Camp Nelson as a post is an anomaly, an irregularity of very great proportions…The area of the camp is about 4,000 acres…Yet within this very slight defense there is being carried out an expensive outline of making this point a great depot for storing, manufacturing, and repairing, with all the conveniences of shops, stores, house, &c.
- Lieutenant Colonel James H. Stokes, Inspector of the Quartermaster Department for the Military Division of the Mississippi, March 15, 1864
During the Civil War, one of Camp Nelson’s primary purposes was to serve as a supply depot for the Department of the Ohio, providing the diverse materials of war to US forces operating in Kentucky, East Tennessee, Western Virginia, and beyond. These supplies included rations and animal feed, clothing and footwear, blankets and tents, weapons and ammunition, ambulances and wagons, and horses and mules.
One of the main reasons that the location of Camp Nelson was chosen in 1863 was because of its access to lines of transportation. First, the Lexington-Danville Turnpike (modern US 27) was the main roadway through the region, allowing for the movement of wheeled vehicles, men, and supplies. Second, the Hickman Creek Bridge, at the southern end of the US Army base, was the only bridge that crossed the Kentucky River upriver from Frankfort and it was essential to any movement south to places such as Tennessee. Lastly, the only railroad in Central Kentucky ended in nearby Nicholasville, allowing supplies to be transported from there to Camp Nelson.
Camp Nelson was an important source of war materials for four major US Army campaigns: the Knoxville Campaign in the summer-fall of 1863; the Atlanta Campaign in the spring-summer of 1864; and two expeditions into southwestern Virginia in the fall and early winter of 1864. Camp Nelson helped fuel all of these Federal military operations, three of which resulted in major victories for the US cause.
A Vital Cog in a Vast Machine
Camp Nelson served as the main forward supply depot for the Army of the Ohio, but it did not operate in isolation. The base was a single cog in a massive logistical machine that spanned the entire region. The headquarters of the department was in Cincinnati, Ohio, and supplies were transported overland by freight wagons to Camp Nelson from the railroad station at Nicholasville or from nearby landings on the Kentucky River. From Camp Nelson, materials were shipped out by wagon to a series of subsidiary depots, including Lexington, Frankfort, Paris, London, Irvine, Nicholasville, Crab Orchard, Camp Burnside, and Cumberland Gap. These secondary deports were established to ensure the efficient movement of supplies from Camp Nelson to the US troops serving in the field.
The shipments of war materials were enormous. For example, in October 1863, during the midst of the Knoxville Campaign, one wagon train sent out from Camp Nelson to Knoxville included: “1020 Shelter Tents, 5000 Caps and covers, 1025 Blouses, 144 Hatchets and handles, 755 pair Cary Trousers, 2700 blankets, 3600 Pairs Bootees, 156 pairs boots, 600 Cav Great Coats, 1010 pairs Infantry trousers, 340 artillery Jackets.” It was reported that another similar load of supplies would depart soon after.
Military supplies at Camp Nelson were managed by three different departments: the Quartermaster, the Commissary of Subsistence, and the Ordnance Departments. The Quartermaster Department was responsible for all uniforms, footwear, blankets, tents, additional equipment, draft animals, transportation equipment, and animal feed. The Commissary of Subsistence provided the army with food, while the Ordnance Department was responsible for weapons, arms-related accoutrements, and ammunition.
As part of supplying the materials of war, Camp Nelson also contributed manpower to the US Army. From its establishment, Camp Nelson was a recruiting center for white regiments, with a total of seven East Tennessee and Kentucky units entirely or partially organized at the base in 1863. Once the enlistment of US Colored Troops (USCT) began in Kentucky in the late spring and early summer of 1864, Camp Nelson became a major training center for Black Troops. In total, 8 USCT regiments numbering over 10,000 men were organized at Camp Nelson between 1864-1865. The thousands of white and Black soldiers who were mustered in at Camp Nelson were equipped at the Federal base, which also outfitted the many other regiments that passed through on their way to the frontlines or other military installations in the region.
When it came to supplying war, Camp Nelson provided everything that an army could need to effectively operate. Many of the roughly 300 buildings erected at the US Army base specifically served the purpose of fulfilling those logistical services.
Stockpiling and Distribution Center
There are twenty warehouses used for storing and issuing Quartermaster and Commissary stores. These are situated in proximity to the Quartermaster and Commissary Offices and in a position which, while it is removed from the enemy's fire is also at a convenient distance from the excessive dust which during the summer occasionally arises from the adjoining turnpike.
- Captain Theron E. Hall, Assistant-Quartermaster, US Army, May 30, 1865
The twenty Quartermaster and Commissary warehouses at Camp Nelson held almost everything an army in the field needed to wage war. Some held Commissary supplies like hardtack (the hard crackers carried by soldiers on the march), cornmeal, beans, dried vegetables, coffee, salt, and other rations. Others were filled with Quartermaster supplies such as clothing, shoes, boots, blankets, and essentially anything else a soldier may need besides arms and ammunition. An inspector in June 1864 found: “They [the warehouses] are well adapted for the use for which they were constructed and in them I found the different articles of property systematically stored. Care seems to be exercised to insure its preservation.”
Near the warehouses was the Quartermaster and Commissary Office, where military officers made decisions and issued orders that sent out vital supplies wherever and whenever needed by troops in the field. In many ways, the office served as the nerve center of the supply depot.
