President Trump has designated Camp Nelson in Kentucky as a national monument to honor the black volunteers who mustered there for service in the Union army. It also illustrates the limitations of the Emancipation Proclamation.
According to the National Park Service, Camp Nelson, which is located just outside Nicholasville, began as supply depot and hospital for the Union Army in 1863. When the ban on African-Americans serving in the Union Army was lifted in June 1864, recruits began to flood into Camp Nelson to join up. By December 6, 1865, 10,000 formerly enslaved African-Americans and freedmen had enlisted at the Camp.
But Kentucky was a complicated place during the Civil War, and Camp Nelson embodied the fraught politics of the border slave state, which neighbored three free states.
While Kentucky had hoped to remain “armed but neutral” during the conflict, when Confederate forces began to move into the state in 1861, the legislature sided with the Union, and federal troops moved in. But that didn’t change the lives of the enslaved. When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, freeing African-Americans in states in rebellion, it did not apply to Union states that allowed slavery, which meant that border states like Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware and Missouri did not have to legally abolish the institution of slavery until the 13th Amendment became part of the Constitution in December of 1865.
That situation was reflected in Camp Nelson. While any African-American man accepted for military service there was automatically granted freedom, their family members who often accompanied them to the camp were not, and they were expected to leave the camp and return to enslavement. Many, however, stayed, turning the camp into a refugee site. In November 1864, those refugees, mainly women and children, were ordered out of the refugee cabins into freezing conditions. As a result, 100 of them died, creating a national outcry. Camp Nelson then reversed course, building a “Home for Colored Refugees” which opened in January 1865. That March, the U.S. Congress passed legislation granting freedom to the wives and children of U.S. Colored Troops. Though the Home was closed down in the summer of 1865 with the conclusion of the war, some refugees stuck around, creating the village of Ariel.
In somewhat related news in Oklahoma, descendants of black slaves who were removed there with their Creek masters in the Trail of Tears are suing for tribal membership. This is a hot button issue not only with the Creeks but with the Cherokee and Seminole as well.
In August 2018, Solomon-Simmons – the lead attorney representing six named plaintiffs, including his grandmother – filed a lawsuit against the Muscogee Creek nation and the interior department to fully restore the citizenship of black Creeks.
As a result, a minority group is suing another minority group for inclusion in the indigenous minority group – and to settle this peculiar case, one has to go back nearly 200 years.
During the Civil War the Cherokee supported the Confederacy (one, Stand Watie, remains the only Native American general officer in an American army), while the Creek split into two factions, one pro-Union and the other pro-Confederate.
The Cherokee lost a similar suit last year.