National monument in Kentucky honors black Civil War troops Camp Nelson in Kentucky. (National Park Service/Rich Bowen/Flickr)
National monument in Kentucky honors black Civil War troops
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President Trump has designated the first national monument of his administration. The president upgraded the status of the 373-acre Camp Nelson. It is in central Kentucky. It is a significant site. It is for African-American soldiers and refugees during the Civil War. That's according to Timothy Cama at The Hill.

“Today, 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,” the proclamation states. “Camp Nelson reminds us of the courage and determination possessed by formerly enslaved African Americans as they fought for their freedom.”

The camp has been on the road to monument-hood for quite some time. The site was declared a National Historic Landmark District. That was in 2013. That was done by the Obama administration. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended that it be declared a National Monument. That was in 2017. Kentucky representative Andy Barr and Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell introduced bills to establish the monument. McConnell is also from Kentucky. That was earlier this year. But this presidential act will supersede those efforts.

Camp Nelson is located just outside Nicholasville. It began as supply depot and hospital. It was for the Union Army. That was in 1863. That's according to the National Park Service. Recruits began to flood into Camp Nelson to join up. That was in June 1864. That was after the ban on African-Americans serving in the Union Army was lifted. That was in June 1864. By December 6, 1865, 10,000 formerly enslaved African-Americans and freedmen had enlisted at the Camp.

But Kentucky was a complicated place during the Civil War. It neighbored three free states. Camp Nelson embodied the fraught politics of the border slave state.

Kentucky had hoped to remain “armed but neutral” during the conflict. Confederate forces began to move into the state in 1861. Then the legislature sided with the Union. Then  federal troops moved in. But that didn't change the lives of the enslaved. 

The Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863. It freed African-Americans in states in rebellion. But it did not apply to Union states that allowed slavery. This meant that border states did not have to legally abolish the institution of slavery. Those states included Kentucky. It included Maryland. It included Delaware. And it included Missouri. That changed when the 13th Amendment became part of the Constitution. That was in December of 1865.

That situation was reflected in Camp Nelson. Any African-American man accepted for military service there was automatically granted freedom. But their family members who often accompanied them to the camp were not. The families were expected to leave the camp. They had to return to enslavement. But many stayed. This turned the camp into a refugee site. 

Those refugees were mainly women and children. They were ordered out of the refugee cabins. They were sent into freezing conditions. That was in November 1864.

One hundred of them died as a result. This created a national outcry. Camp Nelson then reversed course. It built a “Home for Colored Refugees.” It was opened in January 1865. Then the U.S. Congress passed legislation granting freedom to the wives and children of U.S. Colored Troops. That was in March. The Home was closed down. That was in the summer of 1865. That was at the conclusion of the war. But some refugees stuck around. They created the village of Ariel.

Alan Spears is the cultural resources director in the National Parks Conservation Association’s government affairs office. He spoke with Juliet Eilperin. She is at The Washington Post. He told her that the monument status warranted. And he said that it comes at a good time. 

Kentucky was a part of the Union during the Civil War. But over the decades many in the state have come to embrace the Confederacy. There are now Confederate memorials around the state. This includes a prominent statue in Louisville. “There has been a reversal of the actual sentiment of what Kentucky was during the war,” Spears says. This monument might help people realize the state's true legacy.

None of the original buildings remain at Camp Nelson. But visitors can see reconstructed barracks. They can visit a museum. It contains objects from the Civil War days. There are also five miles of hiking trails. These lead to earthworks fortifications. These were constructed primarily by enslaved labor. They were built to protect the camp.

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