Camp Nelson National Cemetery, located near Nicholasville, Kentucky, is all that remains of Camp Nelson, the largest recruiting center for African American soldiers in the state, as well as a large Union supply depot and hospital facility. The number of wounded soldiers in the infirmaries and the unsanitary conditions for those stationed at the camp made the establishment of a cemetery a necessity. The cemetery today is greatly expanded, but the original plot retains its unique layout, original stone walls, and a completely restored superintendent’s lodge.
Gounded in 1863 at a strategic location along the Lexington and Danville Turnpike above the 500-foot palisades of the Kentucky River, Camp Nelson served as a supply depot for the Army of the Ohio, a 700-bed hospital center, and a training and recruitment facility. Eight regiments of African American soldiers were mustered at the camp, and three other African American regiments received additional training there. As freed slaves, many of these troops had no other option but to bring their families to camp as they trained. Initially, family members lived either with the troops in their barracks or in poorly constructed shacks. However, in November 1864, Brigadier General Speed S. Fry ordered all families out of the camp. His decision led to the creation of an official refugee camp on site, run jointly by the Army and the American Missionary Association.
The Camp Nelson graveyards was designated a National Cemetery in 1866. After the end of the Civil War, there was a federally mandated program to recover the bodies of Union soldiers from scattered and expedient battlefield graves across the country (this is thoroughly explored in a recent book and DVD entitled Death and The Civil War), and have them re-interred at national cemeteries as a gesture of respect and in order to facilitate the maintenance of graves. As part of this program, the federal government appropriated 8 acres for use as a cemetery and the roadway leading from the cemetery to the old Danville Pike, and In 1867 and 1868 a stone wall was built to enclose the cemetery. During June and July 1868, the remains of 2,023 Union soldiers were recovered from battlefield graves in Frankfort, Richmond, Perryville, London, and Covington then brought to Camp Nelson and re-interred with honor.
During the 1990s, genealogical evidence was presented to the cemetery director that the remains of two Confederate soldiers recovered from a Covington battlefield were mistakenly assumed to be Union soldiers during the post-war recovery program, and were buried at Camp Nelson. As exhumation and re-burial of the 130-year-old graves was considered impractical, their headstones were simply replaced by VA-approved Confederate gravestones, which have pointed tops and are marked by a Confederate emblem. These are the only two (alleged) Confederate graves at Camp Nelson National Cemetery
Camp Nelson covered approximately 4,000 acres and consisted of 300 buildings including nine separate forts. As many as 8,000 troops garrisoned the camp at any one time. After the war, much of the land returned to agricultural use, and the Army sold many of the buildings for lumber, leaving only the refugee camp and the cemetery.
The original three-acre cemetery was laid out in the form of a rectangle, divided into four equal sections by two avenues crossing each other at right angles. In the center was a circle 46-feet in diameter on which a flagstaff was erected. This cemetery was intended only for the dead from the troops and employees at the camp. Later when it was determined that remains from five civil cemeteries in Kentucky were to be moved to Camp Nelson National Cemetery, the cemetery expanded to the north and west into three new sections. One section contained 14 gently arcing rows of headstones, while the other two sections were triangular in design. The irregular sections are separated by serpentine avenues. An artillery monument was placed at the center of each of these new sections.
The original stone wall, built in 1867, still encloses the cemetery’s first four sections, and while the original main gates were removed, the pedestrian gates and stone pillars still stand. The cemetery was closed to new interments in 1967; however, it was reopened in 1986 when 10 additional acres of land were added to the northwest. At the new main entrance along Danville Road, an iron gate supported with stone columns was constructed.
The most notable building at the national cemetery is the superintendent’s lodge. Designed by Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs and built in 1875, the lodge features the distinctive mansard roof common in the Second Empire style. The lodge served as the superintendent’s residence until the late 1980s. In 1995, the lodge was restored and is now used as the cemetery office. Also on site are a committal shelter, three utility buildings dating to 1899, 1928, and 1997, and a flagpole relocated near the assembly area at the main entrance. In 1998, the National Society Daughters of the Union dedicated a granite memorial to Union soldiers of the Civil War.
Camp Nelson National Cemetery is the final resting place of a recipient of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration, given for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.” The soldier is Private William M. Harris, Company D, 7th U.S. Cavalry – Killed in action on 25 June 1876. He was posthumously decorated for action during the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Montana, during the Great Sioux War, one of the many Indian Wars of the 19th century.
You can explore your Civil War heritage with the Civil War Ancestor Toolbox. Most of the questions received at Camp Nelson are from those doing geneology projects, both for scholarly research and for personal satisfaction.