Honoring the 150th anniversary of the first African American regiments

At the gate to Camp William Penn in Cheltenham, where African American troops trained for the Civil War, are (from left) Martha Woods, Cpl. Robert Fuller Houston, and Thomas Dawson, who descended from Civil War soldiers.
At the gate to Camp William Penn in Cheltenham, where African American troops trained for the Civil War, are (from left) Martha Woods, Cpl. Robert Fuller Houston, and Thomas Dawson, who descended from Civil War soldiers. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 20, 2013

The first Civil War recruits marched into Cheltenham's Camp William Penn on June 26, 1863, knowing they might die for their country.

But as they prepared to enter the siege that pitted North against South, the U.S. Colored Troops who arrived at the camp that day faced another possible fate that their white counterparts did not.

If they survived, would they be enslaved or free?

That is how Joyce Werkman, president of the Citizens for the Restoration of Historical La Mott, describes the agonizing dilemma underlying the service of the African American men who volunteered for the Union cause.

"They didn't know what the results would be," said Werkman. "But they knew this was the first time the federal government recognized them as men."

On Saturday, the La Mott citizens group will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the U.S. Colored Troops regiments and Camp William Penn, the first recruiting and training camp for black soldiers during the Civil War.

Organizers hope the daylong activities raise awareness - and maybe money - for a piece of history that in some ways has been neglected.

More than 10,000 troops trained over two years at the camp in La Mott, the tiny Montgomery County village along the Philadelphia border.

Soldiers from the camp later earned four Medals of Honor, helped capture Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, and cornered the Confederate Army leader, Gen. Robert E. Lee.

"It makes me humble to think of what the men did for us," said Martha Woods, of La Mott, whose great-grandfather trained at the camp. "We would not be where we are today if those men hadn't gone off to fight."

A 13-acre expanse in Cheltenham, Camp William Penn was established after the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves. Businessman Edward M. Davis leased the land to the federal government. Davis - a member of the Union League of Philadelphia, which raised thousands to establish the camp - was the son-in-law of suffragette and abolitionist Lucretia Mott.

The village, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, would later be renamed in honor of Mott, whose home was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The town will be the site on Saturday of events including a parade of 100 descendants of the U.S. Colored Troops, regiments established in 1863 for black soldiers.

The observance will also include tours, exhibits, and a presentation by historian Charles Blockson, who had two relatives train at the camp. Reenactors from the U.S. Colored Troops Living History Association will erect a tent encampment starting Friday.

The encampment will include a battlefield hospital re-created with the help of the Mutter Museum.

Robert Fuller Houston, of Philadelphia, a retired PGW worker, will be among the reenactors. Houston is a cousin of S.C. Sgt. William H. Carney, who received the Medal of Honor.

Carney, of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, grabbed the U.S. flag as it fell to the ground during the 1863 assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina. He continued the charge and suffered five gunshot wounds.

Black soldiers such as Carney often fought in secondhand uniforms and used hand-me-down weapons, said Donald Scott, an assistant professor at Community College of Philadelphia and author of Camp William Penn 1863-1865: America's First Federal African American Soldiers Fight for Freedom.

Inside Camp William Penn, the volunteers lived in tents until the wooden barracks designed by City Hall architect John McArthur were built, said Scott, a former Inquirer reporter.

Werkman, her predecessor, Perry Triplett, and the citizens group, have long sought to tell the story of the Colored Troops and their camp from the Camp William Penn Museum and Interpretive Center, which was housed in a converted firehouse on Willow Avenue.

But the museum has been closed for 12 years, saddled with a list of needed renovations including new doors, restrooms, and a heating and cooling system.

The La Mott citizens group cannot afford the repairs to bring the building up to code. So its archives are scattered among several sites for safekeeping.

"It would be very nice if this event started some kind of movement to get the building open," Werkman said.

But on Saturday, the museum will be open for the 150th anniversary.

Among the items displayed will be a war medal won by Prestley Dawson, the grandfather of Thomas Dawson, 85, a retired merchant seaman and teacher from Philadelphia.

Prestley Dawson, a free man, trained at Camp William Penn as part of the 43d Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops.

He survived the Battle of the Crater in Virginia, contracted malaria twice, and was injured when a log fell on his leg. He walked with a limp for the rest of his life.

"I will be representing my family in talking about the struggle of my ancestor," Dawson said. "[The troops] were struggling and fighting for better conditions, and today we are still fighting for equality."


BY THE NUMBERS

10,500

The men

who trained at

Camp William Penn

4

The camp veterans

who earned the Medal

of Honor, the nation's highest military honor

180,000

U.S. Colored Troops who served in the Civil War

18

Number who earned

the Medal of Honor

SOURCE: Camp William Penn 1863-1865: America's First Federal African American Soldiers Fight

for Freedom.


Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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