Philadelphia’s Civil War: New Documentary Depicts Racial Tensions in Wartime City

Philadelphia’s Civil War: New Documentary Depicts Racial Tensions in Wartime City

This post was written by Michael Johnson, a PhD student at George Washington University.

The fourteen-part series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment,” produced by Sam Katz and History Making Productions, traces the development of American ideals, character, and democracy over four centuries of one of the nation’s most crucial cities. Episode six, “Disorder,” explores the decades before the Civil War (1820-1854), focusing on the tensions of a growing city. The episode examines three conflicts in particular: race, class, and ethnicity/religion, all of which were compounded by the autonomous nature of the city’s townships.

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“Portrait Identified as James Forten,” Image courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, date unknown.

By far the largest focus of the episode is racial tension in the years before the Civil War. Though technically in a northern state, Philadelphia was a city on the border, with strong business and familial ties to the southern slave states. As a result, tensions between whites and blacks were high, and racial violence was a constant threat. The episode focuses on wealthy sailmaker James Forten, whose family was active in antislavery efforts in the city. With the Forten family in the center of black activism, the documentary presents two major race riots of the era. First, in 1834 the destruction of a popular carousel the “Flying Horses” sparked riots against black businesses and homes. Four years later, the Philadelphia Female Antislavery Society, an interracial organization, built Pennsylvania Hall as a meeting space for abolitionists. Less than a week after its opening, during a meeting including notable abolitionists such a Lucretia Mott, Angelina Grimke, and William Lloyd Garrison, a white mob attacked and burned the hall. Shortly thereafter Pennsylvania stripped African American men of their right to vote, leaving the black community in an even more precarious position in antebellum Philadelphia.

The second tension explored in the episode is that of class. Antebellum Philadelphia was the nation’s wealthiest city, due in large part to the Second Bank of the United States and its president, Nicholas Biddle. While the bank helped spark industrial growth of all sorts in the city, capitalists also benefitted by depressing wages of the city’s craftsmen. But President Andrew Jackson’s war against the Bank of the United States became a battle of laborers and industrial capitalists. Irish-born weaver John Ferral united workers across trades to challenge long hours, low wages, and unsafe working conditions. While his labor organization excluded black workers, he managed to unite Catholics and Protestants. In the summer of 1835, a strike of over twenty thousand workers effectively shut down the city until employers agreed to a ten hour workday, the first significant organized labor victory in the nation’s history.

The third major tension presented in the episode was ethnic/religious difference. This theme received far less attention than the others, and was limited to a brief mention of the Bible Riots. In the summer of 1844, nativists, wary of the growing Irish Catholic population in the city, attacked Catholic homes, and later churches.

“Map of the City of Philadelphia as Consolidated in 1854,” Image courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

The violence of the era was made possible in part by the autonomous nature of the city’s neighborhoods. Philadelphia was divided into 29 independent townships/districts, in which city officials had little to no authority. Districts like Southwark and Moyamensing were notorious centers for vice and gangs; rioters seeking safe havens had only to cross South Street to be protected from Philadelphia police. But the riots of this period provided strong incentive for unification. In 1854, Philadelphia consolidated into the largest metropolis in the United States. Not only did the city have new power to extend public services, but officials also had new authority to enforce law and order in previously independent townships.

Overall the documentary does a nice job of exploring the tensions, or perhaps more appropriately growing pains, of a developing city. Industrial growth, combined with the influx of African Americans from the south and immigrants from Europe created an environment ripe for violence, and the episode explores some of the more notable instances when tempers erupted. From a production standpoint I (uninformed though my opinion may be) thought the documentary was very well done. There is a nice balance of historical reenactments with period images enhanced with animations. There is also an effective use of local scholars and experts to provide further explanation and context to the narrative.

But perhaps this topic “Disorder” was a little ambitious for a single episode. The documentary tries to cover a lot in 25 minutes (excluding credits), and as a consequence makes specific references without going into detail. One example came with the mention of violence in townships like Moyamensing. Several gangs are mentioned specifically, most notably the Killers, but no details are offered. In a documentary that seeks to highlight notable individuals, the producers could have mentioned William “Bull” McMullen, a leader of the Killers and Moyamensing Hose Company (gangs and hose companies were largely interchangeable in this era) who became a prominent, if oftentimes notorious, Philadelphia politician for much of the nineteenth century.

“Nativist Bible Riots of 1844,” Lithograph, Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

The biggest disappointment is the treatment of the Bible Riots. The bulk of the episode is dedicated to racial tensions (and justifiably so), but with roughly one minute of coverage, the ethnic tensions seem thrown in as an afterthought. Sparked in part by requests from the Catholic Church to excuse Catholic students from using the King James Bible in public schools, the riots included nativists battling Irish Catholics, then nativists battling law enforcement and militia trying to protect the churches being targeted. The violence, notable for its severity and duration, contributed not only to calls for consolidation, but also the growth of self-segregated Catholic schools in the city. Plus, it sparked one of the best tough-guy lines in American History: upon learning of the violence in Philadelphia, Archbishop John Hughes of New York warned the city’s mayor that if a single Catholic Church were attacked in New York, “the city would become a second Moscow,” a reference to the Russian scorched-earth policy during Napoleon’s invasion. Taking Hughes at his word, no New York churches were harmed.

The ending of the episode is also a bit misleading. In the conclusion, a group of abolitionists successfully used the police force of the newly consolidated city to protect their meeting from a white mob. This offers a nice image of progress for the African American community in Philadelphia and a positive way to end the episode. But race relations still had a long way to go. Though perhaps worthy of protection under the law, the black struggle for equal rights and protections in the city would continue during and beyond the Civil War.

“Disorder” is an interesting documentary that explores the tensions and violence of a growing city during a tumultuous period. But in trying to cover several major themes over the course of three decades in under thirty minutes, the episode by necessity is selective in details and may leave curious viewers wanting more.

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