Cheltenham Township and the Civil War

In the heart of LaMott, on the grounds of the LaMott Community Center, is a stone marker commemorating “Camp William Penn: 1863-1865. Training camp for colored troops enlisted into the United States Army. . . . erected by the Allied Veterans Association of Pennsylvania.” The monument is dated 1943, in the midst of another war against racism and tyranny. Of the eleven regiments of United States Colored Troops trained on this site, of those that served, two were marked by outstanding combat performance: The 6th and 8th USCT.

The American Civil War was at first a “white man’s war” aiming solely to restore the Union. African-Americans who came forward were rudely turned away. Others sought to tap the reservoir of willing black men. Union General John Charles Fremont advocated emancipation of slaves, ultimately arming them, and General David Hunter formed a regiment of former slaves that ultimately became the First South Carolina Colored Volunteers. Ignoring Lincoln Administration and War Department disapproval of Fremont’s and Hunter’s efforts, Kansas Senator James H. Lane raised a regiment of former slaves, Washington politics be damned. Abolitionist politicians, like Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, insistently prodded the Lincoln Administration to free and arm southern slaves. As the United States armies in the east suffered defeat after defeat, keeping the slave holding Border States in the Union seemed less important than winning the war. The remorseless logic of war led recruitment of southern blacks as “Contraband” labor battalions, then, finally, as fully authorized military units. As Frederick Douglass observed: “. . . a man drowning would not refuse to be saved even by a colored hand.” Northern blacks longed to get into the fight. Their motives were varied, but centered on a desire to prove themselves equal to the rights and burdens of citizenship. Civil War presaged the death of the institution of slavery, of this they were sure, but they hoped to earn the right to full equality in the crucible of battle.

With the issue of the Emancipation Proclamation on the first of the new year 1863, without a particularly ringing endorsement of their use, Lincoln authorized recruitment of blacks “to garrison forts, position, stations and other places and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.” (The U.S. Navy didn’t need authorization to man warships with mixed race crews, this was already in effect from the Revolutionary War.) Before there could be black combat troops, recruitment and training establishments had to be created. Military authorities were tasked to “enlist into service of the United States for three years or during the war all suitable colored men who may offer themselves for enlistment.” Raw recruits from Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey were to train in the Philadelphia area in one of eight northern camps set up for the drilling of colored troops. Ultimately eleven Regiments of United States Colored Troops would train for war in what was christened Camp William Penn in honor of the pacifist founder of Pennsylvania. An added distinction was that this camp was the only one set up exclusively to instruct black troops.

A June 19, 1863 meeting of prominent Philadelphians resolved to form a committee to raise black regiments. On the same date Lieutenant Colonel Charles C. Ruff announced that he had “orders to authorize the formation of one regiment of ten companies, colored troops, each to be eighty strong, to be mustered into the United Sates service and provided for in all respects the same as white troops.” A week later, plans were made to establish Camp William Penn. In that same week, war came to Pennsylvania, in the person of Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. Confederate General Jubal A. Early was in the town of Gettysburg putting to flight a regiment of emergency militia. Early’s gray-coated regiments were shortly thereafter in the town of York and then on the Susquehanna River. A thoroughly alarmed Governor Andrew Curtin called for 600,000 three-month militia to repel Lee’s invasion of the Keystone State. However, emergency did not trump racism, state authorities turned down the services of a company of Philadelphia colored volunteers. (Later blacks would be allowed to enlist in state militia units, at lower pay than white volunteers.)

With the Commonwealth still under the panic of Lee’s invading hosts, June 30 saw several hundred black men marching up Sixth street, bound for Chestnut Street. They had no weapons or uniforms but were led by “fife and drum and inspiriting banners,” and were marching to their newly organized camp in The Chelten Hills. The first site for the encampment was beyond the city limits of Philadelphia in what is now Cheltenham Township. Located on land owned by Edward M. Davis. It was located at the junction of Church Road and Washington Lane, and convenient to the newly constructed North Penn Railroad. Armed black men might not be welcome within Philadelphia city limits, so the location of the facility in area of sympathetic Quakers was ideal. The first draft of volunteers settled into their new home by the end of June 1863.

The first location of the camp presented problems; the hilly area was not parade ground level and a new site was selected just over the city line. This area, now Cheltenham Avenue and Penrose Avenue, was close to “Roadside,” the home of abolitionist, Quaker, Lucretia Mott. Close enough that Mott commented “the barracks make a show from our back windows.”

By Independence Day, 1863, the camp was open for drill and training. Camp William Penn became the largest of the training camps set up for USCT’s. Eventually 10,940 troops passed through the encampment. Lieutenant Colonel Louis Wagner was assigned command of the post at his request. A German immigrant, Wagner served with distinction with the 88th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, and was severely wounded in the Battle of Run. Other officers for the camp were selected from battle-hardened units, all the better to train raw recruits.

The first units formed at Camp William Penn were the 3rd, 6th, and 8thUSCT. The 6th , with recruits mustered in on July 9, may have been the first to leave for the battlefields of the South. Frederick Douglass pronounced: “It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.” The USCTs from Camp William Penn and the length and breadth of the United States would bring fire, thunder, storm, whirlwind and earthquake to the racism and tyranny of the slave-holding Confederacy.

Stephen E. Conrad