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Marking Pennsylvania History

Servitude, Service and Sacrifice

What happens when you look up Civil War on Google? More than three and a half million links are offered up. What happens when you refine the search to include Philadelphia? You get more than 450,000 links. Even though Philadelphia has long been pigeonholed as the "Cradle of Liberty," it truly is, as folks have been suggesting of late, a two-war town.

How could this not be true? Pennsylvania supplied the Union with 400,000 soldiers during the Civil War, a quarter of whom were from Philadelphia. And this city, which was nicknamed "The Arsenal of Democracy" during the World Wars, gave more than men. As the North's southernmost urban, manufacturing, and transportation center, Philadelphia was the Civil War's arsenal, quartermaster, chauffeur and cook, as well as human resources director.

We'll doubtless be hearing more about Philadelphia as a Civil War town in coming years. As the Civil War Library and Museum at 1805 Pine Street morphs into a more serviceable institution (although where and how are still very much an open question) and the many other sites and collections throughout the region are brought to bear, the very significant story of "The Place That Loves You Back" in the war that killed 600,000 Americans will be told, felt, and (finally) remembered.

One must-visit site will be Camp William Penn, the Government operated, racially segregated, center for training troops just north of Philadelphia in Montgomery County. Six months after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the government called "for every able-bodied, African-American man to enter the army for three years' service, and join in fighting the battles of Liberty and the Union." By June 1863, rural Chelten Hills was outfitted with the first recruitment and training center for African-American men.

Frederick Douglass visited the grounds of Camp William Penn the next month and spoke to the recruits. "The fortunes of the whole race for generations to come are bound [up with your] success or failure." Douglass assured them that they were "a spectacle for men and angels" answering the question as to whether "the black man [can] be a soldier."

Who would doubt that they could? These men served and fought bravely and with honor. But, as always, there was a cost of for this demonstration of freedom. Before the end of the Civil War, more than 1,000 of those trained at Camp William Penn were killed in action or died from wounds suffered on American battlefields.

- Kenneth FInkel, Executive Director of WHYY's Arts & Culture Service

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