*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.
I’ve been going down the rabbit hole. In doing some research into black schools in Evansville, I somehow ran across a reference to a Camp Nelson in Kentucky. This led to information about the United States Colored Troops (USCT), contraband camps, the American Missionary Association, and to the Freedmen’s Bureau. These in turn led me to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). There’s just so much good information here, but it’s hard to pull together. This is both the joy and the curse of rabbit holes and research! I suspect this will turn out to be more than one blog, but let’s start with Camp Nelson and see where we end up.
Camp Nelson National Monument is in Nicholasville, KY, not that far outside of Lexington. In December 1862 Union Major General Ambrose Burnside was charged with capturing and holding eastern Tennessee, with the ultimate goal of taking the Confederate rail hub of Knoxville. To do so, he needed a place to both consolidate troops and gather supplies, preferably in central Kentucky. “At the height of its use in 1865, Camp Nelson encompassed roughly 4,000 acres. The camp, which was organized around an 800-acre core, included more than 300 buildings and tents that housed a quartermaster commissary depot, ordnance depot, recruitment center, prison, and a hospital. Eight earthen forts or batteries, primarily constructed by enslaved labor, helped to protect the camp. The camp was also home to stables and corrals, a bakery, and a steam-driven waterworks that could pump water up 470 feet from the Kentucky River to a 50,000 gallon reservoir.” It was highly defensible, surrounded by water and/or high cliffs on three sides.
The War Department used the Emancipation Proclamation to recruit and train freed slaves as Union soldiers. But, the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves only in the states that had joined to form the Confederacy. Here’s the tricky part—Kentucky was a southern state, a slave-holding state, but it never joined the Confederacy, so Kentucky slaves were not freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and thus were not officially eligible to be recruited. But freedom sings a powerful siren song. As it turns out, those who escaped from slavery and enlisted in the Union Army were thus emancipated in exchange for their service. “Camp Nelson quickly became the largest of the eight African American recruitment centers in the state of Kentucky and the third largest U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) recruiting center in the entire nation. Once all restrictions on enlistment were removed in June 1864, the number of African American enlistees exploded. These enlistees, who were formerly enslaved, were able to be emancipated through the act of enlistment in the Union army. More than 500 U.S. Colored Troops mustered into service during June 1864, and a record 1,370 new troops enlisted at the camp in July. By the time the 13th Amendment was finally ratified on December 6, 1865, ending slavery throughout the United States, roughly 10,000 African American men had enlisted in the USCT and claimed their freedom at Camp Nelson.”
About those restrictions on the enlistment of slaves—remember that Kentucky was still part of the Union and thus obligated to provide soldiers for the Union forces. It was unable to meet that quota with only white soldiers, so it reluctantly agreed, in March/April 1864, to allow “free African American men and enslaved men who had the express permission of their owners to enlist.” Owners were compensated $300. “It proved to be an untenable system. A wave of violence quickly followed across the state, as substantial numbers of owners objected, rather than consented, to enlistment. Yet enslaved men fled to enlist anyway, and military officials, unsure about whether or not their owners’ consent had been given, routinely defaulted to sending men back to their owners. Camp Nelson thus became “a hunting ground for fugitives,” observed the quartermaster, Capt. Theron E. Hall, who had a frontline view of the situation. “It has been an almost daily occurrence for some squad of men to be employed in hunting slaves and detaining them to their masters,” Hall wrote, and in many cases those captured were “tied together” like a “slave gang” and prodded along by armed soldiers. Other reports surfaced of owners severing the ears of men they retrieved with the army’s help or, in one case, of two men “fastened to trees in the woods and flayed alive.” This injustice was swiftly ended by Union Army Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, who in June 1864 ordered that any slave who escaped and reported for enlistment would be enlisted and thus freed; the owner’s consent and monetary compensation were no longer required.
Although this specific injustice was addressed and corrected, problems continued. Escaping slaves frequently brought with them their wives, children, and parents, who might very well face retribution if they remained behind. But only Union Army enlistees were entitled to freedom. Anyone who did not, or could not, enlist, was expected to return to slavery.
