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Camp Nelson grounds and interpretive center.

Camp Nelson

Site ID: 15Js78, 96, 97, 112, 113, 163, 164, 166

Military; Depot
Voyager Media Group
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​​​​​​Camp Nelson National Historic Monument preserves portions of one the nation’s largest Union supply depots and recruitment centers. This massive complex of fortifications, barracks, warehouses, and stables once covered over 4,000 acres in Jessamine County. Thousands of Union soldiers passed through Camp Nelson from 1863 to 1866.  As a supply depot, the garrison supported Union campaigns in Tennessee, Georgia, and Virginia.  The camp’s warehouses could store two million rations. Up to 14,000 horses and mules could be held in its stables and corrals. Camp Nelson also was the third largest recruitment and training center for U.S. Colored Troops in America. Eight USCT Regiments were founded at Camp Nelson. In 1865, the federal government and missionaries established the Home for Colored Refugees following the tragic expulsion of African Americans living in shantytowns at the camp. The Army dismantled almost all of Camp Nelson’s 300 buildings after the Civil War. 

Camp Nelson National Historic Monument preserves the grounds and a series of earthen fortifications. Open throughout the year, the National Monument has an interpretive center, a restored home, and several miles of interpretive trails. Camp Nelson National Cemetery is adjacent to the park. ​

The foundation of the wood- and metal-working machine shop.


​Most of what is known about Camp Nelson comes from official records written by Union Army officers and civilian government officials. There are relatively few written accounts from the perspective of the common soldiers or enslaved refugees. In order to help fill this void, archaeologists conducted investigations at several sites within Camp Nelson, beginning in 1987.  Among the buildings that have been investigated are the Owen's House and the Refugee's Encampment site.​

The Owen's House/Post Office Complex was Camp Nelson’s main commercial district.  It addition to these two buildings, the complex included a photographic studio, sutlers’ stores (private merchants to the army), a billiards parlor, a shoe/boot store, and some as-yet-unidentified buildings. Artifacts such as expensive ceramics, wine bottles and glasses, officers’ buttons and accoutrements, and expensive cuts of meat, helped archaeologists determine that the Owen's House was a tavern for higher-class clientele, such as officers and supervisory employees.  The quality and variety of artifacts found at two other areas within this complex helped identify them as a sutler store and saloon, both of which served a lower-class clientele, such as enlisted men and laborers.

​A ​​variety of foodways, clothing, and architectural artifacts found in a poorly known area of the depot, suggested that it was a habitation site and probably an encampment associated with Camp Nelson.  But who had lived there?  The discovery of necklace beads and doll parts pointed to the presence of women and children, while the discovery of two charms/amulets - a button inscribed with an “X” and a pierced silver coin - suggested that they were of African descent.  When combined with historical documents, these discoveries, along with the many burned artifacts recovered, suggested that this was the site of a pre-expulsion refugee encampment, destroyed and burned in November 1864. The presence of a large quantity of clothing items, including small seed beads, tube beads, and a tremendous variety of buttons, suggests that these refugees were supporting themselves by doing laundry outside of their huts.  This vital service allowed them to survive and create a community within Camp Nelson, at least temporarily.​

​Buttons from the Refugee Encampment. The presence of military buttons suggested that refugees did laundry for soldiers.

Owen's House foundation.

What's Cool?

​12th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery

Over 10,000 U.S. Colored Troops passed through Camp Nelson during the Civil War. Several regiments were established at Camp Nelson, including the 12th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery. Members of this unit - reac​tivated in 2003 – are based out of Camp Nelson and provide demonstrations and educational programs throughout Kentucky and the United States.

Members of the 12 USC Heavy Artillery fire a replica bronze cannon during re-enactments at Camp Nelson's Civil War Days.

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