Military Prison

A wooden structure with a main building behind the fence with wooden towers during the Civil War. Trees be seen in the background.
Military Prison at Camp Nelson. The prison featured four guard towers and a main building use to house prisoners and soldiers and civilians placed under arrest. The prison was located east of the Oliver Perry House [White House] in the northern section of the camp.

National Archives and Records Administration

Prison Complex at Camp Nelson

I deem it the greatest importance that some discretion be allowed me in releasing prisoners of war from Kentucky upon their taking the oath of allegiance and giving heavy bonds for future good behavior and loyalty. Much good can be accomplished by the proper use of this discretion, and harm, I think, is resulting from the present stringent orders.
- Major General Ambrose E. Burnside to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, August 4, 1863

As Camp Nelson evolved from a military fortification and supply depot into one of the largest cities in the state of Kentucky, containing a population comprised of both military personnel as well as civilians, it became necessary to expand beyond the usual buildings for a supply depot by erecting a prison. About a month after Camp Nelson was established, instructions were given on July 14, 1863, to construct the prison. The official order was given on August 5, 1863 to erect a “Military Prison and Barracks within the lines of the camp,” with construction to begin “as speedily as possible." Captain S. K. Williams provided the plan for the construction of the prison and Captain Theron E. Hall, Assistant Quartermaster, was ordered to supply the necessary labor and construction materials.

The prison was constructed of wood and included glazed windows, and possible brick chimneys. The prison complex consisted of consisted of a 100 ft. by 50 ft log jail building set within a 180 ft by 120 ft log stockade with guard towers, the provost marshal’s office, and several support buildings. These additional structures included barracks for guards, a hospital for prisoners, a cooking and dining hall, and separate kitchens. Archeological excavations at the site of the prison in the twenty-first century have uncovered structural evidence of the former buildings and stockade as well as a large number of artifacts that offer insights into the lives of the prisoners and guards. The diverse range of recovered items include military artifacts such as uniform buttons, accoutrements, and firearm ammunition that belonged to the guards and personal items like smoking pipes, glass marbles, and gaming pieces that helped inmates relieve the monotony of prison life. Also discovered were foodways artifacts such as ceramics, glass containers, and animal bones that reveal the food and drinks consumed by soldiers and prisoners.

The historic photograph show that the jail had a centrally located door on the west elevation with two double-hung windows located. A front-gabled central tower with windows on all sides provided ventilation. The tower appears to have had a lightning rod extending from the roof [See Image Above].

A hand is holding a historic image of a prison constructed of wood. Behind the image is green grass and trees, and a blue sky.
Camp Nelson's Military Prison - Then & Now: The photograph shows the approximate location of the prison at Camp Nelson National Monument. Today, the prison is marked by a red flag, and is located east of the Visitor Center.


Prisoners of War

From what I can see, a Northern prison is to be our portion.
- A Confederate Prisoner-of-War's View of Camp Nelson

In September 1863, after the Army of the Ohio occupied Knoxville and was victorious in the Battle of Cumberland Gap, a sizable batch of Confederate prisoners of war passed through Camp Nelson while being escorted under guard to military prisons in the North. This would not be the only contingent of captives taken through the camp. Throughout the Knoxville Campaign and beyond, Confederates imprisoned by US forces stopped at Camp Nelson while heading north. Like Federal military facilities in cities such as Louisville and Nashville, Camp Nelson served as a temporary holding site for prisoners of war while they were being transported to the more permanent prison camps in Illinois, Ohio, and other northern states.

Private George H. Weston of a Georgia artillery unit, one of the captives from Cumberland Gap passing through Camp Nelson, kept a record of his military experiences, including his time as a prisoner. Arriving at Camp Nelson on September 20, 1863, Weston wrote in his diary that his fellow prisoners and himself “lay for an hour or so” before they were moved “2 miles farther & camp for the night.” Weston described the camp as “established for the reception of troops just forming the field for Ninth Army Corps of Burnside. It is quite a large place…with tents forming a very extensive campground.” As a prisoner, it is unsurprising that Weston remained bitter toward the enemy, continuing his diary entry on Camp Nelson by asserting, “In the center of the campground is seen the Stars & Stripes, floating proudly to the breeze, over a band of marauders, thieves and murderers.”

Weston and the other Confederates captured in the Battle of Cumberland Gap would continue their journey north to Lexington, where they embarked on the railroad to military prisons in the North. Although he expressed ill-feelings toward the US Army while passing through Camp Nelson, Weston did have high praise for the commanding officer of the guard unit that escorted the captives from the Gap to Lexington. “All on the route we were treated with the most marked attention, by him & his men” Weston recorded, “our knapsacks were hauled the entire route, had it not been done, many of us would this day, been sleeping beneath the sod, far from home.” Weston further elaborated that the guard commander “administered to our comfort, as if we had been his guests, not as prisoners of war.” The officer leading the guard detachment was Colonel Joseph H. Parsons and his men were troops of the 9th Tennessee Cavalry Regiment. Ironically, given Weston’s antagonistic sentiments exhibited at Camp Nelson, several companies of the 9th Tennessee Cavalry were organized at the Federal base in August 1863.

Last updated: December 18, 2022

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6614 Old Danville Road Loop 2
Nicholasville, KY 40356


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