After the failure of the bridge burners, the resulting retaliation and occupation of the area by pro-Confederate forces sent East Tennesseans fleeing through the mountains and into Kentucky in droves. It soon became apparent that camps in addition to Camp Dick Robinson, originally established to handle East Tennessee soldiers, would be needed.
Enter Camp Nelson.
Named for Maj. Gen. William “Bull” Nelson who was murdered just before the camp opened, Camp Nelson was established as a supply depot and training base for Union advances into East Tennessee. Although it was found to be too far away to support actions through the Cumberland Gap, once filled with horses and livestock, it became a major cavalry recruiting and training center for the Federal Army.
The trip for men leaving Tennessee through the Cumberland Gap to Central Kentucky where Camp Nelson was located was not an easy one, especially in winter, a member of the 13th East Tennessee Cavalry noted.
“We went into camp in an old field full of dead trees, which the men began to cut down for fire-wood. It must be remembered we were without tents and poorly clad and only such blankets as we had brought with us from home” he wrote.
The men finally arrived at Camp Nelson and were soon fed and put into winter quarters. Before long the camp would be home to the 8th, 10th, 12th and 13th East Tennessee Cavalry as well as parts of the 4th and 8th Regiments of East Tennessee Infantry and Battery E of the 1st Tennessee Light Artillery.
Then 1863 came, and along with it the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. For the first time, thousands of black Americans could enlist in the Federal Army and fight for their freedom.
Camp Nelson quickly became the largest recruitment center for black soldiers in Kentucky. With thousands of black soldiers joining the thousands of East Tennesseans, the camp quickly became a large city with living quarters, stores, an ordinance depot, a quartermaster depot, a 700-bed hospital, a prison, a bakery and even a steam-powered waterworks to pump water from the Kentucky River to a 50,000-gallon reservoir. And don’t forget all the barns, corrals, blacksmiths and veterinarians required to care for the thousands of horses and mules in addition to the eight earthen forts which defended the camp from Confederate raiders.
In the middle of all this activity, members of the newly formed United States Colored Cavalry began to train alongside the East Tennessee Cavalry. There were problems, however. Not between the USCC and the East Tennesseans, but between the USCC and the people of Kentucky.
Kentucky was a slave state that never left the Union. As such, the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply. When a slave made it to Camp Nelson and joined the army, he was free. But freedom would not be bestowed upon the women and children who would come with him or to any slave physically unable to serve in the army. They were expected to leave, risking capture and re-enslavement.
The black women and children were tolerated for a while, but eventually Gen. Speed S. Fry gave an order for their expulsion. This action drew outrage not only from the black soldiers but their white officers as well.
Capt. Theron E. Hall wrote, “Remembering that these people had followed their husbands and fathers to camp who were then in the army fighting for that freedom of which it was by this act proposed to deprive their families and firmly believing the wife and children of the colored soldier were entitled to protection from that government for the perpetuation of which he was imperiling his like, I felt it my duty to interfere, and if possible prevent the accomplishment of the contemplated outrage.”
Capt. Hall sent word to Capt. J. Bates Dickson in the adjutant general’s office and wrote the following, “Can nothing be done for the poor women and children sent from this camp by order of Gen. Fry? They are literally starving to death. I have the affidavit of one soldier whose family was sent out of camp last Wednesday, that one of his children was frozen to death after being put out of the lines.”
The outrage reached religious leaders, members of the Sanitary Commission and finally all the way to Washington where Gen. Fry’s order was revoked. But not before more than 100 women and children died from exposure to the elements.
Afterward, Camp Nelson got bigger, adding a refugee section which included a mess hall, school, barracks for single women and housing for families.
In the middle of all this confusion, the men continued to train, and soon regiments of the United States Colored Cavalry were formed, including the 5th and 6th USCC, which would return to East Tennessee with the 8th and 13th East Tennessee Cavalry.
Throughout the rest of the war, the black and white cavalrymen who trained side by side at Camp Nelson would fight side by side in Tennessee. The 5th and 6th USCC would take part in both campaigns to take Saltville and would pass through Kingsport at least twice. They would also join with the 8th and 13th East Tennessee Cavalry in the Battle of Kingsport.
In western Tennessee, members of the 13th East Tennessee Cavalry would fight, and die, alongside members of the batteries of the 6th and 2nd U.S. Colored Artillery at the Battle of Fort Pillow.
Which brings me back to that lone monument in the field.
You see at Camp Nelson, not only did the black and white cavalrymen train next to each other and fight next to each other, but when they died they were buried in the same cemetery, along with the women and children who died there.
The monument says in part, “The bodies of 217 Union soldiers, both black and white, were originally buried in the cemetery.”
In 1866, a national cemetery was created nearby and the soldiers, both black and white were moved there while the civilians remain buried at Camp Nelson.
On Oct. 26, 2018, President Donald Trump proclaimed the site as Camp Nelson National Monument and made it a part of the National Park system.
Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected]