Camp William Penn: Creating United States Colored Troops in Pennsylvania

Company E of the 4th U.S.C.T.

Company E of the 4th U.S.C.T. (Library of Congress)

By January of 1863 the Civil War was well under way. Hundreds of thousands of troops were enlisted in the Union Army to preserve the Union! Yet, the government would not enlist any African-Americans, whether they were runaway slaves or free men. By the end of year this would change, with thousands of African-Americans enlisting in the army. Camp William Penn would be Pennsylvania’s only training camp of African-American Troops and would become one of the nation’s largest and most important training grounds for these troops.

Initially, Abraham Lincoln resisted the enlistment of African-American troops in the Union Army. That was in 1861 when everyone hoped that the war would be short.  By September of 1862 the war was well over a year old and the Union had suffered a string of losses at the hands of the Confederacy. The Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln issued on September 22, 1862 changed that. Today we remember the proclamation as the act by which Lincoln freed all the slaves (which isn’t technically true but that is for another article), but near the bottom of the document there was a single sentence about using African-Americans as soldiers. “And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.” With this single statement, Lincoln started the country towards using African-American troops. Once the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1st, 1863 states started to form African-American regiments. The first and most famous of the state regiments was the 54th Massachusetts, which was formed in March of 1863 but there was no system in place for the Federal government to recruit African-American troops.

The attack on Fort Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts (Knox University)

The attack on Fort Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts (Knox University)

General Order 143 changed all that. When Secretary of War E. D. Townsend issued this order in May of 1863, it created the United States Colored Troops. This was the organization that was created for enlisting and organizing African-American into regiments.  Already in March of 1863 a group of men formed a committee, with former cavalry officer Colonel William Frismuth as head of the committee, for the recruitment of African-American soldiers into regiments. Originally, it seems as though the committee wanted to use these troops to form Pennsylvania state regiments. This proposal was originally backed by Governor Curtain but had trouble getting support from the War Department. In May a new committee, dubbed the Citizen’s Bounty Fund Committee, formed and petitioned the new Secretary of War Stanton to recruit for and form colored regiments in Pennsylvania. This committee in turn formed a sub-committee, called the Supervising Committee for Recruiting Colored Troops, which would not only recruit troops but also help to administer the new training camp for these troops. On June 22nd this committee received word from the War Department:

“I am instructed by the Secretary of War to inform you that you are hereby authorized as the representative of your associate petitioners to raise in Philadelphia, or the eastern part of Pennsylvania, three regiments of infantry, to be composed of colored men, to be mustered into the service of the United States for three years or during the war. To these troops no bounties will be paid.

They will receive $ 10 per month and one ration, $ 3 of which monthly pay may be in clothing.

It must be distinctly understood that but one regiment is to be recruited at a time; thus, the organization of the first regiment must be completed and the regiment mustered into service before the recruiting of the second is commenced.

The troops raised under the foregoing instructions will rendezvous at Camp William Penn, Chelten Hills, near Philadelphia, where they will be received and subsisted as soon as they are enlisted, and an officer will be assigned to duty at that post to take command of them on their arrival and make the necessary requisitions for supplies.”

Camp William Penn (Library of Congress)

Camp William Penn (Library of Congress)

Camp William Penn officially open on June 26th, 1863. The response by the Philadelphia African-American community was overwhelming and immediate. By the end of July a full regiment of 800 men had been recruited and formed into the 3rd United States Colored Troop. By the end of August enough officers had been found and the 3rd U.S.C.T. was officially mustered into the Union Army. (Mustered in means they were officially sworn in and were a part of the army) The response only slowed slightly after the formation of the 3rd U.S.C.T. The 3rd U.S.C.T. was the first of eleven regiments that would pass through Camp William Penn. Besides the 3rd U.S.C.T., the 6th U.S.C.T., the 8th U.S.C.T., the 22nd U.S.C.T., the 24th U.S.C.T., the 25th U.S.C.T., the 32nd U.S.C.T., the 41st U.S.C.T., the 43rd U.S.C.T., the 45th U.S.C.T., and the 127th U.S.C.T. all were formed and trained at Camp William Penn. If you would like complete regimental histories of these units, they are in Samuel Bates’ History of Pennsylvania Volunteers 1861-5; Prepared in Compliance with the Acts of the Legislature Volume V. When Camp William Penn closed in May of 1865  about 11,000 enlisted men and 400 officers had been trained in camp. Considering only about 80,000 African-Americans enlisted during the Civil War, Camp William Penn trained almost 1/8 or about 13% of all African-Americans that served in the Union Army during the course of the war.

Troops on parade at Camp William Penn (National Archives)

Not only was Camp William Penn one of the largest camps for training African-American troops but it also acted as a link to the African-American community. Thousands of men from Philadelphia and other states flocked to the camp creating a link between it and the African-American community. Some of the most visible connections appear in issues of the Christian Recorder. The Christian Recorder was one of the most popular African-American newspapers in the country and was based out of Philadelphia. In issues of the newspaper you see articles written about the camp and letters sent by soldiers from regiments that were formed in Camp William Penn. Recruiting ads were placed in the newspaper as well. There were many soldiers from U.S.C.T. regiments, whether they were formed at Camp William Penn or not, that were subscribers of the paper. With the prevalence of sharing newspapers and reading aloud, this would greatly increase the number of people who would be exposed to the paper. Probably the biggest advantage to this would be the added exposure for the information wanted ads. Information wanted ads were people advertising trying to find long lost friends and family, usually separated by slavery. Not only were soldiers sometimes the people posting these ads but were sometimes the people being looked for in the ads. With these soldiers being spread out around the country both North and South, it greatly helped to boast the chances of the people in the ads being found.

The 3rd U.S.C.T. Battle Flag (Library of Congress)

The 3rd U.S.C.T. Battle Flag (Library of Congress)

Camp William Penn was one of the most influential training camps of African-American soldiers. Not only did it train a large chunk of these soldiers who served during the war but its’ connection with the African-American community and the Christian Recorder made it a large part of the African-American culture during that time period.


Additional Reading about Camp William Penn:

Camp William Penn 1863-1865: America’s First Federal African American Soldiers’ Fight for Freedom by Donald Scott, Sr.

Camp William Penn and the Black Soldier by Jeffry D. Wert (JSTOR access required)

Camp William Penn by Pennsylvania 150th Anniversary of the Civil War

Camp William Penn in Historic La Mott

National Archives Records on Camp William Penn

Additional Reading about the United States Colored Troops

 United States Colored Troops by the National Archives and Records Administration

Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers by Joseph T. Glatthaar

United States Colored Troops by the National Park Service


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