Camp Nelson's great significance as a recruitment center is mostly closely tied with African-American troops, however, being Kentucky's largest recruitment and training center for U.S. Colored Troops [U.S.C.T.] Kentucky's particular situation during the war helped shape this history. As a non-seceding state, Kentucky was not affected by the Emancipation Proclamation, leaving many African-Americans in a precarious situation. Any issues touching on slavery were sensitive ones during the war years, and many white Union leaders in the state were against recruitment and emancipation of slaves, although some slaves and free blacks were pressed into service and Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas did authorize some recruitment in western Kentucky in 1863. However, Lincoln and the Federal government were hesitant to push recruitment of ex-slaves in Kentucky, always sensitive to threats of secession. It was not until the Conscriptive Act of February 1864 was passed that enlisting of slaves and free blacks began. Loyal slave owners were supposed to be compensated, and all able-bodied slaves and free blacks were eligible. These changes had major impacts upon Camp Nelson.
After the February 1864 Act, which provided specifically for the enrollment of African-American males, a flood of slaves and free blacks began arriving at Camp Nelson. By August 1864, 2,000 black enrollees were at the camp. By the end of 1865, about 10,000 men - or 40 percent of Kentucky's African-American soldiers - had passed through Camp Nelson, making it the most important recruitment center for African-Americans in Kentucky.
The eight U.S.C.T. regiments founded at Camp Nelson make it the third largest such center in the country. African-American men continued to be enlisted at Camp Nelson as a means of emancipating them until December 1865, when the 13th Amendment was ratified. The African-American soldiers were housed in barracks and in tents. Later, as the camp was being downsized, they were housed in the Recruiting Rendezvous, in the Soldier's Home, and even in the hospital wards. African-American regiments formed at Camp Nelson included the 114th, 116th, 119th, and 124th U.S. Colored Infantry; the Fifth and Sixth U.S. Colored Cavalry; and the Twelfth and Thirteenth U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery Regiments. The 115th, 117th and 123rd U.S. Colored Infantry was also stationed at Camp Nelson for a time.
Life in camp for these African-American troops could be difficult, but as Sergeant Elijah Marrs of the Twelfth U.S.C.H.A. stated:
"I can stand this said I... this is better than slavery, though I do march in line at the tap of a drum. I felt freedom in my bones, and when I saw the American eagle with outspread wings, upon the American flag, with the motto E Pluribus Unum, the thought came to me, 'Give me liberty or give me death.' Then all fear banished."
The African-American troops performed a variety of duties. They did garrison duty at Camp Nelson; at other camps or forts in Kentucky such as Covington, Paducah, Smithland and Camp Burnside; and at fortifications along the Louisville and Nashville and Kentucky Central Railroads. This duty was critical in holding Union territory and protecting supply lines. Most of these regiments did see action however.
The Fifth U.S. Colored Cavalry was involved in both battles of Saltville, Virginia, where the main saltworks for the Army of Northern Virginia were located [October and December 1864]. In fact, this regiment took the highest casualties at the first battle of Saltville and about 45 of its wounded and captured soldiers were murdered by Confederate Tennessee soldiers after the battle. The Sixth U.S. Colored Cavalry was also involved in the second battle of Saltville and the battle of Marion, Virginia, both of which were Union victories.
While stationed at various posts in Kentucky, the Camp Nelson U.S.C.T. were involved in a number of small engagements. The Twelfth U.S.C.H.A. fought off raids at Big Springs and at Ft. Jones on the L&N Railroad and the 119th U.S.C.I. was involved in skirmishes at Glasgow and Taylorsville. The Fifth and Sixth U.S.C.C. saw more action and participated in skirmishes at Harrodsburg and Simpsonville and at Smithfield, respectively.
Two Camp Nelson infantry regiments, the 114th and 116th U.S. Colored Infantry, were transferred to Major General Benjamin Butler's Army of the James in October to December 1864. The 114th was placed in the all-black Twenty-fifth Corps, while the 116th was placed in the Tenth Corps and then transferred to the Twenty-fifth Corps. Both regiments performed siege and fatigue duty at Bermuda Hundred and at Petersburg, and were with the Army of the James in its pursuit of Lee to Appomattox Courthouse in March-April 1865. Both regiments were at Appomattox Courthouse during the surrender. The 115th and 117th U.S.C.T., which passed through Camp Nelson, were also sent east and placed in the Twenty-fifth Corps.
Interestingly, while most of the above regiments had their soldiers mustered in 1865 or early 1866, soldiers of the 114th and 116th U.S. Colored Infantry were sent to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas after the war and were not mustered out until 1867.
These soldiers were not happy with their long enlistment, especially since most other U.S.C.T. soldiers had been mustered out. Sergeant-Major Thomas Boswell of the 116th U.S.C.I. describes this condition in November 1865 from Roma, Texas:
"We are in high hopes of being mustered out soon, but it seems that they have slighted us. Our corps is pretty much all gone home; but it is said we are retained because we are 'slave State troops." Is this a good reason for our retention? No. We earnestly hope that the Government will not be guilty of this great wrong toward us, as we have tried to do our duty. We are Kentucky boys, and there is no regiment in the field that ever fought better. We can boast of being heroes of eight hard fought battles, and this we deem sufficient recommendation for our discharge...."
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