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Slave Stampedes as Mobile Insurrections

This online research journal represents a joint effort by the National Park Service (NPS) Network to Freedom and the House Divided Project at Dickinson College to address the phenomenon of group escapes from slavery.  Our initial regional focus has been on the Missouri borderlands during the antebellum and wartime period. We are now also beginning a second phase looking at the Kentucky borderlands. Contemporaries almost always called these group escapes, “slave stampedes.”  Yet that term rarely appears in modern-day studies of the Underground Railroad or resistance to slavery.  Even the idea of large groups of freedom seekers moving defiantly together toward attempted self-liberation seems almost impossible for many teachers and students to accept.  Yet stampedes happened –sometimes quite frequently– and we need to try to understand what these revolutionary episodes meant to Americans in that era.

To begin this journey, we suggest watching this short 2-minute video interview with Dr. Deanda Johnson of the National Park Service Network to Freedom.  She offers a concise history of the term’s origins and explains how the reality of group attempts at liberation can complicate our understanding of the Underground Railroad.  Then you might want to read the attached 2019 essay by Professor Matthew Pinsker from Dickinson College.  His 23-page introductory survey of the topic also helps explains why the Missouri borderlands should rightly be considered at the front lines of the stampedes phenomenon and how both antebellum and wartime slave stampedes helped tip the balance toward the final destruction of slavery.

At this online research journal, we will continue to post examples of the historical material that we are turning up in our digital and archival searches about the phenomenon.  This is truly a team effort, involving faculty and students, with significant input from our outside academic experts. Eventually, our findings will form the basis of an online report with various multi-media maps and tools, and a freely accessible database designed to provide an array of resources for anyone who wants to learn more about this important subject.  For now, however, please consider this site as a kind of open historical laboratory.  We are trying to share our progress as it develops, seeking your input and assistance whenever it might be helpful.


The 1864 Camp Nelson Stampede: Part 3: Freedom and Community

This post is the third of three posts on the Camp Nelson Stampede:  see also Initial Stampede (Part 1) and Enslaved Women (Part 2)


“I told my master that I wanted to go to Camp Nelson.” With those words, Martha Cooley boldly challenged her slaveholder’s authority in early March 1865. Months earlier, her husband Simon had gone to Camp Nelson and enlisted in the US army, only to be killed in action shortly thereafter. Newly widowed, Cooley hoped to gather her four children and journey to Camp Nelson. But slaveholder John Nave would have none of it. “He said, ‘I will give you Camp’ and immediately took a large hickory stick with which he commenced beating me.” After Nave’s successive beatings broke her left arm, Cooley “watched my chance and ran away.” She reached Camp Nelson in mid-March, but only after making the difficult decision “to leave my children behind with my master.” Cooley told US army officials that she was “very anxious to get my children.” [1]

Following the US army’s controversial November 1864 expulsion of enslaved women and children, Black families pressured Congress to act. In March 1865, lawmakers finally did, declaring free the family members of Black US soldiers. The new law emboldened Black women like Martha Cooley to head for Camp Nelson, even as Kentucky slaveholders tried everything to stop them. The influx of freedom seekers prompted US army officials to construct the Refugees Home, a community of 100 cottages to house freedpeople. But US victory in 1865 underscored Black Kentuckians’ tenuous foothold in freedom. Army officials wanted to demobilize the army and close wartime contraband camps like Camp Nelson’s Refugee Home. Freedpeople resisted, and in a remarkable turn of events, secured title to the land and put down permanent roots, founding the community of Ariel (later renamed Hall). At Camp Nelson, freedpeople transformed a wartime stampede into a permanent community which outlasted the war. 



Of the 400 women and children expelled from camp, around 250 returned to Camp Nelson. On December 2, 1864, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered army officials to provide permanent quarters for the refugees. [2] Stanton hoped to prevent further suffering during the winter months, but the haphazard accommodations provided by the army still remained far from ideal––especially for women and children still recovering from exposure during the expulsion. Throughout January and February 1865, as many as 102 of the 250 returning refugees perished.  Among the deceased were Pvt. Joseph Miller, whose heartrending testimony helped spur Congressional action, and his entire family. [3]

US officials worried that the overcrowding in Camp Nelson would only get worse after March 1865, when Congress passed a law freeing the enslaved family members of Black US soldiers. US general John Palmer decided to designate Camp Nelson “a general rendezvous for all these people in Ky.” [4] Palmer tapped quartermaster Theron E. Hall to supervise the construction of housing for the expected influx of Black women and children: a village of 100 cabins called the Refugees Home. Led by Hall and his assistant superintendent, freedom seeker and preacher Gabriel Burdett, Black refugees performed much of the physical labor. The resulting cottages measured 32 by 16 feet, divided into two 16 by 16 foot rooms. Each room was “designed to accommodate 10 persons, possibly 12,” meaning that every cottage could house at least 20-24 people. Work proceeded fast. “These cottages are now being built by the government at the rate of three per day,” reported one observer in late April 1865, “thus far making shelter for 60 newcomers daily.” [5]

Even so, construction of the Refugees Home struggled to keep pace with the influx of freedom seekers; as word of Congress’s new law spread across Kentucky, more and more Black women felt emboldened to head for Camp Nelson. An enslaved woman named Lucinda learned of the new congressional law when she received a letter dictated by her husband, a Black soldier at Camp Nelson, informing her “that she was free” and advising her to either demand wages from her slaveholder or else leave and seek work elsewhere. Two weeks later, Lucinda’s former slaveholder William Pratt awoke to find “the kitchen in the morning, swept, garnished, & Empty”—Lucinda and her daughter had vanished during the night, presumably bound for Camp Nelson. [6]

Reaching Camp Nelson remained as perilous as ever, with slaveholders and local authorities continuing to obstruct their path. Married couple William and Marilda Jones learned about the new congressional law and resolved to head to Camp Nelson together. “Desiring to enlist and thus free my wife,” William later explained, “I ran away from my master in company with my wife…. Our clothes were packed up and some money we had saved from our earnings we carried with us.” However, local constables in Lexington seized the couple to prevent them from “going to Camp Nelson,” instead returning them to their slaveholder and pocketing the Jones’s hard-earned savings. Undeterred, Willian and Marilda escaped again and reached Camp Nelson towards the end of March. [7]

Also in March, Frances Johnson gathered her children and headed for Camp Nelson, only to cross paths with Theophilus Bracey, her slaveholder’s son-in-law. Bracey drew a pistol and “told me that if I did not go back with him he would shoot me.” Bracey held Johnson’s seven-year-old daughter “and kept her as an Hostage” to dissuade Johnson from trying to escape again. Early the next morning, Johnson made the difficult decision to slip away by herself. “I found I could not get away from Braceys with my children, and determined to get away myself hoping by this means to obtain possession of them afterwards.” Once at Camp Nelson, Johnson pleaded with US officials to help her secure her children. “I am anxious to have them but I am afraid to go near them,” Johnson told US army officials, “knowing that Bracey would not let me have them and fearing lest he would carry out his threat to shoot me.” [8]

Despite slaveholders’ best efforts to deter them, Black women and children continued to head to Camp Nelson in large numbers throughout the spring of 1865. A representative of the American Missionary Association calculated that as of April 1, there were 1,266 people living in the Refugees Home, “nearly all of them women and children.” Over the ensuing 11 days, 354 more refugees arrived. By the end of April, the AMA official had lost count—he simply reported that “there cannot be less than 2000” people residing in the Refugees Home.  “They came to the city of refuge hopeful and as a general thing earnest for improvement — for religious culture, for mental training.” [9]



The end of the war thrust Camp Nelson’s community of freedpeople into yet more uncertainty. With US victory assured, the federal government ceased recruiting Black soldiers in late April 1865. [10]  But slavery remained legal in Kentucky until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865; the persistence of legal bondage rendered it dangerous for freedpeople to travel outside Camp Nelson. Moreover, Kentucky whites’ antipathy towards Black soldiers and their families had only deepened in the wake of US victory. In April 1865, a Kentucky judge declared unconstitutional Congress’s March 1865 law freeing the family members of Black US soldiers. US general John Palmer swept aside the judge’s ruling, but it underscored white Kentuckians’ continued resistance to emancipation. [11] Months later in June 1865, the Kentucky legislature demanded that the US army to remove all Black soldiers from the state. “Their presence is a source of great irritation to their former owners and the citizens generally,” legislators thundered. [12]

Freedpeople across Kentucky understood that their freedom—and their physical safety—hinged on the US military’s continued presence. In June 1865, a delegation of Black Kentuckians told President Andrew Johnson that if he “should give up the State to the control of her civil authorities there is not one of these [Black] Soldiers who will Not Suffer all the grinding oppression of her most inhuman[e] laws if not in their own persons yet in the persons of their wives their children their mothers.” [13] Superintendent Theron Hall echoed freedpeople’s warning. “Not a day passes during which I am not entreated by some poor defenceless wife or child to interfere for their protection against the furry of their master,” Hall explained from Camp Nelson in June. “I beg you to examine this subject carefully ere you decide to discontinue this ‘Home,’ this ‘City of refuge’ to which they can flee and be safe.” [14]

The dangers facing freedpeople were real and many, but senior federal policymakers remained determined to close Camp Nelson. The war had ended, and federal officials feared that freedpeople would become dependent on federal resources indefinitely. “My positive instructions from Washington are ‘to break up the Refugee Home at Camp Nelson at the earliest possible day consistent with humanity,’” explained Maj. Gen. Clinton B. Fisk, the regional commissioner for the Freedmen’s Bureau. [15] “Everything to break up the camp and not entail suffering,” Fisk instructed his subordinates. “There will be some suffering [but] do the best we can.” [16] Throughout the summer and fall of 1865, Fisk and Freedmen’s Bureau agents tried to prod freedpeople to leave Camp Nelson and establish their own homes, where they could farm and support themselves. [17]

So long as slavery remained legal in Kentucky, however, slaveholders and state officials refused to recognize the freedom of the Black soldiers and their families who called Camp Nelson home. Throughout the fall of 1865, Kentucky lawmakers adopted a rash of new slave codes restricting African Americans’ movement. Kentucky lawmakers fined anyone caught transporting enslaved people without their owners’ consent, including government wagons transporting freedpeople out of Camp Nelson. Legislators also passed a new law penalizing anyone who hired enslaved people, severely limiting the opportunities for freedpeople to find work outside Camp Nelson. [18]

Despite the Freedmen’s Bureau’s efforts to push them out, freedpeople stayed put. The federal government returned ownership of the land on which Camp Nelson sat to its prewar owner, a white Unionist named Joseph Moss. In a surprising turn, Moss indicated that he was willing to sell the land to freedpeople. But Moss’s irate white neighbors would have none of it; they menaced freedpeople with violence and strong-armed Moss into backing out of the original deal. Instead, Moss sold 130 acres of Camp Nelson land to John Fee, a white minister. Fee and his wife Matilda sold lots to Black veterans and refugees. [19]

Freedpeople rechristened their community Ariel (later changed to Hall). The community offered religious community and education, but Kentucky whites’ continued hostility prompted some residents to leave. In 1877, Gabriel Burdett, a freedom seeker and formerly the assistant superintendent of the Refugees Home, led a number of residents westward, where they resettled in Nicodemus, Kansas. Still other families remained at Ariel. By 1895, a Louisville paper reported that “there is now upon the site of the camp a negro village of some three hundred souls…It is a rather thrifty village, and has one of the best private schools utilized for negroes in Kentucky.” Descendants of Black U.S. soldiers and the freedom seekers continue to live at Ariel (Hall) to this day. [20]



The community of freedpeople at Camp Nelson has been richly documented in the records of the US army, the Freedmen’s Bureau, as well as various humanitarian and religious organizations. A good starting place is Richard Sears’s Camp Nelson, Kentucky (2002), an edited collection of primary sources covering the camp’s existence. The Freedmen and Southern Society Project’s Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation series 1 (The Destruction of Slavery) and series 2 (The Black Military Experience), also features primary sources related to the community of freedpeople at Camp Nelson. [21]

Amy Taylor’s Embattled Freedom (2018) explores the Freedmen’s Bureau’s efforts to close the Refugees Home and freedpeople’s determination to stay. [22]



[1] Affidavit of Martha Cooley, March 24, 1865, in Richard D. Sears, Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2002), 186-187.

[2] Burbridge to Fry, November 27, 1864, in Sears, Camp Nelson, 137; Townsend to Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army, December 2, 1864, in Sears, Camp Nelson, 146.

[3] Amy Murrell Taylor, Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 203; Affidavit of Albert A. Livermore (sexton at Camp Nelson), June 26, 1865, in Sears, Camp Nelson, 220-221.

[4] T.E. Hall to M.E. Strieby, March 24, 1865, in Sears, Camp Nelson, 184-185.

[5] E. Davis to Executive Committee of the American Missionary Association, April 28, 1865, in Sears, Camp Nelson, 196-197; Theron Hall to Oliver Otis Howard, June 22, 1865, in Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982), ser. 2 (The Black Military Experience), vol. 2, 717-718; Taylor, Embattled Freedom, 203-204.

[6] William Pratt diary, April 2, 1865, in Sears, Camp Nelson, 192-193.

[7] Affidavit of William Jones, March 29, 1865, in Sears, Camp Nelson, 192.

[8] Affidavit of Frances Johnson, Sears, Camp Nelson,188-190.

[9] E. Davis to Executive Committee of the American Missionary Association, April 28, 1865, in Sears, Camp Nelson, 196-197.

[10] James B. Fry to Lorenzo Thomas, April 29, 1865, in Sears, Camp Nelson, 198.

[11] Freedom ser. 1 (The Destruction of Slavery), vol. 1, 617-619.

[12] Resolution of the General Assembly of Kentucky, June 3, 1865, in Sears, Camp Nelson, 209.

[13] Freedom ser. 1 (The Destruction of Slavery), vol. 1, 624-626.

[14] T.E. Hall to Oliver Otis Howard, June 22, 1865, in Sears, Camp Nelson, 219-220.

[15] Fisk to John G. Fee, August 4, 1865, in Sears, Camp Nelson, 236.

[16] Fisk to D.C. Jaquess, August 15, 1865, in Sears, Camp Nelson, 239-240.

[17] Taylor, Embattled Freedom, 222-223.

[18] Taylor, Embattled Freedom, 224.

[19] Taylor, Embattled Freedom, 221-230, 237-238.

[20] On Ariel / Hall, see https://www.nps.gov/cane/community-of-ariel-hall-and-fee-memorial-church.htm.

[21] Sears, Camp Nelson; Freedom ser. 1 (The Destruction of Slavery), and ser. 2 (The Black Military Experience.

[22] Taylor, Embattled Freedom, 221-230, 237-238.

The 1864 Camp Nelson Stampede: Part 2: Enslaved Women Resist Expulsion

This post is the second of three posts on the Camp Nelson Stampede:  see also Initial Stampede (Part 1) and Freedom and Community (Part 3)


For Patsey Leach, an enslaved woman in Woodford County, Kentucky, the worst began after her husband Julius went to Camp Nelson to enlist. “From that time,” Leach testified, slaveholder Warren Wiley “treated me more cruelly than ever whipping me frequently… saying my husband had gone into the army to fight against white folks and he my master would let me know that I was foolish to let my husband go.” Wiley vowed to “’take it out of my back,’ he would “Kill me by picemeal’ [sic].” [1] 

By June 1864, the initial stampede to Camp Nelson had forced federal officials to open the ranks to all enslaved men in Kentucky, regardless of their slaveholders’ approval. However, the reworked federal policy still did not clarify the status of enslaved women like Patsey Leach. Undeterred, Leach and countless other enslaved women continued to head to Camp Nelson, where they sought refuge and an opportunity to reunite their families. Braving threats of violence from their slaveholders and all manner of dissuasion from US military officials, enslaved women pressured the US military and lawmakers back in Washington to expand federal policy to provide for the families of Black recruits. Enslaved women’s persistent efforts to reunite their families at Camp Nelson directly inspired a new federal law adopted in March 1865, which explicitly freed the wives and children of Black US soldiers.



