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Civil War Photography at Camp Nelson

Camp Nelson National Monument in Nicholasville, Kentucky, is an important archaeological site, and new artifacts are still being discovered at the former Civil War camp.

“Camp Nelson was a U.S. Army supply depot, recruitment camp, and hospital during the Civil War,” says Dr. Stephen McBride, historical archaeologist at Camp Nelson. “We were one of the largest recruitment and training centers for African American soldiers, and then we were also a large refugee home for their wives and children.”

The site held approximately 300 buildings during its peak from 1863 to 1866.

“It had a higher population than Louisville and Lexington combined for that same period,” says Peggy McClintock-Pauli, tour administrator at Camp Nelson. “In the end, you had over 3,000 family members living here that were emancipated. You have between 8,000 and 10,000 soldiers going through here at various times. So that’s why it had a high population.”

The history of Camp Nelson in the Civil War era can be pieced together through artifacts and documents from the time. But one of the most interesting discoveries for archaeologists at the camp was a cache of photographs from the 1860s.

Mark Osterman is a process historian at the George Eastman Museum. He explains that photographers of the time played an important role for soldiers.

“They would set up a special tent that had a little section in the back where they could process their plates,” he says. “The soldiers would spend their money on these things. They would buy an image. They would send it through the mail. They were even called lettergraphs sometimes because they didn’t break…they would survive the trip.”

Soldiers could get a small, calling-card-sized tintype of their portrait to send home. More expensive ambrotypes could be produced and presented with a mat in a fancier case.

“Having your photograph taken was a pretty important thing,” says Osterman. “It was an event to have your picture taken, and for many in the Civil War, probably the only picture that had ever been taken of them was a tintype that they sent home.”

“With soldiers, I think [photography] was particularly in demand,” says Dr. McBride. “They wanted to get a picture of themselves to send back to their loved ones to show them this new status that they had. But also in case they didn’t come back.”

By looking at personalized stencils found with the photographic equipment, archaeologists determined that the photographer at Camp Nelson was a man named Cassius Jones Young. Young lived and worked as a photographer in Lexington after the war and later near Cincinnati.

“That whole [archaeological] area and a lot of that information was found by mistake,” says McClintock-Pauli. “They didn’t know it was there. There are so many things like that that are so important; you really have to do your scratching here and there. To go back and find those tintypes and to find those pieces of a person’s life, that’s recorded now. That person’s place is saved.”

This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2506, which originally aired on November 9, 2019. Watch the full episode.