Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Lucien Holness

United States Colored Troops

During the American Civil War (1861-65), Philadelphians raised eleven regiments of the United States Colored Troops (USCT). This division of the United States Army, consisting of black soldiers led by white officers, provided much-needed manpower for federal forces in the final two years of the war.

[caption id="attachment_25263" align="alignright" width="298"]A black and white photograph of the 3rd USTC regimental flag. Image is of a black soldier being handed a flag by Columbia, personification of the United States. A banner surrounding the image reads "Rather die freemen than live to be slaves, 3rd United States Colored Troops" Each USCT troop from Camp William Penn had a unique regimental flag and motto. The flags were painted by David Bustill Bowser, a Philadelphia-based artist whose father was a fugitive from slavery. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

When the Civil War began, many African Americans across the North sought to enlist, motivated by their belief that their military service would help win the war, end slavery, and entitle them to rights that they were denied—the rights to vote, sit on juries, and testify against whites in court. Most whites opposed blacks serving in the army, believing that defending the republic was an essential element of citizenship reserved for white men only. Also, the federal Militia Act of 1792 prohibited black men from serving in the militia.

By the summer of 1862, as casualties mounted from combat and disease and as fewer white men enlisted, northern public opinion moved in favor of enrolling black men in the army. On July 16, 1862, Congress passed the Second Militia Act, which allowed African Americans to be employed as soldiers, and in early 1863, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton (1814-69) authorized the governors of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut to organize black regiments. Massachusetts was the first state to raise two regiments—the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry Regiments. About three hundred black Philadelphians enlisted in these regiments. One company of the 54th was raised in Philadelphia.

[caption id="attachment_25474" align="alignright" width="300"]A color illustration of a group of USCT soldiers in uniform with a white officer. One soldier holds a US flag and a small child stands with them in uniform playing a drum. Text reads "United States Soldiers at Camp "William Penn" Philadelphia, PA. Rally Round the Flag, boys, Rally once again, Shouting the battle cry of FREEDOM!" The 10,950 men recruited to the United States Colored Troops in Philadelphia trained at Camp William Penn. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

In May 1863, the War Department established the Bureau of Colored Troops, which facilitated black enlistment throughout the country and sent Major George Stearns (1809-67) to Philadelphia to raise black regiments. The local Union League—founded by elite white Philadelphians to foster support for the Union war effort—established a Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Troops and received Secretary Stanton’s permission to begin raising black regiments with the aid of local and national black leaders such as Octavius V. Catto (1839-71), Jacob C. White (1837-1900), and Frederick Douglass (c. 1815-95). Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and its denominational newspaper, The Christian Recorder, also encouraged black men to enlist. Federal officials and local leaders (black and white) campaigned extensively to attract black recruits in Philadelphia, from Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and other counties in Pennsylvania, and from in Delaware, New Jersey, and New York.

Training at Camp William Penn

[caption id="attachment_25343" align="alignright" width="183"]a black and white illustration of the Free Military School for Applicants for Command Command of Colored Troops, held in a large row house. An enormous american flag hangs from the roof to nearly street level near the front entrance. The Free Military School for Applicants for Command of Colored Troops instructed white enlisted men seeking positions as commissioned officers of USCT regiments. African Americans were not permitted to attend the school. (Digital Collections, New York Public Library)[/caption]

Eleven USCT regiments were raised in Philadelphia—the 3rd, 6th, 8th, 22nd, 24th, 25th, 32nd, 41st, 43rd, and 45th, and 127th—totaling 10,940 men. These recruits trained eight miles north of the city at Camp William Penn, where they practiced weaponry, tactical formations and maneuvers, and guard duties. For these soldiers, weekdays began at 6 a.m. with reveille and roll call, followed drills throughout the day and evening, and leading to a dress parade and then taps at 9 p.m. On Saturdays the men cleaned the camp, and on Sundays they assembled for inspection, attended a church service, and participated in dress parades.

Many white men seeking to become commissioned officers in the USCT regiments received training from the Free Military School for Applicants for the Command of Colored Regiments, formed by the Union League’s recruiting committee, which operated from December 26, 1863, through most of 1864. Black men were not admitted to the school because most northern whites believed that black men were not capable or intelligent enough for command, but an auxiliary school trained blacks as noncommissioned officers.

