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Camp Nelson remembers Black refugees expelled during Civil War

Published: Nov. 20, 2021 at 11:49 PM EST
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NICHOLASVILLE, Ky. (WKYT) - Saturday, Camp Nelson National Monument held a memorial walk and shined not just one light, but 102, on one of the harsher moments in the camp’s history.

“To fully consider Camp Nelson’s history - a microcosm of the nation - we must recognize and embrace all of it,” said park superintendent Ernie Price.

Chief of Interpretation Steve Phan says during the Civil War over 10,000 Black troops enlisted at Camp Nelson.

“These men came from all over Kentucky to enlist at Camp Nelson,” said Phan. “It becomes one of the largest recruitment centers for black troops in the entire country.”

But the families which came with those troops were considered enslaved refugees.

“You’ve got black men enlisting in military service and they were emancipated, serving and even dying for the United States,” Phan said. “But their family members had no status and could be expelled without a moment’s notice.”

One such expulsion came on November 23, 1864 - in the middle of a winter storm.

“102 souls perished as a result of that expulsion,” Phan said.

Tonight, the park welcomed the public, including some descendants of those who served at Camp Nelson, to illuminate the camp and remember those lives that were lost.

“We want to talk about it so people understand where we came from and where we want to go moving forward.”

Lisa Sanders was born and raised at Camp Nelson and also believes that these are important events to have.

“It’s a form of a race issue because of what African-Americans had to go through,” said Sanders, a retired Technical Sergeant with the U.S. Air Force. “But this is very important just for Kentucky, Jessamine County, Nicholasville… we don’t know about all this and it needs to get out.

James Frye is a direct descendant of a Camp Nelson soldier.

“Don’t just come to a ceremony like this, then leave and forget it,” said Frye, a U.S. Navy veteran. “Let this be an event that impacts us all in the future.”

To Frye and Sanders, the most important takeaway from this past act of cruelty…is to be kind to one another going forward.

“Treat everyone as equals, as human beings,” Sanders said. “Don’t worry about the color of your skin, your race, your background, your religion - just come together as people and unite.”

Phan says tonight’s event was the first at Camp Nelson National Monument since it opened as part of the national park system on Oct. 1.

Phan encourages everyone to come out, see the park and learn the history of the civil war in Kentucky. He added that many more events are on the way.

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