President Abraham Lincoln’s initial reluctance to allow blacks to serve in the federal army gave way when he realized that the war might be lost if African Americans were not permitted to fight in the war. Lincoln had been ambivalent about recruiting black troops because he feared the border states, whose citizens were torn about the issue of slavery, would be incited to join the Confederacy. Further, many Northern whites were still biased and concerned about black soldiers with weapons.
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation issued in January 1863 paved the way for black regiments to serve in the federal army, and on May 22, 1863, the U.S. War Department issued General Order 143 to establish the United States Bureau of Colored Troops.
During the spring and early summer of 1863, the Confederate army rampaged through Lancaster and Gettysburg, taking black Pennsylvanians as slaves. The real threat of enslavement propelled many black men in Pennsylvania to join the Union forces and by June, led to the establishment of Camp William Penn, the first and largest facility constructed to exclusively train black federal soldiers during the Civil War.
The Establishment of Camp William Penn
More than 10,500 soldiers and 11 regiments were raised at the training camp in Chelton Hills or Camptown, today Cheltenham Township, just northwest of Philadelphia.
Camp William Penn was built on land owned by Union League member Edward M. Davis, the son-in-law of abolitionist Lucretia Mott. In fact, the 13 acres where tents were stationed prior to the construction of the facility’s wood buildings were adjacent to Mott’s “roadside” estate, a major stop on the Underground Railroad. It’s likely that some of the camp’s soldiers came through that Underground Railroad passageway.
Mott’s home and the camp attracted such well-known anti-slavery abolitionists and Underground Railroad conductors as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Robert Purvis and William Still who actually operated a store on the camp’s grounds as post sutler.
As the black regiments drilled with target practice, hand-to-hand combat and parading, they sometimes saluted Mott as she watched from her porch.
The Philadelphia African American community was abuzz with churches and women’s groups bringing supplies to the soldiers at Camp William Penn. David Bustill Bowser, a black artist who painted Abraham Lincoln and the white abolitionist John Brown, designed the colorful regimental flags. The flags often depicted the soldiers in combat and in gleaming uniforms, sometimes protecting America’s “Lady Liberty.”
The Ladies Sanitary Commission of the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church and other women’s groups provided food, cloth, medical supplies, clothing and toiletries for the soldiers. The groups also raised funds by holding fairs and bazaars and they nursed sick and injured soldiers. They coordinated transportation for weekend visits to Camp William Penn where the soldiers could be seen parading, often in full military dress, to the drums and horns of bands.
The Union League, an exclusive club of white men formed to support Lincoln and the Union, donated up to $100,000 to establish Camp William Penn. The Supervisory Committee to Recruit Officers for Negro Troops, which included many members of the Union League of Philadelphia, established the Free Military School for the Applicants for the Command of Colored Troops at 1210 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. The officers recruited to command the USCT regiments were white and were screened to determine their fitness to train black soldiers. Louis Wagner, the commander at Camp William Penn and a German native who also had ties to the Union League, led the selected officers.
The Accomplishments of USCT Regiments Trained at Camp William Penn
The 3rd USCT was the first regiment trained at Camp William Penn in the summer of 1863, when Confederate and Union forces clashed not too far away at Gettysburg.
The great abolitionist and Union recruiter Frederick Douglass, likely on July 24, 1863, spoke to the 3rd USCT about their importance in the Civil War as some of America’s first black federal soldiers:
“The fortunes of the whole race for generations to come are bound up in the success or failure of the 3rd Regiment of colored troops from the North. You are a spectacle for men and angels. You are in a manner to answer the question: can the black man be a soldier? That we can now make soldiers of these men, there can be no doubt!”
Douglass’ powerful words resonated with many of the soldiers who, like him, were ex-slaves.
The 3rd, whose members were not allowed to parade through Philadelphia upon departing camp for fear of racial animosity spurred by the spectacle of blacks in uniform carrying weapons, would go on to participate in the siege of Fort Wagner on Morris Island, South Carolina.
