Thursday, December 15, 2016

Philadelphia National Cemetery and Camp William Penn

Philadelphia National Cemetery
The Philadelphia National Cemetery was established in 1862. Initially, the cemetery was made of graves from ten different Philadelphia area cemeteries. In the late 1880s, the national cemetery was consolidated and reestablished in a single location to provide a dignified burial place for the Union soldiers who died in the Philadelphia area. Today, the national cemetery contains the remains of more than 12,000 veterans from the Civil War and later conflicts, along with spouses and dependents. The cemetery is located about twenty-two miles north of downtown Philadelphia.

Union soldiers who died in one of the many Philadelphia-area hospitals were interred in soldiers’ lots in ten different cemeteries throughout the city. These grave sites were collectively known as the Philadelphia National Cemetery. In 1881, Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs recommended the establishment of a single national cemetery in Philadelphia. Meigs feared that the opening of new streets through the city’s cemeteries would disturb the graves of the Union dead. Under special authority from Congress, the military acquired 13.3 acres in 1885 to re-establish the Philadelphia National Cemetery at a single location. Shortly after the purchase of the property, remains were removed from the various soldiers’ lots and reinterred in the new site. 

View of Exterior Wall
The layout of the Philadelphia National Cemetery is different from the other national cemeteries constructed following the Civil War. Instead of a formal regimented site, the Philadelphia National Cemetery design is suggestive of a natural park environment. The cemetery's roads curve around the property and highlight the natural groupings of trees. A low finely cut and dressed stone wall topped by wrought-iron fencing built around 1885 surrounds the cemetery. 

In 1940, the cemetery’s old, narrow main gate was replaced by a wider one for vehicular traffic. Four-foot-wide pedestrian gates are located on either side the vehicular gate. The materials and design of the gate maintain the design of the perimeter wall with finely cut and dressed stone piers and wrought-iron fencing. The only two buildings on the cemetery property are a utility/storage/restroom facility built in 1936 and a rostrum or stage constructed in 1939. The rostrum features a semi-circular stone base with Doric columns that support a flat roof. 

The cemetery contains several commemorative monuments. The largest, standing twenty-feet tall, is a three-sided, intricately detailed, marble pedestal surmounted by an eagle that commemorates the lives of 169 soldiers of the Mexican-American War. In 1911, the US government erected the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument in the cemetery’s Confederate section. The granite block monument commemorates the 184 Confederates whose unidentified remains were reinterred in the cemetery. Nearby, a flat stone memorial is dedicated to the 224 Confederate soldiers who died in the Philadelphia area during the Civil War. Another memorial marker honors the American patriots of the Battle of Germantown in 1777. In 1928, the citizens of Germantown erected the granite boulder with bronze plaque describing the Revolutionary War battle that occurred near the national cemetery. 

National Cemetery Marker
Three illustrated historical markers are located in the national cemetery. Now efforts are underway to erect a fourth marker to honor the more than 1,000 black Civil War soldiers and sailors buried there and "to inform the public of their existence and their great sacrifice." Most of these soldiers died at Camp William Penn, which was located about one mile from the national cemetery. 

Camp William Penn Marker
Camp William Penn was the first training camp dedicated to African Americans who enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War. Some 11,000 free blacks and escaped slaves were trained at William Penn including 8,612 from Pennsylvania. 

The camp was built on land owned by Union League member Edward M. Davis, the son-in-law of abolitionist Lucretia Mott. The thirteen acres where tents were stationed prior to the construction of the facility’s wood buildings were adjacent to Mott’s “roadside” estate, which was a major stop on the Underground Railroad. As the black regiments drilled with target practice, hand-to-hand combat and parading, they sometimes saluted Mott as she watched from her porch. 

Camp William Penn
Churches and women’s groups in the Philadelphia African American community brought supplies to the soldiers at Camp William Penn. David Bustill Bowser, a black artist who painted Abraham Lincoln and John Brown, designed the colorful regimental flags. The flags often depicted the soldiers in combat and in gleaming uniforms, sometimes protecting America’s “Lady Liberty.” The Ladies Sanitary Commission of the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church and other women’s groups provided food, cloth, medical supplies, clothing, and toiletries for the soldiers. The groups also raised funds by holding fairs and bazaars and they nursed sick and injured soldiers. They coordinated transportation for weekend visits to Camp William Penn where the soldiers could be seen parading, often in full military dress, to the drums and horns of bands. 

Flag Raising at Camp William Penn
The Union League, an exclusive club of white men formed to support Lincoln and the Union, donated up to $100,000 to establish Camp William Penn. The Supervisory Committee to Recruit Officers for Negro Troops, which included many members of the Union League of Philadelphia, established the Free Military School for the Applicants for the Command of Colored Troops in Philadelphia. The officers recruited to command the US Colored Troop (USCT) regiments were white and were screened to determine their fitness to train black soldiers. The Third Regiment USCT was the first regiment trained at Camp William Penn in the summer of 1863. 

Frederick Douglass spoke to the Third about their importance in the Civil War as some of America’s first black federal soldiers: 

The fortunes of the whole race for generations to come are bound up in the success or failure of the 3rd Regiment of colored troops from the North. You are a spectacle for men and angels. You are in a manner to answer the question: can the black man be a soldier? That we can now make soldiers of these men, there can be no doubt! 

The Third was not allowed to parade through Philadelphia upon departing camp for fear of racial animosity spurred by the spectacle of blacks in uniform carrying weapons, would go on to participate in the siege of Fort Wagner on Morris Island, South Carolina. 

Today, only a few remnants of the camp still exist, including its restored front gates. Neighborhood groups are planning a museum and other tributes to the camp’s legacy.

Both of these efforts are well-worth supporting.

Many thanks to Edward McLaughlin who provided copies of documents and images.

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