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Camp Nelson

Site No.:

15Js78, 96, 97, 112, 113, 163, 164, 166
Historic (1863-1866)
Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park
Site tours, interpretive center, educational programs, special events
6614 Danville Road, Nicholasville, KY 40356
(859) 881-5716

Camp Nelson grounds and interpretive center
Camp Nelson’s grounds and Interpretive Center during Civil War Days; KAS, 2008.


Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park preserves portions of one the nation’s largest Union supply depots and recruitment centers. This massive complex of fortifications, barracks, warehouses and stables once covered over 4,000 acres in Jessamine County. Thousands of Union soldiers passed through Camp Nelson from 1863 to 1866. As a supply depot, the garrison supported Union campaigns in Tennessee, Georgia and Virginia. The camp’s warehouses could store two million rations. Up to 14,000 horses and mules could be held in its stables and corrals. Camp Nelson was also the third largest recruitment and training center for U.S. Colored Troops in America. Eight USCT Regiments were founded at Camp Nelson. In 1865, the federal government and missionaries established the Home for Colored Refugees following the tragic expulsion of African Americans living in shantytowns at the camp.

Almost all of Camp Nelson’s 300 buildings were dismantled after the Civil War. Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park preserves the grounds and a series of earthen fortifications. Open throughout the year, the park has an interpretive center, a restored home and several miles of interpretive trails. Camp Nelson National Cemetery is adjacent to the park. Camp Nelson’s website has information about site tours, educational programs, historical resources and special events, including the popular Civil War Days - a weekend of demonstrations and re-enactments held in September.

Barracks, tents and a refugee shantytown
Barracks, cottages, tents and huts at the Home for Colored Refugees at Camp Nelson, 1865; Image, Special Collections, University of Kentucky.


Members of the 12 USC Heavy Artillery fire a replica bronze cannon during re-enactments at Civil War Days
Members of the 12 USC Heavy Artillery fire a replica bronze cannon during re-enactments at Civil War Days; Image KAS, 2008.

Research and Findings

Most of what is known about Camp Nelson comes from official records written by Union Army officers and civilian government officials. There are relatively few written accounts from the perspective of the common soldiers or slave refugees. In order to help fill this void, archaeologists have been conducting investigations at several sites within Camp Nelson since 1987. Although most of the buildings at Camp Nelson were dismantled, the excavation and analysis of material culture such as architectural features, privies, artifacts and food remains can reveal much about daily life at this huge supply depot, training and recruitment center during the Civil War.

U.S. Colored Troops in formation at their barracks in Camp Nelson, 1865
U.S. Colored Troops in formation at their barracks in Camp Nelson, 1865; Image, Special Collections, University of Kentucky.

The Owens’ House/ Post Office Complex (15Js97)

This site complex was Camp Nelson’s main commercial district, and included the post office, a photographic studio, sutlers’ stores (private merchants to the army), a billiards parlor, a shoe/boot store, the Owens’ House, as well as some unidentified buildings.  Artifacts recovered during excavations, such as expensive ceramics, wine bottles and glasses, officers’ buttons and accoutrements, and expensive cuts of meat, helped us identify the Owens’ House as a tavern for higher class clientele, such as officers and supervisory employees.  The quality and variety of artifacts found at two other sites within this complex helped us identify them as a sutler store and saloon, both of which served a lower class clientele, such as enlisted men and laborers).

Owen's House Foundation 
Owen's House foundation; Image, Wilbur Smith, 1994.

The Headquarters/ Mess House Complex (15Js96)

U.S. Camp Nelson Headquarters, 1865; Image, Special Collections, University of Kentucky.

This site complex contained the camp’s headquarters and its support buildings, as well as numerous nearby mess houses for civilian employees.  Excavations at the headquarters area located dense refuse deposits associated with its mess house and within the ornamental fountain basin, both of which produced high quality (expensive) items likely associated with officers.  Archaeology at the employee mess houses was most surprising since it produced much military ammunition and accoutrements, suggesting that these buildings were later used by soldiers, probably United States Colored Troops, for both habitation and eating.

The remains of a soldier's meal:  note the tin plate, bone-handled knife, spoon, and animal bones; Image,Wilbur Smith 1994.

Camp Nelson Headquarters

Remains of a soldiers meal

The Machine Shop (15Js113)

The machine shop was a wood and metal working shop that contained numerous steam driven machinery, including table saws, plane tables, and lathes.  It provided finished building materials and elements for the camp.  Through archaeology we have discovered the buildings’ stone foundation, stone piers, and stone machinery platforms and now better understand its construction and design.  One large platform was much reddened, suggesting burning or heating, and may have supported a furnace or stove used to cook animal grain or heat wood.  Numerous lead scrapings were discovered here and indicate that lead pipe was turned and fitted here, an activity not mentioned in historical documents.  The tremendous quantity of window glass found outside the shop building marked the location of a materials storage or disposal area.

