The November 1864 expulsions of the wives and children of black soldiers from Camp Nelson in Kentucky had tragic consequences. Of the 400 or more refugees expelled, 102 died of hunger and exposure. Captain Theron Hall, who had tried to stop the expulsions, was arrested by the camp commander, Brigadier General Speed Fry. When Captain Hall convinced Fry’s superiors that the policy was killing black refugees, it was finally reversed.1
Captain Hall, who had risked his career and freedom to try to save the lives of the refugees, was appointed to organize the shelter and protection of the refugees. On December 14, just two weeks after being released from arrest, Captain Hall had already begun the work of establishing a secure refugee camp. “The buildings are already commenced,” he announced. In addition to a place for the families to sleep, he provided for a school so that the women and children could be “prepared for freedom.” He appealed to supporters of the end of slavery to send food and clothing, as well as books and teachers. If the camp was a success, he wrote, “it is the death blow to slavery in Kentucky.”2
Captain Hall had been “subjected…to much abuse,” he wrote, because of his stand for the refugees, but, he said, in the end General Fry’s outrages had worked in the favor of the surviving refugees. “Had it not been for the inhuman treatment of these poor people,” he wrote, “we should have had a longer struggle.”3
Humanitarian concerns were not the only factors motivating the army to back Captain Hall’s reforms. General Lorenzo Thomas, wrote that because “the families of Colored Soldiers are suffering for the want of proper shelter…many of the soldiers…complain that their families are not provided for.” This agitation by Black soldiers was, he wrote, “preventing the enlistment of others, fearing that their wives and children will not be cared for during the winter.”4
A report by War Department commissioners to Secretary of War Stanton made the same point more forcefully, saying that “a very large number of these refugees have claims upon the government” because their men were in the army. The commissioners said that the United States Colored Troops “had a right to expect that their families would not be permitted by the government to suffer while they were periling all in defense and support of that government… They go now in aid in defense of a government that has never done anything for them.” 5
Unlike white soldiers from the North, whose families back home were protected and aided by local and state governments, the families of black troops from Kentucky lived among violent white guerillas who sought to punish women and children for the enlistment of black soldiers in the Union cause. The wives and children of the soldiers, if excluded from Camp Nelson, were subjected, the report said, to “odious oppression.”6
The testimony of some of these women was set down in affidavits. One woman said that after her husband enlisted in the army, her owner “treated me more cruelly than ever whipping me frequently…and insulting me on every occasion.” When her husband was killed in the army, she said, “my master whipped me severely saying my husband had gone into the army to fight against white folks” and that in revenge he would “take it out of my back.” In a scene of pure horror, she said that her owner “tore all of my clothes off until I was entirely naked, bent me down, placed my head between my knees, then whipped me most unmercifully.”7
The Reverend John Fee was an independent minister who was the Kentucky-born son of a slave owner. He became an opponent of slavery while in the seminary and he helped found Berea College, the first integrated college in Kentucky.
The missionary John Fee’s monthly letters to the United States Christian Commission read like modern-day human rights reports. For example, he described the number of new arrivals at the camp, noting that 27 arrived on one day alone in February, 1865. He reported interviewing the refugees and said that of 753 women, 150 said that they were “cruelly treated” by the local white people because their husbands had enlisted. Three of the women were “horribly lacerated” by their old owners. Among the black men who enlisted, he reported, 60% showed scars from beatings and other abuse under slavery.8
The refugee camp was soon formally named the “Home for Colored Refugees.” Captain Hall worked together with Rev. John Fee of the Christian Commission to try to bring his vision of a safe harbor for refugees to fruition. Fee welcomed this partnership. He had made earlier efforts to bring literacy to the refugees, but he had been marginalized by the camp commander, General Fry. Now, he wrote his colleagues, “provision will be made for a magnificent school…The building thus far is the finest in the Camp.” In many of the improvised camps set up during the war, after food and shelter, education was the great demand petitioned for by escaped enslaved people. Fee set about securing teachers to come from the North to teach the former slaves.9
The Camp Nelson schoolhouse would be the centerpiece of the reconstructed refugee camp. Captain Hall and Reverend Fee believed that former slaves needed to be literate to have a chance at freedom and prosperity after the war. White and black women taught the children.
