New play recalls expulsion of African-Americans from Camp Nelson

'trumpet' Tells story of black union soldiers, their banished families

gkocher@herald-leader.comMay 31, 2010 

  • If you go

    Blow Ye the Trumpet, Blow! will be performed at 7 p.m. June 5 and 6 at Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park.

    The park is off U.S. 27 about 6 miles south of Nicholasville and just north of Camp Nelson National Cemetery.

    Admission is $15 for show and dinner. The dinner will feature "a sampling" of food from the Civil War era, such as beef with carmelized onions, summer salad, vegetables of the season and bread pudding.

    There will also be a cannon firing.

    For tickets, go to or call the Bluegrass Arts Association at (859) 881-8247.

CAMP NELSON — One of the more painful episodes of Kentucky's Civil War history is the subject of a new play.

Set in 1864, Blow Ye the Trumpet, Blow! tells the story of how 400 African-American women and children were ordered out of Camp Nelson, the Army camp in southern Jessamine County where their husbands and fathers were trained as Union soldiers.

The two-act play, to be performed June 5 and 6 at Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park, is the first dramatization of the expulsion. The story is told through the family of Pvt. Joseph Miller, a soldier who wrote a first-person account of how his family was driven out.

Lonnie Brown of Louisville, a teacher and ex-Marine, said it is a "humbling experience" to portray Miller, who is buried at Camp Nelson National Cemetery just south of the Civil War park.

"With Memorial Day coming up, and having served in the military myself, to be able to tell this soldier's story is very important to me as an American, important to me as a Kentuckian, important to me as an African-American," Brown said. "To give this soldier a voice, so to speak, it's really heartwarming."

The play was written by Donna Phillips of Harrodsburg and Georgie Riddell of Nicholasville, two women who work at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Mercer County.

Together, they wrote a mystery called Murder at Shakertown. Separately, Riddell has written children's stories, while Phillips wrote a play about an African-American district in Louisville where her family lived.

The two were enlisted to write the play by Mary Kozak, special projects coordinator for Jessamine County, and Teg Evans, director of the Bluegrass Performing and Visual Arts Association, which has staged various productions in Nicholasville. Phillips said she felt an immediate emotional connection to the story.

"It's part of Kentucky history that unfortunately has been underserved," Phillips said. "These were men and women who were considered less than human, yet they were willing to put their lives on the line to fight for this nation. And I think they're heroes and that their story should be part of our American story."

When the drafting of blacks began in Kentucky in March 1864, Camp Nelson became the most important recruiting station and training camp for African-Americans in Kentucky, and the third largest in the country.

As the number of soldiers grew, so did the number of refugees from slavery. Because Kentucky was a slaveholding state, Camp Nelson was not a legal refuge for the dependents of black soldiers who had been slaves, according to The Kentucky Encyclopedia.

In Miller's case, he had been a slave in Lincoln County before joining the army at Camp Nelson. His wife and four children came with him "because my master said that if I enlisted, he would not maintain them, and I knew they would be abused by him when I left," according to the affidavit Miller gave to federal authorities.

In November 1864, 400 women and children were ordered from the camp. Undernourished and ill-clad for the sub-freezing weather, many died of exposure.

Miller protested the expulsion and told a mounted guard "that my wife and children had no place to go, and I told him that I was a soldier of the United States. He told me that it did not make any difference, he had orders to take all out of Camp. He told my wife and family that if they did not get up into the wagon ... he would shoot the last one of them."

Miller would later find his family 6 miles north in Nicholasville, "shivering with cold and famished with hunger."

The expulsion order was later reversed, and some refugees returned to camp, but 102 died within a few weeks.

In the play, Miller's family are the central characters used to tell what camp life was like for refugees. The audience hears their hopes and dreams as well as the mundane aspects, such as making a meal from turnips.

"It's not all doom and gloom from the beginning," Phillips said. "In fact, there are many moments of levity, and the tragedy slowly unfolds."

The play also uses spirituals, slave songs and hymns from the period. The play's title comes from a 1750 hymn by Charles Wesley.

Phillips, Riddell and Brown as well as other cast members all visited Miller's grave. He is buried on the eastern edge of the national cemetery, along with more than 800 other "U.S. Colored Troops."

"It is the most humbling experience to stand there in front of that small white headstone knowing what this man endured," Riddell said.

"It's tragic that it happened," she added. "It's even more tragic for someone to know this story and not want to tell it. Things that we need to know aren't always what we want to hear."

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