Tom Wieckowski and co-author David Harrower (fifth and sixth from left), with State Representative Steve McCarter (fourth from left) are honored on the floor of the state Capitol in Harrisburg for their work on behalf of the history of Camp William Penn, June 11, 2013.

Thomas J. Wieckowski
A Spectacle for Men and Angels

    Camp William Penn, located just northwest of the City of Philadelphia, was the first and largest of the camps established to train black troops during the Civil War. In less than two years, it trained over 11,000 soldiers for service in the United States Army.

    It has been called the most written about war in history and
the most discussed event in America. The Civil War was a a momentous occasion in the development of the nation that
defined the future direction of many aspects of American life.
Like Mandelbrot’s intricate fractal designs, the singular event of
the war was comprised of many locations, battles, human
figures, and events that each had its own story and repeating
sub-themes. Together, they constituted the mosaic of the
great conflict between the States. And thus it has been
the inspiration for such an extensive body of historical works,
novels, poems, songs, and stories.

         Camp William Penn was one of those contributing elements
in the mosaic of the conflict. It existed for only a relatively brief moment in time, June 1863 to May 1865. Largely forgotten today, often just a footnote in discussions of emancipation and the quest for racial equality in the mid-nineteenth century, the establishment of Camp William Penn nonetheless dramatized the many elements of the great social issues of the day. Studying it presents a window into mid-nineteenth century life itself: but even more importantly, it displays a microcosm of the disputes that afflicted society and resulted in the murderous chasm not only between two sets of states, but between two sets of citizens of the republic. Its success was also one step, a surprisingly influential one, in the resolution of those divisions.

         The present work examines the Camp William Penn phenomenon from a different perspective. As a “documentary narrative,” it will follow the events that led to the creation and ultimate operation of the camp in the words of the people who lived with the Camp at that time. This book assembles selected but key newspaper articles, speeches, circulars, rarely seen letters, and government orders that together tell the story of Camp William Penn. By doing so, the modern reader will be able to experience the particular flavor of the language and modes of expression of the day, the arguments on both sides of the issue, as well as see the details unfold in the same manner as residents of the time.

     If the reality of history is that Camp William Penn is
largely forgotten, this book is a testament to the proposition that
it ought not to be.

This view is of the Third Regiment, USCT, in formation on the grounds of the first Camp William Penn in July 1863. Church Road in Cheltenham Township passes in mid ground, and the estate of H.H.G. Sharpless, The Laburnums, is seen in the background. It is one of only two known photographs of the first camp site.

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