The Beginnings of Camp William Penn

During the second half of the 19th century new residents began to move into the quickly developing Chelten Hills are among whom were the names Elkins, Tyler, Widener, Sinkler and Dobbins. But undoubtedly the most notable of the newcomers was Jay Cooke who was known nationally for his successful efforts to finance the Civil War.

Cooke was one of the most famous individuals ever to reside in the township and his reputation as a national celebrity has been recounted in several books.

Cooke owned several large tracts of land in the township all of which he had acquired gradually in smaller sections. It has been reported that he was particularly attracted to this area perhaps because of its natural beauty which reminded him of his boyhood days back in Ohio. In 1858 he settled permanently I the area and purchased another estate called “The Cedars.” The Cedars was later demolished to make room for the mansion of William L. Elkins.

The Cooke property that is related to the founding of Camp William Penn was a large tract bounded by Washington Lane, Ashbourne Road and Spring Avenue. Some of the lands that Cooke gradually acquired were originally owned by John Russell and later, through marriage, by the Mather family. Cooke had also purchased land from other area residents and firms. By the beginning of the Civil War Cooke had managed to obtain extensive properties in the Cheltenham Township, and it was to one of these properties that the United States Government was to turn when a camp was established to train Black volunteers for the Union Army. The camp was outside of the Philadelphia city limits and was commonly known in the neighborhood as “Cooke’s Hill.”

Original plans called for the camp to be named “Camp Edwin M. Stanton” in honor of Lincoln’s Secretary of War, but when the final approval came from Washington the name had been changed to “Camp William Penn.” All of the troops at Camp William Penn were volunteers, but unlike the white volunteers, they were not credited to any particular state, but became a part of the Regular Army if the United States.

The first location selected for the camp was on Jay Cooke’s estate on Washington Lane and Church Road on land that later was owned by another family and on which many years later they built a Tudor mansion, “Ronaele Manor.” It was on this same site that Jay Cooke, after the war would build his famous “Ogontz.”

The camp was later moved to the relatively more level farmland between Washington Lane and Sycamore Avenue, below the present Ashbourne Road (then called Chelten Avenue). A map constructed by a noted historian of the area indicates that this move put the camp on the present Cheltenham Avenue along Washington Lane and down Cheltenham Avenue to what is know today as La Mott. Based upon this map it can be said that some portion of Camp William Penn occupied the ground surrounding Anselm Hall. Although a 1912 newspaper describing the property stated that “during the civil war troops were mustered on the grounds of Ogontz. Current maps identify the camp as being located in a much smaller area. The new location was bounded by what is now Cheltenham Avenue and Penrose Avenue and close to “Roadside” the home of Lucretia Mott’s. She is quoted as having said, “The barracks make a show from our back windows. “Roadside” was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The 26th U.S. Colored Volunteer Infantry on parade, Camp William Penn, Pa., 1865.

The camp opened on June 26, 1863 and on June 30th, several hundred black men marched on 6th Street in Philadelphia on their way to the newly organized camp in Chelten Hills. By Independence Day, 1863, the camp was fully open for the training of the nearly 11,000 men who would eventually pass through the gates of the camp. The main gate of the camp was on Sycamore Avenue and is indicated with a historic marker. A stone marker commemorating “Camp William Penn: 1863-1865 was erected by the Allied Veterans Association of Pennsylvania in 1943.

Of the eight northern camps set up for the training of black troops, Camp William Penn has the distinction of being the only one set up exclusively to train black troops.

The first and only commander of the camp was Colonel Louis Wagner.

Colored Troops & Camp William Penn’s Early Roots

Seven years prior to the commencement of the Civil War the Washington Union, organ of the administration of President Franklin Pierce, asserted that “if the Union of the States is dissolved and war ensues upon the question of a revival of the slave trade, while the slave holders cannot hope to battle with success against the Northern States, allied with England, they can and will place a great army of negroes in the field and defy their enemies.”[143] A lively commentary upon that assumption is presented in the feat of a negro pilot of Charleston Harbor, Robert Smalls,[144] who, early in 1862, with eight other colored men, seized the armed steamer Planter and, running her safely past the forts, delivered her to Admiral DuPont of the blockade fleet. This incident strengthened the position of those who advocated the enlistment of negroes in the Union army and navy.[145] Upon July 17th, 1862, Congress enacted a bill authorizing the President “to employ as many persons of African descent as he may deem necessary and proper for the suppression of the rebellion, and for this purpose he may organize and use them in such manner as he may judge best for the public welfare.”[146]