As a soldier, Captain Hall decided to accommodate the families in large military-style barracks. The missionary Rev. Fee urged a different approach. He believed that massing women and children by the hundreds in large buildings would undermine each woman’s role in caring for her children and raising them. Worries about the spread of disease and the sheer noise and disorder of so many children in a dormitory was particularly troubling. He also resisted the plan to feed the families at a collective mess as though they were soldiers as undermining the self-sufficiency of the former slaves. He suggested, instead, that the women be given small cabins with several acres to farm to support themselves and their children. Fee warned that large dormitories for the families would only breed “noise feuds disease and disgust.” 10
Neat cottages were preferred by many of the refugee families over the massive dormitories built by Captain Hall.
In the end, a mixed camp of large dormitories and small cabins and huts was developed. The dormitories became dangerous places when contagious diseases arrived with new waves of refugees. Mini-epidemics would sweep through the dormitories leaving dozens sick or dying. Every week brought the deaths of a dozen or more refugees.11
A reconstruction of the type of cabins built by the refugee women to house their families.
The 97 duplex cottages that housed nearly 200 families were a more healthy alternative. Materials were also furnished to some families to build their own huts. According to a report from the time:
These huts are of various sizes and descriptions, built in nearly every instance by the negro women. The majority of them are of small logs…notched together at the corners…with the usual “filling and daubing” of log cabin architecture. A few have been made with boards of varying lengths, breadth, and thickness…Each hut is separated from the others by a space of from 10 to 30 feet, and in all but a single instance is furnished with an open fire-place. The cooking here is done by the families.12
The focus of Hall and Fee on educating the refugees was tested when Fee recruited a black teacher for the school. Not only was her very presence contested, but Fee’s insistence that she be treated equal in all matter aroused racial hatreds. Many Northerners who wanted to emancipate blacks still did not want them as equal citizens with themselves.13
Video: African American Union Soldiers
You can watch Camp Nelson’s archeologist Stephen McBride interviewed by C-SPAN.
1. Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History by Richard D. Sears published by University Press of Kentucky (2002) p 146 Telegram from Major General Burbage to Brig. Gen. Fry Dec. 2, 1864; Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction by Jim Downs published by Oxford University Press, 2012.
2. Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History by Richard D. Sears published by University Press of Kentucky (2002) p. 147 Letter of Capt. Hall to Elnathan Davis December 14, 1864
3. Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History by Richard D. Sears published by University Press of Kentucky (2002) p. 147 Letter of Capt. Hall to Elnathan Davis December 14, 1864
4. 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 p. 149 Orders No. 29 Lorenzo Thomas December 15, 1864.
5. Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History by Richard D. Sears published by University Press of Kentucky (2002) p. 157-160 Report of the Commissioner of Investigation of Colored Refugees in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama to Edwin Stanton December 28, 1864
6. Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History by Richard D. Sears published by University Press of Kentucky (2002) p. 157-160 Report of the Commissioner of Investigation of Colored Refugees in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama to Edwin Stanton December 28, 1864
7. Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History by Richard D. Sears published by University Press of Kentucky (2002) p. 187-188 Affidavit of Patsy Leach March 25, 1865.
8. Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History by Richard D. Sears published by University Press of Kentucky (2002) p 170-171
9. Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History by Richard D. Sears published by University Press of Kentucky (2002) p. 161-162 Letter from Fee January 2, 1865.
10. Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History by Richard D. Sears published by University Press of Kentucky (2002) p. 171
11. Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History by Richard D. Sears published by University Press of Kentucky (2002) p lii; for treatment of medical conditions of black refugees consult Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction by Jim Downs published by Oxford University Press (2012).
12. Seizing Freedom: Archeology of Escaped Slaves at Camp Nelson, Kentucky by Stephen and Kim McBride Undated with no Publisher.
13. Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History by Richard D. Sears published by University Press of Kentucky (2002) p lvi
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.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
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.
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.
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.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites