The Free Military Education for Command of Colored Troops — Civil Rights and Military Education During The American Civil War

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As chaos and bloodshed gripped the shattered country of the once “United” States, the Civil War dominated all fronts and ways of life. For the civilians of Philadelphia in 1863, war had finally reached home as the now infamous Gettysburg Campaign threatened invasion. In a dramatic response to this daunting issue, as well as to the dwindling number of soldiers on the front, Philadelphia had been granted permission to raise colored regiments to fight on behalf of the Union. Founded that year, the Free Military School for Applicants for Command of Colored Troops was constructed at 1210 Chestnut Street by Thomas Webster and the local Union League. The school was created to train white officers, who played a crucial role in leading 10,940 colored troops from Philadelphia and uprooting discrimination and racial tensions that dominated the era.

As war raged on, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton desired to bring the much needed potential muscle of colored troops to the Union cause as a military advantage over the Confederacy. In 1862, Congress passed the Second Militia Act, which granted African Americans the ability to serve in active combat under “strict supervision .” This “strict supervision” came in the form of the establishment of the Bureau of Colored Troops. One of its tasks was to determine, with permission from Stanton, which states or cities could raise troops and where these regiments would train before deployment. After having been chosen as one of these dedicated cities, Philadelphia undertook the dutiful process of raising colored troops for the first time in its history.

The local Union League of Philadelphia founded a supervisory committee for the creation of regiments of the USCT (United States Colored Troops) as well as for the education of white officers. During the USCT’s lifetime, there was an implied mandate that, for these colored troops, only white soldiers could serve as officers. White soldiers and civilians felt that serving in the army was both a right and an opportunity to defend the republic. Military leadership was considered an important component of citizenship reserved for the white male only . Consequently, the Union League of Philadelphia desired a military education center to train white officers to command colored troops. Unfortunately for a young league, funding proved a tricky task.

Raising regiments required architectural and resource dependent funds the Union League simply did not possess. The answer was to find a donor willing to invest in such a controversial task. Fortunately for the League, its search was quickly rewarded with Thomas Webster, an enthusiastic benefactor who saw a business opportunity in President Abraham Lincoln’s finalized Emancipation Proclamation . Webster, an insightful and progressive businessman, helped found the Free Military School in 1863 and worked to have equal treatment and pay for colored troops in the Union. Webster’s collaboration with the League led to nearly eleven regiments for the fighting force of Philadelphia . The officers of which adhered to a rigorous training schedule that consisted of a mandated three hours of study a day, six days a week. They studied topics like military tactics, arithmetic, geography, army regulations, and, of great importance, history. At the end of their mandatory stay at the school, soon-to-be officers appeared before a board of examiners. Students were graded on their military and academic knowledge, physical fitness, and mental acuity for command. Officers then departed to Camp William Penn, the location where black recruits who trained at auxiliary schools in Philadelphia reported .Unfortunately, despite its success in cultivating officers, nearly a year after its inception, the school closed in September 1864 due to funding shortages. Nearly a century and a half later, the school no longer stands. Instead, in its place stands an apartment complex and beauty salon.

The truth of the matter is that America still faces divisive issues over discrimination and the topic of race. It is important to look at buildings, topics, and items, such as the school for the Free Military Education for Command of Colored Troops, to understand the history of these issues. Whether it be military stratagem or not, the enlisting and training of white officers for command of black regiments greatly helped pave the way for equality, civil rights, and changing the face of the war through allowing colored troops to serve and take part in the process to becoming equal citizens under the United States.


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1210 Chestnut Street

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