On June 20, 1864, US general Stephen Burbridge confessed that he was not sure about the status of enslaved women and children who were crowding into Camp Nelson alongside their husbands and fathers. Burbridge decided to wait until Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, the army’s top recruiter of African American troops, arrived. In the meantime, Burbridge made clear that “women and children cannot be left to starve” and instructed his subordinates to “establish a contraband camp at Camp Nelson.” [2]

Black and white photograph of US army adjutant general Lorenzo Thomas, wearing a military uniform with buttons and epaulettes. Thomas has sideburns and white hair.

US army adjutant general Lorenzo Thomas (House Divided Project)

When Thomas arrived at Camp Nelson in July 1864, he decided to backtrack. Thomas based his decision on Kentucky’s status as a loyal slave state, as well as his own assumptions that enslaved women and children would be nothing but a drain on army resources. Matters would be different, Thomas explained, in Confederate states where the Emancipation Proclamation applied and all enslaved people, male and female, were free upon reaching US lines. But in a loyal state like Kentucky, Thomas explained, “I conceive I have only to do with those who can be put into the army.” Thomas believed that he lacked the authority to liberate enslaved women and children, but he also feared that women and children would deplete army resources. “It will not answer to take this class of slaves,” Thomas wrote, “as employment could not be obtained for them, and they would only be an expense to the Government.” If enslaved women remained at home, Thomas calculated, their slaveholders, rather than the army, would be responsible for feeding them. Moreover, they would be on hand to help harvest grain that would be essential to feeding Kentuckians and the Union army. Thomas insisted that he was dutifully following orders; if President Lincoln gave him the authority him to liberate women and children, Thomas declared himself “ready to obey his mandate.” From the perspective of Black recruits and their family members, however, Thomas’s policy seemed callous and inhumane. [3]

Thomas’s General Orders No. 24, issued on July 6, 1864, spelled out the US army’s new policy in Kentucky of discouraging enslaved women from coming to military outposts, while also threatening to return any women and children already behind army lines. “None but able-bodied men will be received,” Thomas declared. Women and children “will be encouraged to remain at their respective homes, where, under the State laws, their masters are bound to take care of them.” But Thomas went a step further. Women “who may have been received at Camp Nelson will be sent to their homes,” where they would be “required to assist in securing the crops, now suffering in many cases for the want of labor.” [4] 

Some US officers in Kentucky protested that Thomas’s orders violated federal law. It was one thing to discourage enslaved women and children from coming, but it was another to actively return women and children who had already entered Camp Nelson. In that respect, Thomas’s General Orders No. 24 seemed like a clear violation of Congress’s revised Articles of War adopted in March 1862, which forbade Union military personnel from returning freedom seekers to bondage, on pain of dismissal from the service. At Paducah in western Kentucky, Col. H.W. Barry refused to obey Thomas’s order. “I cannot return to Slavery, the wives and Children of men, whome… fought so gallantly,” Barry declared. Thomas arrested the good colonel for defying his orders, though War Department officials back in Washington eventually sided with Barry and the enslaved women. At least in western Kentucky, US officials would not turn enslaved women and children out of army lines. [5]

Black and white photograph of US general Speed Smith Fry, wearing an overcoat with epaulettes, and a military uniform with buttons underneath. Fry has dark hair and facial hair.

Brig. Gen. Speed Smith Fry, commandant of Camp Nelson (NPS)

No such protests came from Camp Nelson’s new commandant, Brig. Gen. Speed Smith Fry, a native Kentuckian who had already reached a general understanding with Thomas about the planned expulsion. The men agreed that they would select a date at which US forces would place all enslaved women and children outside the lines, furnishing them with just enough food to reach their slaveholders’ homes. Thomas even suggested that the US army give slaveholders advance notice of the expulsion so that they would be on hand to reclaim freedom seeking women and children. [6]

Impatient slaveholders were unwilling to wait for an official expulsion and showed up at Camp Nelson daily, using a combination of promises and threats to try to coerce freedom seekers back into slavery. “Their old owners came in carriages and on horseback every day to allure them by all kinds of promises and threats,” reported Sanitary Commission superintendent Thomas Butler. Sometimes slaveholders brought the wives of enslaved men along to camp, “and through them they attempt to bring back the servant and husband to slavery.” When such threats failed, slaveholders tried to sneak past camp guards and kidnap men and women back into slavery. [7]

Then suddenly and without warning, on Wednesday morning, November 23, 1864, enslaved women and children awoke to the sound of US soldiers gruffly shouting at them to leave camp. Within minutes, 400 enslaved women and children piled into six to eight large wagons and ominously trundled out of camp, to where they were not sure. [8]

To make matters worse, the morning was “bitter cold,” and “the wind was blowing hard,” recalled Joseph Miller of the 124th U.S. Colored Infantry. “Having had to leave much of our clothing when we left our master,” Miller explained, his wife Isabella and their four children were ”poorly clad” for such frigid temperatures–which hovered around 16 degrees Fahrenheit that morning. Miller was “certain that it would kill my sick child to take him out in the cold.” The soldier pleaded with one of the soldiers carrying out the expulsion. “I told him that my wife and children had no place to go and I told him that I was a soldier of the United States.” It “would be the death of my boy” to force him out into the biting cold without shelter. The guard was unmoved, however, and threatened to shoot Miller’s wife Isabella and their four children on the spot if they did not climb into an army wagon. [9]

Later that night, Miller caught up his family, taking shelter with other refugees in a ramshackle old meeting house near Nicholasville, six miles north of Camp Nelson. “The building was very cold having only one fire,” Miller explained. “My wife and children could not get near the fire, because of the number of colored people huddled together.” When Miller found Isabella, she and their children were “shivering with cold and famished with hunger.” His son had not survived the frigid cold. “My boy was dead,” Miller testified. “I Know he was Killed by exposure to the inclement weather.” The grieving father returned the next morning, where he “dug a grave myself and buried my own child.” [10]



The November 23 expulsion caused untold human suffering, but it also proved to be a critical turning point for the US army’s policy towards enslaved women and children in Kentucky. In the days that followed, Miller and other Black soldiers turned to sympathetic US officers in Camp Nelson to help share their harrowing ordeal with the public. Grief-stricken husbands and fathers dictated sworn affidavits before assistant quartermaster Capt. E.B.W. Restieaux. [11]

Capt. Theron E. Hall in military uniform, wearing a broad-brimmed hat and standing, posed with his right arm folded over his chest and partially concealed in his uniform.

