First USCT Recruits at Camp Nelson

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

The recruitment of African American soldiers into the U.S. Army was slow in coming to Kentucky. The state's resistance to the idea of arming enslaved 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 federal government arm enslaved men. 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 man who attempted to enlist was told that he could not do so without the consent of his enslaver. 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.

Despite harsh persecutions, Black Kentuckians understood that their service in the U.S. 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.

The marker was dedicated on February 4, 2013. It reads:

First USCT Recruits at Camp Nelson

May 23, 1864, nearly 250 black men,
Most of them slaves, left Boyle Co.
To marker to Camp Nelson in Jessamine
Co. to enlist in the Union army. On
the way, some Danville citizens
threw stones and shot pistols at the
recruits. When they reached camp,
Union Col. Andrew Clark initially
refused to accept them because no
policy allowed for the recruitment
of slaves. Over.

Although a few local slave owners
tried to reclaim some of the men,
the recruits were accepted into the
army, causing a Union policy change
that allowed able-bodied African
American men, including slaves, to
enlist. Over 5,000 U.S. Colored
Troops were eventually recruited
at Camp Nelson, with some of the
first coming from Boyle County.