First USCT Recruits at Camp Nelson

Historical Marker #2388 in Danville notes the community's African American contributions to the Union army during the Civil War. In many instances, slaves and free men of color who tried to join the Union army faced substantial danger.

The recruitment of African American soldiers into the Union army was slow in coming to Kentucky. The state's resistance to the idea of arming slaves and free blacks was expressed from the beginning of the war to its bitter end. Early opposition in the commonwealth was clearly made during the first year of the conflict, when Secretary of War Simon Cameron suggested that the Union arm slaves. When the Kentucky legislature learned of Cameron's idea they formally requested that he be removed from office.

The Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on January 1, 1863, gave African Americans the opportunity to serve in the Union army. President Lincoln's edict, however, did not legally affect Kentucky since it was a loyal state. In addition, Lincoln's concern for offending the pro-slavery Bluegrass State allowed Kentucky to delay the recruitment of African American soldiers. That Kentucky was exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation did not prevent state newspapers from decrying the act. On January 3, 1863, the "Louisville Democrat" wrote, "We scarcely know how to express our indignation at this flagrant outrage of all Constitutional law, all human justice, all Christian feeling."

Although African American men were officially authorized to enlist in Kentucky in the spring of 1864, opposition, persecution, and violence continued. In Danville, citizens threw stones and shot pistols at 250 black recruits who were marching to Camp Nelson. In Louisville, black troops were harassed by stone throwing youths. In Adair County, one young slave who attempted to enlist was told that he could not do so without his master's consent. Upon his return home he was severely whipped. In Taylor County, some recruits were beaten and thrown in jail. White officers who attempted to enlist African Americans were also persecuted. In Spencer County, the deputy provost marshal was beaten and run out of town, and, in LaRue County, a recruiting agent was captured and almost killed by angry citizens.

Historian John David Smith explains the fear-induced white opposition to African American recruitment. "In 1863 the mention of armed Negroes frightened many white Kentuckians," Smith wrote. "Envisioning possible insurrection, they also recognized the implications of social change which the use of blacks as troops implied. The fears of editors, politicians, soldiers, and private citizens were justified. They felt uneasy supporting the Union when victory meant the destruction of a key feature of their ante-bellum social and economic fabric. Colored soldiers failed to usher in a reign of terror against the whites. Yet their enlistment helped seal the fate of slavery in the Commonwealth."

Despite harsh persecutions, Kentucky's African Americans understood that their service in the Union army was a step toward freedom, citizenship, and equality. Black men enlisted in force in 1864 and 1865. Eventually, nearly 24,000 Kentucky African Americans joined the ranks, the most from any state except Louisiana.

Images

Camp Nelson Coloed Soldiers' Barracks

Camp Nelson Coloed Soldiers' Barracks

This period photograph shows the Colored Soldiers' barracks at Camp Nelson in Jessamine County. Courtesy of Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park. View File Details Page

Gov. Bramlette to President Lincoln

Gov. Bramlette to President Lincoln

This letter from Kentucky governor Thomas E. Bramlette to President Lincoln opposed the recruitment of black soldiers in Kentucky, citing the "dire effects of such a movement upon the interests of my people. . ." Courtesy of the Library of Congress. View File Details Page

Gen. Burside to President Lincoln

Gen. Burside to President Lincoln

This letter from Gen. Ambrose Burnside to President Lincoln, sent in June 1863, advised that to enlist free blacks would be "unwise" and "cause much trouble" in Kentucky. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. View File Details Page

Simon Cameron

Simon Cameron

In December 1861, Secretary of War Simon Cameron (pictured here) suggested the use of slaves as soldiers. In response to this proposal the Kentucky General Assembly wished for Cameron to be replaced. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. View File Details Page

107th USCT Band

107th USCT Band

Kentucky eventually enlisted almost 24,000 African American soldiers. Included in that number was the 107th United States Colored Infantry. The band of the 107th is pictured here. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. View File Details Page

African American Family

African American Family

Wives and chidren often followed African American soldiers to their places of enlistment and training. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. View File Details Page

Marker Dedication

Marker Dedication

On February 4, 2013, the "First USCT Recruits at Camp Nelson" marker was dedicated in Danville, Kentucky. Pictured are reenactors that attended the event. Courtesy of the Danville-Boyle County Economic Development Partnership. View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Tim Talbott, “First USCT Recruits at Camp Nelson,” ExploreKYHistory, accessed July 26, 2017, http://explorekyhistory.ky.gov/items/show/192.
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