Camp Nelson and the Congressional Emancipation Act of 1865

On Saturday, March 7, 2015 at 12 noon in the Barracks building of the Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park Dr. Stephen McBride, Director of Interpretation & Archaeology at Camp Nelson, will provide a presentation on “Camp Nelson and the Congressional Emancipation Act of 1865.” The law freed the wives and children of African American soldiers and arose directly out of the U.S. Army’s expulsion of African American refugees from Camp Nelson. Some have estimated that this act freed at least 70,000 enslaved people and, along with the 1864 enlistment of African American soldiers, began the destruction of slavery in Kentucky.

Camp Nelson was a large Union quartermaster and commissary depot, recruitment and training center, and hospital facility established during the Civil War in June 1863. The Conscription Act of February 1864 authorized the creation of United States Colored Troops in Kentucky and by April 1864 freemen and enslaved men with their owner’s permission began enlisting. It was not until June 1864, following the appearance of 200 escaped slaves at Camp Nelson, without their owners’ permission, that the army opened up enlistment to all able bodied African American men. Soon after, thousands of enslaved men, women, and children escaped slavery and sought freedom at Camp Nelson. As a non-seceding state, Kentucky’s slaves were not freed through the Emancipation Proclamation.

Unfortunately for the soldiers’ wives and children, emancipation did not come immediately upon their husband or father’s enlistment. They were still legally enslaved and in November 1864 they were ejected from Camp Nelson. Due to freezing weather about 100 of the 400 refugee women and children died after this ejection and a national uproar occurred. This uproar led to a reversal in the army’s policy and the construction of the “Home for Colored Refugees” at Camp Nelson. Ultimately, it led to the March 1865 Congressional Emancipation Act freeing the wives, children, and mothers of United States Colored Troops. To many African Americans Camp Nelson was synonymous with freedom.

The presentation follows the annual meeting of the Camp Nelson Education & Preservation Foundation which starts at 10:30 AM. Both events are free and open to the public. Camp Nelson is located on US 27, five miles south of Nicholasville. Call Camp Nelson at 859-881-5716 or visit for further information.

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