Machine shop chambers
Machine shop pad. This may be the foundation for a furnace to cook animal grain; image, Wilbur Smith.

Prison Site (15Js78)

The army built a prison within Camp Nelson to control crime and criminals. This prison consisted of a large log jail surrounded by a log stockade and various support structures.  Through archaeological excavations we have located the remains of the entire stockade, stone piers for the jail, two deep privies/cellars, the guardhouse site, and the site of the barracks/hospital.  Artifacts and animal bone recovered from the privies/cellars reflect a prison diet exclusively of poor quality beef joints, probably cooked in stews, the use of metal dishes, and very low alcohol consumption.  One unusual discovery, a miniature carved rubber book, probably representing a bible, reminds us of the tedium of prison life.

Camp Nelson Prison site
Students assist archaeologists in the  investigation of the Prison site; Image, KAS.

Government Shops (15Js164a)

The government shop complex contained a wagon shop, a harness shop, a shoeing shop, a blacksmith shop, a coal bin, and a barracks/mess house.  These buildings reflect the central importance of transporting supplies in and out of camp, usually by horse/mule drawn wagons.  Archaeological survey has helped us locate most of these building sites and more intensive excavation at the blacksmith shop site has recovered a large quantity of metal wagon and architectural hardware, tools, coal, and slag.  Shop features found include a recessed living floor, forge pits, and anvil and bellows postmolds.  The density of wagon hardware and the absence of horseshoes and horseshoe nails indicate that only wagon repair and fabrication occurred here, suggesting significant shop specialization.

Blacksmith Shop
Blacksmith shop.1865; Image, Special Collections, University of Kentucky

Refugee Encampment Site (15Js164b)

The variety of foodways, clothing, and architectural artifacts found at this poorly documented site suggest that it was a habitation site and probably an encampment.  But who lived here?  The discovery of necklace beads and doll parts points to the presence of women and children, while the discovery of two charms/amulets, an “X” inscribed button and a pierced silver coin, suggest that these people were African-Americans.  When combined with historical documents, these discoveries, along with the many burned artifacts found, suggest that this was the site of a pre-expulsion refugee encampment, which was destroyed and burned in Nov. 1864.  The presence of a large quantity of clothing items, including small seed and tube beads and a tremendous variety of buttons, at this site suggests that these refugees were supporting themselves by doing laundry outside of their huts.  This vital service allowed them to survive and create a community within Camp Nelson, at least temporarily.

"x" Inscribed Button
"X" Inscribed Button; Image, KAS, 2008.

Pierced Silver coin
Pierced Silver Coin on left; Image, KAS, 2008.


Melted glass and burned nails recovered from Refugee Encampment site in Camp Nelson; Image, KAS, 2008.

Melted glass and burned nails recovered from Refugee Encampment site in Camp Nelson


Archaeologists recovered dozens of buttons at the Refugee Encampment site. The presence of military buttons suggests refugees were doing laundry for soldiers and officers, which is not documented in official camp records. Image, KAS, 2008.

Archaeologists recovered dozens of buttons at the Refugee Encampment site


Camp Nelson offers numerous opportunities to teach about Kentucky’s role as a pro-Union slave state during the Civil War. Visit the Camp Nelson website (see Related Content) for more information about the interpretation center, trails, educational programs and special events, including the popular Civil War Days held in September.

Archaeology Programs
Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park conducts archaeological excavations as part of its “School Days” activities for 5th Graders every spring.  Other excavations have been organized in the past with college and high school students through the University of Kentucky, Georgetown College, Centre College, the Governor’s Scholars Program, the Kentucky Junior Historical Society, and the Girl Scouts. See

12th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery
Over 10,000 U.S. Colored Troops passed through Camp Nelson during the Civil War. Several regiments were established at Camp Nelson, including the 12th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery. Members of this unit, re-activated in 2003 – are based out of Camp Nelson and provide demonstrations and educational programs throughout Kentucky and the United States. Visit the 12th USCHA website (see Related Content) for information about the regiment, U.S.C.T. history, slave refugees and educational programs. See

Dr. Steve McBride photographs a feature at the Refugee Encampment site in Camp Nelson
Ongoing archaeological investigations will continue to provide important information on Camp Nelson.  Here Dr. Steve McBride photographs a feature at the Refugee Encampment site in Camp Nelson. Image, KAS.

Members of the 12 USC Heavy Artillery fire a replica bronze cannon during re-enactments at Civil War Days
Members of the 12th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery at Arlington national Cemetery. Image, courtesy 12th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery, 2009.



Releted Resources

- KA Volume III

Curriculumn materials

- "KA Volume III Curriculumn

- "The Depot Has It" Dig Magazine.

Professional Publications


Last Updated 5/7/2013