US army assistant quartermaster Capt. Theron E. Hall (NPS)

Another sympathetic quartermaster, Capt. Theron E. Hall, recognized that the tragedy could help rally public support behind the Black women and children, and perhaps even push Congress to take action to ensure that nothing of the sort ever happened again. “The slave Oligarchy,” Hall wrote, “put into my hands the most potent weapon I could use.” Hall wasted no time circulating the Black soldiers’ affidavits to major Northern newspapers and antislavery politicians. Almost overnight, the Camp Nelson expulsion became front-page news. “Cruel Treatment of the Wives and Children of U.S. Colored Soldiers,” read the headline of the New York Tribune on November 28. The paper’s gripping account of “a system of deliberate cruelty” shocked Northern readers. [12]

Official action soon followed. On November 27, General Burbridge directed General Fry to “not expell [sic] any Negro women or children from Camp Nelson.” Instead, Fry should “allow back all who have been turned out” and “if necessary erect buildings for them.” Several days later on December 2, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered that the quartermaster’s department construct permanent buildings to house Black women and children at Camp Nelson. “There will be much suffering among them this winter unless shelters are built and rations issued to them.” [13] Stanton’s order, writes historian Amy Murrell Taylor, “marked a significant blow to slavery in Kentucky, as it now opened the doors to any enslaved man, woman, or child wanting to enter the camp.” [14]

The expulsion also prodded Congressional lawmakers to action. Ohio senator Benjamin Wade read Joseph Miller’s affidavit into the senate record. Wade had visited Camp Nelson months earlier during the summer of 1864. Now on the Senate floor in January 1865, Wade roared that the expulsion had not only been inhumane, but it was against the US military’s interests to turn out Black women and children; doing so would discourage other enslaved Kentuckians from enlisting. “Colored men will not enlist while these things are allowed,” Wade argued. “They have the same feelings toward their wives and children that white men have… and where is the white man who would enlist in the Army of the United States and leave his wife and children subject tot the taunts, the insults, and the ignominy of a master.” [15]

The debate in Congress quickly crystallized around a bill that would free the wives and children of Black soldiers upon their enlistment. Congress approved the legislation on March 3, 1865. One week later on March 10, Stanton issued General Orders No. 10, declaring that for the purposes of enforcing the new law, the army would recognize marriages between enslaved people, even if Kentucky law did not. [16]

Back at Camp Nelson, Black families weathered the transition from slavery to freedom in what became known as the Refugees Home at Camp Nelson. (Continue reading part 3)



In recent years, historians have reconstructed Black families’ journeys to Camp Nelson and the details surrounding the infamous November 23, 1864 expulsion. A good starting place is Richard Sears’s Camp Nelson, Kentucky (2002), an edited collection of primary sources documenting the camp’s entire existence. The Freedmen and Southern Society Project’s Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation series 2 (The Black Military Experience), also features primary sources related to Black recruitment and Black family life at Camp Nelson. [17]

One of the first scholarly treatments of the expulsion, Victor Howard’s Black Liberation in Kentucky (1983), combs through army records to provide a detailed analysis of Black families’ fight for inclusion at Camp Nelson. [18] More recently, Amy Taylor’s essay, “How a Cold Snap in Kentucky Led to Freedom for Thousands” (2011) and her subsequent book Embattled Freedom (2018) show how the humanitarian crisis at Camp Nelson prodded congressional lawmakers to action. [19]



[1] Affidavit of Patsey Leach, March 25, 1865, in Freedom, ser. 2, vol. 1, 268-269.

[2] J. Bates Dickson to Capt. T.E. Hall, June 20, 1864, Lexington, Ky., in Sears, Camp Nelson, 72-73; Dickson to Sedgwick, June 30, 1864, in Sears, Camp Nelson, 87.

[3] OR, ser 3, v4, pt 1, 467, 474, [WEB]; Thomas to S.G. Hicks, July 17, 1864, in Freedom, ser. 2, vol. 1, 260-261.

[4] OR, ser 3, v4, pt 1, 474, [WEB].

[5] Freedom, ser. 2, vol. 1, 260-262.

[6] Victor B. Howard, Black Liberation in Kentucky Emancipation and Freedom, 1862-1884 (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1983), 113-114; Order of Brig. Gen. Speed Smith Fry, July 6, 1864, in Sears, Camp Nelson, 93-94. On July 28, 1864, assistant adjutant general C.W. Foster replied to Thomas: “ Although the law prohibits the return of slaves to their owners by the military authorities, yet it does not provide for their reception and support in idleness at military camps.” See Freedom, ser. 2, vol. 1, 263. Foster’s unhelpful reply did not address whether Thomas’s orders were in fact in violation of the revised Articles of War.

[7] Report of Butler, Sears, Camp Nelson, 83-84.

[8] Taylor, Embattled Freedom,201; Taylor, “How a Cold Snap in Kentucky Led to Freedom for Thousands: An Environmental Story of Emancipation,” 191-214, in Stephen Berry (ed.), Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011).

[9] Freedom, ser. 2, vol. 1, 269-271; Taylor, Embattled Freedom, 201.

[10] Freedom, ser. 2, vol. 1, 269-271.

[11] Freedom, ser. 2, vol. 1, 269-271.; Taylor, Embattled Freedom, 202-203; Taylor, “How a Cold Snap.”

[12] Hall, quoted in Howard, Black Liberation in Kentucky, 116; Taylor, Embattled Freedom, 202-203; Taylor, “How a Cold Snap”; New York Tribune, quoted in Sears, Camp Nelson, 138.

[13] Burbridge to Fry, November 27, 1864, in Sears, Camp Nelson, 137; Townsend to Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army, December 2, 1864, in Sears, Camp Nelson, 146

[14] Taylor, Embattled Freedom, 203.

[15] Cong Globe, 38th Cong, 2nd sess., 160-162.

[16] Howard, Black Liberation in Kentucky, 79.

[17] Sears, Camp Nelson; Freedom ser. 2 (The Black Military Experience).

[18] Howard, Black Liberation in Kentucky, esp. chap. 8.

[19] Taylor, “How a Cold Snap”; Taylor, Embattled Freedom, 174-208.

The 1864 Camp Nelson Stampede: Part 1: Initial Stampede

This post is the first of three posts on the Camp Nelson Stampede:  see also Enslaved Women (Part 2) and Freedom and Community (Part 3)


Military barracks constructed out of wood, with uniformed men standing in front.

Black US soldiers at Camp Nelson (Explore KY History)

Within a few days the negroes of Kentucky have become impressed with the idea that the road to freedom lies through military service, and there has been a stampede from the farms to the recruiting offices.”  [1]  So reported the Cincinnati Commercial on June 4, 1864. The federal government had finally opened enlistment–and thus a pathway to freedom–to enslaved men in the Bluegrass State. However, there was a catch: enslaved men first needed to secure their slaveholders’ consent to enlist. Throughout the spring and early summer of 1864, enslaved Kentuckians refused to take no for an answer; they were determined to enlist and gain their freedom, with or without their slaveholders’ approval. In just a matter of weeks, the initial stampede of enslaved men to recruiting offices and Camp Nelson pressured the US army into opening its ranks to all enslaved Kentuckians. 



Unlike many pre-war group escapes in Kentucky, the “stampede” to Camp Nelson was not a single group of freedom seekers with one shared starting point; rather it consisted of a succession of group escapes originating from throughout the counties surrounding Camp Nelson. Collectively, those group escapes amounted to one of the largest wartime “stampedes”—thousands of enslaved men, women, and children escaped to Camp Nelson starting in the summer of 1864 and continuing through the summer of 1865.

Right from the beginning, newspapers employed the term “stampede” to describe freedom seekers’ rush to Camp Nelson.  The Cincinnati Commercial described “a stampede from the farms to the recruiting offices.” Papers in Cleveland and San Francisco reprinted the Commercial’s original story under new headlines that described the “Exodus of Negroes from Kentucky.” [2]

Newspapers continued to use the term “stampede” to describe occasional upticks in the number of freedom seekers heading to Camp Nelson. In April 1865, a correspondent from Danville, Kentucky commented that “the stampede of negroes from this region to Camp Nelson has received a new impulse within a few days” due to rumors that the camp might close its doors. [3] Several months later in June 1865, a correspondent for the Cincinnati Commercial described another “stampede” after enslaved Kentuckians eavesdropped on a local politician’s speech insisting that Kentucky could maintain slavery for another seven years. “There happened to be quite a number of darkies listening to him, and the idea of seven years more of slavery was so distasteful to them that they concluded immediately to take the short cut to freedom via the army,” the journalist wryly reported. “Accordingly, they not only went themselves, but got all their neighbors to join them in a stampede for the nearest recruiting station.” [4]



The US army originally established Camp Nelson in 1863 as a supply depot, not as a center for African American recruitment. The camp was located in Kentucky, a loyal slave state which continued to fiercely resist federal antislavery policies. In hopes of appealing to white Kentuckians, President Abraham Lincoln had exempted the Bluegrass State from his Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863. The Lincoln administration also held off enlisting enslaved Kentuckians into the US army, even though by mid-1863 the federal government had already begun recruiting enslaved men as soldiers in other border slave states such as Maryland and Missouri. [5]

Finally in April 1864, the US army’s manpower needs led federal officials to authorize limited Black recruitment in Kentucky. US general Stephen Burbridge sought to soften the blow by making several key concessions to Kentucky slaveholders. First, the federal government would compensate slaveholders $300 for each enslaved recruit. Secondly, prospective recruits needed to secure their slaveholder’s permission before they could enlist. Third, the US army would not send recruiters out onto plantations to enlist enslaved men, but would require enslaved recruits to journey to recruiting offices run by provost marshals (the army’s military police) where they could enlist. [6]

Enslaved men were determined to enlist, with or without their slaveholder’s blessing. As US officials quickly recognized, it proved almost impossible to determine on the spot whether slaveholders had actually given consent. At least some provosts went ahead and enlisted enslaved men without their slaveholders’ approval. In May 1864, a group of 15 enslaved men presented themselves for enlistment at the provost marshal’s office in Stanford, Kentucky. Even though only five of the recruits had their slaveholders’ consent to enlist, the local provost marshal forwarded all 15 men to Camp Nelson. [7] More often, US officials demanded hard proof of slaveholders’ consent. The provost marshal at Berea, Kentucky only agreed to enlist enslaved men who came to his recruiting office accompanied by their slaveholder. If he “let the slave[s] come and enlist at their own option,” the provost marshal explained, “all [the] slave men in the county would come.” [8] 

Turning away prospective recruits left enslaved men vulnerable to violent reprisals by slaveholders and white Kentuckians, who were determined to stop Black enlistment at all costs. On May 10, a group of 17 enslaved men traveled from Green County more than 20 miles to Lebanon, where provost marshal James Fidler “kindly received” them, but explained that he would need written proof that their slaveholders had consented to them enlisting. Fidler supplied each man with “notes to their owners asking that the negroes be permitted to enlist.” Fidler’s attempt to follow the fine print of federal policy ended in tragedy. White Kentuckians “followed these black men from town, seized them and whipped them most unmercifully with cow-hides.” Declaring that “negro enlistment should not take place in Lebanon,” local whites threatened the provost marshal “with a mob” should he attempt to enlist any Black recruits. [9]

Slaveholders also stepped up violence towards enslaved women, both in retaliation for their husbands enlisting and also to dissuade them from any designs they might have on joining their husbands at Camp Nelson. “My master beat me over the head with an axe handle,” enslaved Kentuckian Clarissa Burdett later testified, “saying as he did so that he beat me for letting [husband] Ely Burdett go off…. He bruised my head so that I could not lay it against a pillow without the greatest pain.” [10] Whenever opportunity presented itself, enslaved women gathered their children and slipped away to Camp Nelson, where they hoped to reunite their families.

Enslaved Kentuckians who withstood the violence and reached Camp Nelson met with a disappointing reception from the US army. When 250 enslaved men “thirsting for freedom” departed Danville, Kentucky on May 23 bound for Camp Nelson, students at Centre College “assailed them with stones and the contents of revolvers.” The men braved the assault and made it the sixteen miles to Camp Nelson later that same afternoon, only to be turned away by camp commandant Col. A.H. Clark, who claimed he “had no authority” to muster them into the army. [11]

Clark was even less sympathetic to the many enslaved women who had risked it all to accompany their husbands to Camp Nelson. Clark ordered his subordinates to exclude enslaved women from camp and threaten that “if they return, the lash awaits them.” [12] Despite US officials’ best efforts to keep them out, enslaved women kept coming back, determined never return to slavery and intent on keeping their families together. “There is not one among two hundred that want to go,” conceded one US army official, who acknowledged that enslaved women believe “that they will be killed by their masters if they return.” [13]



By June 1864, rampant violence against enslaved recruits prompted federal officials to open up enlistment to all enslaved men in Kentucky. “It became absolutely necessary for the protection of the slave to enlist him without the consent of the owner,” explained provost marshal James Fidler in Lebanon, Kentucky. [14] Federal officials back in Washington agreed. “In view of the cruelties practiced in the State of Kentucky by owners of slaves towards recruits,” assistant adjutant general C.W. Foster suggested that the US army should “accept and enlist any slave who may present himself for enlistment,” regardless of whether their slaveholder approved. In mid-June, US officials in Kentucky announced that the army would now accept the services of any enslaved men willing to enlist, regardless of whether their slaveholder approved. [15] 

However, the reworked federal policy still did not clarify the status of enslaved women and children who crowded into Camp Nelson alongside their husbands and fathers. Despite the US army’s best efforts to keep them out, enslaved women would continue to head to Camp Nelson in an effort to keep their families together. (Continue reading part 2)



A robust body of scholarship has highlighted Camp Nelson’s importance as a redoubt for Black emancipation in slaveholding Kentucky. A good starting place is Richard Sears’s Camp Nelson, Kentucky (2002), an edited collection of primary sources covering the camp’s existence. The Freedmen and Southern Society Project’s Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation series 2 (The Black Military Experience), also features primary sources related to Black recruitment and Black family life at Camp Nelson. [16]

Historians have also explored the experiences of freedom seekers heading to Camp Nelson, as well as the site’s continuing significance to public memory of the Civil War. Amy Taylor’s Embattled Freedom (2018) foregrounds the experiences of freedom seeker Gabriel Burdett, his wife Clarissa, and their family as they sought liberation at Camp Nelson. [17] W. Stephen McBride argues in “Camp Nelson and Kentucky’s Civil War Memory” (2013) that the Camp Nelson National Monument remains an important site in shaping public memory of the Civil War. By highlighting the crucial contributions Black men and women made to US victory, Camp Nelson gives lie to Lost Cause narratives which downplay the centrality of emancipation. [18]


[1] Cincinnati Commercial, June 4, 1864, quoted in “Kentucky Negro Exodus,” Cleveland (OH) Daily Herald, June 6, 1864, p. 4.

[2] Kentucky Negro Exodus,” Cleveland (OH) Daily Herald, June 6, 1864, p. 4; “Exodus of Negroes From Kentucky,” San Francisco (CA) Daily Evening Bulletin, June 29, 1864, p. 3; A July 1865 referred back to the “stampede of slaves from surrounding country” who “came here in May and June of ’64 by scores.” See “Refugee Home in Kentucky,” Worcester (MA) Spy, July 21, 1865, p. 2.

[3] “Stampede of Negroes,” Louisville (KY) Daily Journal, April 28, 1865, p. 1.

[4] Cincinnati Commercial quoted in, “How Dinah Got a Companion for Life,” New Orleans (LA) Times, June 19, 1865, p. 3.

[5] Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982), ser. 2 (The Black Military Experience), vol. 1, 193; Amy Murrell Taylor, Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 186-187.

[6] Freedom, ser. 2, vol. 1, 193; Amy Murrell Taylor, Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 186-187.

[7] Robert E. Barron to the Provost Marshal at Camp Nelson, Kentucky, May 27, 1864, Stanford, Ky., RG 393, pt. 4, entry 1660, vol. 237DKy, pp. 417-418, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC.

[8] John G. Fee to Brother Jocelyn, May 11, 1864, Berea, Ky., in Richard D. Sears, Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2002), 56-57.

[9] Freedom, ser. 2, vol. 1, 257.

[10] Taylor, Embattled Freedom, 188.

[11] Report of Thomas Butler, in Sears, Camp Nelson, 58.

[12] “Slave-Hunting in Kentucky,” National Anti-Slavery Standard, June 18, 1864, in Sears, Camp Nelson, 63-65.

[13] Hanaford to McQueen, May 26, 1864, in  Sears, Camp Nelson, 60; Hanaford to Dickson, July 6, 1864, in Sears, Camp Nelson, 94.

[14] Freedom, ser. 2, vol. 1, 257.

[15]  The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1891), ser. 3, vol. 4, 422, [WEB]; Lorenzo Thomas, Special Order No. 20, June 13, 1864, cited in Taylor, Embattled Freedom, 187.

[16] Sears, Camp Nelson; Freedom ser. 2 (The Black Military Experience).

[17] Taylor, Embattled Freedom, 174-208, 221-230.

[18] W. Stephen McBride, “Camp Nelson and Kentucky’s Civil War Memory,” Historical Archaeology 47, no. 3 (2013): 69–80.

Joe William Trotter – River Jordan (1998)

Joe William Trotter explores the creation and transformation of Black urban life by analyzing data from four cities along the Ohio River: Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Evansville. Trotter details how Black urban life is underscored by the history of slavery. Specifically, Trotter posits that the inception of Black urban life in the Ohio River valley was driven by the need for African Americans to secure their freedom and the freedom of their enslaved brethren. 

For freedom seekers the Ohio River paralleled the biblical significance of the River Jordan as it had represented a path to the north, to freedom, to “the land of hope.” [1] Trotter reveals that the promise of the Ohio River did not live up to reality, not until Black Americans committed to creating a community that pursued freedom. 

Taylor Alley or “Little Bucktown” — a predominantly black area in Cincinnati’s West End (River Jordan)

What had awaited freedom seekers north of the Ohio River were harsh systems that were designed to hinder any prospect of community building. Trotter analyzes a series of discriminatory anti-migration acts that prohibited “free blacks” from settling in these states. Trotter also cites Kentucky’s 1818 legislation that prevented free black men and women from immigrating to the state and the state’s 1834 law that forced black men and women to post bond in order to remain in the state. [2] 

According to Trotter, the decrease in the African American population in the Ohio Valley from 1800-1850 serves to illustrate the intensity of these discriminatory acts. Cincinnati’s black population declined from 4.8 percent to 2.8 percent from 1840-1850. Pittsburgh’s population also declined from 4.0 percent to 3.3 from 1820-1840 but slightly increased to 4.3 in 1850. And Louisville’s black population declined from 36.4 to 16 percent from 1810-1850. Trotter attributes the population decline to mob violence, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the tendencies of slave catchers to enslave freedmen and women under false pretenses. [3]

Table of Cincinnati’s population from 1810 -1860 (River Jordan)

Simultaneously, however, the occupations of the black population diversified, as did the number of black property holders. According to Trotter, diversity in occupation was instrumental in the underground railroad. Trotter highlights the role of black employees at hotels in hiding runaway slaves and collecting information from slave owners who would often frequent their establishments. Totter includes the escape of two women in June 1848. He emphasizes that it was the assistance of the “blacks working at the Pittsburgh Merchants Hotel [that] helped two female slaves escape from a visiting planter.” [4] Trotter also details a letter from August 1841 from a Cincinnati “fugitive” to his enslaved wife.  The letter served as an instruction for escape revealing the names of a barber, William O’Hara, and George (William) Casey, a riverman,who both aided in the escape of the fugitive’s wife and her friends. [5]  Another operative, John Hatfield stated “I never felt better pleased with anything I ever did in my life, than in getting a slave woman clear, when her master was taking her from Virginia.” [6]

Trotter’s book contains valuable information  about the development of black urban life, but does not include much information about group escapes. There was also no mention of the term “slave stampedes.”


[1] Joe William Trotter Jr., River Jordan: African American Urban Life in the Ohio Valley. (1st ed. The University Press of Kentucky, 2015), xiv

[2]  Trotter, River Jordan: African American Urban Life in the Ohio Valley. 26

[3] Trotter, 37

[4] Trotter, 45

[5] Trotter, 45

[6] Trotter, 46

Meyers and Walker, the Reverse Underground Railroad in Ohio

Slavecatchers grabbing a freedom-seeker.

Slavecatchers grabbing a freedom-seeker (Meyers and Walker)

In July of 1839, Virginia slave catchers caught a man named William “Black Bill” Mitchell in Marion, Ohio. Mitchell, who had escaped from Virginia, was living in Marion since the fall of 1838, where his various talents “quickly made him a valued member of the community.”[1] Mitchell was brought before the court, where it was eventually ruled that the slave catchers were in the wrong because they were bringing Mitchell back to the wrong slaveholder. Chaos broke out immediately after the ruling, as armed slave catchers grabbed Mitchell, “waving their weapons and threatening the lives of all who tried to stop them.”[2] Some local residents chased after them and fought the slave catchers off, allowing Mitchell to escape northward to Canada. In addition, the slave catchers “were found guilty of contempt of court,” and fined accordingly.[3]

The Reverse Underground Railroad in Ohio by David Meyers and Elise Meyers Walker describes the  legal, political, social, and often physical conflict between pro and anti-slavery forces in Ohio and Kentucky. While Meyers and Walker make no reference to “slave stampedes,” they document numerous accounts of group escapes by freedom-seekers and other instances of local Ohio abolitionists bringing cases to court to sue for the freedom of enslaved people escaping through Ohio. They use newspapers and other primary sources to show how freedom seekers and abolitionists worked together to fight back against slavery.

Map of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers

Ohio and Mississippi Rivers (Pinterest)

Meyers and Walker documented plenty of group escapes, like the trio of Henry, George, and Reuben, three enslaved musicians who made their escape to Canada. Throughout the late 1830s, the three were allowed by Kentucky slaveholder Dr. Jones Graham to travel with a free Black musician named Henry Williams to places like Louisville, New Orleans, and other southern cities along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.  The  enslaved musicians routinely sent their earned money back to Graham.[4] During the winter of 1840-41, however, the three musicians saw an opportunity for freedom after meeting another enslaved man named Milton Clarke. Clarke told the trio about his plan to cross the Ohio River. [5] They crossed the river together and eventually went north to Canada. After Graham found out, he tried to go after the three enslaved musicians, but failed to recapture them.

Another example of an escape that Meyers and Walker detailed occurred when the surrounding community of abolitionists helped Lewis Williams to his freedom, with abolitionist Levi Coffin helping to plan the escape. In June of 1850, Williams managed to escape from slavery in Flemington, Kentucky. However, in October of 1853 he was caught by slave catchers near Columbus, Ohio and brought before a court after local abolitionists brought Williams’ case to attorney John Jolliffe in Cincinnati.[6] During the trial, abolitionist Levi Coffin devised a plan to help Williams escape from custody. The authors note that Coffin “arranged to temporarily replace Lewis with a man who had a similar complexion.”[7] Williams was able to sneak out through the large crowd gathered to watch the trial, and escaped out of town where he was then hidden away in the churches of Reverend William Troy, a free Black minister, and Levi Coffin, a frequent attendee at the local Congregationalist church. After hiding for a few weeks, and after a few telegrams claiming “that [Williams] had passed through the city on a train bound for Cleveland” or that he had already reached Detroit, he finally escaped northward in the back of a friendly carriage.[8]

Freedom-seekers defending themselves against slavecatchers.

Freedom seekers in a standoff against slave catchers (Meyers and Walker)

Other notable escape tales include the stories of Matilda Lawrence, Mary Towns, and Jerry Finney. Meyers and Walker showed that when thinking of resistance to slavery, both African Americans and white abolitionists were key figures in spearheading the opposition to slavery, and often came up with clever means of escape.



[1] David Meyers and Elise Meyers Walker, The Reverse Underground Railroad in Ohio (Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press, 2022), 35.

[2] Meyers and Walker, 37.

[3] Meyers and Walker, 37.

