Camp William Penn



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).

Our 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.

Northern 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.

With 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 said service.”

Eleven 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.

A 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 recruits.

If the 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.

June 30 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.

The 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.”

By 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 and training.
– Steve Conrad