“Official orders were issued to remove these women and children. During the November 1864 expulsion, Union soldiers forcibly escorted women and children from the camp and then destroyed the refugee cabins within the camp. Freezing temperatures, combined with harsh conditions, resulted in more than 100 refugee deaths. This tragedy garnered national media attention and generated public outcry. A few weeks after the November expulsion, the Union army reversed its policy toward refugees and began construction on the government-sponsored “Home for Colored Refugees” at Camp Nelson. It initially included a communal mess hall, a school, barracks for single women and the sick, and duplex family cottages. Refugees who had been turned away or forced out of the camp in November were now allowed to resettle in the newly constructed refugee home, officially opened in January 1865. Although wives and children of the enlisted men were still not legally free, they were legally entitled to sanctuary. Finally, on March 3, 1865, an Act of Congress officially emancipated the wives, children, and mothers of U.S. Colored Troops. This provided legal protection for the refugees at Camp Nelson and an additional incentive for African American men to enlist in the Union Army.”
Check out this video for a fuller understanding of Camp Nelson.
By the end of the Civil War, there were some 175 United States Colored Troops, with about 185,000 soldiers (this number includes officers, most of which were not black.) “In the fall of 1862 there were at least three Union regiments of African Americans raised in New Orleans, Louisiana: the First, Second, and Third Louisiana Native Guard. These units later became the First, Second, and Third Infantry, Corps d’Afrique, and then the Seventy-third, Seventy-fourth, and Seventy-fifth United States Colored Infantry (USCI). The First South Carolina Infantry (African Descent) was not officially organized until January 1863; however, three companies of the regiment were on coastal expeditions as early as November 1862. They would become the Thirty-third USCI. Similarly, the First Kansas Colored Infantry (later the Seventy-ninth [new] USCI) was not mustered into service until January 1863, even though the regiment had already participated in the action at Island Mound, Missouri, on October 27, 1862. These early unofficial regiments received little federal support, but they showed the strength of African Americans’ desire to fight for freedom.” Between 1863-1865, the state of Kentucky formed 23 volunteer regiments with a total of 23,706 soldiers. This number comprised 13% of the African American soldiers who enlisted in the Union Army, second only to the state of Louisiana. Seven of these were formed at Camp Nelson: the 5th and 6th U.S. Colored Cavalry, the 114th, 119th, and 124th U.S. Colored Infantry, and the 12th and 13th U.S. Colored H. A. (heavy artillery). Closer to home, the 121st U.S. Colored Infantry was raised in Henderson, KY.
These signs are located at Virginia Avenue & McCarty Street, Indianapolis
“The 28th Indiana Infantry Regiment—officially the 28th Regiment United States Colored Troops—was Indiana’s first and only all-black regiment during the Civil War. Mustered into service on January 12, 1864, the 28th formed in response to fears sparked by Confederate General John Hunt Morgan’s raid into Indiana in the summer of 1863. Morgan hoped to rouse Copperheads in the North and inspire them to rise up against the Union. The raiders ransacked Corydon, Salem, Dupont, Versailles, and other small towns in southern Indiana, burned and looted property, and stole over 4,000 horses. All told, the raid caused over one million dollars in damage. Thousands of Hoosiers enlisted in response to the raid, including the men of the 28th. The raid ultimately failed; Morgan was chased out of southern Indiana by state troops and kept out by the United States Navy. Although the 28th was recruited to help prevent future rebel violence, state officials feared that raising more than one African American regiment would provoke another Confederate raid. By the end of the war, the 28th had sustained an estimated 212 fatalities: two officers and 45 enlistees killed or mortally wounded in combat, and one officer and 164 enlistees who died of disease. Like several other USCT regiments, the 28th was assigned menial duties on the Mexican border. At times, the work became too much for the men. The two most frequent entries in the logbook are the receipt of special orders and notes of incidents which resulted in soldiers receiving demerits. The logbook also briefly mentions the issue of disease in the regiment. USCT troops were often neglected as far as supplies went as they worked menial jobs and did not receive the same care and attention as white troops. At times their diet lacked essential nutrients; many of the soldiers, including James Trail, developed scurvy. James and his brothers Benjamin, David, and William Jr. were just a handful of the men who enlisted in the 28th Indiana. Benjamin was the first of the four brothers to serve. A sergeant major, he was killed at the Battle of the Crater. James also died during the war, but David and William Jr. eventually returned to Indiana. Little is known about the men of the 28th, but there is growing interest in their stories. The 28th were honored with a historical marker in Indianapolis in 2004 and they are also featured on the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in downtown Indianapolis.”