[4] Meyers and Walker, 72.

[5] Meyers and Walker, 73.

[6] Meyers and Walker, 83.

[7] Meyers and Walker, 86.

[8] Meyers and Walker, 87.





Black Liberation in Kentucky Emancipation and Freedom, Victor B. Howard

General John McAuley Palmer

General John McAuley Palmer (House Divided)

After General John M. Palmer received Union top command in Kentucky during February 1865, he wanted to help abolish the institution of slavery. [1] However as he began contemplating ways to break the grasp of slaveholders in the border state, he realized that most of his efforts were late, because “emancipation had been pretty well established by the blacks themselves.”[2]

In Victor B. Howard’s book Black Liberation in Kentucky Emancipation and Freedom, the word “stampede” does appear. Yet the conditions shaping the growing black liberation in the state clearly derived from numerous wartime group escapes . It was common for freedom-seekers to sneak into the Union Army camps to find shelter.  General John Logan noted how the slaves were  “freeing themselves” in Kentucky. [3]

Howard often points out how the Union Army in Kentucky could be protective of freedom seekers, showing the willingness of at least some soldiers to break orders in the name of helping runaways. One example of this happened in late fall of 1862:

“On the march from Lexington to Frankfort in November 1862, the Twenty-third Wisconsin Infantry took a slave into the ranks. His master immediately appeared and, placing a pistol against the slave’s head, threatened to blow his brains out unless he returned home. The black agreed to obey the slaveholder, but the colonel of the regiment rode up, took custody of the slave, and informed the master that he would need an order from the general before he could recover his property.”[4]

Map of Kentucky

Map of Kentucky during the Civil War (House Divided)

Another instance from June of 1864 occurred when the commandant of a Union army camp ordered a freedom seeker to be remanded to her master. Yet when the guards grabbed her, she begged “the guards to shoot her on the spot rather than deliver her to her cruel master.”[5] Moved by her pleas, some soldiers snuck her out of the camp to safety.

Howard not only details the actions of the various army regiments and how they affected freedom seeking, but also the political infighting over emancipation policy between President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward, and other members of the United States government.



[1] Victor B. Howard, Black Liberation in Kentucky Emancipation and Freedom, 1862-1884 (Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2015), 78.

[2] Howard, 80.

[3] Howard, 17.

[4] Howard, 14.

[5] Howard, 119-120.


William Townsend uses Abraham Lincoln’s diaries and letters along with newspaper articles to help showcase the development of Lincoln’s views slavery. Specifically, Townsend captures Lincoln’s response to key moments like the running away of slaves in Kentucky. 

 Townsend’s book is a treasure trove of primary sources. However, the term “slave stampede” is absent from the book. In its place, Townsend includes about three instances of group escapes. Townsend details the punishment of preacher Calvin Fairbank and teacher Delia Ann Webster for assisting three freedom seekers in 1844. The successful escape resulted in the arrest of Fairbank who was tortured and placed in solitary confinement while Webster was placed in a “debtors room.” Israel, the black driver who transported them was whipped fifty times. [1] airbank pleaded guilty in 1845 and was sentenced to fifteen years of imprisonment. In 1849, however, Governor John Crittenden pardoned him. However he was caught again in 1851 “stealing slaves” in Louisville and sentenced to another 15 years.  He eventually was released in 1864. [2]

Although Townsend does not use the term stampede, he does cover mass escapes which contemporaries labeled ‘stampedes,’ such as the 1848 Lexington Stampede. On August 5th, 1848 in Fayette County, Kentucky, an estimated seventy-five slaves attempted to escape from their masters. The slaves were armed and led by a white operative named Patrick Doyle. According to William M. Pratt, a pastor at the First Baptist Church in Lexington, “there has been a great disturbance in the country on account of some 60 or 70 negroes running off in a gang & hundreds have been in pursuit, nearly all taken.” The men in pursuit met at the Fayette courthouse to discuss ways of “detection and punishment of abolitionists and others in enticing slaves from their owners.” [3] The Fairbank case had left a staunch residual opposition to runaway slaves and those aiding them. According to the Observer, abolitionists under “the false pretext of philanthropy, and with unexampled audacity” were “perpetrating their foul practice in our midst.” The solution according to the paper was to make “a more severe example . . . of these wretches.” The paper called on local residents to “be on alert to detect and bring them to punishment.” Most of the freedom seekers were caught a couple of days later. The freedom seekers who survived the confrontation were either killed or “sent down the river.” [4]

Shortly before the Emancipation Proclamation, Judge George Robertson met with a union officer to bring back his runaway slave who was being harbored by the army. The officer refused. Furious, Judge Roberson sent a letter to President Lincoln, whom he knew, and when he didn’t receive the answer he wanted, he sued the officer in a Kentucky court for  “harboring a slave and aiding” in the escape of a fugitive.  [5] Townsend suggests that the Union officer (Utley) may have harbored many fugitive slaves. According to Townsend, this dispute encapsulated a wider problem in Kentucky which was the conflict between the state’s pro-slavery constitution and the Union’s evolving antislavery wartime policies. 

[1] Joe William Trotter Jr., River Jordan: African American Urban Life in the Ohio Valley. (1st ed. The University Press of Kentucky, 2015), xiv

[2]  Trotter, River Jordan: African American Urban Life in the Ohio Valley. 26

[3] Trotter, 37

[4] Trotter, 45

[5] Trotter, 45

[6] Trotter, 46

Rebels on the Border by Dr. Aaron Astor

‘Rebels on the Border’ Cover, from Target Bookstore

In the summer of 1848, dozens of enslaved Kentuckians set out on the dangerous path to freedom.  According to Aaron Astoer, “The largest plot in the Bluegrass…involved [reportedly] seventy-five slaves who had escaped Fayette and Bourbon countries with the help of a white abolitionist at Danville’s Centre College and numerous free blacks.” 1  The freedom seekers had armed themselves and had been traveling in the direction of the Ohio River before being recaptured in the city of Cynthiana.  Astor only uses the term ‘stampede’ in his 2012 book Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation, and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri twice, and does not use it to refer to such organized group escapes.  The author mentions that locals of Lexington were particularly flabbergasted by this event, as “most of the participating slaves were ‘trusted house servants of Lexington’s most socially prominent families.’”2

In the beginning of Astor’s narrative, he describes some other antebellum examples of enslaved people rebelling against slaveholders.  “One large slave ‘conspiracy’ in the western border states occurred not in the Bluegrass but in western Kentucky’s Hopkinsville, where a foiled Christmas insurrection in 1856 spurred panic and ‘excitement’ throughout the entire state,” Astor writes, noting that even rumors of this sort of activity were terrifying to the slaveholders, who were extremely averse to the suggestion that their power over the people they had enslaved could be challenged.3

Enslaved Persons’ Rebellion, from ThoughtCo

Even though the journey out of bondage was perilous and sometimes unsuccessful, it was also an obvious reclamation of power by the freedom seekers.  Astor acknowledges that “[o]ther than outright insurrection, running away was the slave’s gravest political act of resistance.  It directly usurped the master’s authority…”4  White enslavers experienced a growing anxiety over the threat of enslaved people running away or arming themselves en masse, especially as the tensions which led to the Civil War heightened.  It got to the point that untrue rumors of rebellion circulated amongst the townspeople routinely: “The appearance of slave conspiracies during seminal events…underscores the latent political power vested in the ‘apolitical’ slave population.” 5  Astor notes that even though many of the feared insurgent plots seemed to have been conjured up entirely in the minds of slaveholders, the enslaved were able to observe their enslavers’ panic and use it against them.  Enslaved people’s different forms of rebellion shattered the wishful illusion that this system was morally neutral and could continue without consequences.

