This weekend's Civil War Days in southern Jessamine County will mark the 150th anniversary of the creation of Camp Nelson, a Union recruiting center for black troops during the war.
The camp was established by an order of President Abraham Lincoln in June 1863 on the high plateau above the Kentucky River. It was named for Maj. Gen. William "Bull" Nelson, who started the first Union recruitment camp at Camp Dick Robinson in Garrard County.
(Nelson never saw the camp named for him. He was shot and killed in September 1862 at the Galt House in Louisville following a disagreement with another soldier.)
In March 1864, when the enlistment of blacks began, Camp Nelson became an important recruiting and training center for black soldiers.
As many as 10,000 black troops trained there. Eight regiments of "U.S. Colored Troops," as the regiments were called, were founded at Camp Nelson, and five others were stationed there, making it the third largest such center in the nation.
It was also a supply depot and had a hospital. At its peak, Camp Nelson had 300 buildings.
After the war ended in 1865, the federal government sold most of the original 4,000-acre site, leaving only a camp for black refugees and a small cemetery. It was expanded to become Camp Nelson National Cemetery in 1867.
In the summer of 1868, 2,203 Union dead from Perryville, Richmond, Frankfort, London and Covington were reinterred at Camp Nelson National Cemetery. Veterans and their spouses continue to be buried there.
Today, the restored Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park draws 13,000 visitors a year — 2,000 for the two-day Civil War Days, said Mary Kozak, special projects director for Jessamine County. The entire Civil War Heritage Park covers 525 acres.
This year's Civil War Days commemoration begins at 9 a.m. Saturday and Sunday with cannon firing. An estimated 150 re-enactors from several states will converge on the camp to portray life as it was at the original site from 1863 to 1866 and to perform infantry, cavalry and artillery demonstrations.
A panel discussion will be held at 11 a.m. Sunday to discuss the meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Children can sign up for the "School of the Soldier" at 11 a.m. both days. The school will train "recruits" to perform drills in the infantry and artillery camps.
At 2 p.m. both days, a re-enactment based on events around Camp Nelson will deal with Confederate guerilla John Hunt Morgan's retreat from Cynthiana in 1864.
Some of Morgan's raiders came in the direction of Camp Nelson "but he realized how well protected the Camp was with the Palisades (the limestone cliffs of the Kentucky River) on three sides and the (earthen) fort on the other," Kozak said.
Civil War artifacts uncovered from the heritage site will be on display along with museum exhibits depicting life in the camp. Stephen McBride, the camp's director of archaeology and interpretation, will discuss artifacts found on the land at 3 p.m. each day. Participants will be able to see a dig and "get in the dirt," Kozak said.
Tours of the restored "White House," also known as the Oliver Perry House, which served as the officers' quarters, will be given both days. The barracks replica will also be available for tours, and there will be a walking tour on Saturday of a section of the northern line of fortifications.
IF YOU GO
Civil War Days
When: Starts at 9 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. Gates close at 5 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park on U.S. 27 six miles south of Nicholasville
Cost: A parking fee of $5 per carload will be charged.
Learn more: For more information call (859) 492-3115 or (859) 881-5716. Or visit Campnelson.org
Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @heraldleader