Monday, September 14, 2009

Sears: "CAMP NELSON, KENTUCKY: A Civil War History"

[Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History by Richard D. Sears (University Press of Kentucky, 2002). Cloth, photos, notes, index. 484 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8131-2246-5 $45]

Camp Nelson was established in Jessamine County, Kentucky in 1863 with the dual intention of protecting the important Hickman Bridge crossing of the Kentucky River and creating a forward base for the Union army's planned invasion and occupation of East Tennessee. Eventually, the post was composed of hundreds of buildings surrounded by strong fortifications. The camp wore many hats, and became known to posterity mainly as a refugee and freedman's camp, a major center of black recruitment in the state. Historian Richard Sears's Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History is a documentary history of the facility, its ably selected collection of materials tracing sequentially the changing primary roles assumed by the camp during the Civil War years and beyond.

It must be noted that Sears's nearly 70-page Historical Introduction, a fine long form annotated essay, is the only narrative element of his study. The rest of his book will appeal mainly to researchers with a specialized interest in the subject material. The vast bulk of the volume is a collection of documents, organized by chapters outlining Camp Nelson's many phases of expansion and development. Thus, it begins with the military establishment of the camp, and moves on with chapters devoted to black recruitment, refugee management, and missionary work. As a military supply conduit, Nelson proved to be a failure (problems of time and distance were insurmountable), and the hopes of teachers and missionaries such as John G. Fee that the camp would prove instrumental in integrating newly freed slaves into Kentucky society would be dashed, but many black units were organized and trained there for service in the field.

The hundreds of historical documents collected by Sears include official reports, private letters & memoirs, newspaper articles, court papers, and inspection reports, among others. It really comprises an impressive collection of primary source material. Additionally, each piece is annotated, with the notes, which range from simple source citations to fairly extensive explanatory notations, located immediately below the reproduced material for ease of use. The documents are also indexed. If there is cause for complaint with the study, it would be in the paucity of illustration and lack of a bibliography. A small photo gallery is present, but no map of the camp or its environs was included.

Camp Nelson, Kentucky is an expansive, well edited, and valuable compilation of primary source material for military and socio-political students of the Civil War in the Bluegrass State to explore. It will also serve as a great resource for the study of Ambrose Burnside's East Tennessee campaign, an operation that is yet to receive a book length treatment. Recommended.

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