At Philadelphia veterans cemetery, an overdue salute to black Civil War soldiers
By KRISTIN E. HOLMES | Philly.com (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 28, 2017
For well more than a century, in the hush of Philadelphia National Cemetery, 350 former slaves and free blacks lay in rest beneath aged headstones, inscribed with names and dates but not a word of what they gave for their country.
They were soldiers of the United States Colored Troops, a fierce force of nearly 180,000 men that made up one-tenth of the Union Army during the Civil War. But in the West Oak Lane graveyard, their monumental contribution seemed to have been buried with them. While storyboards in the cemetery told of its history, including the Confederates interred there, they made no mention of the African Americans who fought the Rebels and won.
Now, under pressure from champions of that legacy, what has been described variously as an “oversight” and an “injustice” has been set right. The VA National Cemetery Administration has installed a storyboard recounting the history of the USCT, many of whom trained at Camp William Penn in Cheltenham Township and died on battlefields from Virginia to Texas.
“It’s a Christmas miracle,” said Althea Hankins, director of the ACES Museum in Philadelphia, which preserves the history of black and minority military veterans.
On Monday, about 30 people, including VA officials and community members who collaborated to provide prose, photos and designs, attended an unveiling ceremony at Philadelphia National Cemetery.
The two-by-three-foot polymer storyboard with an aluminum frame is planted in the middle of Section C, where most of the USCT soldiers are buried on a sloping 13-acre field of white headstones. The sign has information on the troops, Camp William Penn, and the soldiers’ deaths and burials.
It also bears the words of Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler following the 1864 Battle of New Market Heights in Virginia: “The colored soldiers by coolness, steadiness, and determined courage and dash have silenced every cavil of the doubters of their soldierly capacity.”
Twenty-five African Americans who fought in the Civil War received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor. About 37,000 black troops died during the war, many before they even stepped on the battlefield because of diseases contracted amid deplorable conditions at the training camp.
The cemetery is the resting place of Perry Hall, a corporal trained at Camp William Penn and partially blinded when a cannon misfired. He died in 1905. His great-grandson Cicero Green, 83, lives in Elkins Park.
“I am extremely proud that they are finally recognizing the contributions the black soldiers made,” said Green. “A lot of people just don’t know about them.”
The storyboard joins three others that were installed three years ago at the Philadelphia National Cemetery. One chronicles the 155-year history of the cemetery, founded to receive the bodies of Civil War veterans already interred in nearby graveyards. The other two are dedicated to soldiers buried there: Valley Forge native Galusha Pennypacker, at 20, the youngest-ever brigadier general, and 184 Confederate soldiers wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg who died at nearby hospitals.
Recent battles over Confederate monuments had little to do with the installation of the new storyboard, a process that began before the most recent controversies, said Gregory Whitney, who directs the Washington Crossing National Cemetery in Bucks County and oversees the region’s four national cemeteries. Still, he said, “it was extremely important, based on our present environment with the Confederate situations, that the USCT be recognized.”
It happened quickly. Most of the storyboard content and design was completed in late August. The final mock-up was discussed on Oct. 20, and the sign was installed on Nov. 7. The storyboard campaigners have tentatively scheduled a bigger, more elaborate dedication of the marker on April 21, 2018.
“I guess you say, the squeaky wheel gets the oil,” said Joyce Werkman, president of Citizens for the Restoration of Historical La Mott, a preservation group that runs the Camp William Penn Museum in Cheltenham Township.
Werkman was joined by supporters, who included veteran and history buff Ed McLaughlin of Flourtown; Robert Hicks, director of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia; USCT reenactor Robert F. Houston; and World War II vet Benjamin Berry. Together, they did more than squeak. They made speeches, visited veterans groups, attended meetings, researched USCT history, and wrote letters. And when the government agreed to install the sign, the group pitched in to help.
McLaughlin, who had downloaded thousands of USCT records from the National Archive, contributed his research and took photos of headstones. Werkman and the boards of the Camp William Penn Museum and La Mott historical group, of which Houston is a member, contributed photos and copy. Hicks wrote and edited one of the last drafts of copy, enlisted an installation designer from the Mütter Museum, and then represented the group during the editing process with government historian Jennifer Perunko.
The storyboard is now one of three in the surrounding area dedicated to the USCT, Hicks said. A historic marker stands at the site of Camp William Penn in the La Mott section of Cheltenham. Another “barely legible” marker is nearby on Washington Lane, Hicks said.
Houston is hoping that this will fuel an effort toward accomplishing a longtime goal of the Third Regiment USCT Reenactors and the Camp William Penn Museum: the creation of a local statue commemorating the contributions of the USCT. A mock-up already has been developed.
Also looking ahead, McLaughlin would like to start an adopt-a-grave program that would pair veterans buried in the cemeteries with student groups and social organizations as a way to promote the cemetery and the soldiers’ history.
“I want people to understand what these soldiers went through – the fear, the loneliness, the sacrifice,” he said. “I want people to realize [the importance] of what we have here.”
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