Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

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.

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)

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.

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)

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

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)

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.

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)

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

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)

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.

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University

Related Reading

Biddle, Daniel R., and Murray Dubin. Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010.

Cornish, Dudley Taylor. The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1966.

Dobak, William A. Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 2011.

Giesberg, Judith. Keystone State in Crisis: The Civil War in Pennsylvania. Mansfield, Pa.: Pennsylvania Historical Association, 2013.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.

Johnson, Elton James. “A History of Camp William Penn and Its Black Troops in the Civil War, 1863-1865.” Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1999.

McPherson, James M. The Negro’s Civil War: How American Blacks Felt and Acted During the War for the Union. New York: Pantheon Books, 1965.

Scott Sr., Donald. Camp William Penn 1863-1865. Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer Military History, 2012.

Tremel, Andrew T. “The Union League, Black Leaders, and the Recruitment of Philadelphia’s African American Civil War Regiments.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 80 (Winter 2013): 13-36.

Wert, Jeffry D. “Camp William Penn and the Black Soldier.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 46 (October 1979): 335-346.

Additional Sources

Berlin, Ira, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland, eds. Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867. Series II: The Black Military Experience. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Harrower, David I., and Thomas J. Wieckowski, eds. A Spectacle for Men and Angles: A Documentary History of Camp William Penn and the Raising of Colored Regiments in Pennsylvania. West Conshohocken, Pa.: Infinity Publishing, 2013.

Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). Free Military School for Applicants for Command of Colored Troops, no 1210 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Established by the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments, John H. Taggart, Late Colonel 12th Regiment Pennsylvania Reserves, Chief Preceptor. Philadelphia: King & Baird Printers, 1864.


Report of the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Troops and Abraham Barker Collection on the Free Military School for Applicants for the Command of Colored Regiments, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

Records of the Provost Marshall General’s Bureau (Civil War), 1861-1907. War Department. Camp William Penn, Pennsylvania. 1863-1865. Record Group 110, National Archives at Philadelphia.

Places to Visit

Camp William Penn, La Mott Historic District, Cheltenham Township, Pa.

Octavius V. Catto Historical Marker, 812 South Street, Philadelphia.

Union League of Philadelphia, 140 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia.

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