Camp William Penn and the Fight for Historical Memory

Camp William Penn and the Fight for Historical Memory

If you were to drive down Cheltenham Avenue north of Philadelphia today between Penrose Avenue and School Lane, you would pass standard urban blocks, nothing extraordinary. A cemetery, gas station, a mixed collection of residences, and a community center. Casual passersby—many residents, even–do not recognize the historical significance of the site, the part those few city blocks played in history. For on those four blocks on Cheltenham Avenue lie the ruins of the largest training camp for African American soldiers in the Civil War, Camp William Penn. A Pennsylvania State Historical marker describing the camp’s history can be found along Sycamore Avenue, situated near where former gates to the camp are located. The Veterans Association (VA) of Pennsylvania erected a stone monument nearby that honors the camp. And about twenty yards from the VA monument, a small former firehouse serves as a seasonal museum, where a small staff of volunteers interpret this history using objects and artifacts from the camp. No federal or state money is spent on the museum, and the volunteers who run the place fight periodically to protect what little they have. Beyond the marker, the monument, and the firehouse-museum, all of which can be missed if you blink, there is no other indication that between 1863 and 1865, more black soldiers in the United States Colored Troops (USCT) trained at Camp William Penn than any other camp in the Union. Nothing here gives a hint of how central the camp was to African American life during the Civil War era. Indeed, without increased awareness, the site is in danger of being erased, entirely. For some time now historians have underscored how important black enlistment was to U.S. victory in the Civil War—nearly 200,000 of these men entered the fight as fresh recruits just when the U.S. Army most needed them–and, yet, this most significant site in that story is in danger of being lost.

CWP Gates
A picture of the Pennsylvania State Historical Marker near the surviving gates of the camp. Courtesy of the Camp William Penn museum site, by Jonathan White.

Several unique developments came together to make Philadelphia the home to the U.S. Army’s Camp William Penn. Philadelphia-area Quakers boasted a long and distinguished history of abolitionism, and when the war began, and were able to generate enthusiastic support for the USCT. Gentlemen’s clubs like the Union League provided the financial muscle necessary to support the camp and recruit troops. The North Pennsylvania Railroad that traveled through Cheltenham supplied the infrastructure to transport soldiers. And, most importantly, Philadelphia’s free blacks pressured city and state leaders to be included in the fight against slavery and the Confederacy. “Men in earnest don’t fight with one hand, when they might fight with two,” Frederick Douglass said in 1861, “and a man drowning would not refuse to be saved even by a colored hand.” The Camp opened in the summer of 1863, and by the time its gates closed in 1865, approximately eleven thousand soldiers trained at the site. Eleven Camp William Penn regiments saw fighting in the final years of the war, from Olustee to Petersburg. But beyond the camp’s important work producing black soldiers, Camp William Penn became a center of black community life and a place where recruits and others fought for civil rights.

Camp William Penn, camps and headquarters from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania Digital Library.
Camp William Penn, camps and headquarters. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania Digital Library.

Racial tensions and conflicts ran through life in the camp, as black city residents, recruits and those who came to support them, came in contact with Cheltenham’s white community members and U.S. Army officers, and white and black Americans negotiated the racial limits of a country in the midst of emancipation. Slave owners from Delaware and Maryland traveled to the camp on several occasions in an attempt to reclaim escaped slaves. Tense showdowns ensued between the masters and the soldiers, a mix of free blacks and formers slaves. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the troops often became “excited.” On one occasion, soldiers surrounded a slave owner and threatened him, forcing him to “beat a hasty retreat.”[1] White neighbors complained loudly about “uncivilized” blacks who visited the camp. “Unless [black visitors] soon change their course,” an unnamed author threatened, “the residents in the neighborhood of the camp will take the matter in their own hands and teach a few how to behave themselves.”[2] Violence in and around the camp was not uncommon. In August 1863, a sentinel named Charles Ridley shot a local white man who had been harassing him while on duty, leading to a public debate over Ridley’s fate. The case extended all the way to the state capital in Harrisburg, when in June 1864, following a campaign by Pennsylvanians who believed the sentinel had been unjustly convicted, Governor Andrew Curtain decided to pardon Ridley, reversing the court’s decision. The soldiers’ white US Army officers treated black civilians harshly. In 1864, black women suspected of bringing liquor to the men were made to wear signs that read “I brought whiskey into camp” while they were paraded around camp. When one woman resisted the shaming, officers shaved her head and expelled her from the grounds.[3]

The racial animosities of the period were on full display. USCT soldiers were initially paid a fraction of the wages received by their white compatriots, were held suspect by white soldiers who thought they could not fight, and were threatened by Confederate soldiers with either death or enslavement if caught. While they fought for equal treatment in the army, that fight continued at their training ground. Friends and family of Camp William Penn soldiers wishing to visit loved ones at the camp suffered the humiliation of being barred from some of Philadelphia’s segregated street cars. These and other hardships engendered a sense of disillusionment among men who had enthusiastically turned out to fight for their country. While in the field, one man in the 6th USCT Regiment wrote in the midst of the struggle over wages,

When I was home I could make a living for [my wife] and my two little ones; but now that I am a soldier they must do the best they can or starve. It almost tempts   me to desert and run a chance of getting shot, when I read her letters, hoping that I would come to her relief. But what am I to do…I thought I was a soldier, and it   made me feel somewhat proud to think that I had a right to fight for Uncle Sam…but my wife’s letters have brought my patriotism down to the freezing point, and I don’t think it will ever rise again.

The story of Camp William Penn provides historians and the general public a window into not only the story of the USCT, but also racial tension and civil rights activism of the Civil War era.[4]

The photograph that became the basis for the "Come Join Us Brothers" United States Colored Troops recruitment painting.
The photograph that became the basis for the “Come Join Us Brothers” United States Colored Troops recruitment painting.[5]

Thanks to the work of the volunteers at Camp William Penn Museum and the Citizens for the Restoration of Historical La Mott–and the latter’s strong online presence–remnants of this important piece of U.S. history remain. Yet their conservation efforts have yielded few visible results. Only fragments of the camp walls and gates remain. A walking tour of the blocks might allow interpreters to point out where barracks or camp streets were once located. Indeed, fragments of the destroyed barracks and buildings have been repurposed to construct homes in the neighborhood, but these are not marked nor is it clear if these remnants of the city’s distinguished civil rights history are one home remodel or urban renewal away from vanishing too. Although the battle to preserve the camp has been underway for decades, a bigger fight remains to be waged—this one against the public’s nearly complete lack of interest in the site. The story of Camp William Penn is about how hundreds of thousands of men, young and not so young, free and enslaved, turned out to fight for their country, often with other Americans actively working against them. In the process these men realized they had another fight to wage at home, for equality and for respect. Yet our memory of these men, like the camp where they trained and lived, has been slowly disappearing for more than one hundred and fifty years. Out of respect for their memory, Camp William Penn deserves more than a marker and a seasonal museum.

[1] “Incident at Camp William Penn,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 21, 1863, America’s Historical Newspapers.

[2] “The Negro Camp,” The Age, February 1, 1864, in David I. Harrower and Thomas J. Weickowski, A Spectacle for Men and Angels: A Documentary Narrative of Camp William Penn and the Raising of Colored Regiments in Pennsylvania (West Conshohocken, PA: Infinity Publishing, 2013).

[3] “Temperance Movement at Camp William Penn,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 31, 1864, America’s Historical Newspapers.

[4] A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army, 1861-1865, ed. Edwin S. Redkey (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 237.

[5] Jerome S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite, Jr., “Retouching History: The Modern Falsification of a Civil War Photograph,” the University of Virginia.

Blake McGready

Blake is a graduate student at Villanova University and is interested in early American history and public history. In addition to his coursework and assistantship, he works as a tour guide for the Encampment Store at Valley Forge National Historical Park in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. He can be reached at bmcgread@villanova.edu.

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