CAMP NELSON WORTH THE VISIT
A few months ago, the Lexington Herald-Leader ran a feature on a “bucket list” of places to go and things to do in Kentucky. It was an illuminating article, and reminded me that I often forget the many opportunities for enjoyment and education, all without leaving our own borders.
Recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time at Camp Nelson, and the Camp Nelson National Cemetery, through activities of the Kentucky Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission. These sites, located on U.S. 27 in southern Jessamine County just north of the Kentucky River, have quite a bit more to them than I had previously understood.
First, we attended an unveiling ceremony for an historical marker about Union General William “Bull” Nelson, for whom the cemetery and camp were named in 1863. I learned that among those pristine rows of white marble markers lie soldiers from Civil War battles at Perryville and Richmond, as well as from nearly every other major action by the United States since that time.
Among those at Camp Nelson National Cemetery is Pvt. William Harris, who was killed on June 25, 1876, while serving with Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Pvt. Harris was posthumously decorated with the Medal of Honor for his actions in that battle.
About four tenths of a mile north of the Cemetery is the Camp Nelson Heritage Park. This is a separate and distinct entity regarding the history of the large supply depot, and later recruitment center, located on this site. While it may not be as flashy as a battlefield, Camp Nelson is a significant location in understanding how the real people who lived through the Civil War functioned.
Camp Nelson was originally established as a forward supply base for Union Army of the Ohio campaigns into east Tennessee and further south. Munitions and rations were shipped and stored there in large numbers of warehouses. Perhaps more importantly, Camp Nelson housed facilities for building and repairing wagons and harness, and was one of the few locations used for rehabilitation of war-weary horses and mules.
Later in the War, Camp Nelson became an enlistment base for black soldiers to join the Union Army. The “United States Colored Troops” made famous by the movie “Glory” and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, enlisted some 10,000 men at Camp Nelson. Some of the USCT even came after the War was over, but before the 13th Amendment was passed, because enlistment had the added benefit of emancipation.
The stories of the black soldiers who came to Camp Nelson, and their families who often trailed along as “refugees,” are compelling, but largely unknown to the public at large. It is incredibly moving to read and hear their statements of preference for Army discipline and hard life, over the bonds of slavery, and their joyous proclamations once they had enlisted. And, it is painful to hear how the U.S. government treated the “refugees” even as their husbands and fathers enlisted and served.
Few of the hundreds of buildings that comprised Camp Nelson remain; once the War was over, they were torn down and the lumber sold as surplus. The Heritage Park, however, has a good interpretive center and film, some buildings from the period or before, several gently rolling trails to experience, and can also serve as a place for family outings and recreation.
I know I’m a history “nut”, but I do think the story of Camp Nelson should speak to all of us in terms of how precious is our freedom. The National Cemetery is a beautiful place with the rows of marble grave markers on the rolling Kentucky hillsides. There is much to be said for this reminder of how many men and women have paid the ultimate sacrifice for the rest of us Americans.
Bottom line, Camp Nelson National Cemetery, and the Camp Nelson Heritage Park, are an easy drive from Scott County, and are significant places in the history of both Kentucky and the United States. Some day you are looking for something worthwhile to do, keep them in mind.
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