Scene of both valor and shame, Camp Nelson in Jessamine County merits national monument status, as Rep. Andy Barr and, as of last week, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have recommended.
It’s hard to celebrate, though, when national monuments sacred to Native Americans are at risk of losing protections because of actions by the Trump administration that Barr and other congressional Republicans support.
Zinke’s move to consider adding Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park and two other sites as national monuments is part of a larger plan in which he also recommends shrinking or stripping some protections from 10 existing monuments, including opening three marine sites to commercial fishing.
Zinke’s report came the day after President Donald Trump signed proclamations drastically shrinking two vast monuments in southeastern Utah — Bears Ears, home to thousands of archaeological sites and ancestral hunting and burial grounds, and Grand Staircase-Escalante, rich with fossils, including those of 21 dinosaur species discovered there.
Future generations will puzzle over how anti-government zeal blinded today’s leaders to the value of these precious landscapes, much as we recoil at the cruelty that met families of black soldiers at Camp Nelson during subfreezing cold in November 1864, the year that black men were first drafted in Kentucky and could win their freedom from slavery by enlisting in the United States Army.
Unprepared for the influx of women and children who came with the men, the commander of the Union military base ordered troops to expel the refugees and destroy their makeshift shelters. The New York Tribune reported that more that “400 helpless human beings — frail women and delicate children — having been driven from their homes by United States soldiers, are now lying in barns and mule sheds, wandering through woods, languishing on the highway and literally starving, for no other crime than their husbands and fathers having thrown aside the manacles of slavery to shoulder Union muskets.” More than 100 refugees died from exposure. Altogether about 1,300 people died after seeking refuge at Camp Nelson, according to The Kentucky Encyclopedia.
The resulting public outrage prompted Congress to free the enslaved wives and children of U.S. soldiers. A superintendent for refugees was appointed and housing built for more than 3,000 people, along with a school, hospital and lime kiln. The refugee camp survived as a vibrant black community, first called Ariel and later Hall, well into the 20th century.
The more than 24,000 slaves and free blacks who became soldiers at Camp Nelson made up nearly a third of all Union soldiers from Kentucky, which was second only to Louisiana in sending black soldiers to fight in Abe Lincoln’s army.
Granting national monument status to the civil war park near the Kentucky River would entail a change of ownership from Jessamine County to the federal government. It also would, as Barr said, inform more Americans “about the survival and persistence of African-American soldiers and their families as they fought for their freedom.”
Surely, we can all agree that this tribute to courage that resisted racism should not come at the expense of land held sacred by other American survivors of racial violence.