Introducing America’s Newest National Park: Camp Nelson

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Five weeks ago, a new national park joined the ranks of our National Park Service system: Camp Nelson National Monument in Nicholasville, Kentucky. The park, located about 20 miles south of Lexington in Jessamine County, commemorates the African American soldiers who resided at Camp Nelson during the Civil War. 

Originally established as a Union Army supply depot in 1863, Camp Nelson also served as a military recruiting ground and training center, a hospital, and a refugee camp for fleeing slaves.

Here at Chimani, we think Camp Nelson is a great addition to the National Park Service system. Here are the reasons we think it’s worth a visit.

It’s Nature and History Combined

With 380 acres of land, a network of trails, a Civil War museum, and reconstructed barracks, Camp Nelson has something to offer nature lovers and history buffs alike.

Set amid the rolling hills of pastoral Kentucky, Camp Nelson offers five miles of hiking trails within the park boundaries. Along the way, walkers can witness military earthworks and fortifications, created in defense of the camp, and historical information marked by interpretive signs.

Fort Jones Overlook Trail is the longest hike at 2.3 miles, where hikers can ascend thick woods to reach an overlook of Hickman Creek Valley. An extension trail leads hikers to Camp Nelson National Cemetery, a burial ground adjacent to the national park.

And for history buffs, Camp Nelson aims to give an accurate glimpse into the complete lives of members of the United States Colored Troops and their families, not just during the war, but before and after as well.

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The Oliver Perry “White House”, the only existing Civil War structure on the property, serves as a Civil War museum. The historic house features a short film about the history of the camp and has several Civil War Era artifacts on display. The park also has reconstructed barracks that depict life as a Union Army Soldier for the thousands of troops stationed at Camp Nelson.

It Was a Refugee Camp for Slaves

Although the state of Kentucky initially declared neutrality at the start of the war,  it fell under Union control in 1862. As such, Camp Nelson became a refugee camp for thousands of slaves fleeing Confederate states.

In 1864 Congress passed an act that guaranteed freedom to slaves who enlisted in military service. As a result, 5,000 African American men enlisted in the Union Army at Camp Nelson. However, these same men were often accompanied by wives and children, who were not eligible for emancipation and were ordered out of the camp in the fall of 1864.

Without proper food and shelter, over a hundred family members perished, resulting in an outcry throughout the camp. To rectify the situation, the Union Army created the Camp Nelson Home of Colored Refugees in January 1865, which housed and protected the wives and children of enlisted soldiers.

A couple of months later, Congress went as far as emancipating the family members of any African American male who enlisted in the United States Colored Troops, creating a safe haven at Camp Nelson for fleeing slaves.

In recognition of this, Camp Nelson has been named a part of the National Underground Railroad Network by the National Park System—solidifying the site as an educational opportunity for those looking to understand more about slaves who escaped to freedom.

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It Was Named a National Monument

National monuments fall within the general category of national parks, except that a presidential order is required to create a monument. A national monument must also meet the criteria listed in the Antiquities Act, meaning that the location has objects and artifacts that are history or science-related.

As a pre-existing historic landmark, Camp Nelson met these standards, and its history has been well-preserved due to its rural location. Other Union supply depots were located near larger northern cities, and as a result, their surroundings and archeological resources disintegrated over time.

In fact, the well-preserved grounds at Camp Nelson largely contribute to the previous landmark’s new status as a monument. The Presidential Proclamation that established Camp Nelson as a national monument claimed: “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.”

It’s clear that Camp Nelson has something for everyone—history, nature, and an opportunity to glimpse into our country’s past. Tell us what you’re most looking forward to about visiting Camp Nelson National Monument!