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Camp William Penn, 1863-1865: America’s First Federal African American Soldiers’ Fight for Freedom

Donald Scott Sr., Schiffer Publishing, 2012, $29.99

In his new book, Donald Scott Sr. deftly details the good, the bad and the ugly of African-American soldiers’ experiences during the war. The focus of Scott’s meticulously researched effort is Camp William Penn, just outside Philadelphia, and the nearly 11,000 soldiers who trained there—many of them runaways or ex-slaves. Camp Penn was the first and largest facility to exclusively train Northern-based black soldiers during the war, and also played host to some of the era’s leading antislavery abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Robert Purvis and William Still.

Eleven regiments of the United States Colored Troops would emerge from Camp Penn and fight in several major engagements, some earning the Medal of Honor. Scott provides a fascinating multidimensional picture of these soldiers’ lives in uniform, showing not only their bravery and devotion to the cause but also the often cruel and inhumane treatment they endured at the hands of both Southern and Northern troops and civilians. As if it weren’t enough for a young man to carry a musket into bloody combat, these black troops were consistently treated as less than second-class soldiers, often being severely shorted on their much-deserved pay and subjected to a variety of uncommonly cruel punishments.

The book is lavishly filled with fascinating period photos, newspaper graphics, correspondence and copies of military documents. It also contains a thorough bibliography and endnotes.

The critical role African-American soldiers played in the war was not sufficiently recognized or appreciated until recent decades. Camp William Penn, 1863-1865 is a significant and welcome addition to Civil War scholarship.

Originally published in the July 2013 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.