NICHOLASVILLE — Jessamine County has bought 101 acres to add to Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park, the historic site where black soldiers were recruited and trained to fight for the Union.
Owning the land next to the park might mean that federal authorities will look more favorably on efforts to make Camp Nelson a national park, Jessamine County Judge-Executive David West said.
"It's my understanding, in speaking with Congressman Andy Barr's staff, that there is some interest in making it a national park," West said. "Of course, that's a laborious process. But they wanted us to have one contiguous piece of property. Now we have that. This puts it all together."
Typically, a congressman initiates a feasibility study, and the National Park Service decides whether a site should become a national park. The process could take years.
The park, which draws 13,000 visitors a year, is off U.S. 27 about 6 miles south of Nicholasville. The newly acquired land brings the heritage park's total area to about 626 acres. Camp Nelson National Cemetery is next to but separate from the heritage park.
The county bought the land for $685,000 from Betty Jo Glass. The purchase, which was made July 17, includes the three-bedroom, brick house where Glass lives.
In March 1864, when the drafting of black men began, Camp Nelson became an important recruiting and training center for black soldiers.
As many as 10,000 black troops trained there. Eight regiments were founded at Camp Nelson and five others were stationed there, making it the third-largest such center in the nation.
Boyle County officials have talked about trying to get Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site into the national park system. Perryville was the site of a battle in October 1862 that was Kentucky's biggest conflict during the Civil War.
"Obviously, if Perryville was made into a national park and we weren't, we would still dovetail into one another," West said. "If somebody is here for the history, and they were visiting Perryville, I would think you would visit both sites. It's not a competition. It's cooperation."
West would like to see more hiking trails and picnic areas at Camp Nelson.
"We're not going to develop this property for a youth sports complex or anything like that. We want to preserve the historical integrity," West said.
But, he said, "If we're going to own this much property, I want us to get some use out of it."
An annual "Civil War Days," two days of exhibits and re-enactments — this year it's scheduled for Sept. 12 and 13 — brings in visitors, but West would like to see that event expanded "where we could get some heads in (motel) beds."
Camp Nelson was established by an order of President 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 as a result of a disagreement with another soldier.)
Camp Nelson 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.
The cemetery — south of what is now the heritage park — was expanded to become Camp Nelson National Cemetery in 1867. Veterans and their spouses are buried there to this day.