Jessamine County

Camp Nelson's designation as National Historic Landmark is celebrated; national park status to be pursued

Camp Nelson was designated a National Historic Landmark on Saturday January 4, 2014 in  Nicholasville ,Ky.  Photos by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Camp Nelson was designated a National Historic Landmark on Saturday January 4, 2014 in Nicholasville ,Ky. Photos by Mark Cornelison | Staff

NICHOLASVILLE — Army veteran Joe Williams said he often thinks about the sacrifices black soldiers who served at Camp Nelson in the Civil War made "to get our freedom the way it is now."

Those sacrifices led to historic changes for blacks in the military, and they also contributed to Camp Nelson's designation as a National Historic Landmark, which Williams and others celebrated Saturday.

In the coming months, Jessamine County officials hope to take the next steps to make the site a national park.

Mary Kozak, special projects director for Jessamine County, said Friday that it would cost an estimated $200,000 for the National Park Service to conduct a feasibility study on whether Camp Nelson should become a national park.

The restored Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park draws 13,000 visitors a year.

Typically, a congressman initiates the feasibility study, and the National Park Service decides whether a site should become a national park.

U.S. Rep. Andy Barr spoke at Saturday's celebration at Camp Nelson, a Union recruiting center for black troops during the Civil War.

Barr said after the ceremony that he had not yet talked to Jessamine leaders about the next step, but he said his staff would meet with stakeholders "to find out what more we can make of this place."

Camp Nelson was established 150 years ago as a directive from President Abraham Lincoln to serve a critical function in the Union war effort as a supply depot, recruitment center and hospital facility, a press release said. Camp Nelson was the nation's third-largest recruitment and training center for black troops, with 10,000 trained at the camp. Blacks who were enslaved gained freedom at Camp Nelson. A refugee camp was established to house the soldiers' families and to provide schooling and medical care.

Having a designation as a National Historic Landmark is the highest designation for a historic site recognized by the United States government that's not a national park, according to Stephen McBride, director of interpretation and archaeology for Camp Nelson. The designation is a necessary step toward Camp Nelson becoming a national park.

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.

Camp Nelson already is on the National Register of Historic Places, and it is one of about 30 sites in Kentucky that are National Historic Landmarks, Bill Justice, superintendent of the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site in LaRue County, said Saturday. Justice represented the National Park Service at the celebration.

McBride said he submitted the application for the National Historic Landmark designation to the National Park Service, citing the significant events of both the enlistment of black soldiers and the deaths of 102 soldiers' spouses and children who perished after their expulsion by the government from Camp Nelson. The deaths led to an act of Congress to emancipate the wives and children of black soldiers, McBride said.

After the Civil War ended, the federal government sold most of the original site, leaving only a camp for black refugees and a small cemetery. It was expanded to become Camp Nelson National Cemetery in the 1860s.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader