Supply Depot and Encampment

WHEN COMPLETED CAMP NELSON CONTAINED MORE than 300 wooden buildings and numerous tents. The core of the camp covered more than 800 acres on either side of the Lexington-Danville Turnpike. These buildings were associated with the camp's function as a quartermaster and commissary depot, recruitment center, and hospital facility as well as functions associated with personnel maintenance.

The structures included 20 warehouses to store two million rations, clothing, and equipment, as well as stables, cribs, barns, sheds, and corrals to house thousands of horses and mules and their feed. Six industrial-sized work shops, including a 16-forge blacksmith shop, a shoeing shop, a wagon shop, a harness shop, a woodworking shop, and a sawmill, were within the camp to build and repair wagons and ambulances, to make and repair harness, to shoe horses and to provide lumber for building construction. Two ordnance warehouses and a large powder magazine were also present to house cannons, small arms, ammunition, and powder.

To operate these facilities, maintain the camp, build roads and haul supplies, the camp had a staff of supervisory officers, including the chief quartermaster Captain Theron E. Hall, and more than 2,000 civilian employees. The employees included carpenters, blacksmiths, wagon makers, harness makers, teamsters, cooks, clerks and laborers, including many impressed slaves.

Interestingly, on one occasion, the civilian employees were asked to take up arms and defend the camp. This was in June 1864, during one of Confederate John Hunt Morgan's Kentucky Raids. To quote Major C. E. Compton:
"During my inspection of the depot at Camp Nelson Ky. the post was threatened by a large force of the enemy under the command of John Morgan. The military force stationed there was entirely inadequate to its defense, and it became necessary for the better safety and security of the immense quantities of government stores in the depot to call for volunteers for this purpose. This was accordingly done, and without a single exception, all the employees came forward and offered their services for the defense of the place. Six hundred men armed - there being only this number of arms in the depot - and placed upon the line of fortifications before mentioned in this report. These men performed duty upon this line for six consecutive nights and it is a measure due to them that the depot was saved from capture and destruction." Camp Nelson was generally garrisoned by from 3,000 to 8,000 soldiers. Initially, these soldiers were from Burnside's Ninth Corps, which had been transferred from the Army of the Potomac and consisted of regiments from the Northeastern states. By the late fall of 1863, Camp Nelson was garrisoned by soldiers of the Twenty-third Corps, who came from Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio and Indiana. The camp was placed within the District of North Central Kentucky, Brig. General Speed S. Fry commanding. Fry's headquarters were established at Camp Nelson in early 1864.

To feed, house and supply the soldiers and civilian employees, Camp Nelson also contained dozens of cook houses and mess halls, a large bakery, numerous barracks and hundreds of tents. The camp also had at least three permanent sutler stores and two taverns. Administrative buildings included the Camp Headquarters, a large quartermaster and commissary office, numerous smaller office buildings and the post office.

The camp also contained a large prison and Provost Marshall office. The prison housed troublesome Union soldiers and civilians as well as Confederate prisoners enroute to permanent prisoner of war camps in the north. At the southwestern edge of the camp was built the Nelson General Hospital. This was one of the primary hospitals of the Army of the Ohio and consisted of 10 large hospital wards, a laundry, offices, nurses quarters, surgeons' quarters, a cook house, a mess hall, dead houses and a convalescent camp of tents.

The U.S. Sanitary Commission also established a "Soldier's Home" near the hospital 'for the accommodation of soldiers temporarily sojourning the Camp enroute to join their Regiments at the front.

Because of the height of the Kentucky River Palisades, water supply was initially a problem for the camp. The army solved this problem by constructing a powerful steam water pump on the river which pumped 150 to 175 gallons per minute 470 feet up the palisades to a 500,000 -gallon reservoir. From the reservoir water was pumped to the warehouses, sheds and barns for fire prevention and to the hospital, Soldier's Home and headquarters, which had indoor plumbing, including water closets.

As can be seen from the above description, Camp Nelson was a very large facility. Within the Army of the Ohio, like other armies, there was a hierarchy of supply depots with the smaller ones being dependent on the larger ones for their supplies. There was only one depot larger than Camp Nelson in the Army of the Ohio and that was Cincinnati. Camp Nelson would draw most of its quartermaster material, such as clothing, accouterments, transportation-related equipment and ordnance from Cincinnati. These supplies were generally shipped by rail to Nicholasville and then by wagon to the camp. Some items, particularly horses and mules and some fresh foodstuffs, were bought locally or within the region by the Camp Nelson quartermaster and commissary officers. Bulky material like forage and some produce were shipped up the Kentucky River to the depot.

Camp Nelson had many smaller subsidiary depots, such as Camp Burnside, Crab Orchard, Cumberland Gap, London, Mt. Sterling and Lexington, which it supplied, and which in turn supplied temporary depots as well as troops in the field. Camp Nelson would also directly supply armies in the field on occasion, especially if there was a large campaign in operation. In fact Camp Nelson was the staging ground and supply center for three important campaigns. These were:

Major General Ambrose E. Burnside's August-November 1863 Knoxville Campaign;

Major General Stephen G. Burbridge's October 1864 Southwestern Virginia Campaign;

and Major General Burbridge's wing of Major General Stoneman's December 1864 Southwestern Virginia Campaign.

All three campaigns involved crossing rugged terrain over rough roads, which made the supply network all that more difficult to maintain. But it was maintained.

Burnside's campaign resulted in the capture and defense of Knoxville by the Union Army. This campaign also assisted Major General Grant's victory at Chattanooga, since the Confederate force there was weakened by the departure of General James Longstreet's corps, which was sent north to recapture Knoxville.

Burbridge's October 1864 campaign ended in failure, partly due to the recall of Major General Jacob Ammen's and Brig. General Alvan Gillem's forces, which were supposed to unite with Burbridge and move on Saltville, Virginia. On October 2, 1864 Burbridge's force was defeated at Saltville by the Confederate army of General John C. Breckenridge.

A second Southwestern Virginia campaign occurred two months later and ended with far different results. This campaign was under the overall command of Major General George Stoneman, who advanced from East Tennessee. Major General Burbridge led another wing out of Central and Eastern Kentucky [many departing from Camp Nelson] and united with Stoneman in Virginia. The Union troops were victors in both the battles of Marion and Saltville, Virginia, and destroyed the King Salt Works [the South's largest], a large lead mine, and many iron furnaces.

More Than a Depot: Introduction

Origin and Location

Supply Depot and Encampment

Recruitment and Training Center

African-American Refugee Camp

Closing of the Military Depot

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