Camp Dick Robinson, Garrard County, the first of its kind organized south of the Ohio River after the Civil War became imminent, and perhaps, the most important that had existence in the state, is not unlike its former self today. Some improvements have been made within the past two years, but soldiers stationed there during the sectional strife of the 1860s could never fail to recognize it as their original place of military instruction. The farm upon which the home is situated contains about 335 acres and is one of the very best and richest tracts of land in the Bluegrass. Its fertile soil has proved an ideal spot for the cultivation of everything Kentucky can raise. The dwelling house, containing 10 or 12 rooms, is in a fine, attractive state of preservation. Its battle scars are few, though the walls hold secret memories of numberless adventures related in the councils there congregated. Some never-failing springs, near the dwelling, furnish an absolute inexhaustible flow of water, and its locators certainly had this partly in view when they selected that place, now famous for its services to the Union.
It was in the summer of 1861, after the order of the War Department (June 27) was issued forming the states of Kentucky and Tennessee into a military district, under command of Brig. Gen. Robert Anderson, that Lieut. Wm. Nelson, of the United States Navy, having been designated by Gen. Anderson for such duty, went to Lancaster to organize troops for the Union. He conferred with prominent loyal citizens of adjoining counties and determined to locate his camp of instruction in Garrard on the farm of Mr. Richard "Dick" Robinson, six miles from Lancaster at the crossroads leading to Danville and Nicholasville, the pike to Lancaster making Cumberland Gap easily accessible through Crab Orchard; the other giving a splendid outlet for Western Kentucky, via Perryville. Nicholasville, eight miles distant, was a southern terminus of the Kentucky Central Railroad, connecting it with Cincinnati; while only 12 miles north, on the line of the same road is the city of Lexington. Between the camp and Nicholasville is the Kentucky River, the precipitous banks and deep gorges of which afforded many good positions for successful resistance. All in all, it was the very best selection possible for the location of a camp. It extended about a half-mile out each of the pikes leading to Lancaster, Danville, and Nicholasville. This did not cramp the drilling grounds or sleeping or eating quarters.
To establish a camp and recruit a brigade of soldiers on Bluegrass soil in opposition to the judgement of avowed Union men was a task delicate and difficult to perform. It was a period of turbulence; murder and unwhipt of justice stalked through the land. Even after organizing the camp it was by no means certain that success would crown his efforts in mustering in the regiment. Several companies of State Guard, under the leadership of Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner and finely disciplined, would have responded readily to the call of the commander to disperse the new camp.
When Gen. Nelson was chosen by General Anderson to organize Camp Dick Robinson, he was a lieutenant of the United States Navy. Ten weeks later he was made a brigadier general, and on the following July 6, 1862, was promoted to major general. He resisted the efforts of the prominent state politicians to remove the force beyond Kentucky's limits and succeeded in adding to the Union Army four of as good volunteer regiments as ever marched beneath the Stars and Stripes. The government wisely recognized the skill and courage of Gen. Nelson in intrusting to him this important enterprise. Full of tireless energy, he seemed to require neither sleep nor rest.
The sentinel, pacing his beat, was often startled long after midnight by the colossal form of the commander looming up in the darkness and approaching the camp from a direction from whence he was least expected. He was always an early riser, and consequently, ready for the day's duties long before the camp was astir. The troops that enlisted under Gen. Nelson remember him as boisterous and impetuous, impatient of restraint and contradiction, and utterly intolerant of the slightest infraction of discipline.
Though a firm adherent to the government, Dick Robinson never enlisted. His title to the land upon which the camp was situated was acquired through marriage; Mrs. Robinson being a daughter of Wm. Hoskins, Sr. and sister of Col. Wm. Hoskins of military fame. During the war's progress he went South and preceded Grant's invasion of Mississippi. A partnership had been formed with Jas. McMurtry, Sr., also of Garrard, and as the army advanced the two bought cotton from the planters, paying them either in Confederate scrip or greenbacks. They made considerable money by shipping their purchases north. Robinson proved too liberal-hearted, however, and lost much of his means settling security debts. At his death his widow (who yet survives) came into possession of the property, but sold it to Mr. Lynn Hudson about 11 years ago. Mr. Hudson has since resided there. He has advertised the home and adjoining land for sale, and for the first time in the old camp's history the auctioneer's hammer will fall there next week, September 18th.
On Tuesday, after the first Monday in August (election day) 1861, one regiment of cavalry and three of infantry went into camp at this place. These were raised, respectively, by W. J. Landram, of Lancaster, and Theophilus T. Garrard, Thos. E. Bramlette, and Speed S. Fry, who had been issued commissions by Gen. Nelson, bearing date of July 15, 1861. While the work of recruiting was in progress previous to the August election an effort was made, upon the part of several prominent politicians in different parts of the state, to postpone the whole movement, alleging inexpediency as their ground for action, but Gen. Nelson, who had gone to Cincinnati, after the preliminary meeting at Lancaster, to make arrangements for camp supplies quickly squelched the idea by writing Col. Landram, July 28th, as follows:
"The expedition is neither postponed nor abandoned. So far from suspending operations, I earnestly desire that they may be urged on with the utmost energy. I shall assemble the brigade and muster it into service as soon as possible."
Consequently, the troops began to arrive at Camp Dick Robinson early in August. Bramlette, Fry, and Garrard were on hand to take command of their regiments, while Landram, preferring the infantry to the cavalry, concluded to turn his regiment over to Lieut. Col. Frank Wolford, and to raise an infantry regiment at Harrodsburg. The first officer to take charge of the camp was Col. Landram, who assumed command by virtue of his rank in the absence of Gen. Nelson. Messrs. W. A. Hoskins (brother-in-law of Dick Robinson), G. C. Kniffen, and Geo. L. Dobbins were subsequently commissioned as staff officers. Headquarters were established in the two-story frame building partially described above. When Gen. Nelson arrived Landram acted as his adjutant general. Nelson was superseded by Gen. Robert Anderson and Anderson by Gen. W. T. Sherman. By the middle of August the required number to fill each regiment were in camp ready to be mustered into the service, which was done in September and October by Brig. Gen. George H. Thomas, United States Mustering Officer, who relieved Sherman and continued in command as long as the camp was located there. He drilled and disciplined the men and further prepared them for the field.
Bramlette's was the Third Regiment Kentucky Volunteer Infantry, the First and Second having been previously mustered in at Camp Clay, Ohio, in June 1861, by Maj. S. Burbank. It was one of the first to respond to the call of the government for troops to guard munitions of war to the Unionists of east Tennessee. Fry's was the Fourth, which did gallant service at Mill Springs. Garrard's was the Seventh and as soon as organized was ordered to Wild Cat and participated in an engagement with the enemy at that point; which was the first engagement fought on Kentucky soil. In this battle it won distinction for the manner in which it stopped the repeated attacks of the foe. As is well known, Wolford's was the First Regiment Kentucky Volunteer Cavalry. Wolford gave out two orders: "Huddle up" and "Scatter out;" the first when entering a fight, the last when he retreated, a command always given with reluctance. Bramlette was elected governor of the state during his colonelcy. It was Company A (Samuel McKee, Captain), of Bramlette's regiment, that was detailed at Lexington to escort Hon. James B. Clay to Louisville, as a prisoner of war. He was captured in the mountains of Kentucky, near Cumberland Gap, en route to the South and was taken to the Falls City, where they placed him in the old medical college.
The regiments of Wolford, Garrard, and Bramlette were recruited largely from the counties adjacent to the northern line of Tennessee. This was due to a desire on the part of the citizens from that section to engage in an enterprise which promised relief to their loyal neighbors across the line.
The next two regiments mustered at Camp Dick Robinson were the First and Second Tennessee Infantry, composed of refugees from the eastern portion of that state. One thousand of these troops were first organized at Barbourville, in Knox County, 30 miles from Cumberland Gap, under Lieut. Samuel P. Carter, whose widow married the Hon. Milton J. Durham, of Danville. After failure to secure arms, clothing, or camp and garrison equipage, Carter decided to move the companies to Camp Dick Robinson, which was done, forthwith.
The First was placed under command of Col. R. K. Byrd and the Second under Carter. An artillery company under command of Capt. Abram Hewitt was mustered into service at this time. Every regiment that left "Camp Dick" exhibited the traditional courage of Kentuckians and the mountaineers of all countries in their subsequent careers. They participated in nearly all the battles fought by the armies of the Cumberland and the Tennessee, and whether with Rosecrans at Stone River and Chickamauga, with Grant at Black River Bridge and Vicksburg, or with Sherman through 100 days to the capture of Atlanta, they were everywhere complimented for courage and endurance.
The establishment of Camp Dick Robinson, the gathering of a nucleus of Union soldiers on the soil of Kentucky, naturally provoked a vigorous protest on the part of the governor of the state, Hon. Beriah Magoffin, who made a simultaneous appeal to the Presidents of the United States and the Confederate States to aid him in averting the catastrophe he believed inevitable if the camp were allowed to exist. Messrs. Wm. A. Dudley and Frank K. Hunt were accredited as commissioners on Kentucky's part to visit Washington City and confer with President Lincoln in regard to the removal of the troops at Dick Robinson. Lincoln replied that this force consisted of Kentuckians exclusively, in the vicinity of their own homes and was raised at the urgent solicitation of Kentuckians adding: "Taking all means to form a judgement, I do not believe it is the popular wish of Kentucky that this force shall be removed beyond her limits, and with this impression I must respectfully decline to so remove it."
On the same day (August 19,1861), Gov. Magoffin despatched Geo. W. Johnson to Richmond, Virginia as Commissioner to the Confederate Government, with a like request that the neutrality of the state be not invaded from that direction. President Davis replied in most courteous and respectful terms:
"In view of the history of the past, it is barely necessary to assure your excellency that this government will continue to respect the neutrality of Kentucky so long as her people will maintain it themselves. If the door be opened on the one side for the aggressions of one of the belligerent parties upon the other, it ought not to be shut to the assailed, when they seek to enter it for the purposes of self-defense."
At the organization of Camp Dick Robinson, Hon. John M. Harlan, now Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court; Col. Joshua F. Bell; and many other noted speakers delivered addresses. When the oratory had closed a conference was held at which all the officers were present and also a number of private citizens. The meeting was presided over by Hon. James Harlan, of Frankfort, father of Justice Harlan; Boyle; Bramlette; Wolford; and others favored coercion, while Fry, Bell, Landram, and others preferred proceeding with getting the troops in working order and awaiting events. The meeting finally adjourned without accomplishing anything, and the camp was not further disturbed, the public being made to understand that the soldiers were Kentuckians on Kentucky soil, and that they had a right to be there without consulting the people of the North or South.
William Grant, of Covington, first cousin of the late lamented Judge M. H. Owsley, Captain of Company J, Wolford's First Kentucky Cavalry, had the contract for furnishing the company in beef. Several reports were started that the soldiers had been poisoned by eating pies and cakes sold by neighboring peddlers, but no deaths are known to have occurred from such an agency, though several small fortunes found a starting point for the retailers of these pies and cakes, together with watermelons. One prominent citizen, who still lives within ten miles of the camp, began his rise to wealth in this way. A few of the "boys in blue" died during the measles epidemic for want of attention in September 1861.
The largest number of troops at the camp at one time was about 10,000. Some of this number were from the Carolinas and Georgia, independent of the Tennessee refugees. In the summer of 1862, Bragg's whole army of 60,000 men passed by the camp. Col. Andy Johnson, of Tennessee, prior to his election to the vice-presidency and subsequent service as chief executive, frequently visited the camp and once made a speech to a vast concourse of people there. Gen. Sherman, previous to the Battle of Mills Spring, visited the camp and inspected the troops. The room he used and in which Gens. Nelson, Anderson, and Thomas had their headquarters, is still in existence. Gen. Fry, besides being himself made brigadier general, had the satisfaction of seeing one of his men, John T. Croxton, promoted to a similar position; Capt. R. M. Kelly, of Company K, ex-Pension Agent of Louisville, given a colonelcy; and J. Burgess Hunt, now United States Marshal of Texas, made a lieutenant colonel. Many others who enlisted at Camp Dick Robinson have won fame, also in both civil and military service.
Gen. Nelson, who was killed at the Galt House in Louisville in the fall of 1862 by Gen. Jefferson C. Davis, was buried at the camp, and on July 4, 1865, a large pole floating the Stars and Stripes was erected over the grave. Three years later the pole was cut down at night by unknown parties, but as this was the only indignity against the camp or its memories the occurrence was not investigated. After this Nelson's body was disinterred and carried to the cemetery at Maysville, his former home.
Among the great Federal camps maintained during the war, none was more important, and few as noted, as "Camp Nelson." It occupied an almost absolutely impregnable position in the Kentucky River cliffs on the old Lexington Pike, six miles south of Nicholasville, eight miles north of the famous old "Camp Dick Robinson," and 16 miles from Danville. When "Camp Dick Robinson" was abandoned, except as an outpost, because it afforded no great natural barriers to the approach of the enemy and might at any time fall into the hands of the Southern armies, Gen. Fry was ordered to look about for an available site for a camp that would afford protection and become a base of supplies for the troops in Kentucky and Tennessee.
Gen. Fry selected the spot which became famous as "Camp Nelson." It was named for Gen. William R. Nelson, who was appointed to recruit troops in Kentucky during the early years of the war. No more available site could possibly have been selected. The camp was fully ten miles in circumference, and the surrounding country provided most of the means of defense. The Kentucky River makes a horseshoe sweep from southeast to northwest, and from its banks rise abrupt limestone cliffs 300 feet high. "Big Hickman" Creek stretches almost square across one side of the horseshoe bend and is also guarded upon one side by precipitous cliffs. Across the country from cliff to cliff runs a high ridge, and this backbone between the two streams was skillfully fortified under the direction of Gen. Burnside, Gen. Fry, and Capt. Hall, a down-easter, who had charge of the improvements for a long time. It was impossible then for hostile troops to enter the camp upon the three sides because of the fortifications that nature had provided, and the only approach from the south was a road which ran through a narrow gorge until it reached the river, where it presented one wide open side to the full play of a dozen batteries and thousands of rifles. The scenery within view of the camp is magnificent and its rugged beauty was well in keeping with the harsh equipments of war which frowned in all directions.
The camp was splendidly supplied with acres of barracks, storehouses, stables, and other things, and served by a system of waterworks which cost thousands of dollars. The old reservoir, overgrown with weeds and briars, is now one of the few remaining marks of the camp. Of the houses, a single one remains; a little one-story frame. Fences have been changed and new lines run by farmers, and the veteran who might return to view the spot would see little except the "everlasting hills" to remind him of the busy camp he once knew.
Camp Nelson became from the start an important point. From it ran wagon trains through Cumberland Gap to Knoxville to supply the armies in the South, hundreds of thousands of cattle, mules, horses, and hogs were driven here and afterward distributed to the marching masses upon the Confederate front, and at one time there were millions of dollars worth of government stores in the camp awaiting transportation and distribution. As an evidence of the immensity of the operations from Camp Nelson, old soldiers have asserted that at one time during the war you could almost walk over the bodies of dead mules from Crab Orchard to Cumberland Gap; the mules being young and inferior animals that were unequal to the hard tasks imposed upon them and which fell by the wayside.
Regiment after regiment of raw recruits rendezvoused at Camp Nelson and after being disciplined and equipped marched on to battle. It was the one point in Kentucky where Negro regiments were organized and drilled, and several regiments made up of ex-slaves went forth from the camp. It became a Mecca for fugitive slaves, and after the war at least 30,000 Negroes visited Camp Nelson to procure their "free" papers. It is unnecessary to say that many of these guileless individuals fell into the hands of sharpers who fleeced them right and left.
The Confederates ever looked with longing eye toward Camp Nelson, where rich forces of all descriptions were deposited, but no attempt to capture it was ever made. Now and then, when the detachment of troops at the camp would be small, rumors of the approach of the "Rebels" would put the place in a high state of activity, and sometimes the raw recruits would be scared half to death by a sudden summons to arms to defend the camp against supposed innumerable hosts; but very little powder was burned in conflict around Camp Nelson.
After peace was declared and the camp had lost its usefulness, the buildings were knocked to pieces and the material sold to Negroes and farmers for building cabins, barns, and fences, and speculators and junk dealers purchased the other trappings. Some wonderful tales are told of gigantic "divies" and fancy bills footed by Uncle Sam, incidental to his occupancy of the territory, but "that is another story."
There is now upon the site of the camp a Negro village of some 300 souls, which sprung from a settlement of ex-salves who had been employed at the camp during the war and knew of no more desirable place to move to when hostilities ceased. It is rather a thrifty village and has one of the best private schools utilized for Negroes in Kentucky. The buildings are large and substantial and the faculty is composed of graduates principally from the college at Berea. The dormitory is a large frame building containing 24 rooms; the chapel is roomy and comfortable and the outbuilding substantial. Here the Negro youth can get tuition at the low price of from 35 to 75 cents a month and board for only one dollar and a quarter a week.
The school is known as Camp Nelson Academy. It was established by the Federal authorities during the war and maintained by the government until 1867, when this support was withdrawn. Then John G. Fee, the noted friend of the Negro, who founded the famous mixed college at Berea, came to the rescue and secured endowments sufficient to continue it. From a Cincinnati man, Hathaway by name, Fee secured the income from $8,000 worth of property, and this, added to smaller donations, kept the school in a prosperous condition. At the death of Hathaway a law suit brought by the heirs caused the school to suffer the loss of the considerable income from his generosity, and it fell into straitened circumstances.
Fee again came to the rescue, and from another Cincinnati man, Simon Embry, procured a donation which purchased 123 acres of land near the academy. The income from this enabled the school to continue its good work. W. S. Overstreet, a Negro graduate of Berea, is the principal, and a Mrs. M. M. Robe, a white lady from Ohio, is the matron. For the past eight years she has given her time and attention to the general work of the institution without asking a thing in return. The buildings, aside from the 120 acres of land, are worth about $5,000. The Sunday School and Christian Endeavor Society, the choir, and the youthful musician all give evidence of the usefulness of the institution that has arisen from the dust of crumbling battlements.