Cheltenham Township and the Civil War:
Camp William Penn
In the heart of La Mott, on
the grounds of the Community Center, is a stone marker memorializing "Camp William
Penn: 1863-1865. Training camp for colored troops enlisted into the United States
Army." The monument was "erected by the Allied Veterans Association of
Pennsylvania" in 1943. Of the troops trained at the site, two were marked for special
combat performance: the 6th and 8th USCT. (United States Colored Troops).
Civil War was at first a war for the Union. As such, the war was viewed as a "white
man's war." Those blacks who came forward were rudely turned away. Generals Hunter
and Fremont tried to enlist black troops, only to be slapped down by an administration
worried about holding the Border States in the Union. As Union defeat after defeat piled
up in the Eastern Theater, the remorseless logic of war, as well as the pleadings of
abolitionists, led first to use of blacks as "Contraband" labor units, then as
full scale military units.
blacks yearned to get into the fight. Their motives were complex, but revolved around a
desire to "prove" themselves worthy of equal citizenship. They knew that the war meant
the death of slavery, but not necessarily the birth of freedom or equality. They hoped to
prove, to the racist white population in the North, their worth in the crucible of battle.
the January 1, 1863 issue of the Emancipation Proclamation, without a particularity
ringing endorsement of their use, Lincoln authorized recruitment of blacks "to
garrison forts, positions, stations and other places and to man vessels of all sorts in
U.S.C.T. regiments were trained at what was to become Camp William Penn. Before there
could be combat soldiers, recruitment and training establishments for them had to be set
up. By the end of 1863, authorities were authorized to "enlist into the service of
the United States for three years or during the war all suitable colored men who may offer
themselves for enlistment." Recruits from Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey were
to be trained at Camp William Penn, one of eight northern camps set up for the training of
black troops. Camp William Penn has the important distinction of being the only one set up
exclusively to train black troops.
June 19, 1863 gathering of prominent citizens in Sansom Street Hall resolved to form a
committee to raise black regiments. On the same date Lieut. Col. Charles C.
Ruff....(announced that)....he had "orders to authorize the formation of one regiment
of ten companies, colored troops, each company to be eighty strong, to be mustered into
the United States service and provided for, in all respects, the same as white
troops." A week later, Camp William Penn was to be established to receive the black
inauguration of Camp William Penn was a week later, on June 26th, it was none too soon.
Confederate General Jubal Anderson Early was in Gettysburg routing a command of
Pennsylvania militia, then pushing this dusty regiment toward York, and the Susquehanna
River. On the same day Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin issued a call for 60,000
three-month militia to turn back Lee's incursion into the state. Why, with the crisis upon
them the state authorities turned down the services of a company of motivated black
volunteers is a mystery. Blacks would be allowed to enlist, in state units, but for three
years, or the war, and at lower pay than white enlistees. These conditions did not deter
blacks from rallying to the colors.
saw several hundred black men marching on Sixth Street bound for Chestnut Street. They had
no arms or uniforms but were led by "fife and drum and inspiriting banners," and
were marching to their newly organized camp in the Chelten Hills. This was over the city
limits in what is now Cheltenham Township. The first site for the camp was on the estate
of financier Jay Cooke, at the junction of Church Road (now route 73) and Washington Lane.
The camp was located near rail connections, the newly constructed North Penn Railroad, on
donated land and in the middle of an area of sympathetic Quakers. The location was equally
good for other reasons. Armed black men were not training in the city with its relatively
racist population. It seems clear that this first "draft'* of men was destined for
the Jay Cooke Estate. This would make June 30, the first use of the camp.
camp, though first established on the Jay Cooke estate, was not ideal. Then, as well as
now, the area was not parade ground level. A new site was selected just outside the
Philadelphia City limits. This is now Cheltenham Avenue and Penrose Avenue. The new site
was close enough to "Roadside", the home of Lucretia Mott, for her to comment
that "the barracks make a show from our back windows."
Independence Day, 1863, the camp was open for business. This was to be the largest of the
training camps set up for black soldiers. Eventually, 10,940 men passed through the camp.
The camp commander was Lieutenant Colonel Louis Wagner. Wagner was given command of the
post at his own request. Though German born, he brought with him American combat
experience. He was an officer in the 88th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. In this service
he had been badly wounded at Bull Run. Other officers were chosen from units in the field.
A total of
eleven regiments passed through the gates of Camp William Penn. The first training units
were the 3rd, 6th, and 8th U.S.C.T. The Sixth Regiment may have been the first to leave
for the battlefields of the South. As early as July 9, 1863, soldiers were mustered into
the Sixth. This makes this unit, with the Third Regiment, the first to undergo recruitment
- Steve Conrad
Camp William Penn
6th Infantry Regiment
8th Infantry Regiment
22nd Infantry Regiment
24th Infantry Regiment
25th Infantry Regiment
32nd Infantry Regiment
41st Infantry Regiment
43rd Infantry Regiment
127th Infantry Regiment Museum