Civil War Wiki
Camp Nelson
U.S. National Register of Historic Places
U.S. Historic District
Location: Jessamine County, Kentucky, USA
Nearest city: Nicholasville, Kentucky
Coordinates: 37°47′16″N 84°35′53″W / 37.78778°N 84.59806°W / 37.78778; -84.59806Coordinates: 37°47′16″N 84°35′53″W / 37.78778°N 84.59806°W / 37.78778; -84.59806
Architect: U.S. Army of the Ohio Eng. Corps; Simpson, Lt.Col. J.H.
Architectural style(s): Greek Revival
Governing body: Jessamine County (Kentucky) Fiscal Court
Added to NRHP: March 15, 2001
NRHP Reference#: 00000861


The Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park is a 525-acre (2.12 km2) historical museum and park located in southern Jessamine County, Kentucky, 20 miles (32 km) south of Lexington, Kentucky. It was established in 1863 as a depot for the Union army during the Civil War and became a recruiting ground for new soldiers from eastern Tennessee and escaped slaves, many of whom trained to be soldiers.[2]

Early history[]

Camp Nelson was established as a supply depot for Union invasions into Tennessee. It was named for Major General William "Bull" Nelson, who had recently been murdered.[3] It was placed near Hickman Bridge, the only bridge across the Kentucky River above the state capital (Frankfort, Kentucky). The site was selected to protect the bridge, to have a base of operations in central Kentucky, and to prepare to attack the Cumberland Gap and eastern Tennessee. The camp was also to train new soldiers for the Union army. The Kentucky River's steep palisades contributed to the selection of the site -- they would help defend the camp from Confederate attack.[4]

File:Camp Nelson landscape.JPG

Landscape of Camp Nelson

Camp Nelson may have been the best choice for a central Kentucky depot, but it was inadequate. When Union Major General Ambrose Burnside attacked the Cumberland Gap and Knoxville, Tennessee, Camp Nelson's distance from the Gap and Knoxville, combined with lack of railroads and the weather, hampered the Union advance.[5] When overall Union commander Ulysses S. Grant visited Camp Nelson in January 1864, he was displeased, observing that "no portion of our supplies can be hauled by teams from Camp Nelson". The situation of the camp had not improved by spring of 1864, and Grant leaned towards abandoning it entirely. William Tecumseh Sherman advocated that its role be diminished instead, which saved Camp Nelson as it gave the camp time to establish itself for its role of training black soldiers.[6]

In July of 1863 and June of 1864 it was feared that Confederate general John Hunt Morgan would attack the camp. However, in 1863 Morgan was headed for Indiana and Ohio in his most famous raid. It was never confirmed whether he intended to attack the camp in 1864.[7]

Black history[]

File:Camp Nelson cabin display.JPG

Replica of a refugee shanty used at Camp Nelson

In August 1863 thousands of slaves forced to build railroads for the Union army were stationed at Camp Nelson.[3] Called "contrabands", these former slaves, at least 3,000 in number, were the primary builders of Camp Nelson starting with fortifying Hickman Bridge on May 19, 1863. This impressment mean that Kentucky would not see its first black enlistment until 1864, while the other border states saw it in October 1863.[8]

At Camp Nelson 10,000 blacks were given emancipation from slavery in exchange for service in the Union army. These soldiers sometimes brought their families to Camp Nelson; such "refugees" totaled 3,060 and were cared for by missionaries. At one point, in November 1864, Camp Nelson was not a legal place of refuge for slaves, forcing 400 women and children to leave the camp at Union army gunpoint; the refugees suffered 102[3] deaths due to weather until brought back to camp. Even then, 1,300 refugees died during Camp Nelson's existence.[3] Camp Nelson was the smallest of the three locations where blacks were trained to become Union soldiers; the others were in Boston, Massachusetts, and New Orleans, Louisiana. Camp Nelson is the only one whose land was never developed.[9]

The largest number of black recruits came between June and October of 1864, with 322 men enlisting on a single day on July 25. After that, the rest of 1864 saw only 20 new recruits, with January seeing only 15 and the period between February to April seeing only six.[10] Among the companies raised at Camp Nelson were the 5th and 6th U.S. Colored cavalries and the 114th and 116th Colored artillery.[3]

After the war, Camp Nelson was a center for giving ex-slaves their emancipation papers, causing many ex-slaves to consider the camp as their "cradle of freedom".[3]


File:Camp Nelson Interpretive Center.JPG

Interpretive Center

Presently, 525 acres (2.12 km2) of the original property are preserved as the Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park. Most of the buildings at the camp were sold.[11]

Camp Nelson is currently controlled by the Jessamine County Fiscal Court. There are efforts to turn control of Camp Nelson to the National Park Service. These efforts were aided once Camp Nelson became part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, and U.S. Representative Ben Chandler is considering funding to see if such a transfer is feasible.[12]

File:Camp Nelson White House.JPG

Oliver Perry House, the only remaining original structure

At the park is the Oliver Perry House, the only structure from its day at a camp that still stands. It was built in about 1846 for the newlywed couple of Oliver Perry and the former Fannie Scott. General Burnside confiscated the house during the war to serve as officers quarters. In many official letters, the house was called the "White House". It currently serves as a historic house museum for the park.[13]

There is over a mile of walking paths at the park. Ghost tours are occasionally available.[14]

Camp Nelson National Cemetery is two miles to the south.[15]


See also[]


  1. "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2008-04-15. 
  2. Strecker p.39
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Kleber p.158
  4. Sears pp.21–23.
  5. Sears p.28.
  6. Sears pp.29, 30.
  7. Sears p.42.
  8. Sears pp.33, 34, 37
  9. Nelson's stock soars The Kentucky Civil War Bugle Second Quarter, 2008, pg.8
  10. Sears p.39
  11. The Kentucky Civil War Bugle Second Quarter, 2008, pg.8
  12. Nelson's stock soars The Kentucky Civil War Bugle Second Quarter, 2008, pg.1
  13. Camp Nelson Jessamine County, KY official site, accessed November 7, 2008
  15. Strecker p.39


  • Kleber, John E. (1992). The Kentucky Encyclopedia. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0813117720. 
  • Sears, Richard D. (2002). Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0813122465. 
  • Strecker, Zoe Ayn (2007). Kentucky: A Guide to Unique Places. Globe Pequot. ISBN 0762742011.