Camp Nelson became the first national monument in Kentucky Saturday, as descendents of the black families who sought freedom at the Civil War supply depot and training ground looked on.
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke joined U.S. Rep. Andy Barr and Jessamine County Judge Executive David West to officially designate the site as a national monument, the first signed by President Donald Trump.
“Camp Nelson was a center for freedom,” West said. “Men women and children fled hundreds of miles to come to what they referred to as our Canada, their hope of emancipation. We can scarcely understand the extreme bravery that those men, those women exhibited as they packed their children and traveled under duress for hope of a better life.”
The park, which attracts about 15,000 visitors a year, was a training and recruiting ground for black troops to the Union Army during the Civil War and also served as a supply depot for major campaigns and helped rehabilitate horses and mules. It opened in 1863 and eventually held around 10,000 African-Americans.
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“Camp Nelson represented for a time the only avenue for Kentucky slaves to achieve their freedom,” Barr said. “And by the time the 13th Amendment was ratified and ended slavery in 1865, 70 percent of Kentucky slaves had already been emancipated, largely in part for the efforts made here at Camp Nelson.”
Zinke described Camp Nelson as a story of fighting for freedom in a state that was a slave state.
“The colored troops here had a choice,” Zinke said. “They showed grit, they showed determination, they showed what the country could be.”
One of those troops was Jesse Comasuell Tull from Missouri who came to Camp Nelson as a freeman when he was a teenager. Tull’s great-great-grandson, Rev. Robert P. Gates watched as a part of his history got national recognition.
“They came here because it was closer to freedom than to go to Canada,” Gates said. “...We are a reflection, or a descendant, of the work he did.”
Barr said his staff has been working on getting a national designation for Camp Nelson for the past five years. He had proposed two bills to get congress to declare Camp Nelson a national park, but neither made it out of the House of Representatives. Zinke then helped get the site named a national monument, which doesn’t require congressional approval.
“At a time in our country where there are divisions, this is the real story of America,” Barr said. “The story of America that can bring our country together.”
Barr is in a tough and divisive reelection bid against former Marine Corps pilot Amy McGrath in Central Kentucky’s Sixth Congressional District, which includes part of Jessamine County. But he said the timing of the announcement, less than two weeks until election day, wasn’t political.
“This has nothing to do with politics,” Barr said. “This is about the people here, and it’s about the story of Camp Nelson and about making it a story the whole nation can appreciate.”
Barr said the designation will bring in both tourists and federal funds for the site.
“It’s going to attract much more tourism to Kentucky, and it’s going to elevate the story to a national audience,” Barr said.
The National Park Service website lists Mammoth Cave as the only national park in the state. Cumberland Gap near Middlesboro and the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace in LaRue County are the only national historic sites.