At that battle, one of Douglass’s sons was also fighting for the Union with the Massachusetts 54th and was wounded in the battle. That regiment included many black Philadelphians who had enlisted before Camp William Penn was established.
On October 14, 1863, the 6th USCT departed camp under the leadership of Col. John W. Ames and paraded through Philadelphia, cheered on by an integrated crowd. Following the commendable fighting and the courage demonstrated by black soldiers, including those in the 3rd USCT and Massachusetts 54th, and massive local recruiting efforts, the black troops were gaining acceptance. Perhaps the fiercest regiment to come from the camp, the 6th USCT fought at the Virginia Battle of New Market Heights in September 1864. Several black soldiers from this regiment, including sergeants Alexander Kelly and Thomas Hawkins, earned the Medal of Honor for saving the colors.
In February of 1864, the 8th USCT, which also trained at Camp William Penn, lost many soldiers during an ambush in Olustee, Florida by hardened Confederate forces. Some were captured and died at the notorious Rebel prison in Andersonville, Georgia.
The 22nd USCT fought courageously at the battles of Fort Powhatan, Deep Bottom, Dutch Gap, Fair Oaks, New Market Heights and siege operations at Petersburg and Richmond. The regiment included many New Jersey natives who also served in Virginia and were among the first to enter the Confederate capital of Richmond. The 22nd had one of the highest casualty rates of black Civil War regiments.
The 25th USCT served in North Carolina, New Orleans and Florida as the 24th, 32nd, 41st, 43rd, 45th and 127th participated in Virginia’s Battle of the Crater and other clashes.
After helping to capture Petersburg in early April 1865, the 8th, 41st and 127th of Camp William Penn and other Union forces “marched out … to join in the chase after Lee’s retreating army,” wrote Noah Andre Trudeau in his 1998 book, Like Men of War. “Their route took them along the South Side Railroad, which now became an important link in Grant’s supply chain.”
By April 9 Lee’s forces were virtually cornered, according to Colonel Samuel Chapman Armstrong of the 8th USCT: “We expected a fight – I never felt more like it …. A few bullets whistled around, a few shells passed over,” he wrote. “The Rebs gave way” and “all was quiet.”
Armstrong wrote: “Some staff officers galloped up with the news that Lee was making terms of surrender; the firing ceased. It was impossible to realize that the terrible army of Lee was in existence no longer! The truth was stunning. ”Five Camp William Penn regiments at Appomattox Court House “were there to witness the surrender of Lee’s army to General Grant,” including the 8th, 41st, 43rd, 45th and 127th, according to data of the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington.
The Camp, Post-Civil War
The soldiers of Camp William Penn were among the more than 180,000 black soldiers who fought in the war and suffered heavy losses.
After the war ended, the soldiers of Camp William Penn pursued Lincoln’s assassins and led his funeral. Deployed to Maryland’s Eastern shore with the Eighth Illinois Calvary, about 600 men of the 22nd swept extensive swamps and bogs. In the book Life, Times and Capture of John Wilkes Booth, author George Alfred Townsend described the soldiers “plunging to the tip of the skull in poison stagnation,” later receiving word that Booth had been captured.
Meanwhile, orders were sent from Washington to include a black regiment in Lincoln’s funeral procession. General Godfrey Weitzel, chief of staff of Major General Benjamin F. Butler, chose the 22nd because of “its excellent discipline and good soldierly qualities.” The regiment led Lincoln’s funeral procession through the streets of Washington, D.C.”
After the war, Edward M. Davis, owner of the Camp William Penn territory, divided the land, selling large parcels to Gilded-Age entrepreneurs, including Jay Cooke, the Union’s primary financier.
Davis also sold land to the black and Irish servants who worked on the nearby large estates. LaMott, as the community was called in honor of Lucretia Mott, was hailed as one of the first interracial neighborhoods in the U.S., leading to its inclusion on the National Registry of Historic Places and its designation as a historic district by Cheltenham Township.
Today, only a few remnants of the camp still exist, including its restored front gates. Neighborhood groups are planning a museum and other tributes to the camp’s legacy.