[caption id="attachment_25266" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a group of African American soldiers sitting and standing in and around trenches Soldiers from the USCT fought in the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, a prolonged Union offensive to destroy supply lines and capture Richmond. After prolonged trench warfare, the exhausted Confederates were forced to abandon their capital. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The first black regiments from the Philadelphia region, led by their white officers, arrived in the South in the summer of 1863 and participated in many of the major campaigns of the final two years of the war. Their engagements included the assaults on Fort Wagner and Fort Gregg (August 20-September 7, 1863); Richmond-Petersburg Campaign (June 1864-March 1865) in Virginia; the Battle of Olustee, also known as Ocean Pond (February 20, 1864) in the swamps of north Florida; and the Battle of Honey Hill (November 30, 1864) in South Carolina. The 41st Infantry Regiment USCT, which arrived in Virginia in the fall of 1864, contributed to the Union victory in the Appomattox Campaign that culminated April 9, 1865, with the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia under Confederate General Robert E. Lee (1807-70) to Union General Ulysses S. Grant (1822-85) at Appomattox Court House.

Two Medals of Honor

[caption id="attachment_25265" align="alignright" width="240"]A black and white photograph of Alexander Kelly as an elder, head and shoulders, wearing a suit and tie Alexander Kelly's bravery in the Battle of New Market Heights earned him a Congressional Medal of Honor. He enlisted in the 6th USCT shortly after the Bureau of Colored Troops was founded. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Many local service men in USCT regiments earned recognition for their distinction in battle. Sergeants Alexander Kelly (1840-1907) and Thomas R. Hawkins (1840-70) from the 6th USCT received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their heroism in rescuing the regimental colors while under heavy fire at the Battle of New Market Heights, Virginia (September 28-29, 1864). Kelly was also praised for rallying the men in his company during a period of confusion on the battlefield.

Military service did not guarantee equal treatment for African Americans on the battlefield or at home. For example, African American solders received pay of only ten dollars per month, with three dollars deducted for clothing, while white privates received thirteen dollars per month plus a clothing allowance. Many black soldiers expressed their dissatisfaction by refusing to accept the reduced rate and went for more than a year without pay. Not until June 15, 1864—when many black regiments teetered on the brink of mutiny—did Congress pass legislation that equalized the pay of black and white soldiers and offered back pay to those who refused their pay or were underpaid.

At home, black troops and African American women who provided aid and comfort to wounded soldiers faced discrimination. During the period of the Civil War, African Americans and their white abolitionist allies battled discrimination on Philadelphia’s streetcars, where African Americans were excluded from riding or forced to ride on the front platforms. After the war, in March 1867, the campaign led to the state legislature prohibiting segregation on all forms of public transportation in the state.

By early December 1865, most of the USCT regiments that had trained at Camp William Penn returned to Philadelphia and received a heroes’ welcome for their service and sacrifice. When the 25th USCT returned to the city, the regiment attended a parade and flag-dedication ceremony at the Union League before being officially mustered out of service. Military service allowed African Americans establish their claims to full citizenship in Pennsylvania.

Lucien Holness is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland-College Park. His research interests include African American and Atlantic history.

National Negro Convention Movement

During the antebellum period, when Philadelphia was home to one the North’s largest free African American communities, the city’s black leaders launched the National Negro Convention Movement to address the hostility, discrimination, exclusion, and violence against African Americans by whites in northern cities. As national forums, the National Negro Conventions held from 1830 to 1864 brought together African Americans to debate and adopt strategies to elevate the status of free blacks in the North and promote the abolition of slavery.

The racial tensions in northern cities in this era can be attributed to black migration from the South and the abolition of slavery in the North, which dramatically increased the free African American population in the early nineteenth century. Many whites viewed blacks as an economic threat, a burden for state and local poor relief agencies, and a source of crime.

