CommunitySpotlight Series


Spotlight on Nicholasville: The influence of African Americans at Camp Nelson

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Posted at 4:30 PM, Sep 05, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-05 19:37:23-04

NICHOLASVILLE, Ky. (LEX 18) — You are probably familiar with Camp Nelson National Cemetery, but how much do you know about the actual camp?

Its history and the community that was an outgrowth of it include significant contributions made by both free and enslaved African Americans.

Camp Nelson National Monument was established by the U.S. Army in the summer of 1863 as a massive military support installation during the Civil War. It stands as a tribute to that American legacy.

"The Army literally impressed enslaved people from multiple counties in central Kentucky to build fortifications to protect Camp Nelson and expand road systems in the area for the Army to move men and supplies," said Steve T. Phan, Chief of Interpretation and Education at Camp Nelson.

Phan says Camp Nelson is one of the largest recruitment centers for African American soldiers in the entire country during the Civil War. More than 10,000 African American men, mostly enslaved, escaped to the camp, some with family. They did it to fight for the union, to gain their freedom, and secure a future for their families.

"By enlisting into the U.S. military, African American men self-emancipated," said Phan. "This status, however, was not applied to their families, especially in a state like Kentucky which maintained the institution of slavery."

But, there was an even darker side, one that has been lost to time.

While there was a battle raging to preserve the union, that fight often left those seeking those freedoms, America offered its white citizens as refugees in what had become their land.

"They had no rights and could be expelled at a moment's notice," said Phan. "We know of seven expulsions that occurred where the army forcibly removed Black refugees. There are tragic stories that happened here because a lot of these refugees who were expelled were family members of Black soldiers and a lot of those enlisted did so with the promise that they could take care of their family as well."

Among the treasures hanging from the walls of the Camp Nelson museum is a newspaper article about the events of November 23, 1864. It painfully details when 400 refugees were expelled. It details the pleading by one soldier, yet ultimately forced removal, of his wife and children. They were moved by wagon in freezing conditions six miles away to what would later become Camp Nelson's "Home for Colored Refugees."

Today, it is called the Hall Community.

"That community we now call the Hall community endures today," said Phan. "There are people who still live there who are descendants of soldiers and refugees at Camp Nelson."

For those who still live here, it is a beckon of hope and promise.

During the expulsion, homes on Camp Nelson for African American refugees were systematically burned to the ground to ensure they didn't return.

But, a few weeks later, the Army reversed its policy and built the government-sponsored "Home for Colored Refugees."

By 1866, Camp Nelson was abandoned and dismantled as a whole by the U.S. Army, but the Hall Community remained.