Located about 19 miles south of Lexington, Ky., Camp Nelson served as a critical supply depot, training center, and forward base for the Federal Army during the Civil War. Built in April 1863 on an easily defensible peninsular plateau, the camp once comprised about 300 buildings, and in 1864 was used as a recruitment center for African American troops and as a refugee camp for their families. In October 2018, President Donald Trump designated the site as the Camp Nelson National Monument. Designation as a national park unit has allowed for further development of the site, along with renewed focus on its national significance. To help with that effort, National Park Service veteran Steve Phan was named the site’s acting Chief of Interpretation, Education and Visitor Services in January.

CWT: Tell us more about the changes being made at Camp Nelson.

SP: The park’s staff comprises four NPS personnel, and Superintendent Ernie Price has been on duty since August 2020. The opportunity to build a new national park unit is a challenge and thrill for all of us. We are building capacity and establishing a new NPS unit from the ground up.

It is important to recognize, however, that there was a park here prior to its designation as a national monument: Camp Nelson Heritage Park. We recognize Jessamine County, Ky., and the Camp Nelson Foundation for acquiring the land, developing the trails and interpretive waysides, and constructing the visitor center and barracks, and organizing public programming. The national park unit would not be here without their commitment to preserving and sharing Camp Nelson’s rich and vibrant history. Their work has certainly made this transition possible.

CWT: What role did Camp Nelson play?

SP: It’s as complicated as it gets. It was first established as a supply depot and camp of instruction. East Tennessee was very pro-Union but had been occupied by the Confederacy since 1861, and commanders in the area were tasked with relieving the civilian population there. Ambrose Burnside arrived in late March 1863. He set up his initial headquarters in Louisville and had engineers look for a place to set up the base and depot. They settled on a site about six miles south of Nicholasville, Ky., and called it Camp Nelson in honor of William “Bull” Nelson, who had been killed in a September 1862 duel with fellow Union General Jefferson C. Davis. The camp was established as a supply depot, hospital, recruitment and training camp, and rehabilitation center for horses/mules.

CWT: What was the general attitude toward Blacks and slavery?

SP: Kentucky was a border state where slavery was legal. As a result, the Army impressed hundreds of enslaved African Americans to erect fortifications, expand the Lexington-Danville Turnpike, and construct the heart of the camp….The Army compensated the slaveholders for this labor—a policy that kept Kentucky in the fold while directly supporting the war effort. The protection of slavery was paramount to White Kentuckians, who used their military and political clout to ensure that African Americans were not recruited as soldiers. But the fortunes of war and military necessity completely upended the institution of slavery in Kentucky.

CWT: What happened when recruitment of Blacks for soldiers began? 

SP: There was heavy resistance to any plan to recruit Black soldiers. After President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which excluded the border states like Kentucky, some Kentucky Union officers resigned in protest. As the federal government moved toward enlisting Black regiments in Kentucky, the resistance turned to negotiation. For example, to enlist Black soldiers, the owners had to be compensated, or it was mandatory that the recruits be trained in another state. But by June 1864, military necessity usurped negotiation. It’s an election year. War-weariness grows as enlistments for White regiments decrease. The reaction is swift and violent when Union commanders begin recruiting Black soldiers. Blacks coming into camp were often forcibly removed by their owners. Men wanting to enlist were attacked and killed making their way to camp. It’s a microcosm of how conflicted loyalties were then, but the surge of enlistments continues well into 1865.

CWT: How many Black recruits total?

SP: Eight regiments, about 10,000 men, organized into infantry, cavalry, heavy artillery regiments. Camp Nelson grows to become the third largest recruitment center for Black soldiers in the entire country. Many are accompanied by their families, which is why it evolved into a refugee camp, as well.

CWT: They experienced enormous hardship at Camp Nelson, didn’t they?

SP: The tenuous idea of freedom is what we want to share with visitors and the public: It was complex, challenging, and never guaranteed. We therefore term the struggle as emancipation rather than freedom. The enslaved people that came into Camp Nelson are called refugees because their arrival does not portend to freedom. Their status was contingent on what the Army was going to do, how they responded, and how the refugees fit within the realm of military necessity. One incident we’ll be highlighting here is the expulsion of November 1864, which was one of at least seven expulsions we know of where the camp commander ordered the removal of the refugees, including family members of USCT soldiers, beyond army lines. This occurs during the middle of a winter storm. More than 400 people were removed before the order was rescinded, but 102 died of exposure in the process. The Union Army reversed its policy toward refugees and began construction on the government-sponsored “Home for Colored Refugees” at Camp Nelson, which initially included a communal mess hall, a school, barracks for single women and the sick, and duplex family cottages.

CWT: What happened after the war?

SP: The locals didn’t want an African American community to form here. The landscape was altered dramatically after the camp was closed in March 1866, when 300 buildings were dismantled. Most of the residents were forced to relocate. Some joined the Regular Army, becoming the famous Buffalo Soldiers. Some made their way to Ohio. Some headed to Louisville, which was becoming a center for former enslaved African Americans. Some started homesteads out west. A small number stayed to form the freed community of Arial on the grounds of the Refugee Home, where the modern hamlet of Hall is now.

CWT: What should park visitors expect?

SP: We are renovating buildings and enhancing our capacity, especially frontline staff to provide proper visitor services and public programming. There are earthwork remnants constructed during the war by enslaved labor that are in good condition. That’s one of the lasting legacies of African Americans at the camp….There is also a five-mile trail system featuring 35 interpretive markers. Just south of the park is Camp Nelson National Cemetery. Soldiers, including African Americans, were moved from a cemetery established at the camp during the war and reinterred at the National Cemetery. We are also developing our digital [nps.gov/cane] and social media [facebook.com/campnelsonnps] pages.

Interview conducted by Senior Editor Sarah Richardson.