Establishing Camp William Penn

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Establishing Camp William Penn

Camp William Penn was the product of several historical forces. The camp owed its existence, in varying degrees, to the presence of Quakers, gentlemen’s clubs determined to preserve the Union, the North Pennsylvania Railroad, and the Philadelphia free black community; the largest in the nation at the time. Furthermore, the men who trained at Camp William Penn joined the Union army for a variety of reasons. They came as freed slaves determined to destroy slavery, for pay to support their families, to prove their worth as men, and sometimes, due to conscription, reluctantly. These puzzle pieces came together in the middle of the Civil War, when Camp WIlliam Penn opened in the spring of 1863.

This lesson will focus on two issues: how Camp William Penn was founded and why African Americans enlisted in the United States Colored Troops (USCT). It will analyze a variety of primary sources, and students will discuss the many historical causes that sent men to the camp in the first place.

Essential Questions

What role does analysis have in historical construction?
Why is time and space important to the study of history?


Students will be able to:

  • identify the reasons Camp William Penn was established near Philadelphia.
  • describe the reasons African Americans enlisted in the United States Colored Troops.

Suggested Instructional Procedures

  1. Begin by reading “Our Black Army” out-loud with your class. This source is a letter to a Philadelphia newspaper that describes how the perception about African Americans in the Union army changed as the War continued. Ask your students the following questions after reading.
    1. Fisher describes slavery as southern “weakness” in the War. How was slavery a weakness to the Confederacy?
    2. How and why do you think the perception of southern slaves changed in the North throughout the War?
  2. Then provide  your students with a brief understanding of the history of the United States Colored Troops (timeline included).
  3. Ask your students why they believe that Camp William Penn, the largest training camp for black troops in the war, was built near Philadelphia. Present the students with three primary sources. Together, read excerpts from the following primary documents; the Fifth Annual Report of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society (excerpt on pages 1-2), a recruitment circular, a description from the Philadelphia Inquirer about the camp, and an article from the African American newspaper, The Christian Recorder. Once completed, ask your students the following questions.
    1. Why was having a railroad nearby an asset for the planners of the camp?
    2. Using these documents, why do you believe Camp William Penn was established in North Philadelphia?
  4. Divide your class into four groups. Each group will be assigned a primary document about African American enlistments in the Union army. Have the groups answer the following questions about the document.
    1. Who is the author of this document?
    2. Does the document discuss slavery?
    3. How does the document appeal to free people of color?
    4. Using this document, why do you believe African Americans served in the Union army?
  5. Lastly, draw your students attention to the “Bought and Sold” letter, one of the primary sources documents. Ask your students the following questions.
    1. Why does the author wish to return home?
    2. Is this a personal problem, or does he identify other soldiers who feel the same way?
    3. What do you think says about the USCT?