Camp Nelson Refugee Camp

Historical Marker # 1965 in Jessamine County notes the location of the Camp Nelson refugee camp, which housed the families of hundreds of African American soldiers.

Camp Nelson was established in 1863 as a recruiting station and quartermaster supply base for military operations into East Tennessee. In the spring of 1864, when African American soldiers were finally allowed to be recruited and trained in Kentucky, Camp Nelson became the largest center for United States Colored Troops in the state.

As thousands of enslaved and free Black men flocked to Camp Nelson to enlist and train for the army, many of the soldiers' families came, too. Refugees first arrived at the camp to find work and protection even before black soldiers were accepted into the Union army. When African American recruitment formally opened, however, a flood of mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters arrived to be with their loved ones, for sanctuary against whites who opposed African American enlistments, and for freedom. One formerly enslaved person reportedly exclaimed, "See how much better off we are now than we was four years ago. It used to be five hundred miles to get to Canada from Lexington, but now it’s only eighteen miles. Camp Nelson is our Canada."

The large number of refugees created a humanitarian crisis the Army had not anticipated. More than once the commanders of the post ordered those not working or serving with the army to immediately leave the camp. These commands, however, had little permanent effect until November 1864, when camp commander Speed S. Fry forcibly expelled refugees from Camp Nelson's grounds. The refugees' makeshift shelters were then leveled.

The November expulsion coincided with an extreme cold weather snap, which caused many of the refugees to suffer from the freezing temperatures. With their shelters demolished and a seemingly uncaring US Army command, more than one hundred people died from exposure. Due to these deaths, the order was countermanded and housing was built for refugee families in a location adjacent to the soldiers' camp. In addition, the fallout from the expulsion prompted Congress to pass a bill that freed the families of enslaved men who enlisted in the Union Army.

After the war the refugee camp became the community of Ariel. Eventually renamed Hall, it continued to be a vibrant African American community well into the twentieth century.