The President made no haste to avail himself of this authority. He first signed, as a war measure, the Emancipation Proclamation relating to the slaves held in the disloyal States. This became effective upon January 1st, 1863, and it was not until then that the question of enrolling colored troops was actively considered.[147] Upon February 13th, 1863, Hon. Charles Sumner presented a bill providing for the enlistment of 300,000 colored troops. It was reported upon negatively. The State of Massachusetts, however, proceeded to enlist the colored organization famous as the “54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Colored.” One company of this regiment (B) was raised in Philadelphia by James Morris Walton, Esq., who became major of the 54th. Lieutenants Frank M. Welsh and E. N. Hallowell were also active in securing Philadelphia recruits. Nearly every company of the 54th contained Philadelphia and Pennsylvania men. This was true, also, of the 55th Massachusetts Colored Regiment, of which Norwood Penrose Hallowell, of Philadelphia, became colonel. So deeply rooted was the old prejudice in Philadelphia against the blacks, that recruits raised here for the two above designated regiments were sent away at night in small squads by rail. Referring to these colored recruits the Philadelphia Inquirer said, June 26th, 1863, that “Pennsylvania has already lost fully 1,500 men who have enlisted in Massachusetts.”

At a meeting held in Philadelphia upon March 25th, 1863, for the promotion of a colored brigade to be commanded by Col. William Angeroth, a committee, including Messrs. F. C. Philpot, James Logan, Jacob Keefer, Charles Angeroth, Jr., W. Henry Moore and William Frishmuth, reported that the Secretary of War had promised immediate authority to proceed.[148]

At another gathering of citizens held in Sansom Street Hall on the evening of June 19th, 1863, the following persons were named to constitute a general committee for raising black regiments: Thomas Webster, Chairman; J. Miller McKim, William H. Ashurst, Evan Randolph, N. B. Brown, Adolph E. Borie, William D. Kelley, George H. Boker, Caleb H. Needles, William Rotch Wister, Thomas J. Megear, Henry Samuel, Henry C. Howell, B. F. Reimer, George T. Thorn, Enoch R. Hutchinson, William M. Tilghman, A. H. Franciscus, Cadwalader Biddle, Samuel S. White, William P. Stotesbury, George M. Connarroe, George Truman, Jr., Charles Wise, John McAllister, Abraham Barker and A. G. Cattell.

On the same date Lieut. Col. Charles C. Ruff, U. S. A., notified the Citizens’ Bounty Fund Committee that, as mustering officer at this post, 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, as a rendezvous for this class of troops, Camp William Penn was established outside of the city limit, in Cheltenham township, Montgomery County. Lieut.-Col. Louis Wagner (of the 88th Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry), who had been badly wounded at Bull Run, was appointed to command the camp.

Upon June 17th, 1863, during the emergency excitement preceding the battle of Gettysburg, a company of colored men, under Capt. A. M. Babe, appeared at the City Arsenal and applied for uniforms and guns. They were fitted out without question and sent to Harrisburg, but were promptly returned to Philadelphia. This company was accepted by the Government and mustered upon June 26th, 1863, and was said to have been the first company of colored troops of Philadelphia enrolled in the United States service.

When the opportunity came to the free blacks of the north to enlist under the flag of the Union, their leading men were prompt in appeal to their manhood. In Philadelphia thousands of copies of a circular were distributed, reading in part as follows:

“This is our golden moment. The Government of the United States calls for every able-bodied colored man to enter the army for the three years’ service, and join in fighting the battles of Liberty and the Union. A new era is open to us. For generations we have suffered under the horrors of slavery outrage and wrong! Our manhood has been denied, our citizenship blotted out, our souls seared and burned, our spirits cowed and crushed, and the hopes of the future of our race involved in doubt and darkness. But now the whole aspect of our relations with the white race is changed.

If we love our country, if we love our families, our children, our homes, we must strike now while the country calls. More than a million of white men have left comfortable homes and joined the armies of the Union to save their country. Cannot we leave ours and swell the hosts of the Union, save our liberties, vindicate our manhood and deserve well of our country?

Men of color! Brothers and fathers! We appeal to you! By all your concern for yourselves and your liberties, by all your regard for God and humanity, by all your desire for citizenship and equality before the law, by all your love of country, to stop at no subterfuges, listen to nothing that shall deter you from rallying for the army. Strike now and you are henceforth and forever Freemen!”

