Military Impressment of Enslaved African Americans

Stone wall covered with green algae surrounded by fallen leaves and trees.
Remnants of the Northern Stone Wall that served as rifle pits to protect the eastern approaches to Camp Nelson along Hickman Creek. The earthen and stone walls were constructed by enslaved African Americans impressed by the US Army.


Enslaved Impressed Laborers and Camp Nelson

Had it not been for the impressed hands, the depots and fortifications would have been very far short of completion.
- Brigadier General Speed S. Fry, October 1863

In the Civil War, the US Army’s attitude and policies toward African Americans were anything but simple. This was particularly the case at Camp Nelson in Kentucky. Due to the US military’s vague policies on how to treat African Americans, Camp Nelson meant something different for Black Kentuckians. Over the course of the war, this place represented both enslavement and forced labor to enlistment, freedom, and military service.

Kentucky was a slave state but remained loyal to the US government during the Civil War. Consequently, the Emancipation Proclamation and other Federal policies targeting slavery did not apply to Kentucky. Following the establishment of Camp Nelson in 1863, the US Army benefited from the continuance of slavery. In June, Federal officers began to impress enslaved African Americans in Central Kentucky, forcing them to work for the US Army, building earthworks, roads, buildings, and conducting any other labor required. Impressment was the policy of the US and Confederate armies to seize food, animals, and other materials, including enslaved people, to support their operations in the field during the war. The impressment practices at Camp Nelson expanded with the the issuance of General Orders No. 41 on August 10, 1863. Brigadier General Jeremiah T. Boyle, commanding District of Kentucky, authorized the US Army to impress “six thousand laborers from the negro population of the country.”

The US military rewarded Unionist slave owners by paying them for use of their slave populations. Rates of compensation varied, but a standard amount was $15 a month. The army also promised to return enslaved workers to their owners after the expiration of the time for which they were impressed. The orders authorized use of African American males from the ages 16 to 45, but documentation discovered in the US National Archives list the impressment of at least 9 women in 1863. Army quartermasters were ordered to issue needed supplies to the Black laborers, but the cost of the clothing given to them would be charged to the slave owners.

Document listing the names of people written in cursive on paper in a bounded collection.
List of enslaved African Americans impressed by the US Army to perform labor at Camp Nelson and other military sites in Kentucky during the Civil War.

National Archives and Records Administration

Enslavers were directed to deliver their impressed African Americans to designated points in the area around Camp Nelson, such as Lexington, where US officers would take charge of the laborers and bring them to the military base or wherever else they were assigned to work. Frances Dallam Peter, a resident of Lexington, noted in late August: “The people around here are bringing in their negroes to work on the roads pretty fast. There are a good many in town today and the work is said to be going on well…of course the union people get paid for the use of their negroes while secesh and sympathizers dont." The Federal officials at Camp Nelson did not just wait for African Americans to be brought to them by enslavers, they sometimes sent troops to forcefully round them up. Peter observed one such incident in Lexington in December 1863, writing:

Just as their churches were being dismissed a number of soldiers who had been stationed out side rushed upon the unsuspecting negroes capturing all the men they could lay hands on. The darkies in great terror ran in all directions, some jumping out of the church windows and all doing their best to elude pursuit…The soldiers however caught a good many whom they sent off to Camp Nelson to work on the wagon road they are going to make to Cumberland Gap.

It seems that many enslaved men dreaded impressment by the US Army because they were separated from family members and could be kept indefinitely. They were not paid for their labor, they were not promised freedom, working for the Federal military was just another period of enslavement.

Throughout the Knoxville Campaign in mid to late 1863, enslaved laborers were forced to build and expand the military roads south from Camp Nelson into East Tennessee, especially the Lexington-Danville Turnpike (US 27). At the end of October 1863, over 1,500 impressed men were reported to be working on various roads in Central Kentucky. All the supplies and materials the US Army needed were transported through Camp Nelson and down into Tennessee using these military roads. This meant the US Army campaign to capture Knoxville and liberate East Tennessee from Confederate forces relied on slave labor.

Enslaved laborers were also vital to the development of Camp Nelson itself. One critical task was to construct a large system of earthen fortifications to protect the north and east boundaries of the forward-operating base. In mid-August 1863, Captain Orlando M. Poe, the Chief Engineer of the Twenty-third Corps, reported "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] about three thousand days’ work were expended upon those intrenchments. Now that the harvest is over, I am in hopes that the negroes which had been returned to their owners will be returned to me for work.” In late October 1863, work on the earthworks was still underway, with 250 enslaved men building the defenses. At that time, Camp Nelson commander, Brigadier General Speed S. Fry, acknowledged the crucial part enslaved laborers played in developing the base, stating that “Had it not been for the impressed hands, the depots and fortifications would have been very far short of completion.”