During wartime, Astor notes the examples of stampedes behind Union lines, and how the “rush of slaves off the farms of Little Dixie and the Bluegrass stunned white conservatives and Union military officials alike.  Sporadic violence against enlistees hardly stemmed the tide of black men –and often black women as well– who stampeded into the army of liberation.”6  Astor refers to black people as ‘stampeding’ into the army twice in his book.  Fighting in the Civil War for the right of all enslaved people to be freed was the ultimate revolution in which freedom seekers could have taken part, and the use of the word “stampede” to describe their fervor for enlistment is apt.



[1] Aaron Astor, Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation, and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2012), 67-68.

[2] Astor, 68.

[3] Astor, 68.

[4] Astor, 69.

[5] Astor, 70.

[6] Astor, 144.

Griffler, Front Line of Freedom

Map of the Ohio River Valley

Cincinnati and Ripley, both on the Ohio River, proved to be strong anti-slavery outposts to help enslaved people escape to the North (Front Line of Freedom)

While living in Cincinnati, John Malvin, a formerly enslaved man from Kentucky, became an Underground Railroad operative. While staying in Ohio sometime between 1827 and 1831, he helped a woman by the name of Susan Hall escape. Malvin devised a plan to free her and her two daughters from a steamship on the Ohio River. Motivated by his “abhorrence of slavery,” he snuck onto the steamship and led away Hall, her daughter and three others.[1] He tricked the armed guards on the ship and stole away Hall, one of her daughters, and three other freedom seekers, eventually helping them reach Canada.

Front Line of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley by Keith P. Griffler tells the stories of Malvin and countless other African Americans from the Ohio River valley. In the book, Griffler only uses the term “stampede” once, from a Kentucky newspaper article describing large numbers of freedom seekers escaping from Northern Kentucky and flooding into African American communities in Ohio and elsewhere.[2] Griffler uses a variety of sources, including letters from Levi Coffin to various historical newspapers from around Cincinnati.

Cincinnati in 1848

Cincinnati in 1848, seven years after a brutal clash between pro and anti-slavery forces in the city (Front Line of Freedom)

Griffler details multiple instances of African Americans defending their communities against pro-slavery vigilantes, such in the case of “Major” James Wilkerson (a nickname he was given by either anti-slavery allies). On Friday, September 3, 1841, a group of pro-slavery Kentuckians, angered by the growing African American community and by the lack of enforcement of the 1807 “Black Laws,” came to Cincinnati armed with guns and the intent to threaten the black community.  Wilkerson, a formerly enslaved man whose grandfather fought at the Battle of Saratoga (1777) came out with others from the black community “armed with rifles and muskets.”[3] The Kentuckians forced them to retreat due to a “well-executed counterattack.” [4] After the violence of 1841, Cincinnati began arresting members of the African American community, where “the majority were either required to post bond, or were released upon providing a ‘certificate of nativity.’”[5]

Reverend John Rankin

Reverend John Rankin was a crucial part of Ripley, Ohio’s resistance to slavery (Front Line of Freedom)

Griffler also details other instances of violence. Ripley was also a hotspot of formerly enslaved African Americans who were constantly helping other freedom-seekers to escape during the 1840s. However, slave catchers were frequently surveying the area as well. One incident of a standoff occurred when Richard Rankin threatened a slave hunter with a “revolver to his head.”[6] In 1841, leading abolitionists Reverend John Rankin and Calvin Rankin fought off slave hunters.[7] Luckily, they forced the group into retreat, and continued to help enslaved people to freedom.

Front Line of Freedom ultimately highlights how multi-racial resistance to slavery was strong in places like Cincinnati or Ripley Ohio. Griffler details other notable resistance figures such as  John Parker, J.C. Brown, Charles Langston, John Mason, and Frances Jane Scroggins.



[1] 1. Keith P. Griffler, Front Line of Freedom African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley (The University Press of Kentucky, 2015), 39-40.

[2] Griffler, 119

[3] Griffler, 54

[4] Griffler, 54-55

[5] Griffler, 56

[6] Griffler, 83

[7] Griffler, 83



Matthew Salafia — Slavery’s Borderland: Freedom and Bondage along the Ohio River (2013)

Map Showing the Ohio River as a Border Between Slavery and Freedom (American Literature & Culture)

“While the lower North was uniquely southern and the upper South was uniquely northern,” writes Matthew Salafia in Slavery’s Borderland (2013), “the result was a region defined by its blend of influences.”[1]  The author examines the importance of the Ohio River as a geographical, cultural, social, and political marker throughout the antebellum period and into the Civil War. Although opinions were strong and tensions were high between the North and the South in the years leading to the war, Salafia claims that the Ohio River Valley region remained committed to coexistence. Borderland residents rejected the sectionalism experienced throughout the rest of the country.[2]

Of significance to this project, Salafia discusses the “role of location, power, and politics in the institution of slavery.”[3] He uses a historical lens to explore the differences and similarities between the wage labor and chattel slavery systems that existed simultaneously along the banks of the Ohio River. Salafia explains that between the sentiments of White abolitionists, Black abolitionists, and pro-slavery sentiments, a form of “conservative antislavery” ultimately prevailed.[4] Salafia specifically discusses the experiences of freedom seekers in his book, who  had to cross “shared social boundaries between slavery and freedom.”[5] Escaped bondsmen and women often attempted to blend in with the free Black population in Ohio by shedding their identity as enslaved persons and adopting that of a wage laborer before relocating to further safety. Salafia also mentions that freedom seekers would weigh the benefits of escaping slavery against the possible limitations before attempting to flee. Those who decided not to flee likely realized that in practice, the “freedom” in the nearby borderland was often tainted by practices of forced labor that closely resembled the same system they were attempting to evade.[6]

Historical Marker that Describes the Journey of Eliza Across the Ohio River (New York Times)

Salafia does not use the term “stampede” in his book, but he does mention various family escape attempts. He explains that it was often difficult for enslaved individuals and their families to escape as a unit, and they only did so when they foresaw no possible alternatives. He emphasizes that “many slaves along the border escaped only after a triggering event threatened to tear them away from their community or forced them to reevaluate their enslaved condition.”[7] The borderland had additionally become more legally defined following the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.[8] T

“The Modern Medea” (1867), Painting of Margaret Garner’s Actions by Thomas Noble (Library of Congress)

With specific reference to the limited number of group escapes, Salafia explains that the close bonds of family members often made their escape together difficult. “Group flight presented multiple challenges,” he writes, “making it more difficult for runaways to blend into the surroundings, find shelter, and gather food, but individual escape required fugitives to abandon their families to the yoke of bondage.”[9] Specifically, Salafia mentions George Ramsey, J.D. Green, Mary Younger, William Brown, John Moore, Henry Bibb, Charlotte, and Margaret Garner as enslaved people who had to make difficult decisions about escape and the future of their families.[10] These men and women had to consider the benefits, costs, and risks associated with escape before planning a course of action. If they were caught, some—such as Margaret Garner—were so distraught by the idea of being returned to slavery that they believed death was the better and necessary alternative.[11]

To help with slave escapes, several Black and white community members provided their homes, businesses, communication, money, and other services to men, women, and children seeking freedom. Prominent members who helped freedom seekers in free territories included Salmon P. Chase, a prominent abolitionist attorney and politician; Elijah Kite and his wife, who opened their home to Margaret Garner and her family; and the community of free African Americans in general, who provided “emotional, psychic, and sometimes physical support.”[12] Overall, Matthew Salafia uses the scope of his book to discuss the institution of slavery through the geographic consideration of the Ohio River Valley.


[1] Matthew Salafia, Slavery’s Borderland: Freedom and Bondage along the Ohio River (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 2.

[2] Salafia, 3.

[3] Salafia, 5.

[4] Salafia, 7.

[5] Salafia, 10.

[6] Salafia, 11.

[7] Salafia, 168.

[8] Salafia, 76-78.

[9] Salafia, 175.

[10] Salafia, 175-180.

[11] Salafia, 180.

[12] Salafia, 166 & 180.