge over creek. All the timber for 1,500 yards to the front has been cleared, excepting a narrow strip in front of the infantry intrenchments, between Forts McKee and Jones, left to mask the line from the hills across Hickman.

Battery Studdiford commands the approaches to Fort Jones, whether by the bridge or fording the creek, and the ford and mouth of the valley at foot of corral slope. Its fire in both directions is very valuable, and it is itself inaccessible, being on the edge of a vertical cliff, which extends from Fort Jones to a little past this battery, there then commences a steep slope which for the distance of 300 yards can with difficulty be ascended.

A wooden bridge spans a river, with cliffs covered with trees on both shores of the river during the Civil War.
The Hickman Covered Bridge, constructed in 1838, spanned the Kentucky River along the Lexington-Danville Turnpike. The U.S. Army secured the crossing with artillery batteries and infantrymen. The original stone abutments survive in good condition.

National Archives and Records Administration

Kentucky River Defenses

I wrote you a short time since asking for more specific instructions in relation to entrenching this Post but have not received them. I am at a loss what to do not knowing what kind of defenses you propose making. I have taken every precaution possible to ensure the safety of the bridge from fire by accident or by our enemies.
-Captain R. Clay Crawford to Lieutenant Colonel Orville E. Babcock, Chief Engineer Ninth Corps, Hickman Creek Bridge, May 30, 1863

The Army of the Ohio officially established Camp Nelson on April 29, 1863, but the army installation appeared only on paper in the first month of its existence. The US troops present near the camp were assigned the critical duty of guarding the crossing of the Kentucky River at Hickman Bridge. The wooden span was the only bridge that crossed the Kentucky River upriver from Frankfort, and it was essential to any potential invasion of Tennessee. As a result, ensuring US Army control of Hickman Bridge was imperative, and one of Camp Nelson’s main objectives was to protect the bridge from Confederate forces.

There were also troops stationed at Camp Dick Robinson, the first major recruiting and training base in Kentucky that was established by Brigadier General William "Bull" Nelson August 1861, that was located about 8 miles south the bridge. According to Captain R. Clay Crawford, commanding 1st Tennessee Battery, there was no guidance on how to properly defend the area from army headquarters, the conscientious officer took matters into his own hands to secure the bridge and the camp. Crawford's actions included taking every precaution to ensure that the enemy did not fire the wooden span; making a casual survey of the surrounding ground and examined the points where defense was practicable; assigning a force from his battery to clear undergrowth and brush from the adjacent heights on the south side of the river; and selecting places to mount and sight his cannons. He was even forced to place artillerymen near the bridge to serve as a guard detail, a move that greatly reduced his own battery and was better suited for a company of infantry.

For now, Crawford's battery of rifled cannons were the only defenders of the Hickman Bridge and the approach to Nicholasville and Lexington along the Danville-Lexington Turnpike. The area was not quiet for long. Elements of the Army of the Ohio, including Army Engineers Major James H. Simpson and Captain Orlando Poe, were en route to design and supervise the defense of the area.

The Defenses of Hickman Bridge was anchored on two major strongpoints: Fort Bramlette and Battery Fitzgerald, both overlooking the Kentucky River. The fort was the largest earthwork constructed at Camp Nelson. The six-sided redoubt was 350 ft. long by 200 ft. wide; the magazine and bombproof that ran the length of the fort measured 128 ft. Despite its scale and location, Fort Bramlette was not armed with cannons.

Engineer's Report

A battery [Fitzgerald] has been built on the turnpike which enfilades the ford, valley, and turnpike across the Kentucky River.

Fort Bramlette occupies ground which would be dangerous if in the hands of the enemy. It is useful also from the reverse fire it can bring on the hills east of Hickman Creek, and its commanding the ground the enemy would occupy with batteries to cover their passage of the Kentucky River, at the bridge. It also puts into our possession the hill to the west, which will assist very much in the defense of the bridge.

Pollys' Bend: West of the camp the river makes a large bend, doubling on itself, the peninsula thus formed surrounded by vertical cliffs and has only two outlets -a road to the north winding down the hill-side, running some distance under the cliff, fording the river, and ascending the opposite side by a zigzag, and the neck of land to the south. The road can be protected by a few riflemen, as the enemy would have to advance a mile under fire, at short range, without the opportunity for returning it, and no shelter. The neck of land is only about 500 ft. across, and susceptible of very strong defense. See accompanying plan. It is proposed to build a redoubt on the highest point and an infantry intrenchment on each side, connecting it with the cliff. On the left an eqaulement for field guns should be guilt to command the crossing of the Kentucky River, near the mouth of White Oak Creek, already referred to. In front of the works several lines of strong abatis should be made as the material is abundant, and it will make it unnecessary to give much relief to the earth-works. For 500 yards to the front the ground will be well swept by the fire from the redoubt, and with 400 men the position cannot be taken by any force.

Last updated: July 16, 2023

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