Camp William Penn
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President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in September of 1862. Effective January 1st the following year, it freed the slaves in states still in rebellion against the Union. No longer a war just to preserve a Union that tolerated slavery, the Civil War was now a war of emancipation.

But the Emancipation Proclamation was also a military measure.

Robert Engs is a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania:

"It was clear that there was this resource of manpower in the free blacks, especially in the slaves."
"So you accomplish two took away the hands and feet of the South who are producing the food that enabled so many more white men to go into war...the slaves and then at the same time you increased the number of soldiers in your army."

Northern reaction to the Proclamation was mixed...many whites resisted the idea of arming blacks. That was the case in Philadelphia. So hundreds of black Philadelphians, eager to fight in the war, joined regiments in Massachusetts...leaving the city at night or in small groups to avoid confrontation.

But by the spring of 1863, large-scale recruitment began in earnest. Civilian associations like the all-black Philadelphia Committee to Recruit Colored Troops lent a hand...distributing thousands of this one...urging African-American men to seize the golden moment.

Robert Engs:

If we love our country, if we love our families, our children, our homes, we must strike now while the country calls. Cannot we leave our homes and swell the hosts of the Union, save our liberties, vindicate our manhood and deserve well of our country?

On the rural outskirts of Philadelphia, in what's now Cheltenham Township, Camp William Penn opened to the sound of stomping feet in June 1863. Black men came from Philadelphia, and as far away as Canada, ready to serve.

James Paradis is a history professor at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania. He's standing on a pebble driveway, sandwiched between two houses...what was once the entrance of Camp William Penn. Dwarfed by an overgrown hedge...a black iron gate and pocked stone wall are all that remain of the camp today.

James Paradis:

"It is somewhat difficult to picture what it was like here because you have houses and traffic and everything...but if you let your imagination can see that this would be a busy...I feel like stepping out of the way to let the wagons go by."

Most outsiders who visited the camp saw discipline and harmony. Recruits marched for hours in the morning and drilled again in the afternoon...crisscrossing the parade ground. From the Philadelphia Inquirer, July 1863:

James Paradis:

"Nearly four full companies of colored men, enlisted for the war, are there, fully equipped for service, and busily perfecting themselves, with all the apt docility of their race, in the mysteries of the school of the soldier. Scarcely more than a week has now elapsed since that enterprise was begun, yet its first fruits are already apparent."

But the Camp had its share of missteps. Black troops got about half the monthly pay of white troops in other camps. And blacks...with few exceptions...could not be officers in the Union army. Again, James Paradis:

"Here they were all the enlisted men were black and all the officers were white. It's almost like being on the plantation with white overseers again. So there was that tension that was never completely resolved."

There was conflict off the Camp as well.... Blacks were either barred completely from the streetcars in Philadelphia or forced to stand at the front. A white clergyman wrote about one dispute....involving two Camp William Penn soldiers who entered an empty car...the last one of the evening. The conductor saw them and ordered the men to get out.

James Paradis:

One of the soldiers replied, "We want to reach the train to get out to camp tonight." "I can't help that, you can't ride on this car," was the answer. As the men did not move at once, the conductor put them off. The men, without resistance, but with indignation they could not express, were forced from the platform.
"So frequently the men would get into town and not be able to get back out to Camp in a timely fashion."

Again, Robert Engs:

"So they were charged with being absent without leave and put on court-martial. And sometimes the punishments were far out of proportion with the fact that they were simply late because some of them charged with desertion because they didn't get back within a couple of hours when they were supposed to be."

Having faced racial prejudice within their own army, eleven regiments...over 10,000 black soldiers...marched out of Camp William Penn by the end of the Civil War. They fought on battlefields not only for the Union cause, but in the name of equality.
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