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

[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.

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