The idea for a National Negro Convention first emerged among black leaders in response to events in Cincinnati, Ohio, during the late 1820s. Following Cincinnati’s enforcement of Ohio’s “black laws” in 1829 and subsequent violence unleashed by white mobs against the city’s black community, in the spring of 1830 Hezekiah Grice (1801-?), a Baltimore activist, appealed to African American leaders throughout the North to devise a plan for emigration to Canada. His appeal went unanswered for several months until Richard Allen (1760-1831), minister and founder of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church in Philadelphia, called a national meeting of black leaders to address this issue.

Plans for a Settlement in Canada

[caption id="attachment_12104" align="alignright" width="230"]Portrait of Richard Allen Richard Allen was born a slave in Philadelphia in 1760. After gaining his freedom and becoming a Methodist preacher, Allen began the Free African Society and helped the African American community of Philadelphia into the 1830s. Late in his life, he became president of the American Society for Free Persons of Color, whose aim was to establish an African American settlement in Canada. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

The delegates who gathered in Philadelphia at Bethel Church from September 20-24, 1830, selected Allen as president of the newly formed American Society for Free Persons of Color. The purpose of this organization was to establish a settlement in Canada, viewed as preferable to the United States because of its lack of institutional racial discrimination, similar climate, and shared language with the United States. (Canada later fell out of favor among most blacks in part because of white hostility that blacks encountered and their conviction that they were due rights in the United States.) Before returning home from the 1830 Philadelphia meeting, though, delegates adopted a resolution that called for a general convention the following year in Philadelphia, thus launching the National Negro Convention Movement.

In addition to the first gathering in 1830, Philadelphia hosted the conventions in 1832, 1833, 1835, and 1855. Guided by middle- and upper-class black delegates, the conventions adopted a philosophy of respectability centered on education, temperance, and thrift. Black leaders believed this strategy would dispel popular stereotypes that portrayed African Americans as lazy, ignorant, and susceptible to vice. By demonstrating economic independence and success, convention delegates hoped that whites would see blacks as responsible and productive citizens worthy of equal rights. They also believed that respectability would lead to greater support for immediate abolitionism among moderate white reformers. Delegates also used the egalitarian rhetoric of the American Revolution, arguing that slavery and discrimination were incompatible with the nation’s founding documents.

Although strategies of respectability and moral persuasion dominated, a younger generation of activists in the 1840s and 1850s began to endorse more militant solutions. Black nationalism was one option, a controversial position that called for African Americans to establish a separate colony in Africa, the Caribbean, or Central America. Many black Philadelphians rejected this strategy, believing that respectability and interracial cooperation were the best route to ending slavery and securing equality.

A Stronger Collective Voice Emerges

Launched during an important period of black political activism, the National Negro Convention Movement created a stronger collective voice among African Americans and a forum for devising national strategies to confront the growing racial hostility. Although the convention movement did not end slavery or gain equal rights for African Americans, by the outbreak of the Civil War some other notable goals were achieved. Delegates established manual labor schools that trained a number of blacks in skilled trades. The convention also created the American Moral Reform Society (1835-1841), an organization headquartered in Philadelphia and led by local businessmen James Forten (1766-1842) and William Whipper (1804-1876). This group attempted to uplift black communities through education and promoting moral behavior such as temperance. The conventions also united African American communities from across the country into a national network of political activism. Finally, delegates formed a coalition with radical white antislavery activists to oppose movements such as the American Colonization Society (ACS), an organization with ties to slaveholders that encouraged free blacks to relocate to Africa.

During the Civil War the convention delegates began to devise plans for the post-war Reconstruction period. At the October 1864 meeting in Syracuse, New York, delegates created the National Equal Rights League, a national forum to replace the black convention movement, and lobby the federal government for full citizenship rights for all African Americans on the premise of black service in the Union Army and the notion that all men were created equal. With numerous state and local chapters, the league’s members became active in northern and southern politics. Members of the Pennsylvania State Equal Rights League lobbied members of Congress to ratify a constitutional amendment in support of black male suffrage. The league successfully pressured the Pennsylvania Republican Party in ratifying the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, while also continuing to demand protection of their civil and political rights in a new era in which white hostility increased and federal and state support for protecting black rights waned.

Lucien Holness is a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland-College Park. His research interests include African American and Atlantic history.

Share This Page: