Living the Story: The Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky
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Camp Nelson

By official count, 23,703 blacks from Kentucky—the second highest total from any one state—served in the Union forces during the Civil War. African-American units were organized across the state, mustering in from Maysville to Paducah.

Camp Nelson, located in Jessamine County, was the third largest recruiting and training facility for black soldiers in the country. More than 10,000 African Americans came to Camp Nelson, enlisting in the army in return for their freedom. So many of them brought their families along that the Army eventually established a refugee camp, with a school and a hospital. The camp became known as Hall, and remnants of the community still exist today.

Though assigned to artillery, cavalry, and infantry units, black troops were most frequently given the tasks of sawing wood and carrying water. Recognizing the potential for abuse, the federal government ordered that black recruits receive “only their fair share” of such labor assignments. Those few blacks who could read and write were assigned to leadership positions in the federal forces.

At Camp Nelson, volunteer missionaries, along with both black and white soldiers, offered reading instruction to illiterate recruits, providing education otherwise not available to them. Among the teachers was Rev. John Fee. After the war ended, in 1866, Fee invited many of the African-American families to move with him to Berea to help reestablish an integrated Berea College, which pro-slavery forces had shut down in 1859. By 1870, several dozen families had come to Berea to begin a new life and get an education.

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