Come and Join Us Brothers: the Legacy of Camp William Penn

June 16, 2023 | by Edward W. Duffy

A recruitment poster from 1865 encouraging African American men to join the Union Army’s United States Colored Troops. Camp William Penn, located in Cheltenham, had a recruitment office at 1210 Chestnut Street. | Image: Public Domain

La Mott, a nearby Philadelphia suburb across Cheltenham Avenue from West Oak Lane, is a historic district that dates back to the Civil War and the site of the first training center for African American volunteers in the U.S. Army. The soldiers who passed through Camp William Penn, beginning instruction in May, 1863, fought in all major battles in 1864 and 1865. After the surrender of the Confederate Army in the East, several of the camp’s graduates’ regiments were transferred to Texas where they participated in the emancipation of 250,000 people there, commemorated as Juneteenth, the federal holiday observed on June 19. The story of how it came to be closely follows the understanding of African American civil rights as it evolved over the course of the war.

The Fight for Freedom Begins

This painting by Currier & Ives depicts the battle of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor in April 1861. | Image courtesy of Prints & Photographs, Library of Congress

During the first year of the Civil War, President Lincoln’s paramount worry was preserving the Union from further dissolution. The secession of America’s slave states had been the goal of a cabal of lawyers, planters, government officials, and other elites, among them Henry Benning, a Georgia supreme court justice for whom Fort Benning was named in 1922 (since renamed Fort Moore), Edmund Pettus, for whom the Selma, Alabama bridge was named in 1940, and Edmund’s brother John, the governor of Mississippi. They were hoping to have all 15 slave states opt out of the Union before Lincoln’s March 4, 1861 inauguration, thus presenting him with a fait acompli that they would dare him to challenge. Their goal was not met, only seven Deep South “Cotton Kingdom” states left by that date, Kentucky voting to remain neutral in any war and Virginia voting in February to remain in the Union. The Confederates firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina in April was in part an effort to induce the remaining slave states to leave, but only four did so, with Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri remaining loyal to the Union. Lincoln did not want to antagonize these four states with talk of ending slavery as abolitionists like Philadelphia Quaker Lucretia Mott were urging him. During that critical first year of the war it fell to enslaved African Americans to take their emancipation into their own hands.

A portrait of General Benjamin Franklin Butler circa 1870-80. | Photo courtesy of Prints & Photographs, Library of Congress

This began early on. Following Virginia’s controversial revote to depart from the Union, both sides began erecting fortifications along the Potomac River opposite each other in Washington and Alexandria, the Confederates using enslaved labor for construction. One night three construction workers rowed across the Potomac and asked for asylum, offering to assist the federal construction effort. They arrived around 11 P.M. The Union commander there, General Benjamin Franklin Butler, had not yet retired for the night and interviewed them. The next morning a rowboat appeared under a flag of truce, and a planter landed, demanding to speak with Butler. He informed him that Butler was legally bound to return his three workers to him under provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act. Butler inquired if Virginia had declared itself outside the Union and thus a foreign country. When the planter answered in the affirmative, Butler informed him that the law did not apply to foreign countries. The planter left empty handed. The rowboat’s crew soon spread the news of what had just happened.

Butler, a political general, was good friends with Lincoln and a frequent White House visitor whose opinion the Republican president valued as a rare Democratic politician who supported him. Butler informed Lincoln of this encounter and urged him to establish a policy of the Union Army not returning the enslaved who requested asylum, and thus was established the Union’s contraband policy. This policy did not extend to enlisting African Americans into the army and arming them, but was limited to providing them with food, clothing, shelter, and employment as teamsters, laundresses, cooks, and construction workers.

A poster used to recruit recently freed slaves to fight in the Civil War for the Union Army following the Militia Act of July 17, 1862. | Image courtesy of National Archives

A year later, Butler was part of the successful federal combined arms assault that captured New Orleans (NOLA), the South’s largest city and its busiest port, in April 1862. Butler commanded the Union Army’s occupation forces. Among the Confederate units that surrendered there was a regiment composed entirely of free Black soldiers, both enlisted and officers. NOLA had a large free Black population, a legacy of its French colonial origins, some of whom were quite wealthy and well-educated, some even enslavers themselves. The Ricaud family alone owned 4,000 acres of land and 250 enslaved, having a net worth in 1859 of $250,000, the equivalent to over $40 million today. NOLA’s Black regiment dated from French colonial times and fought in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, being cited for valor by General Andrew Jackson.

