Author Interview--Richard D. Sears (Camp Nelson, Kentucky)

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Richard D. Sears to talk about his book, Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History, published by the University Press of Kentucky.

Richard D. Sears was Professor of English and Theatre at Berea College from 1967 to 2010. He has published numerous books and articles on various aspects of Kentucky history including the abolitionist movement, Camp Nelson, and Madison County.

To start, Richard, how did you become interested in the topic of Camp Nelson and why did you decide to make this a primary source collection?

RDS: My first published book was A Practical Recognition of the Brotherhood of Man: John G. Fee and the Camp Nelson Experience. It was part of my research into the history of Berea, Kentucky, the founding of an abolitionist community and town in the middle of a slave state, the anti-slavery movement in central Kentucky, the establishment of interracial churches and schools, the continuing work of Rev. John Gregg Fee and his followers. Before Camp Nelson became my primary subject, I had published several books and numerous articles about the Berea mission. As my research developed, Fee himself led me into Camp Nelson. He was a prolific letter writer: when he moved to Camp Nelson, Fee wrote letters about what was going on there and what he thought about it, sometimes averaging at least one letter a day. His correspondence was included in collections of the American Missionary Association, the Freedman’s Bureau, Berea College, and other archives as well. My interest in Camp Nelson grew as I explored the sources; eventually, I was as interested in the camp itself, with its unique (I think) three-part development as in Fee and his work. 

I decided to make the primary source collection a major aspect of my book on Camp Nelson because I believe it is important to recognize the actors in the whole process of history. I prefer history to be populated, so to speak. While general views, overriding themes, political and sociological theories and developments are very important, big generalizations of historians and commentators sometimes conceal the individual figures who actually lived the history. In any case, my book about Camp Nelson includes a lengthy introduction for context, interpretation, and theory. 

In addition, it seemed to me that a major historical subject, like Camp Nelson, which had barely been scrutinized, should be made accessible through sources that were located, identified, organized, and translated or recorded. I assumed that my work would be an aid for the research of others, not the absolute end goal, but assistance in what might still be a long journey. Reading the materials that I located was a continual challenge for me because the actual documents were old and sometimes not well-preserved, the handwriting was frequently very challenging, and important sources were not usually conveniently organized by date, subject matter, author, and so on. The primary source collection approach makes the research process much easier for anyone who wants to undertake it.

What makes Camp Nelson such a unique place to study?

RDS: Three distinct missions, and Kentucky's position as a slave state in the Union. 

FIRST: Camp Nelson was officially established as a supply depot for the Union Army with obligations to and interactions with the troops in Ohio and Tennessee as well as Kentucky. It was actually quite large and well-stocked with materiel of all sorts. It became densely populated with soldiers and camp workers, so much so that someone has stated that Camp Nelson at its height was the third largest population center in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. I’m not sure about that, but there is no doubt that Camp Nelson was an immense undertaking in building, collection, storage, and distribution, with thousands of people involved in its work. It was not necessarily a huge success in its mission; no less a figure than General Ulysses S. Grant inspected the site and stated that the camp was not appropriately located to provide the best service (his own troops were in Tennessee when he leveled this judgment). 

SECOND: Camp Nelson became the chief recruiting station for Black soldiers in the state of Kentucky, and one of the largest such stations in the whole country; this function was added to the already demanding routines of the camp as supply depot. The African-American population of the camp continued until the official closing of the whole enterprise and even beyond it. Camp Nelson’s importance in the African-American history of Kentucky can scarcely be overestimated.

THIRD: Camp Nelson became a great attraction for refugees from slavery, sometimes known as contrabands, who fled from their owners to take shelter under the protection of the Union Army. Many slaves received their freedom papers at Camp Nelson, but that positive history was offset by the enormous problems involved in the sheltering of slaves who were still legally “owned” by Kentucky slaveholders. After the tragedy of the expulsion, Camp Nelson was designated with a third major function: the record of Camp Nelson as an official refugee camp was brief, but this aspect of the camp’s history became more significant because it highlighted the terrible problem of eliminating slavery, even when (and where) it was illegal.


Although it was never officially in rebellion against the United States, some “humorous” historians have maintained that Kentucky only joined the Confederacy after the war was over. Camp Nelson was an institution where the tension between slavery and freedom (in a slave state with a Union Army) was most obvious and drastic. 


Briefly, how do we have to imagine Camp Nelson, especially considering its three different tasks? Was Camp Nelson more important as a supply depot or contraband camp?

RDS: For purposes of analysis the history of Camp Nelson, Kentucky, as an official installation sponsored and overseen by the government of the United States, can be divided into three major functions: (1) supply depot for the Union Army; (2) registration post for the enlistment of African American soldiers; (3) shelter or safe haven for enslaved persons claiming freedom from owners in Kentucky. Actually, the three functions were so intertwined that it is difficult to separate them. 
From my point of view, Camp Nelson’s brief period as an official refugee camp was most important historically, partly because of the tragedies endured there by the people attempting to escape slavery.  
But if Camp Nelson had not begun its existence as a supply depot, it would have been inadequate for its later functions—the camp was huge, acre upon acre, densely populated, fully equipped, with buildings, machinery, service animals, food supplies, and established “business” on the region’s available trade and delivery routes. It was a very active Union Army installation, consciously planned for safety, accessibility, with supplies and soldiers readily available, with room for a large population. 
All these features would make it possible for Camp Nelson to become virtually overnight a post for enlisting African American soldiers; in the camp, former slaves could find shelter, food, clothing, and relative safety instantly. Once a large number of Black soldiers were residing in Camp Nelson, it became a natural attraction for the women, children, and old people who also wanted to find freedom.
So, the last official group at Camp Nelson, drawn from Kentucky’s still enslaved population, consisted of people seeking freedom by escaping from their masters.  The camp attracted hundreds of slaves, drawn by the camp itself with its massive infrastructure and accumulation of supplies, and also attracted by the new population of Black soldiers, armed and ready to protect masses of civilians surging into Camp Nelson as into a bulwark of freedom.
At times, Camp Nelson was a relatively quiet, peaceful haven for refugees and soldiers, but, very frequently, it was a riot of activity, with all its resources and assignments being demanded at the same time, and everyone at cross purposes. It was an impromptu place with its leaders and its population trying to figure out what to do next.  How often many, many people in the camp must have all been thinking:  “What next? What next!?”

I want to briefly pivot to the sources, was there any document in the collection that you found the most impressive? That encapsulated Camp Nelson for you?

RDS: Yes, I found one document that impressed me greatly and conveyed the most crucial issues of Camp Nelson's whole official history. It is a report dated 26 November 1864, filed by E.B Restieaux, Captain and Assistant Quartermaster, in which he records the sworn testimony of an African American man named Joseph Miller of Lincoln County, Kentucky. Miller, a former slave, was a duly enlisted soldier in the U.S. Army, stationed at Camp Nelson. In his deposition, he was describing the expulsion of the Black women and children from Camp Nelson on or about 23 November 1864, among them his own wife and children, who had accompanied him to the camp when he went there to enlist. 

His is a simple description of a great tragedy, involving hundreds of refugees who had sought shelter and safety under the protection of the Union Army. Their situation was already drastic, but the governmental decision to throw them out resulted in immediate disaster--starvation and exposure to unseasonable cold weather, the threat of being captured by former masters and re-enslaved, homelessness. Nothing stopped the perfectly legal procedure that was a humanitarian disaster of the first magnitude. Many of the victims died, including one of Joseph Miller's children (at the time when he testified), and somewhat later Miller himself and his whole family.

All of the documents in Chapter Four of Camp Nelson: A Civil War History deal directly with the Expulsion and its aftermath; the particular report that seized my attention most strongly appears on pages 135 and 136.

It became impossible for me to ignore the fact that Camp Nelson, throughout its brief official existence, was a microcosm of one of the largest issues in the whole country. It existed as a government agency, totally subject to political decisions; it existed as a variety of businesses and services, requiring constant financial adjustments, and virtually always in economic turmoil; it existed as part of the Union Army, subject to military decisions at all times—sometimes emergency decisions, warfare decisions; it existed as an entity where missionaries, teachers, and charitable organizations were constantly active because of the great need for humanitarian assistance, but aid workers were frequently thwarted in their efforts to alleviate suffering.   

I could go on, but it’s already clear enough:  Camp Nelson was itself a place of divided interests, generating controversies that mirrored problems afflicting the nation as a whole.  Humanitarian responses on behalf of slaves, freed or otherwise, were met with almost insuperable difficulties. The army itself could overturn all civilian efforts to do anything; the law of the land could stand in the way of lifesaving work. Officials operating in their own stations, so to speak, could generate human misery, even where overt racism was not (perhaps) the chief motivation. The suffering of the refugees from slavery would have been considerable, of course, whether it was supercharged by economic, political, social, and military decisions or not. At Camp Nelson, in its brief and rather drastic existence, presented many of the nation’s problems in pure and desperate forms. It boiled some issues down to their most obvious essences.

In our time, we can (unfortunately) still see in our own society the range of problems that Camp Nelson exemplified, the tragic conflicts that the affidavit of Joseph Miller reveals from over 150 years ago. 

Recently Camp Nelson became part of the National Park Service System, what was your reaction when the site you studied received national protection and recognition? What do you see as the most important story that visitors at Camp Nelson hopefully will learn about and take away?

RDS: When Camp Nelson became part of the National Park Service System, a protected and recognized site, I was certainly overjoyed at this evidence that our history--I mean our actual history, as opposed to our mythology--is still interesting and significant to us. We can learn from the multifaceted story of the camp with its achievements, its problems, and even its tragedies. Some of the Camp Nelson story amplifies and clarifies certain aspects of the history of slavery and the Civil War. Almost any segment of the Camp Nelson experience offers something new and productive for study and re-evaluation.