Recalling Black Men who fought in the Civil War…

by Bobbi Booker
The Book Report
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, free Blacks and runaway slaves in the North rushed to sign-up with Union armies. Many were told it was a white man’s war and turned away. Two years passed before African-American men got their chance to fight.The background for the formation of Camp William Penn in the present day LaMott section of Cheltenham Township, Montgomery County, dates back to July 17, 1862, when Congress amended The Militia Act of 1792. The amendment granted President Washington the autonomy “to employ as many persons of African descent as he may deem necessary for the suppression of the rebellion.” It further stated, “for this purpose, he may organize and use them in such manner as he may judge best for the public welfare.”

Camp William Penn has the unique distinction of being the only military ground set up exclusively to train Black troops, drawing recruits from Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey. The campsite was located near the present-day Cheltenham Mall and was the largest of 18 Civil War training facilities in the nation.

Comprised of over 10,000 men, 11 regiments of U.S. Colored Troops were trained on the site. The regiments – 3rd, 6th, 8th, 22nd, 24th, 25th, 32nd, 41st, 43rd, and 127th – were the first of African descent, under the authorization for a two-tier compensation system, to receive a $10 monthly service and clothing allotment. Recruits arrived at the campsite June 26, 1863. Many went on to fight in Virginia, South Carolina, Florida and elsewhere.

In recent years a missing page from history has revealed that Philadelphia, long known as the nation’s Cradle of Liberty, is also the starting point for the country’s oldest African-American holiday.

Two years prior to Juneteenth, Philadelphia was the first city to host the first African in America Parade in the United States. This parade consisted of several hundred African Americans marching without arms or uniforms in file with drums, carrying inspiring banners as they headed towards the first training site for the troops.

Camp William Penn’s mission was to train Black soldiers to save the Union, free the enslaved and reunite families. The army of Black men played a pivotal role in aiding the Union in its defeat of the Confederate Army. The unit tracked Cmdr. General Robert Lee and contributed to his surrender in Appomattox, Va.

Soldiers from the camp’s 22nd Infantry located and captured President Lincoln’s assassin and conspirators on the Eastern shores of Maryland. After passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, the soldiers went from state to state to free Blacks who, unaware of the bill, were still being held as slaves.

It was those troops that marched to the Alston Villa in Galveston, Texas, and surrounded the Alston Villa on Juneteenth – June 19, 1865. Gen. Gordon Granger took charge of the state of Texas and informed the nation’s last remaining slaves of their freedom, almost two and a half years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Celebrations of Juneteenth began the following year and continue to this day.

The camp was recognized for its vital importance to the Union’s war effort and distinct mission. Lincoln’s decision to encourage African-American enlistment during the Civil War marked a great departure from prior administrations. About 180,000 African Americans served in the Union Army and more than 15,000 joined the Union Navy. The recruits who trained at Camp William Penn served in the Army. The camp was situated on land previously owned by the well-known Quaker abolitionist Lucretia Mott family, who noted, “The barracks make a show from our back window.”

Many of Camp William Penn’s recruits were decorated for their bravery and valor. The camp closed Aug. 14, 1865.


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