American Refugee Camp in Civil War Kentucky Destroyed

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Hundreds of thousands of Americans became refugees during the Civil War. Most were black.

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The Emancipation Proclamation set off a great migration of black people from plantation slavery to refuge within the lines of the Union army. Tens of thousands of African Americans made their way past slave patrols and Confederate armies to presumed freedom. While the January 1, 1863 Proclamation made them “Forever Free,” it did not provide shelter, food, or health care for slavery’s refugees. It was left to military commanders, whose primary job was to win battlefield victories, to provide for the care of the freed slaves.1

In Kentucky, Camp Nelson was an important refugee center. It was also a crucial military supply depot. The needs of the refugees were subordinated to military necessity. In fact, to gain entrance to the camp, the male member of a family seeking freedom had to enlist in the United States army. In exchange, the man’s wife and children were provided with protection from slave catchers, they were given food and a place to live. Five hundred former slaves lived in the camp by November 1864.2

camp-nelson-mapKentucky was a neutral Border State at the beginning of the Civil War. The movement into the state by Confederate troops in 1861 pushed it onto the Union side of the conflict. Men from Kentucky enlisted on both sides in the war. Because Kentucky never joined the Confederacy, slavery was not abolished in the state by the Emancipation Proclamation. Slaves could only become free by enlisting in the Union army.

On October 29, 1864 the commander of Camp Nelson notified his subordinates that “preparatory to the Regiments moving you will turn out of Camp all Negro women and children.”  On November 22, 1864 the expulsions began at the order of Brigadier General Speed S. Fry.3

The order to turn out the refugees was not unopposed by white soldiers. Captain Theron Hall, who knew some of the former slaves personally, wrote at the time that “remembering that these people had followed their husbands and fathers to Camp” and that the “fathers” had enlisted and “were then in the Army fighting for that freedom of which it was by this act [of expulsion] to deprive their families,” he decided that he could not stand by. 4

Captain Hall feared that, cast out from the protection of the fort, the women and children would be re-enslaved. He wrote that he “firmly” believed that “the wife and children of the colored soldier were entitled to protection” by the government for the freedom for which the black soldier “was imperiling his life.” Hall said that given the threat to the lives and freedom of the expelled blacks, “I felt it my duty to interfere.”5

camp-nelson-capt-hallCaptain Theron Hall

The army captain called the expulsion order an “outrage.” He wrote that the “weather at the time was intensely cold, summary expulsion…would occasion untold suffering.” When the captain arrived at camp, most of the freed slaves had already been forced out. Captain Hall wrote to colleagues and superiors to try to reverse the order. He felt that urgent action was needed because he said that the scattered freed people were “literally starving to death.”6

Hall sought out the expelled blacks and found them “sitting by the roadside and wandering about the fields.” He reported that “some have died and all are in a starving condition.” Another Union officer at Lexington Kentucky confirmed Hall’s assessment when he telegraphed that “Colored women and Children…are coming here where there is no shelter for them. They are suffering…” 7

Captain Hall’s defiance of General Fry won a reversal of the order by Fry’s superior. Major General Burbage directed Camp Nelson to readmit the former slaves and he placed Captain Hall in charge of seeing to their welfare. The displaced families began to return to Camp Nelson. This should have been the end of the story but a few days later Captain Hall telegraphed Major General Burbage that he had shown Fry his orders to take charge of protecting the refugees, but that “Fry does not seem disposed to recognize me at all.” Hall reported that in spite of Burbage’s orders to the contrary,  “The guards have positive order not to admit the colored women into Camp. They are turned back at all points along the fortifications.”8

Fortunately, one of President Lincoln’s closest military advisors, Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, was in Lexington, Kentucky. The tireless Hall went there and was able to speak to him personally. Thomas sent a damning order to Fry the same day:

I understand that you have sent helpless women and children [out of] your lines and that you refuse to receive those who present themselves. It is ordered that you receive all who come and that you take back all you have sent out.9

camp-nelson-lorenzo-thomasGeneral Lorenzo Thomas was a military advisor to President Lincoln. In 1863 and 1864 he visited armies in the field to insure that the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves was enforced and to inaugurate the recruitment of black troops.

