The US Army established Camp Nelson as part of the Department of the Ohio on April 29, 1863. The reorganized department was vast and consisted of the states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and the part of Kentucky east of the Tennessee River. Major General Ambrose E. Burnside was placed in command a month earlier on March 25. He was accompanied by two divisions of the Ninth Corps. The War Department authorized the organization of the Twenty-third Corps that consisted of all troops in Kentucky "not belonging to the Ninth Army Corps." Major General George L. Hartsuff, a battle-scarred veteran, was assigned command.
Burnside designated his new two corps force as the Army of the Ohio.
Major General Ambrose E. Burnside
In accordance with instructions from the General-in-Chief, the undersigned hereby assumes command of the Department of the Ohio.
General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck issued orders placing General Burnside in command of the department on March 16, 1863. He formally assumed command from his temporary headquarters at Cincinnati, Ohio, on March 25th.
Early Life and Military Career
Ambrose Everett Burnside was born in Liberty, Indiana, on March 23, 1824, the fourth of nine children. He was apprenticed to a local tailor after the death of his mother in 1841, but left civilian life to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1843. He graduated in 1847, ranking in the middle of his class, and was assigned duty with the artillery branch. Burnside did not see any action during the Mexican-American War as his unit performed garrison duty. Following the war, Burnside served in the newly acquired Western Territories before resigning from the army in 1853.Burnside's post-military career included the development of a firearm, the Burnside Carbine, that was later carried by US Cavalry regiments during the Civil War, and an unsuccessful campaign for a Congress from the state of Rhode Island in 1858. He was employed as the treasurer of the Illinois Central Railroad when war erupted in 1861.
At the outbreak of the war, Burnside was commissioned a colonel in the Rhode Island Militia where he recruited and commanded the 1st Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He led a brigade at the First Battle of Bull Run [Manassas] in July 1861, and was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers on August 6th.
Burnside's star rose quickly after his success as an independent commander with joint Navy-Army operations along the North Carolina coast from September 1861-March 1862. He was promoted to major general of volunteers on March 18, 1862 and commanded the Ninth Corps in the Army of the Potomac.
During the Maryland Campaign in September 1862, Burnside's performance was underwhelming, especially at the Battle of Antietam on September 17th, but he still held the confidence of President Abraham Lincoln and the War Department. Following the dismissal of Major General George B. McClellan, Burnside was promoted to command of the Army of the Potomac on November 7, 1862.Burnside’s tenure as army command was brief, culminating in the disastrous US Army defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia, December 11-15, 1862. His star was further diminished with the subsequent Mud March in January 1863. These setbacks, combined with infighting among the army's senior officer corps proved too much for Burnside to overcome. He tendered his resignation from the Army of the Potomac which was accepted by Lincoln on January 26, 1863.
Redemption in the Western Theatre
Burnside was appointed to command the newly reorganized Department of the Ohio in March 1863, encompassing Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and the part of Kentucky east of the Tennessee River. His duties were complicated and immense, and he lacked the necessary troops to manage the large department.
He was tasked with three major objectives: forming a protective barrier against Confederate raids into southern and central Kentucky; recruiting troops; and organizing an offensive to liberate East Tennessee in coordination with the Army of the Cumberland’s movement into southern Tennessee and toward Chattanooga. It was a massive undertaking. A movement into barren East Tennessee required thousands of draft animals and tons of supplies.
A camp of instruction and forward-operating supply depot was required. On April 26, 1863, General Burnside issued Special Orders No. 141. Major James H. Simpson, Chief Engineer, and Captain John H. Dickerson, Chief Quartermaster, who were instructed to “proceed to some point in Kentucky beyond Nicholasville, for the purpose of selecting a site for a depot of military supplies for the troops operating in that vicinity.” A site was selected on defensible ground between a bend of the Kentucky River and Hickman Creek a few miles south of Nicholasville, Kentucky along the Lexington-Danville Pike: Camp Nelson.
East Tennessee or Bust
General Burnside arrived at Camp Nelson on August 11, 1863. He was joined by the newly reorganized Army of the Ohio, consisting of the Ninth and Twenty-third Corps. The army massed supplies, forage, and animals at Camp Nelson for their arduous offensive. With Burnside at the front, the army marched out of the camp on August 14th and traveled south along the Lexington-Danville toward Cumberland Gap and East Tennessee. Their main objective: Knoxville.
The Army of the Ohio's campaign proved a major success. It successfully captured Knoxville and liberated the Unionists population on September 3, 1863. A Confederate Army under General James Longstreet attempted to retake the area by laying siege to Knoxville in December 1863. Burnside's soldiers successfully defended their positions and the siege was lifted with the timely arrival of reinforcements. The US Army maintained control of East Tennessee for the remainder of the war.
The East Tennessee Campaign proved to be General Burnside's redemption. His successful defense of Knoxville came a year after the US Army's demoralizing defeat at Fredericksburg. In Spring 1864, Burnside and the Ninth Corps were transferred back to the East to serve under Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant as part of the army's grand Overland Campaign. The campaigns to capture Richmond and Petersburg in Virginia proved the be final acts in Ambrose Burnside's tragic military career.
