Camp Nelson immersive weekend to mark anniversary of key Civil War campaign

Published 11:00 am Thursday, August 3, 2023

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For the 160th anniversary of the Knoxville campaign, an important series of American Civil War battles that led to the liberation of east Tennessee civilians, Camp Nelson National Monument is hosting a weekend-long event in August to commemorate it. Staff have spent the last year planning this three-day free event to bring the site’s history back to life and celebrate the people who made Camp Nelson happen.

The park will be transformed into a living piece of history to mark the seminal weekend.

“We want to connect the public with what this place was and what it evolved to become over the next several years,” said Camp Nelson’s Chief of Interpretation, Education and Visitor Services, Steve Phan.

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The weekend begins with an hour-and-a-half event at 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 11, to honor the people who made Camp Nelson and the United State’s victory possible. Attendees are asked to meet at the park near the commemorative flags and to bring comfortable shoes and bug repellent for a walking tour.

From Saturday, Aug. 12, to Sunday afternoon, Aug. 13, there will be tours, talks, a food truck, and children’s activities.

On Sunday, Camp Nelson will hold the weekend’s real-time history event.

Attendees are to meet at the site’s cemetery on this day only at 9 a.m. to view the marching in of the 21st Massachusetts Infantry on the same day and time that it happened 160 years ago.

“We’re going all out, as you can see,” Phan said.

After this event, there will be a few talks and small arms demonstrations before the weekend ends around 3 p.m.

Horse-drawn wagons, actors playing soldiers and civilians, cannons, a local Victorian photographer for paid photos shot on tin and glass and even fresh bread baked on site will take over the park’s modern essence to create an immersive experience, Phan said.

The park notes an often under-told chapter in Civil War history: the plight of African American soldiers.

According to Phan,  the camp was first established as a supply depot.

After helping liberate the entire east Tennessee region under Confederate occupation from 1861 to 1863, Camp Nelson’s purpose began to evolve, and it became a recruitment and freedom center for African Americans.

From 1863-1864, nearly two thousand enslaved African American men and women were impressed into service by the U.S. Army to build earthworks, fortification, and military roads at Camp Nelson. According to Phan, some enslaved men who experienced Camp Nelson, “in many ways, against their own will” would free themselves later on and return to join the U.S. Army at Camp Nelson.

Volunteers and staff will place 1900 flags along Camp Nelson’s earthworks representing each one of the African American laborers. During this first event, park rangers and living history volunteers will describe the lives and the work of the enslaved laborers through a walking tour. There will be 1800 white flags; the other 100 flags will represent the men who returned to enlist in the service.

“It’s really powerful and super personal. We’ll be sharing individual stories. Our staff has been working on it all summer, researching and transcribing the impressed laborers’ names,” Phan said. “When the volunteers put the flags down, they should read the name and honor that person.”

To volunteer and assist with placing the 1900 flags, email or call the park at 859-881-5716. Phan said the park only has ten volunteers signed up right now, and they’ll benefit from more help.

The park is one of the newest in the National Parks system and the staff is grateful for all the local support for it.

In particular, Phan thanked the county for its huge part in establishing the park.

“The county did a great job establishing this site, and we’re just kind of taking it to the next level like we’re developing a new national park site, and we want people to be a part of it,” he said. “We want people, especially people that live in the area, to come out and learn more about the people that were here and the things that they experienced, and again the national significance of this site that will impact people across the entire region,” Phan said. “It’s a really, really big deal.”

The visitor center at Camp Nelson National Monument is now open 7-days a week. The building is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The grounds remain open from sunrise to sunset. The park is located at 614 Danville Rd.