No less a personage than Frederick Douglass recruited and heavily promoted the USCT. Both of his sons, Charles and Lewis, were members of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry; Charles later transferred to the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry. The 54th was memorialized in the movie Glory; its story was told in this October 10, 2018 blog. Lewis Douglass was the sergeant major of the 54th and wounded in the attack on Fort Wagner, SC.
Let’s be clear about this. African Americans were finally permitted to enlist in the Union forces, but they were in no way considered equal to white Union forces. “Black Union soldiers did not receive equal pay or equal treatment. They were paid $10 a month, with $3 deducted from that pay for clothing—white soldiers received $13 a month with no clothing deduction—until June 1864, when Congress granted retroactive equal pay. Even in the North, racial discrimination was widespread and blacks were often not treated as equals by white soldiers. In addition, segregated units were formed with black enlisted men commanded by white officers and black non-commissioned officers. Some of the white officers had low opinions of their colored troops and failed to adequately train them. Black units and soldiers that were captured by the Confederates faced harsher treatment than white prisoners of war. In 1863 the Confederate Congress threatened to punish captured Union officers of black troops and enslave black Union soldiers. In response, Lincoln issued General Order 233, threatening reprisal against Confederate POWs.”
Despite, or perhaps in defiance of, all the inequity and prejudice they faced, USCT members fought valiantly, with 25 earning the Congressional Medal of Honor for their Civil War service. The first of these was Sgt. William H. Carney of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. “Carney was born into slavery in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1840. His family was eventually granted freedom and moved to Massachusetts, where Carney was eager to learn and secretly got involved in academics, despite laws and restrictions that banned blacks from learning to read and write. … In March 1863, Carney joined the Union Army and was attached to Company C, 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment, the first official black unit recruited for the Union in the north. Forty other black men served with him, including two of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ sons. … On July 18, 1863, the soldiers of Carney’s regiment led the charge on Fort Wagner. During the battle, the unit’s color guard was shot. Carney, who was just a few feet away, saw the dying man stumble, and he scrambled to catch the falling flag. Despite suffering several serious gunshot wounds himself, Carney kept the symbol of the Union held high as he crawled up the hill to the walls of Fort Wagner, urging his fellow troops to follow him. He planted the flag in the sand at the base of the fort and held it upright until his near-lifeless body was rescued. Even then, though, he didn’t give it up. Many witnesses said Carney refused to give the flag to his rescuers, holding onto it tighter until, with assistance, he made it to the Union’s temporary barracks. Carney lost a lot of blood and nearly lost his life, but not once did he allow the flag to touch the ground. His heroics inspired other soldiers that day and were crucial to the North securing victory at Fort Wagner. Carney was promoted to the rank of sergeant for his actions. For his bravery, Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor on May 23, 1900.” Here’s a full list of all African American Civil War Medal of Honor recipients
Using this Find a Grave website link, you can locate and identify where USCT soldiers are buried in the United States. This includes 209,145 persons: 7,000+ Caucasian officers, 180,000 African American army troops, and 22,000 African American naval troops. This list may not be entirely comprehensive, but it did yield this information: there are 9 USCT graves in Locust Hill Cemetery and 1 in Oak Hill.
For a 4 minute overview of Black Soldiers in the Civil War, check out this video.
I think that’s enough for now The next blog will explore contraband camps, and the American Missionary Association and the Freedmen’s Bureau and how these are related to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship: The Civil War. Library of Congress exhibition.
African Americans In the Civil War. HistoryNet.com
Camp Nelson National Monument, Kentucky
Colored Troop Regiments from Kentucky, U.S. Civil War. Notable Kentucky African Americans Database.
Honoring the African American Recipients of the Civil War. Congressional Medal of Honor Society blog, February 11, 2020.
Lange, Katie. Meet Sgt. William Carney: The first African-American Medal of Honor Recipient. Department of Defense news, February 10, 2017.
Presidential Proclamation on the Establishment of the Camp Nelson National Monument. Issued October 26, 2018.
Right to Serve, Right to Lead: Lives and Legacies of the USCT. An exhibition in Special Collections and College Archives, Musselman Library, Gettysburg College, August 29, 2016-December 18, 2017.
Taylor, Amy Murrell. Embattled Freedom: Journeys Through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps. University of North Carolina Press, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central. pgs. 185-187
United States Colored Troops: The Role of African Americans in the U.S. Army. American Battlefield Trust. Weidman, Budge. Black Soldiers in the Civil War: Preserving the Legacy of the United States Colored Troops. U.S. National Archives and Record Administration.