[graphic header] National Register of Historic Places African American History Month

Two images of Camp Nelson today -- one showing archeological excavation and a second image of the Oliver Perry House or "White House"
Photographs from the National Register collection

Camp Nelson:
Nicholasville, Kentucky
Camp Nelson was a large Union quartermaster and commissary depot, recruitment and training center, and hospital facility established during the Civil War in June 1863. After March 1864, Camp Nelson became Kentucky's largest recruitment and training center for black troops, designated United States Colored Troops (USCT). As a non-seceding state, Kentucky's slaves were not freed through the Emancipation Proclamation. Prior to the recruitment of African Americans, slaves entered Union bases as runaways and impressed laborers. More than 20,000 male African Americans were legally freed through enlistment in the United States military, and a March 1865 Congressional Act extended freedom to their wives and children. By the time the 13th Amendment was passed in December 1865, an estimated 70 percent of Kentucky's slaves were already freed through military participation or other Federal measures. In all, 23,703 Kentucky African Americans served in the Union Army, the second greatest number of black soldiers from any state.

[photo] Series of historic images of Camp Nelson and the refugee camp including an overall views of Camp Nelson; view of the government shops; the "White House"; a streetscene from the refugee camp; and the students and teachers of the refugee camp -- all c.1865
Photographs from the National Register collection, courtesy of National Archives

At Camp Nelson, soldiers were housed in various tents and barracks across camp and, toward the end of the camp's existence, in a multitude of buildings, including the hospital wards, the soldiers' home, and the recruiting rendezvous. About 40 percent of Kentucky's USCT passed through Camp Nelson by the end of 1865. Kentucky's USCT fought in a number of battles and skirmishes in Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky and performed garrison duty at numerous strategic points in Kentucky.

Camp Nelson eventually became a refugee camp for the soldiers' wives and children. Soldiers brought their families with them when they enlisted at the camp. Their protection and aid at Camp Nelson was debated until December 1864 when the Army established the "Home for Colored Refugees" in the southwestern corner of the camp. Teachers and missionaries were sent by the American Missionary Association (AMA) to educate the refugees, and doctors and nurses were provided by the U.S. Army. The refugee camp eventually contained 97 duplex cottages in three rows, a school, mess hall, hospital, reception ward, commissary, store rooms, barracks, laundry, lime kiln, offices, surgeons' and teachers' lodgings, and a private sutler's establishment (a follower of an army camp who peddled provisions to the soldiers). The refugee camp was built to house, feed and educate the families of the USCT and at some points housed more than 3,000 people.

Following the June 1866 closure of Camp Nelson, the refugee camp school and other buildings were purchased by the Freedman's Bureau and administered by the AMA. The cottages continued to be lived in by the same families. The longest term missionary to the camp, Rev. John G. Fee later bought 130 acres, including the refugee camp, and sold or leased lots back to the residents. This area became the community of Ariel, now known as Hall.

Almost all of Camp Nelson's buildings were dismantled and taken away in 1866 or soon after. Many of these camp building were intended to be temporary structures, and the only standing building from the Civil War era is the Oliver Perry House or "White House," which housed the Quartermaster and Commissary offices, and was recently renovated by the Jessamine County Fiscal Court. The area still retains rich archeological evidence, in addition to several earthen forts and other original landscape features that convey an appearance similar to the Civil War encampment. The Camp Nelson National Cemetery and a cemetery established for the refugee camp also remain.


African American Feature Page | Camp Nelson | Fox Lake | NR Home

Comments or Questions