The USS Planter, a steamer pictured here in circa 1860s, was commandeered by Robert Smalls, a southern slave. He steered the ship past Confederate defenses in the port of Charleston South Carolina and surrendered it to the Union Army on May 13, 1862. | Photo: Public Domain

The soldiers of the regiment decided that they wanted to switch sides and join the Union Army. This offer was presented to General Butler at a banquet in his honor consisting of a feast of seven dishes served on silver plates. Butler accepted their proposal and used this regiment as the nucleus to form a larger all-Black brigade, which he employed to capture Baton Rouge. Butler did not wait for African Americans to escape their enslaved conditions, but now used his troops to emancipate them. Butler advised Lincoln that African Americans made good soldiers and should be recruited, leading to the Militia Act of July 17, 1862, which enabled the president to call Black men to military service. Butler also urged Lincoln to embrace emancipation of the enslaved. This would be a big step for Lincoln given his fraught relationships with the four Union slave states, a step that he would only take after a major Union victory. This occurred at Antietam on September 17, 1862 after which Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862 with effective date of January 1, 1863. It applied only to those enslaved in the 11 disloyal states.

The most publicized example of African Americans emancipating themselves occurred on May 13, 1862 in the Port of Charleston. An armed Confederate steamer, the Planter, was seized by its enslaved crew led by harbor pilot Robert Smalls. It sailed past the watchful Confederate lookouts posted at Fort Sumter, Smalls giving them the wave of his hand as he always did on passing it, but piloted the Planter out to the blockade fleet, ran down the Confederate ensign, and tendered it to the U.S. Navy.

Black Soldiers Bear Arms

A wet plate photograph circa 1863-66 of Company E, 4th Regiment of United States Colored Troops at Fort Lincoln in Washington, D.C. | Photo: Public Domain

The recruiting of Black soldiers, to be known as United States Colored Troops (USCT) began in earnest in Philadelphia on June 19, 1863 with a proclamation by Lieutenant Colonel Charles C. Ruff that he had orders, as mustering officer, 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,” according to General Orders #143, May 22, 1863. A week later, Camp William Penn was established in Cheltenham Township, then known as Chelten Hills, in Montgomery County. This was the nation’s first of the U.S. Army’s 18 USCT training camps. This location was chosen as it was a level site convenient to a station on a nearby railroad, the North Pennsylvania, which ran down to the docks at the foot of Vine Street. It was offered to the Army for this use by its owner, Lucretia Mott’s son-in-law, Edward M. Davis. Lieutenant Colonel Louis Wagner, a staunch abolitionist, volunteered to be camp commander.

A photograph of Lieutenant Colonel Louis Wagner taken in the 910 Chestnut Street studio of J.E. McClees circa late 1850s-early 1860s. | Photo: Public Domain

Wagner, a German immigrant, had been so badly wounded in the battles of Bull Run and Chancellorsville that doctors declared him unfit for field service, so this gave him the opportunity to get back in the action. The first company of Philadelphia African American troops, temporarily housed in 12-man conical Sibley tents, was mustered into service on June 26. On September 24, these newly trained soldiers of the 6th Regiment and four companies of the 8th Regiment celebrated their graduation with a grand review at Chelten Hills. On October 3, the 6th Regiment and four companies of the 8th Regiment were paraded in Philadelphia where they were reviewed at the Union League and dined at the Union League Refreshment Saloon. The soldierly bearing of these troops won for them and their white officers great praise from the newspapers and public. For assistance at Camp William Penn, the Colored Women’s Sanitary Commission was formed and headquartered at 404 Walnut Street. Its president was Caroline Johnson.

