Remembering Camp William Penn
Salon.com is getting deserved accolades for its investigation uncovering the story of graves neglected and disrespected at Arlington National Cemetery. The graves contain the remains of African American soldiers from the Civil War.
This should not come as a great surprise.
Even though the story of black troops fighting for the U.S. during the War Between the States is one of the most compelling in our nation’s history, it is buried and disrespected by historians much like the remains of the brave men who lived the story and now lie under unmarked and mismarked graves at Arlington.
I know something about these men because I have been working on a documentary about many of them for the past few years. Them and the place they were trained — Camp William Penn in Cheltenham, the first training camp for African American United States soldiers. [SIGNUP]
The site of the training camp is an important historic site in this country’s history. It may be the most important site in American black history. It was at William Penn where the once shackled became liberators, where slaves became soldiers and faced their former masters as equals.
Camp William Penn opened on June 26, 1863, nine months after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Thousands of free blacks and ex-slaves rushed to enlist in the U.S. Army. The white officers assigned to the camp were amazed at the enthusiasm of the men who wanted to volunteer.
They should not have been.
These men were joining something much bigger than a fight between the North and South over state’s rights; it was not, for them, a fight to keep all of the states united under one flag. Many wanted to fight for the freedom of the families they left behind, they wanted to fight for the freedom of their children and their children’s children. They wanted to fight so that America could finally live up to its promise that “all men are created equal.” For the proud black men who showed up at Camp William Penn, this was their Revolutionary War.
The great orator and civil rights leader Frederick Douglas knew the importance of that moment in time. As the first regiment of African Americans to wear the uniform or the United States army was being trained, he showed up at Camp William Penn to remind the men of the importance of their very being.
“The fortune of the whole race for generations to come are bound up in the success or failure of the 3rd Regiment of colored troops from the North.” Douglas paused to let the power of those words sink in. “You are the spectacle for men and angels. You are in a manner to answer the question; can the black man be a soldier.”
Douglas then looked into the eyes of the camp’s white commander, Louis Wagner, a wounded war hero and said, “These men are willing to die for their emancipation.”
In just over a year, 10,940 men and 11 regiments were trained at Camp William Penn. In all, over 180,000 African Americans served, making up 10 percent of the entire Union army.
The 8th regiment that trained at Camp William Penn chased Robert E. Lee to Appomattox and his surrender. Troops from Camp William Penn took part in the search for the men who conspired to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. The procession that carried Lincoln’s casket through Washington was led by the 22nd USCT regiment, trained at Camp William Penn. And when the casket was carried through Philadelphia to lie in state at Independence Hall, it was carried by troops trained at the camp.
The story of black men joining the Union army to fight for their freedom, the freedom of their families and the future of their race in America is a compelling one. So why don’t we hear more about it?
It seems that prejudice guided the pens of those who wrote U.S. history books long ago, and we have either been disinterested or just too lazy to make amend them.
It is the same prejudice or disinterest that caused developers to tear down Camp William Penn and build a track of homes. All that is there to remember the great men that led the way from slavery to freedom is a blue sign on the side of the road.
There is no memorial, no statue, no museum, nothing but a sign.
There is a small group in Cheltenham still trying to raise funds to open a tourist center or a museum so that young black children can come and explore their American heritage and learn that their ancestors took up arms to fight for their freedom.
I do hope they succeed. If they don’t, then Arlington National Cemetery is not the only site that is disrespecting the memory of these brave men.
I have more information on Camp William Penn at www.TheMendteReport.com