Building roads and fortifications was grueling, backbreaking work – all of which was completed with simple hand tools like picks, shovels, and axes while exposed to all kinds of weather. Even though they were not laboring for the US Army by their own choice or for their own benefit, impressed workers still became a military target for Confederate raids in Kentucky. In October, it was reported that several hundred men working on one of the roads were “scattered by recent raids but are being collected again.” The labor provided by the African Americans was too important for the US Army to lose. Besides the hard labor, some enslaved men were forced to endure the indignity of entertaining white Federal troops. In a letter home from Lexington in September 1863, Massachusetts private Jabez N. Smith explained, "they are taking the slaves here & sending them to the front to work on the RR there was over a huindred in a slave pen right back of this tavern & that night we got a lot of them out & got them a dancing & singing & had quite a jolly time."

The Federal military's use of impressed laborers continued into 1864, even after the successful conclusion of the Knoxville Campaign. Not all of the impressed laborers were at Camp Nelson at the same time or for the same amount of time. Black Kentuckians were forced to work at the military base and in the surrounding area for as little as a few weeks, to four months or more. In total, around 1,900 African Americans were impressed by the US Army at Camp Nelson.

The last enslaved workers left in March 1864. Many of these men later returned to Camp Nelson, but for a very different reason, and more importantly, by their own choice.

Portrait of Brigadier General Lorenzo Thomas in uniform during the Civil War. He is standing in a studio next to a chair with a hat in his right hand and sword in his left.
Brigadier General Lorenzo Thomas, Adjutant General US Army, was tasked with supervising the Bureau of Colored Troops and organizing the recruitment of Black soldiers in Kentucky, including Camp Nelson.

Library of Congress

From Picks and Shovels to Rifles and Bayonets

There are at Camp Nelson 3,000 negroes, and they will be organized as soon as I can get officers, which is now my great want...As soon as I get officers recruiting will go on rapidly. The people of the State seem to realize the fact that slavery has almost entirely ceased to exist, and the true Union men are perfectly satisfied that the able-bodied men should be enlisted; and whilst the Southern sympathizers see the same fact, and know that they cannot prevent their enlistment, they keep quiet on the subject.
- Brigadier General Lorenzo Thomas, Adjutant General US Army, July 3, 1864

The US Army relied on enslaved labor in Kentucky throughout 1863, but as the war progressed, military necessity required a more drastic move. In the late spring and early summer of 1864, the US Army gradually authorized recruitment of African Americans in Kentucky, allowing enslaved men to be emancipated through the act of enlistment in the Federal military. General Orders No. 20, issued in June 1864, declared:

Recruiting of colored troops will take place in the State of Kentucky as rapidly as possible…The unconditional Union men will, it is believed, cheerfully bring forward their slaves to assist in crushing the rebellion; and if others do not, it makes no difference, as all who present themselves for enlistment will be received and enlisted into the service of the United States.

Thousands of black men made their way to Camp Nelson to enlist with the US Colored Troops (USCT). Many enlistees were also accompanied by their wives and children. Families wanted to stay together and many feared retaliation from angry slave owners if they remained at the farm, plantation, or other place of enslavement. At Camp Nelson, Black refugees faced uncertain futures and often harsh treatment until the US government eventually established procedures for caring for and ultimately freeing them.

Records reveal that at least 98 African Americans forced to labor at Camp Nelson as slaves later returned and secured their freedom by enlisting in the US Army. There were likely many more than just these 98 men, but limited documentation prevents historians from confirming more connections. All eight of the USCT regiments organized at Camp Nelson included African Americans who had previously been enslaved at the military base. Some of these men served in units like the 114th and 116th US Colored Infantry, which engaged in frontline operations in Virginia before assigned garrison duty in Texas and Louisiana after the war. Others saw combat with the 5th and 6th US Colored Cavalry, two of the only six Black cavalry regiments organized by the Federal military during the war.

Men in regiments including the 124th US Colored Infantry and 12th US Colored Heavy Artillery were assigned garrison duty at Camp Nelson and other points in Kentucky. For these men stationed at Camp Nelson, they guarded the same earthworks built by enslaved labor. Perhaps they knew comrades who built them. Perhaps they built the fortifications themselves.

For the 98 identified African American workers turned soldiers and the many who remain unidentified, Camp Nelson began as a site of enslavement and impressment, but became one of army recruitment, emancipation, and military service. A microcosm of the nation, Camp Nelson highlights the complex and contradictory ideals and policies of the US Army and the country itself in the Civil War.

Last updated: December 7, 2023

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