‘Camp Nelson is our Canada’
My colleague Greg Hardison and I have been on the road lately, making videos for the KHS YouTube Channel about the relevance and value of history. We recently stopped at Camp Nelson in Jessamine County, where we interviewed staff there about the possibility of the site becoming a national monument. This is exciting news that holds great potential for Camp Nelson, which was established in 1863. During the Civil War, Camp Nelson was one of the nation’s largest recruiting grounds for African American Union soldiers. Thousands of slaves from multiple Kentucky counties secured their freedom by enlisting at the site. As recruiting progressed, hundreds of refugees—many the enslaved parents, wives and children of men who enlisted there—gathered at the camp. Just as refugees today face incredible challenges, the same held true for those who reached Camp Nelson. Because of disease and illness, “of 3,060 refugees who entered the camp, 1,300 died,” historian Richard Sears writes. In November 1864, the Union army expelled the refugees. Dozens died of exposure. When national newspapers reported on the fatalities, Congress enacted legislation freeing the family members of slaves who enlisted into the Union Army. Because of this important policy change, Camp Nelson is a site of national consequence. Camp Nelson now includes nearly 600 acres of preserved land, Civil War earthworks, interpretive trails, research facilities and a restored house that served as a military headquarters. The site also has an excellent museum that interprets the lives, living conditions and legacy of the refugees who sought freedom at the camp. Today, using this history as a lens through which to view modern issues, Camp Nelson can serve as a place to find solutions for today’s problems. This includes examining race relations and the current world refugee crisis. A slave freed at Camp Nelson reputedly said, "See how much better off we are now than we was four years ago. It used to be five hundred miles to get to Canada from Lexington, but now it’s only eighteen miles. Camp Nelson is our Canada." As this quote attests, Camp Nelson stands as an important memorial to slavery and freedom. Turning that memorial into a national monument will give the site the attention—and the designation—that it deserves.