In addition to food and equipment, Camp Nelson stockpiled weapons and ammunition, including light artillery, for the US Army. The base included two ordinance warehouses and a large powder magazine. An inspection report stated: “This [ordnance] department…is in excellent order. The magazine is located in a secure place – is well guarded – and the ammunition contained in it – dry – and in good condition.”
From nearly two months experience of manufacturing and baking Soft bread at “Camp Nelson” I am happy to state that it has proven a most signal success. Our soldiers appreciate it, and it is considered generally, very excellent, and healthy bread.
- Captain Molyneux Bell, August 14, 1863
In the same vicinity as the Quartermaster and Commissary Warehouses was the Camp Nelson bakery, which produced loaves of soft bread. Bread was a key component of soldiers’ daily ration, and at more permanent military bases such as Camp Nelson, each man received a ration of baked bread. The bread looked much like the white bread available today, except that it was not sliced. The bakery supplied bread to both the US soldiers stationed at the base and the hundreds of civilian employees. The bakery’s three ovens could produce ten thousand rations of bread a day, amounting to about 13,750 pounds of bread. This production level demonstrates the sheer number of US soldiers and civilians at Camp Nelson as well as the abundance of food available to them.
Given the vastness of Camp Nelson and the thousands of men and animals who lived at and passed through the base, the scattered water sources available within its boundaries could not possibly provide sufficient drinking water. Due to the inadequate supply of water and the difficulties related to hauling water on wagons from the Kentucky River, military officials at Camp Nelson ordered the construction of a steam-driven waterworks that pumped water from the Kentucky River up the palisades (470 feet) to a reservoir that held 500,000 gallons of water. The water was then distributed to various buildings throughout the camp with over 19,000 feet of lead pipes. Besides for drinking, the water delivered by the system of pipes was used as a protection and security against fire.
According to an inspection report of June 1864: “At or near each building in which stores and government property is kept there is a fire plug [hydrant], and each warehouse is supplied with one section of fire hose – fifty (50’) feet in length, with attachment screws at each end. – This hose is kept for the extinguishment of fire, should it occur, and for no other purpose. These buildings are under the care of watchmen specially employed for the purpose.” Unsurprisingly, given the wooden construction of all the buildings and the masses of supplies stored in many of them, the dangers of fire were an ever-present concern. With the elaborate fire suppression system at the camp, military officials clearly sought to have an effective means of fighting any fires that occurred and ensuring that damage was kept at a minimal.
It is greatly in the interest of the service to keep these shops in operation.
- Major Charles E. Compton, 47th US Colored Troops, June 23, 1864
As the transportation of supplies at Camp Nelson was dependent on horses, mules, and wagons, harness, wagon, shoeing, and blacksmith shops, collectively known as the Government Shops, were constructed to shoe the animals and to repair and replace harnesses and wagons. These shops employed wagon wrights, wheelwrights, harness makers, farriers, and blacksmiths.
US forces scattered throughout Kentucky, Tennessee, and other parts of the Western Theater brought unserviceable wagons, ambulances, harnesses, and other horse furnishings to Camp Nelson for repair. Units passing through the area traded worn-out items for serviceable replacements. The employees in the Government Ships inspected every item they received and salvaged what they could – hardware, wagon parts, leather goods, and canvas. Using salvaged and new parts, including lumber cut and milled at Camp Nelson, carpenters and craftsmen made and repaired wheeled vehicles, harnesses, bridles, and more. In May 1864 alone, over 7,400 items were repaired at the shops, including 1,100 wagons.
An 1864 inspection reported: “This depot is necessarily the receptacle of all the unserviceable means of transportation…from the forces scattered through the district, from the Army in Tennessee, and from Army now operating in Alabama…The character of these [repaired] articles are fully equal in all respects and in many superior to those purchased in the market of by contract and with a view to economy, to say nothing of the facility for the work.”
Besides the waterworks and Government Shops, other industrial facilities operated within Camp Nelson. These included a steam-powered sawmill and a steam-powered machine shop that provided finished lumber for buildings and wagons.
A Short Existence
A great change all about the camp since we marched through it a year ago. Then a rough pasture land, now for two miles or more the road on both sides is lines with extensive government store houses, recruit and wagon camps, hospital buildings, and tents.
- Sergeant Henry W. Tisdale, 35th Massachusetts Infantry, March 31, 1864
With all of the different buildings and services related to the logistics of war, Camp Nelson was a hub of activity during the Civil War, with large numbers of civilian employees working throughout the army base on daily basis. Between 1863 and 1865, Camp Nelson grew into a massive military installation that was essentially a city, at times larger than Lexington.
Camp Nelson did not survive long after the Civil War ended in May 1865. The War Department began the process of closing Camp Nelson later that year and into 1866, which included dismantling all the buildings and facilities built at the base. The destructiveness of a civil war spurred the creation of Camp Nelson, but the end of that conflict and the reunification of the nation in turn resulted in the destruction of the military base.
Camp Nelson may have been far from the battlefronts of the Civil War, but by supplying the Federal army with all the materials and services that an army needed to effectively operate in the field, it contributed to the United States’ ultimate victory in the conflict.
Last updated: January 28, 2023
6614 Old Danville Road Loop 2
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