Richard D. Sears — Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History (2002)

“Burnside was at Camp Nelson just preparing to start out and I thought if I could only make it to that place I would be all right.”[1]

Portrait of Peter Bruner After the Civil War (National Park Service)

This thought was prominent in Peter Bruner’s mind as he envisioned his escape to freedom near the Kentucky border around 1862. At about seventeen years old, Bruner—an enslaved man—and several others attempted to evade their violent slaveholders by reaching safety at Camp Nelson. In his memoir documented by author Richard Sears, Bruner recalls the other members of his group being captured before they reached the camp. Bruner attempted to hide in the weeds a half-mile away from the scene but was eventually discovered. He explains that the capturers took him and the rest of the freedom seekers “before the Magistrate” and they swore they “were runaway slaves.”[2] The men were then taken to jail near Lexington, Kentucky where they stayed with more than twenty other freedom seekers.[3] When he was nineteen, Bruner again attempted to escape to Camp Nelson. This time he was successful. He enrolled in the US Army on July 25, 1864, and he served for two and a half years.[4]

In his book Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History, Sears documents Bruner’s escape to what was later one of the most important refugee camps during the American Civil War. Sears utilizes primary documents such as letters, memoirs, and telegraphs to convey historical details about the camp. Much of the book contains background information and firsthand experiences at Camp Nelson throughout the Civil War.  Yet, the only mention of a group escape from slavery is found in Peter Bruner’s experiences.

Soldiers in the US Colored Troops Outside Barracks at Camp Nelson (National Archives and Records Administration)

Throughout his book, Sears charts how Camp Nelson evolved from a military installation to a key haven for enslaved Kentuckians and their families fleeing bondage. The camp was originally constructed in Jessamine County, Kentucky with four central goals in mind: to protect Hickman Bridge (an establishment crucial for seizing Tennessee), to prepare to invade Tennessee, to take control of the Cumberland Gap, and to gather soldiers in central Kentucky.[5] The US Army was initially optimistic about these goals, but the camp later faced hardship. As the transport roads from Camp Nelson to troops in East Tennessee became muddier, they were virtually impossible to utilize. Because of this, animals and soldiers faced starvation and received minimal military supplies.[6] Although the camp generally failed as a military installment, it served well as a pit stop for US soldiers returning from Tennessee. The camp had to expand its amenities, which enslaved people (whom Union officials referred to as “contrabands”) constructed.[7] After the US Army opened enlistment to enslaved men in the summer of 1864, Camp Nelson became the most notable Black recruitment hub in the state and the third-largest in the nation for the US Colored Infantry.[8] Many men and their families viewed enlistment as an escape from the horrors of slavery.

A refugee camp at Camp Nelson during the Civil War (National Archives and Records Administration)

In the late months of the Civil War, the camp became a place of refuge for Black and white men, women, and children. According to Sears, many believed “Camp Nelson would be the largest center for black progress…in the state of Kentucky.”[9] These hopes, however, did not ultimately come to fruition. Some refugees who arrived at Camp Nelson included white unionist families who were no longer safe in East Tennessee. Others were the families of enslaved men who enlisted in the US Army.[10] Some women and children were driven away or returned to slavery. For those permitted to stay at the camp, mortality rates soared due to overcrowding and disease.[11] In place of this unofficial camp, Rev. John Gregg Fee and Capt. Theron E. Hall opened the government-sponsored Camp Nelson Refugee Home in 1865. Black women and children with relatives fighting in the war could stay there legally, which thousands viewed as protection from slavery.[12] Despite its high mortality rate—and its relatively short lifespan from January 1865 to March 1866—the legacy of the institution was profound. It provided a place for Black people to gather, work, and attend school. When the war ended in April 1865, however, Camp Nelson was discarded. The Freedmen’s Bureau, established by the federal government to address the newly-freed four million African Americans in the US, was tasked with dismantling the camp and its Refugee Home. Many refugees had nowhere safe to relocate, so they stayed at the camp as long as possible. The camp was officially closed on March 14, 1866, and the refugees who remained at the site became the first residents of a new town.[13]

Present Day Camp Nelson National Cemetery (National Park Service)

Although Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History mentions many instances of escapes from slavery—including the experiences of Peter Bruner and his group of freedom seekers —the term “stampede” is not used.





[1] Richard D. Sears, Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2002), 13.

[2] Sears, 14.

[3] Sears, 14.

[4] Sears, 104.

[5] Sears, “Historical Introduction,” xxi.

[6] Sears, “Historical Introduction,” xxv.

[7] Sears, “Historical Introduction,” xxxiii.

[8] Sears, “Historical Introduction,” xxx.

[9] Sears, “Historical Introduction,” lvii.

[10] Sears, “Historical Introduction,” xxxii.

[11] Sears, “Historical Introduction,” lii.

[12] Sears, “Historical Introduction,” lii.

[13] Sears, “Historical Introduction,” lx.

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