While the crisis was still unresolved, a reporter for the New York Herald filed a story that said that Camp Nelson “has recently been the scene of a system of deliberate cruelty…frail women and delicate children have been driven from their homes by United States soldiers, and are now…literally starving…”10

The reporter described the cruelty of the expulsions; “Armed soldiers attack humble huts inhabited by poor negroes…order the inmates on pain of instant death, and complete their valorous achievements by demolishing dwellings. The men who did this were United States soldiers.” The article tallied the toll “To-day these children of misery are exposed to the pitiless storm. Four are already in their graves; one was frozen to death.”11

camp-nelson-barracks-tents-hutsCamp Nelson had barracks for white soldiers, and tents and huts, like those on the left, for black refugees.

The personal statement of a black soldier, Joseph Miller, shows the way one family experienced this dark moment. Miller, his wife, and their four children lived at the Camp. Miller’s wife and children were given “express permission” by an officer to live in the camp while Joseph was in the army. At 8 PM on November 22 Miller’s wife was told that she and her children had to leave the camp before morning.12

Miller said that:

The morning was bitter cold….I was certain that it would kill my sick child to take him out in the cold. I told the man in charge of the guard that it would be the death of my boy. …He told me that it did not make any difference. He had orders… He told my wife and family that if they did not get up into the wagon…he would shoot the last one of them.

On being threatened my wife and children went into the wagon. …[H]aving had to leave much of our clothing when we left our master, my wife with her little ones was poorly clothed.13

Joseph Miller went in search of his family that night. He found them six miles away in a meeting house. He said that:

I found my wife and children shivering with cold and famished with hunger. They had not received a morsel of food during the whole day. My boy was dead.14

Miller walked six miles back to Camp Nelson so he would not be arrested as a deserter, leaving his family shivering. The next morning he walked back to them; “I dug a grave myself and buried my own child. I left my family in the Meeting house-where they still remain,” he testified on November 26.15

camp-nelson-usctThe United States Colored Troops barracks at Camp Nelson. Camp Nelson was a major base for Union operations in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. During the Civil War nearly 80,000 soldiers passed through it. Eight regiments of United States Colored Troops (USCT) were organized at the camp.

Miller was not able to get back to his family. For six months he had no news from them. Then he learned that a few weeks after he left them his son Joseph Jr. and his wife had died. A week later his daughter died. His remaining son Calvin died on January 2, 1865.16

General Fry’s order scattering the refugees had cost a Union soldier his entire family at the moment that they had believed that they were finally free.

Video: African American Women Refugees

Resources:

Camp Nelson is now a Civil War Heritage Park. Its website contains a history of the camp and includes extensive coverage of the refugees.

Richard Sears has published a collection of documents related to Camp Nelson that is available for free on Google Books.

Sources:

1. Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction by Jim Downs published by Oxford University Press, 2012.
2. Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction by Jim Downs published by Oxford University Press, 2012; Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History By Richard D. Sears published by University Press of Kentucky (2002) Introduction p. li.
3. Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction by Jim Downs published by Oxford University Press, 2012 p. 18;  Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History By Richard D. Sears published by University Press of Kentucky (2002) Introduction p. li
4.  Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History By Richard D. Sears published by University Press of Kentucky (2002) pp. 134-135 Excerpt from Captain Theron Hall’s Report November 23-26, 1864
5.  Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History By Richard D. Sears published by University Press of Kentucky (2002) pp. 134-135 Excerpt from Captain Theron Hall’s Report November 23-26, 1864
6.Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History By Richard D. Sears published by University Press of Kentucky (2002) pp.. 134-135, 137 Excerpt from Captain Theron Hall’s Report November 23-26, 1864, Telegram from J Bates Dickson to Major General S. G. Burbage November 27, 1864
7. Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History By Richard D. Sears published by University Press of Kentucky (2002) pp. 134-137 Captain T.E. Hall to Col. J,S, Brisbane November 27, 1864; J.B. Dickson to Major General S.G. Burbage
8. Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History By Richard D. Sears published by University Press of Kentucky (2002) pp. 137-138, 141-142 Telegram by Maj. Gen Burbage to Brig. Gen. Fry November 27, 1864; Telegram from Capt. Charles Keyser to Capt. T.E. Hall November 27, 1864; Telegram from Capt. J.B. Dickson to Brig. Gen. Fry November 28, 1864; Telegram Capt. J.B. Dickson to Capt. T.E. Hall November 28, 1864;  Telegram from Capt. Hall to Capt. Dickson November 29, 1864
9. Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History By Richard D. Sears published by University Press of Kentucky (2002) p. 141-142.
10. Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History By Richard D. Sears published by University Press of Kentucky (2002) p. 138-140 New York Tribune Nov. 28, 1864 “Cruel Treatment of the Wives and Children of U.S. Colored Soldiers”
11. Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History By Richard D. Sears published by University Press of Kentucky (2002) pp. 138-140 New York Tribune Nov. 28, 1864 “Cruel Treatment of the Wives and Children of U.S. Colored Soldiers”
12. Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History By Richard D. Sears published by University Press of Kentucky (2002) pp. 135-136 Affidavit of Joseph Miller November 26, 1864
13. Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History By Richard D. Sears published by University Press of Kentucky (2002) pp. 135-136 Affidavit of Joseph Miller November 26, 1864
14. Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History By Richard D. Sears published by University Press of Kentucky (2002) pp. 135-136 Affidavit of Joseph Miller November 26, 1864
15. Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History By Richard D. Sears published by University Press of Kentucky (2002) pp. 135-136 Affidavit of Joseph Miller November 26, 1864
16. Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History By Richard D. Sears published by University Press of Kentucky (2002); Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History By Richard D. Sears published by University Press of Kentucky (2002) pp. 17-20.

The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:

1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.

2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.

3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union?

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

30. The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America.

31. Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Immigrant America.

32. Irish Green and Black America: Race on the Edge of Civil War.

33. The Democratic Party and the Racial Consciousness of Irish Immigrants Before the Civil War

34. The Confederates Move Against Latino New Mexico

35. Nuevomexicanos Rally As Confederates Move Towards Santa Fe—But For Which Side?

36. The Confederate Army in New Mexico Strikes at Valverde

37. The Swedish Immigrant Who Saved the U.S. Navy

38. The Confederates Capture Santa Fe and Plot Extermination

39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.

40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.

41. Did Immigrants Hand New Orleans Over to the Union Army?

42. Did New Orleans’ Immigrants See Union Soldiers As Occupiers or Liberators?

43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.

44. Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans

45. Thomas Meager: The Man Who Created the Irish Brigade

46. Thomas Meagher: The Irish Rebel Joins the Union Army

47. Recruiting the Irish Brigade-Creating the Irish American

48. Cross Keys: A German Regiment’s Annihilation in the Shenandoah Valley

49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.

50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.

51. Slaves Immigrate from the Confederacy to the United States During the Peninsula Campaign

52. The Irish 9th Massachusetts Cut Off During the Seven Days Battles

53. Union Defeat and an Irish Medal of Honor at the End of the Seven Days

54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.

55. Carl Schurz: To Win the Civil War End Slavery

56. Carl Schurz: From Civilian to General in One Day

57. Did Anti-German Bigotry Help Cause Second Bull Run Defeat?

58. Immigrant Soldiers Chasing Lee Into Maryland

59. Scottish Highlanders Battle at South Mountain

60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation

61. The Irish Brigade at Antietam

62. Private Peter Welsh Joins the Irish Brigade

63. Preliminaries to Emancipation: Race, the Irish, and Lincoln

64. The Politics of Emancipation: Lincoln Suffers Defeat

65. Carl Schurz Blames Lincoln for Defeat

66. The Irish Brigade and Virginia’s Civilians Black and White

67. The Irish Brigade and the Firing of General McClellan

68. General Grant Expells the Jews

69. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Its Destruction At Fredericksburg.

