Life at Camp William Penn

Home Life at Camp William Penn

Life at Camp William Penn

African Americans from all over the world trained at Camp William Penn. The 43rd USCT Regiment alone contained former slaves from the deep South, free blacks from Lancaster County, sailors from the West Indies, tradesmen from Canada, and even one soldier born in England. This diversity meant that the camp was more than a training ground; it was a place of cultural exchange, misunderstandings, and turmoil. Throughout the nearly two years Camp William Penn trained USCT soldiers, the men took part in celebrations, patriotism,  protests, and violence, all as they prepared for battle.

This lesson will focus on the experiences of soldiers at Camp William Penn, largely outside of their training. It examines the community of men and their frequent conflicts, not only among themselves, but also with the camp’s neighbors.

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 some of the events and activities soldiers engaged in outside of training at the camp.
  • analyze primary documents about life in the camp.
  • explain how the Camp was a site of culture, community, and conflict.

Other Materials

Primary Source Materials:


Other Materials:

Suggested Instructional Procedures

  1. On your screen, open this recruitment painting entitled “Come and Join Us Brothers.” Also, share with your students the photograph the painting was based on. Ask your students if they can identify any differences between the soldiers. (They should not be able to come up with many).
  2. Then share with them the enlistment statistics of one the camp’s regiments, the 43rd USCT. Highlight how the men came from nearly sixty different occupations, and how a majority of the men were born outside of Pennsylvania. Ask your students to consider the following questions throughout the lesson.
    1. What happens when you gather thousands of people from different backgrounds in one place?
    2. How were discrimination, racism, and slavery a part of daily life at Camp William Penn?
    3. Is the type of racism and discrimination at Camp William Penn similar to forms of racism and discrimination in our country today?
  3. Divide your students into five groups. These groups will look at documents related to different aspects of life at Camp William Penn; discrimination, race relations, visitors to the camp, slavery, and moral “improvement.” Some of the documents are used in multiple groups. At the end of the documents, students will find questions to answer about the readings.  
  4. Go around the room and have each group spend about three to five minutes describing the documents they read and the questions they answered. Encourage students to draw on their knowledge from the previous lesson to situate these topics in the larger story of Camp William Penn.
  5. After some discussion about the documents, ask your students the following questions.
    1. What united the soldiers at Camp William Penn? What divided them?
    2. How were discrimination, racism, and slavery a part of daily life at Camp William Penn?