The General Commanding orders that all negro women and children, old and infirm, negro men unfit for any military duty who have voluntarily come into camp, be at once sent beyond the lines with instructions not to return. - Brigadier General Speed S. Fry, Camp Nelson, August 9, 1864
The US Army began enlisting African American soldiers for military service in Kentucky starting in June-July 1864. Over 10,000 enslaved Black men self-emancipated by joining the United States Colored Troops [USCT] at Camp Nelson--the largest recruitment center in the state. The soldiers were joined by their families, especially women and children, who also desired to escape the chains of enslavement.
It was a native Kentuckian and Mexican War veteran, Brigadier General Speed S. Fry, who issued multiple expulsion orders that directed US Army soldiers to forcibly remove Black refugees, including family members of USCT soldiers, from Camp Nelson in 1864. As a result, an unknown number were re-enslaved, imprisioned, and died of illness or exposure.
Who was General Fry?
Early Life and Military Career
Speed Smith Fry born in Boyle County near Danville, Kentucky in 1817. He pursued a law degree at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana and later served as a captain of the 2nd Kentucky Volunteer Regiment during the Mexican-American War. He returned to the Bluegrass State after the war and was appointed a judge for Mercer County, serving from 1857-61.
At the outbreak of war in 1861, Fry was appointed colonel of the 4th Kentucky Infantry attached to the US Army of the Ohio. He organized and recruited the regiment at Camp Dick Robinson, located approximately 10-miles south of the Kentucky River and the site of a future army base: Camp Nelson.
Fry's first action came at the Battle of Mill Springs on January 19, 1862. During the engagement, Confederate General Felix Zollicoffer accidentally rode into the US Army lines thinking they were Confederate troops, to order them to stop firing on friendly forces. An aide to Zollicoffer fired a shot to warn the General of his mistake. According to some, it was Colonel Fry who personally aimed and fired his pistol at Zollicoffer, who fell dead. Fry never took credit for killing the general, but the Confederate authorities believed he did, and accused Fry of outright murder.
In summer 1863, Fry took command of Camp Nelson, the Army of the Ohio's massive supply and forward-operating base located south of Nicholasville, Kentucky on the Lexington-Danville Turnpike [ US-27]. His first major task was to oversee the impressment of enslaved African Americans to expand the road system in Central Kentucky and construct the Defenses of Camp Nelson. Hundreds were impressed from 14 counties of the surrounding counties and detailed for the work projects. Many returned in 1864 to enlist as soldiers.
The US Army issued General Orders No. 20 on July 13, 1864 that authorized the recruitment "of colored troops in the state of Kentucky as rapidly as possible." Fry was part of the army's efforts to organized and recruit 8 United States Colored Troop regiments at the Camp Nelson.
He served capably to organize a defense of the camp when it was threatened by Confederate forces under General John Hunt Morgan in 1863 and 1864.
Fry's Expulsion of Black Refugees
After the army's successful offensive to capture and liberate East Tennessee in August 1863, Camp Nelson evolved to become a recruiting camp for United States Colored Troops (USCT) and refugee camp for enslaved people the following summer. The influx of African Americans, especially refugees, produced a humanitarian crisis for Fry and the US Army at the camp. He feared that starvation and disease would sweep through the camp if he allowed the refugees to remain.
On November 23, 1864, Fry issued his infamous "Impulsion Order" that forcibly expelled over 400 Black refugees from the camp during the midst of a winter storm. The order was quickly rescinded by Fry's supervisor, Brevet Major General Stephen G. Burbridge, commanding the Military District of Kentucky, but the order had devastating consequences. Of the 400 refugees expelled, 250 returned to Camp Nelson. Of that number, 106 died of exposure and illness in the coming weeks.
Fry was temporarily relieved of duty exactly one week after the order, but was reinstated as commandant on December 4. At the time of The Expulsion, there was no Federal policy that addressed the status of enslaved African Americans who sought refuge with the US Army in the Border States. However, Fry understood that many of the refugees were family members of US Colored Troops who enlisted at Camp Nelson. His expulsion orders were harshly criticized by both his superiors and subordinates, including Burbridge, who wrote to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that, "Many of them are the wives and children of our colored troops. There will be much suffering among them this winter, unless shelters are built and rations issued to them. For the sake of humanity, I hope you will issue the proper order in this case as soon as possible."
War and Peace
Fry remained in the US Army before mustering out of service on August 24, 1865. Although he was not officially reprimanded for issuing the expulsion orders that resulted in the deaths of 102 Black refugees in November 1864, Fry was not awarded the brevet rank of major general of volunteers for his Civil War service, an honor bestowed to nearly every officer of comparable rank and time in grade. While Fry's personal courage on the battlefield was not questioned by his superiors and soldiers, his vindictive and cruel treatment of Black refugees who attempted to self-emancipate at Camp Nelson marred his service to the United States.
He returned to civilian life following the war. In 1866, Fry ran for Congress as a Republican for Kentucky's 7th Congressional District but was defeated by Democrat George Shanklin. A Kentucky newspaper described Fry as the "Abolition Candidate" due to his allegiance with the Republican Party. Fry's treatment of Black refugees at Camp Nelson demonstrated that he was anything but sympathetic to emancipation. He later served as the supervisor of internal revenue for the state. At the time of his death on August 1, 1892, Fry served as the Superintendent of the Old Soldiers' Home in Louisville. He is buried at Bellevue Cemetery near his hometown of Danville, Kentucky.