70. Fredericksburg: The Worst Day in the Young Life of Private McCarter of the Irish Brigade

71. Forever Free: Emancipation New Year Day 1863

72. Private William McCarter of the Irish Brigade Hospitalized After Fredericksburg

73. The Immigrant Women That Nursed Private McCarter After Fredericksburg

74. Nursing Nuns of the Civil War

75. The Biases Behind Grant’s Order Expelling the Jews

76. The Jewish Community Reacts to Grant’s Expulsion Order

77. Lincoln Overturns Grant’s Order Against the Jews

78. Irish Families Learn of the Slaughter at Fredericksburg

79. Requiem for the Irish Brigade

80. St. Patrick’s Day in the Irish Brigade

81. Student Asks: Why Don’t We Learn More About Immigrants in the Civil War?

82. Missouri’s German Unionists: From Defeat to Uncertain Victory

83. Missouri Germans Contest Leadership of Unionist Cause

84. German Leader Franz Sigel’s Victory Earns a Powerful Enemy

85. Immigrant Unionists Marching Towards Pea Ridge

86. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge: Opening Moves

87. Pea Ridge: The German Unionists Outflanked

88. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge

89. The Organization of the “German” XI Corps

90. The Irish Brigade on the Road to Chancellorsville

91. The “German” XI Corps on the Eve of Chancellorsville

92. The “Germans Run Away” at Chancellorsville

93. The New York Times, the Germans, and the Anatomy of a Scapegoat at Chancellorsville

94. An Irish Soldier Between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg

95. Lee’s Army Moves Towards Gettysburg: Black Refugees Flee

96. Iron Brigade Immigrants Arrive at Gettysburg

97. Iron Brigade Immigrants Go Into Battle the First Day at Gettysburg

98. The “German” XI Corps at Gettysburg July 1, 1863

99. An Irish Colonel and the Defense of Little Round Top on the Second Day at Gettysburg

100. A Prayer Before Death for the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg: July 2, 1863

101. The Irish Regiment that Ended “Pickett’s Charge”: July 3, 1863

102. Five Points on the Edge of the Draft Riots

103. Before the Draft Riots: The Cultivation of Division

104. The New York Draft Riots Begin

105. Convulsion of Violence: The First Day of the New York Draft Riots

106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.

107. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate and the Know Nothings

108. Killing Pat Cleburne: Know Nothing Violence

109. Pat Cleburne: Arresting a General, Becoming a General

110. The Immigrant Story Behind “Twelve Years a Slave”

111. A German Immigrant Woman’s Gettysburg Address

112. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate’s Emancipation Proclamation

113. Pat Cleburne: The South Can’t Use Black Soldiers Without Ending Slavery

114. The Suppression of Pat Cleburne’s Emancipation Proposal

115. An Irish Immigrant Colonel’s Warnings Ignored at Chickamauga

116. An Immigrant Colonel’s Fighting Retreat at Chickamauga

117. August Willich: German Socialist at Chickamauga

118. Hans Heg:at Chickamauga: Norwegian Commander on the Eve of Battle

119. Ivan and Nadine Turchin: Russian Revolutionary Aristocrats at Chickamauga

120. German Immigrants Pinned Down at Chickamauga

121. Hans Heg: To Die for His Adopted Country at Chickamauga

122. Patrick Guiney: An Irish Colonel on the Edge of the Wilderness

123. Immigrants March Out of The Wilderness and Into a Wicked Hail of Gunfire

124. Peter Welsh in the Irish Brigade’s Purgatory at Spotsylvania

125. Peter Welsh: What Sacrifice Must the Immigrant Make for His Adopted Land?

126. A Second Irish Brigade’s Catastrophe at a Forgotten Fight Near Fredericksburg

127. An Irish Man and a French Woman Between Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor

128. Two Irish Brigades Swept Away by a Hurricane from Hell at Cold Harbor

129. Petersburg: The Start of a Ten Month Siege that Devoured Men and Disabled the Irish Brigade

130. A Volcano in Virginia: The Battle of the Crater

131. 1864 Election: The Immigrant Voter & Abraham Lincoln

132. August Belmont: The German Jewish Immigrant Who Led the Opposition to Lincoln’s 1864 Reelection

133. Lincoln and the Superiority of the “Negro” over the Irish

134. Lincoln’s Germans and the Election of 1864

135. Lincoln’s German Lawyer Comes Out Swinging in the Election of 1864

136. Lincoln Wins the Election of 1864 With Immigrant Votes

137. American Refugee Camp in Civil War Kentucky Destroyed by Union Soldiers

 

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