Early in 1863, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside became the Commander of the new Army of the Ohio. He was ordered to invade East Tennessee. Since Burnside’s headquarters was in Cincinnati, Ohio, he needed a closer supply depot constructed that could supply the army during their campaign. Burnside tasked his engineers with finding a suitable location in Central Ky. They had to construct a very large, fortified supply depot. The depot had to be strategically placed close to a large water source and had to have an environment that would help with the defense of the fort. They found just such a place a few miles south of a small town called Nicholasville. The area had the Kentucky River meandering through the rolling hills which would supply plenty of water as well as being a waterway in which supply boats could come down. The river palisades provided a natural defensive barrier to any possible attack from the south. The area had plenty of timber and tons of limestone rock to use for building materials.
An engineering marvel was constructed at Camp Nelson. The engineers needed to find a way to bring water up from the Kentucky River to the hospital and other buildings at the camp. The engineers constructed a pump house on the river which would pipe water up to a 500,000 gallon reservoir. The water was then piped to the various buildings in the camp. Thousands of feet of pipe were laid to bring the water from the reservoir to the camp. Camp Nelson actually had indoor plumbing in the camp due to this incredible engineering feat. This was a very uncommon thing to have in those days.
Camp Nelson was the largest recruiting, mustering, and training center for African American troops in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. It was also one of the largest centers in the United States. Kentucky did not officially secede. As a result, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free the slaves in the Commonwealth. Thousands of slaves entered Camp Nelson as runaways or laborers.
There were over 20,000 African American males freed through enlistment in the military. In March of 1865, a congressional act granted freedom to their wives and children. The camp housed the families of the African American troops. This refugee camp known originally as Ariel, eventually became the Hall community which is still in existence today.
The Union army depended heavily on Camp Nelson to supply the Army of the Ohio with troops, supplies, livestock, and last but not least, mules. Mules were used to transport supplies and weaponry for the campaigns in Kentucky, Alabama, and Tennessee. Mules were used in various other campaigns throughout the war. They were very valuable to the war effort for the Union army. How did the Union army get their mountain howitzers and other cannons across the mountains of Tennessee? They used mules. They would dismantle the cannons and put them on the backs of the mules. The mules would carry the cannons across to the other side of the mountain and then the crews would reassemble them. They were then ready to move on to the next battle. Without the mules, it would have been very difficult to transport all of the weapons to the battlefields. Valuable time would have been lost as the army found a way around the mountains or carried them by hand across them. Thousands of mules and horses were supplied by Camp Nelson. There was also an infirmary for wounded horses. These valuable assets had to be well taken care of and Camp Nelson was just the place for it.
During the fall of 1863, Camp Nelson housed the troops of the 23 Corps. This battle group was comprised of soldiers from Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana. The Commander was Brigadier General Speed S. Fry. General Fry was well-known for his harassment and disdain for the black refugees in the camp. He even expelled some black refugees from the camp. During one expulsion, many black refugees tried to make their way to the town of Nicholasville during a very bad snowstorm. It was reported that more than one hundred of these refugees froze to death before they could complete the 4 – 5 mile trip to the town. This was a very dark period during the camp’s existence.
Camp Nelson had a Chief Quartermaster named Captain Theron E. Hall. Captain Hall was very sympathetic to the wives and children of the black enlistees. He had barracks constructed to house the refugees Hall called Fry’s expulsion order an “outrage.” He wrote that the “weather at the time was intensely cold, summary expulsion…would occasion untold suffering.” When the captain arrived at camp, most of the freed slaves had already been forced out. Captain Hall wrote to colleagues and superiors to try to reverse the order. He felt that urgent action was needed because he said that the scattered freed people were “literally starving to death.” Hall sought out the expelled blacks and found them “sitting by the roadside and wandering about the fields.” He reported that “some have died and all are in a starving condition.” Another Union officer at Lexington Kentucky confirmed Hall’s assessment when he telegraphed that “Colored women and Children…are coming here where there is no shelter for them. They are suffering…”
Captain Hall’s defiance of General Fry won a reversal of the order by Fry’s superior. Major General Burbage directed Camp Nelson to readmit the former slaves and he placed Captain Hall in charge of seeing to their welfare. The displaced families began to return to Camp Nelson. This should have been the end of the story but a few days later Captain Hall telegraphed Major General Burbage that he had shown Fry his orders to take charge of protecting the refugees, but that “Fry does not seem disposed to recognize me at all.” Hall reported that in spite of Burbage’s orders to the contrary, “The guards have positive order not to admit the colored women into Camp. They are turned back at all points along the fortifications.” Fortunately, one of President Lincoln’s closest military advisors, Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, was in Lexington, Kentucky. The tireless Hall went there and was able to speak to him personally. Thomas sent a damning order to Fry the same day:
“I understand that you have sent helpless women and children [out of] your lines and that you refuse to receive those who present themselves. It is ordered that you receive all who come and that you take back all you have sent out.”
The camp had an abolitionist named Reverend John G. Fee as their missionary. He believed in the equality of the races. After the war, Reverend Fee founded Ariel College within the camp and Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. Berea College became one of the first integrated schools in the south. Most people do not know that there was a college at what would end up being the Hall Community in S.W. Jessamine County.
There were a few mini forts that were strategically placed around Camp Nelson. One of these was Fort Bramlett. This fort was constructed above the Kentucky River near one of the palisades. Jessamine Creek meanders to the river dividing the palisades. The fort was high above the confluence of Jessamine Creek and the Kentucky River. The area of the fort can be seen as you drive across the US 27 Camp Nelson bridge. If you are driving north on US 27, the fort and its gun emplacements would be located near the palisades on the right hand side. The wooden structures and guns are long gone, but the foundations remain. During the civil war, there were cannons lined up in the gun emplacements ready to fire at any confederate gunboats that may have tried to come up the river. The fort foundations are on private property and are posted as no trespassing.
In 1866, most of Camp Nelson’s buildings were dismantled as they were no longer needed. The only building that has stood the test of time is the Oliver Perry House or “White House”. This building is located on US 27. The building housed the quartermaster and commissary offices. The Jessamine County Fiscal Court recently renovated the building. The building is in excellent shape and looks exactly as it did during the 1860’s. There are tours of the building as well as walking tours of the grounds and earthen forts. There is also a museum behind the White House that has static displays of life in the 1860’s at Camp Nelson. There are also many artifacts on display. Many additions have been made to the area that will no doubt intrigue the history buff in all of us.
The Camp Nelson National Cemetery was begun in 1863. This cemetery contains the remains of several hundred Camp Nelson soldiers. Many of these were the African American soldiers who had enlisted in the Union army at Camp Nelson to fight for their country. In 1868, the cemetery was officially designated as a national cemetery. After it became a national cemetery, over 2000 civil war dead from Perryville, Richmond, and other battlefields were reburied there. Today, there are thousands of veterans from the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Persian Gulf War, Iraq War, and the Afghanistan War buried there. There have been a lot of renovations made to this proud national cemetery during the last couple of years such as new gates, driveways, committal shelter, and others.