Kentucky Civil War Refugee Camp Reborn and Reconstructed After Expulsions

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After expulsions killed nearly a quarter of the black refugees in Camp Nelson, a new effort to reconstruct the refugee haven succeeded in Central Kentucky.

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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 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. Lincoln’s military adviser, 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 complaining was “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 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

 

camp-nelson-rev-feeThe 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.” Fee set about securing teachers to come from the North to teach the former slaves.9

camp-nelson-schoolThe 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

camp-nelson-streetNeat 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

camp-nelson-refugee-cabinA 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

Resources:

You can watch Camp Nelson’s archeologist Stephen McBride interviewed by C-SPAN.

Here is a booklet by Dr. McBride on the archeology of the Camp.

Sources:

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.

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

138. Kentucky Civil War Refugee Camp Reborn and Reconstructed After Expulsions

 

Cultural

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