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New National Monument in Kentucky Honors Black Civil War Troops

Over 10,000 African-American troops mustered at Camp Nelson, which also offered refuge for their enslaved wives and children

(National Park Service)
smithsonian.com

President Trump has designated the first national monument of his administration. On Friday, the president upgraded the status of the 373-acre Camp Nelson in central Kentucky, a significant site for African-American soldiers and refugees during the Civil War, as Timothy Cama at The Hill reports.

“Today, the site is one of the best-preserved landscapes and archeological sites associated with United States Colored Troops recruitment and the refugee experiences of African American slaves seeking freedom during the Civil War,” the proclamation states. “Camp Nelson reminds us of the courage and determination possessed by formerly enslaved African Americans as they fought for their freedom.”

The camp has been on the road to monument-hood for quite some time. In 2013, the site was declared a National Historic Landmark District by the Obama administration, and in 2017, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended that it be declared a National Monument. Earlier this year, Kentucky representative Andy Barr and Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, also from Kentucky, introduced bills to establish the monument, though this presidential act will supersede those efforts.

According to the National Park Service, Camp Nelson, which is located just outside Nicholasville, began as supply depot and hospital for the Union Army in 1863. When the ban on African-Americans serving in the Union Army was lifted in June 1864, recruits began to flood into Camp Nelson to join up. By December 6, 1865, 10,000 formerly enslaved African-Americans and freedmen had enlisted at the Camp.

But Kentucky was a complicated place during the Civil War, and Camp Nelson embodied the fraught politics of the border slave state, which neighbored three free states.

While Kentucky had hoped to remain “armed but neutral” during the conflict, when Confederate forces began to move into the state in 1861, the legislature sided with the Union, and federal troops moved in. But that didn't change the lives of the enslaved. When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, freeing African-Americans in states in rebellion, it did not apply to Union states that allowed slavery, which meant that border states like Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware and Missouri did not have to legally abolish the institution of slavery until the 13th Amendment became part of the Constitution in December of 1865.

That situation was reflected in Camp Nelson. While any African-American man accepted for military service there was automatically granted freedom, their family members who often accompanied them to the camp were not, and they were expected to leave the camp and return to enslavement. Many, however, stayed, turning the camp into a refugee site. In November 1864, those refugees, mainly women and children, were ordered out of the refugee cabins into freezing conditions. As a result, 100 of them died, creating a national outcry. Camp Nelson then reversed course, building a “Home for Colored Refugees” which opened in January 1865. That March, the U.S. Congress passed legislation granting freedom to the wives and children of U.S. Colored Troops. Though the Home was closed down in the summer of 1865 with the conclusion of the war, some refugees stuck around, creating the village of Ariel.

Not only is the monument status warranted, Alan Spears, cultural resources director in the National Parks Conservation Association’s government affairs office, tells Juliet Eilperin at The Washington Post, it comes at a good time. Even though Kentucky was a part of the Union during the Civil War, over the decades many in the state have come to embrace the Confederacy, and there are now Confederate memorials around the state including a prominent statue in Louisville. “There has been a reversal of the actual sentiment of what Kentucky was during the war,” Spears says. This monument might help people realize the state's true legacy.

While none of the original buildings remain at Camp Nelson, visitors can see a reconstructed barracks and visit a museum containing objects from the Civil War days. There are also five miles of hiking trails that lead to earthworks fortifications that were constructed primarily by enslaved labor to protect the camp.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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