Freedom and Hope at Camp Nelson National Monument

Katherine RivardNPF Blog
Historic black and white photo of vehicles and barracks at Camp Nelson National Monument
— National Park Service

The Bluegrass State is home to remarkable historical and scenic national parks, including Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area and Fort Donelson National Battlefield. In October of 2018, it added one more with the designation of Camp Nelson National Monument – the 418th site to join the National Park System.

Camp Nelson National Monument served as a major emancipation site and refugee camp during the Civil War. Thanks to a $76,000 grant from the National Park Foundation and the dedication of the American Battlefield Trust, this new park will continue to tell its stories of courage and determination while inviting visitors to reflect on the meaning and pursuit of freedom during the Civil War and beyond.

Becoming a Cradle of Freedom

Camp Nelson’s story begins in 1863 when it served as a supply depot, training ground, and hospital for the Union Army. At its largest, it covered 4,000 acres of land in Jessamine County, Kentucky and encompassed about 300 buildings and fortifications. The African-American regiments serving during the Civil War, known as the United States Colored Troops, relied on the camp as it grew to become their third-largest recruitment and training center. Eight African-American regiments were founded, and three more were trained at the camp.

Historic black and white photo of African American soldiers sitting on a big pile of planks of wood at Camp Nelson National Monument
National Park Service

Restrictions to enlistment were eliminated in June 1864 and most enslaved men who enlisted secured their emancipation. Unfortunately, not all who enlisted broke free from slavery; slaves legally held by Kentuckians who were not rebelling were unable to gain freedom at the time. Word of the camp’s offer of freedom and hope swelled, including families who began to grow a refugee community at the camp.

In November 1864, women and children were forced out of the camp and told to return to enslavement, as they were not enlisting and therefore were still bound to their slaveowners. Many died and public outcry ensured that in January 1865 a new refugee home was opened. The women and children may not have gained their freedom yet, but they were legally granted sanctuary.

Finally, in March 1865, the children, wives, and mothers of the troops were emancipated, and a few months later, the 13th Amendment was ratified. By the end of the war, over 10,000 African American men had enlisted and emancipated at the camp.

Learning the History of Freedom

Historic black and white image of a row of cannons and 4 soldiers sitting in front of a wooden building at Camp Nelson National Monument
National Park Service

Visitors today can first stop by the visitor center’s museum to take in its exhibits and a short film that will orient them to the park’s history. Post visitor center exploration, guided tours of the reconstructed barracks offer a better understanding of the daily life for the thousands of soldiers stationed at the camp. Another explores Oliver Perry’s “White House” and what life for civilians was like during the era.

Wrap up the visit by reflecting on the stories as you enjoy more than 5 miles of hiking trails through Kentucky’s rolling land. You’ll pass earthworks and fortifications, just as the soldiers did over a century ago.

During one of the darkest times in American history, Camp Nelson stood as a place of hope and freedom for thousands. African American soldiers risked their lives to travel to the camp in pursuit of the possibility of present and future freedom. Today, Camp Nelson National Monument interprets the difficult stories of the period and challenges visitors to consider the true meaning of freedom, its costs, and the nation’s struggle to define and share this ideal with all people.

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