Camp Nelson to celebrate status as a national historic landmark

gkocher1@herald-leader.comDecember 31, 2013 

Camp Nelson in Jessamine County, a Union recruiting center for black troops during the Civil War, on Saturday will celebrate its designation as a National Historic Landmark.

"It's the highest designation for a historic site recognized by the United States government that's not a national park," said Stephen McBride, director of interpretation and archaeology for Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park. "It's a recognition that the site is highly significant on a national level."

The designation is a necessary step toward Camp Nelson becoming a national park, which has been a goal of Jessamine County officials, McBride said.

Whether Camp Nelson will ever become a national park is uncertain, but the historic-landmark designation puts the site on a better footing to pursue that goal.

"Typically, a congressman introduces a feasibility study within the National Park Service, and they would say whether they thought it was feasible or not, and it would move on from there," McBride said.

U.S. Rep. Andy Barr will speak at the ceremony at 2 p.m. Saturday at Camp Nelson, six miles south of Nicholasville on U.S. 27. Bill Justice, superintendent of the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site in LaRue County, will represent the National Park Service. The ceremony is open to the public.

A bronze plaque will be unveiled Saturday and will go on the front of the Camp Nelson interpretive center, McBride said.

The designation covers the 525 acres of the Civil War Heritage Park, the original part of Camp Nelson National Cemetery within the borders of a stone wall, and parts of the Hall community on the western side of U.S. 27, McBride said.

Camp Nelson already is on the National Register of Historic Places. But fewer than 3 percent of the properties on the register are designated historic landmarks, said Mary Kozak, special projects director for Jessamine County.

The camp was established by an order of President Abraham Lincoln in June 1863. It was named for Maj. Gen. William "Bull" Nelson, who started the first Union recruitment camp at Camp Dick Robinson in Garrard County.

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 also was 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 later in the 1860s.

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.

McBride submitted the application for the latest designation to the National Park Service and to outside reviewers. Then, in November 2012, he gave a presentation to the National Historic Landmarks Review Board. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the designation in March 2013.

Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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