In addition to recommending that several national monuments be shrunk so private business can exploit their public resources, President Donald Trump’s Interior secretary has raised the possibility of creating a few new monuments to recognize African American and Native American history.
Among them is the Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park, along the Kentucky River. Between 1863 and 1865, it became the third-largest recruiting and training center for black Union soldiers and a beacon for enslaved Kentuckians seeking freedom.
Frankly, I’m skeptical that Trump will act on Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s suggestion about Camp Nelson. This president refuses to categorically condemn racism and white supremacy for fear of alienating some in his political base.
But it is a good idea.
Camp Nelson is much more than a beautiful park with a National Cemetery. It is perhaps the most visible remaining symbol of the role black soldiers played in preserving the United States during the Civil War — and the contributions future generations would make to the Armed Services despite discrimination that lasted until after World War II.
Camp Nelson was created in June 1863 as a supply depot for an invasion to free pro-Union East Tennessee from Confederate control, according to a history compiled by Stephen McBride, the park’s historical archaeologist.
The camp was named for Gen. William “Bull” Nelson, a Kentuckian who died in 1862 after a fellow Union general, ironically named Jefferson Davis, shot him in a quarrel at Louisville’s old Galt House hotel. Nelson was big and blustery, but many thought his loyalty to the Union helped keep Kentucky from seceding.
The supply depot might have faded into obscurity had not escaped slaves begun seeking refuge there. The numbers increased after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation symbolically freed slaves in Confederate States (but not Kentucky). Many of them were put to work fortifying and improving the camp and building railroads for the Union Army.
Camp Nelson also became a recruiting and training center for Union soldiers from Kentucky and Confederate-controlled Tennessee. That role expanded significantly after February 1864, when Congress allowed slaves and free blacks to enlist.
Thousands of black men and their families poured into Camp Nelson. Service brought freedom for slaves, and compensation for slave owners if they had remained loyal to the Union. At its peak, the camp encompassed 4,000 acres and had 300 buildings.
Blacks were organized into regiments of U.S. Colored Troops, commanded by white officers. Eight regiments were formed at Camp Nelson, and three others trained there. McBride says that by the end of 1865, about 10,000 men had passed through Camp Nelson, including 40 percent of the black soldiers from Kentucky.
The Civil War officially ended in April 1865, and most black troops were mustered out of the Army by the end of that year. But the 114th and 116th U.S. Colored Infantry were sent to Texas after the war and not released until 1867, much to their displeasure.
While it may have been better than slavery, Camp Nelson was hardly the Promised Land. Enlisting soldiers often brought their families, and the camp became a makeshift refugee camp for other escaped slaves.
In November 1864, the camp commander expelled 400 refugees and destroyed their shacks. Many of them lacked adequate food, clothing and shelter and died of exposure, even after the order was reversed and some returned. The Kentucky Encyclopedia reports that of the 3060 refugees who entered the camp, about 1,300 died.
The Rev. John G. Fee, an abolitionist who founded Berea College, came to Camp Nelson as a missionary in July 1864 and helped start a school and a church that remained active there for decades.
The cemetery was created in 1863 and contains the graves of 1,600 Civil War soldiers, including 600 blacks. It was designated a National Cemetery in 1868 and 2,200 Civil War dead from several Kentucky battlefields were reburied there. The 30-acre cemetery now has more than 12,000 graves of military veterans and their eligible dependents.
Camp Nelson, now a 525-acre preserve owned by Jessamine County and run by a foundation, was declared a National Historic Landmark District in 2013. The Oliver Perry House, the only original remaining building, has been restored as a museum. Replica barracks were built in recent years as an interpretive and conference center.
Perhaps what is most remarkable about Camp Nelson is its setting, high a hill, surrounded by the river and a classic Kentucky landscape. It is a natural monument to freedom that should also become a national one.