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Initially established as a Union Army supply depot and hospital, Camp Nelson, located in Jessamine County, Kentucky, was a key site of emancipation for African American soldiers and a refugee camp for their families during the Civil War.
Camp Nelson was one of the largest Union Army recruitment centers for African American Union soldiers, then known as United States Colored Troops.
At the height of its use in 1865, Camp Nelson encompassed roughly 4,000 acres. The camp, which was organized around an 800-acre core, included more than 300 buildings and tents that housed a quartermaster commissary depot, ordnance depot, recruitment center, prison, and a hospital. Eight earthen forts or batteries, primarily constructed by enslaved labor, helped to protect the camp. The camp was also home to stables and corrals, a bakery, and a steam-driven waterworks that could pump water up 470 feet from the Kentucky River to a 50,000 gallon reservoir.
During the war, thousands of enslaved African Americans risked their lives escaping to Camp Nelson, out of a deep desire for freedom and the right of self-determination. Today, the site is one of the best-preserved landscapes and archeological sites associated with United States Colored Troops recruitment and the refugee experiences of African American slaves seeking freedom during the Civil War.
Between 1863 and 1865, Camp Nelson served as a bustling Union Army encampment, hospital, and supply depot. From it, the Union Army dispatched soldiers, horses, and other supplies to support military operations at the Cumberland Gap and the frontlines in Tennessee and Virginia. During this time, enslaved individuals sought to gain their freedom by fleeing to Camp Nelson and other Union military installations in Kentucky.
They placed their hope in places like Camp Nelson even though slavery was then legal in Kentucky.
The Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, to free slaves from bondage, applied only to jurisdictions in which the people were in rebellion against the United States. As a strategically important border State, Kentucky had remained loyal to the Union and, therefore, was not within the proclamation’s scope.
Kentucky was the last State in the Union to allow the enlistment of African American men. Beginning in April of 1864, however, the State allowed free African American men and enslaved men who had the express permission of their owners to enlist.
Notwithstanding these limited avenues to enlistment, hundreds of enslaved men risked their lives fleeing slavery and arrived at Camp Nelson during the spring of 1864, with the goal of enlisting in the Union Army in order to gain their freedom and to fight for the freedom of others.
Once all restrictions on enlistment were removed in June 1864, the number of African American enlistees exploded. These enlistees, who were formerly enslaved, were able to be emancipated through the act of enlistment in the Union army.
By the time the 13th Amendment was finally ratified on December 6, 1865, ending slavery throughout the United States, roughly 10,000 African American men had enlisted in the USCT and claimed their freedom at Camp Nelson.
Last year Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended that President Trump designate the site as a national monument, and Republicans had pushed for more than a year to establish a national monument at Camp Nelson. On Friday President Donald Trump used his executive powers for the first time to designate the historic site a national monument.
“Camp Nelson, and all the patriots who have ties to it, holds an incredible place in America’s history, and President Trump’s action to designate Camp Nelson as a national monument will ensure the ongoing protection of the site and the story,” Zinke said in a statement, adding that he thanked the president “for using the Antiquities Act as it was truly intended.”