SIGNERS: E. D. Bassett, William D. Forten, Frederick Douglass, William Whipper, D. M. Turner, James McCrummell, A. S. Cassey, A. M. Green, J. W. Page, L. R. Seymour, Rev. J. Underdue, John W. Price, Augustus Dorsey, Rev. Stephen Smith, N. W. Depee, Dr. J. H. Wilson, J. W. Cassey, P. J. Armstrong, J. W. Simpson, Rev. J. B. Trusty, S. Morgan Smith, William E. Gipson, Rev. J. Boulden, Rev. J. Asher, Rev. J. C. Gibbs, Daniel George, Robert M. Adger, Henry M. Cropper, Rev. J. B. Reeve, Rev. J. A. Williams, Rev. A. L. Stanford, Thomas J. Bowers, Elijah J. Davis, John P. Burr, Robert Jones, O. V. Catto, Thomas J. Dorsey, I. D. Cliff, Jacob C. White, Morris Hall, James Needham, Rev. Elisha Weaver, Ebenezer Black, Rev. William T. Catto, James R. Gordon, Samuel Stewart, David B. Bowser, Henry Minton, Daniel Colley, J. C. White, Jr., Rev. J. P. Campbell, Rev. W. J. Alston, J. P. Johnson, Franklin Turner and Jesse

White officers for the colored troops were selected with great care, generally from regiments of white troops in the field. The committee for the supervision of recruiting of colored regiments opened a school of instruction at 1210 Chestnut street, where, under the direction of Maj. George A. Hearns, U. S. A. Commissioner, Col. John H. Taggart (late an officer of the 12th Regiment, Veteran Reserve Corps), instructed applicants for commissions. Upon October 3d, 1863, the 6th Regiment and four companies of the 8th Regiment, colored troops, were paraded in the city under the command of Col. John W. Ames, and escorted by Lieut.-Col. Louis Wagner and staff. These regiments were reviewed at the Union League Club and provided with a dinner at the Union Volunteer
Refreshment Saloon. The soldierly bearing of these troops won for them and their officers great praise from the newspapers and the public.[149]

The colored regiments mustered at Camp William Penn were numbered the
3d, 6th, 8th, 22d, 24th, 25th, 32d, 41st, 43d, 45th and 127th, and as they were rated as part of the regular force of the United States Army, they were not credited upon the quota of Philadelphia or the state of Pennsylvania.

The records for bravery under fire and efficiency in the campaigns in which they were employed, to the credit of the colored soldiers in the Union Army, were shared by the ten thousand nine hundred and forty rank and file, and nearly four hundred white officers commanding them, all of whom were originally assembled at Camp William Penn.

Upon a pillar of the Court of Honor erected in honor of the 33d Annual National Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic, September 4th to 9th, 1899, was inscribed the name, for distinguished heroism, of Sgt. Arthur Harold of Company A, 8th Regiment, United States Colored Troops, who was killed at Petersburg.

In a general order of October 11th, 1864, Maj.-Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, referring to a charge made by these troops at New Market, 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.”

Ever since the Civil war colored regiments have been a part of the military arm of the nation.

[143] Out of the entire Southern white population but three in one hundred held a property interest in slaves. Of the slave-holding class but twenty percent owned more than one slave. A large proportion of the political and military leaders of the South were non-slave holders. Among them were Robert E. Lee, Joseph E. Johnston and A. P. Hill. (“Slavery and Abolition,” Hart.)

[144] Robert Smalls subsequently became a colonel of colored troops and after the close of the war was elected to Congress from South Carolina.

[145] The first recorded suggestion for the employment of colored troops in the Northern armies is found in a letter written to Hon. Simon Cameron, Secretary of War, of April 16th, 1861, by Burr Porter, late major in the Ottoman Army. (Official documents.)

[146] Soon after the occupation of New Orleans, in 1862, Major-Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, recruited colored troops and in South Carolina Major-Gen. David Hunter had formed negro regiments about the same time, this procedure being made the subject of Congressional inquiry.

[147] President Lincoln, writing to Horace Greeley, date of August 22d, 1861, said: “If there be those who would not save the Union unless at the same time they could save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them.”

[148] General Order No. 143, May 22d, 1863, provided for a bureau to be attached to the office of the Adjutant-General at Washington to record all matters relating to the organization of colored troops. Non-commissioned officers of colored regiments were selected from the ranks.

[149] For the assistance of these volunteers the Colored Women’s Sanitary Commission was formed, with headquarters at 404 Walnut street. The officers wee Mrs. Caroline Johnson, President; Mrs. Arena Ruffin, Vice President; Rev. Stephen Smith, Treasurer; Rev. J. Asher, Secretary.

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