Top: a lithograph from the 1800s gives a panoramic view of Camp William Penn. Bottom: the 26th United States Colored Volunteer Infantry at Camp William Penn in 1865. | Images: Public Domain and National Archives

The camp mustered a total of 11 regiments rated as “regular army” and not credited to the quotas of the city or the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The records for bravery under fire and efficiency in the campaigns in which they were employed were shared by the 10,940 enlisted men and nearly 400 white officers commanding them who were trained at Camp William Penn. Black officers were appointed near the end of the war. Nationwide, as many as 200,000 Americans served in USCT units, 10 percent of the U.S. Army’s muster.  25 of these men were awarded the Medal of Honor.

In a General Order of October 11, 1864, Butler, referring to a charge made by these troops at New Market Heights, Virginia under his command on September 29, wrote “Better men were never better led, better officers never led better men. A few more such charges and to command colored troops will be the post of honor in the American armies.” At New Market Heights, one company of the 6th Regiment went into the charge with 32 men, already reduced by casualties from the original 80, and returned with three, the largest average company loss recorded of any troops in the course of the Civil War. 14 USCT were awarded Medals of Honor for their actions in this battle. 

Over the course of the war, the 800-man 6th Regiment of the USCT lost 219 men either killed, mortally wounded, or dying of disease. The 8th Regiment lost 251 men, earning it a place on Union Army’s list of Three Hundred Fighting Regiments. It was present at the Appomattox Court House surrender.

A regimental flag showing an African American soldier and Columbia holding an American flag between them. Designed circa 1860-70. | Image courtesy of Prints & Photographs, Library of Congress

Following the April, 1865 rebel army surrenders in the East, some of Philadelphia’s USCT regiments were dispatched to Texas, the 8th serving until November, 1865, the 22nd, patrolling along the Rio Grande River until October, the 41st serving at Brownsville until November before being disbanded in Philadelphia on December 14. Others regiments serving in Texas included the 43rd, 45th, and the 127th. It is a certainty that these troops participated in alerting enslaved Texans that they were now free, reading to them General Gordon Granger’s General Order #3, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” Granger had landed at Galveston on June 19 and distributed General Order #3 at that time, hence that date memorialized as Juneteenth.

The enslaved residing in Maryland and Missouri were emancipated by state legislation in 1864. Those in Delaware and Kentucky became free with ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865.

An Integrated Village is Born

A Pennsylvania State historical marker and part of the original gate of Camp William Penn. | Photo: Ed Duffy

Following the Civil War, the camp was returned to its owner Edward Davis, who subdivided the property into small building lots and marketed them to African Americans and Irish immigrants, one of the first communities to encourage integrated living. The village represents a turning point in the social and racial development of residential communities in the post-Civil War era.

A set of homes that date back to the development of Camp Town. The neighborhood is now called La Mott. | Photo: Ed Duffy

The first six speculative houses in Camp Town, as the new neighborhood was called, were built in 1869 by Thomas Keenan, a local carpenter, using lumber salvaged from the military grounds. They are located along Keenan Street in La Mott. Other homes there exhibit a variety of styles, form, and building materials, ranging from late Victorian to Philadelphia-style rowhouses.  The community’s tradition of social harmony, which was born over 150 years ago, is an integral feature of it today. Many of the families who originally settled here during the village’s early years still remain and contribute to the community. The Camptown Historic District was nominated by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and listed in the National Register of Historic Places in October 1985. Camp Town was officially renamed La Mott to honor Lucretia Mott 100 years earlier.

Soldiers and sailors of United States Colored Troops were originally buried at Lebanon Cemetery in South Philadelphia. Their remains were reinterred at Philadelphia National Cemetery in the late 1800s. | Photo: Ed Duffy

The Philadelphia National Cemetery, located on Limekiln Pike at Haines Street near La Mott, contains the graves of many members of the USCT in its Section C.  African American soldiers and sailors who died in the Philadelphia area during the Civil War were originally buried in Black-owned Lebanon Cemetery. The remains of more than 300 USCT were moved to Section C of the newly-created Philadelphia National Cemetery in 1885.


About the Author

Edward W. Duffy is the author of "Philadelphia: A Railroad History" (Camino Books, 2013) and "Philadelphia Celebrates: Three Great Anniversaries - 1876-1926-1976" (Camino Books, 2017).

One Comment:

  1. Fi says:

    Brilliant article! I’d love to read a sequel to this, continuing up to Truman’s desegregation of the military!

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