is coauthor, with Daniel R. Biddle, of Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and
the Battle for Equality
in Civil War America
As a calendar year ebbs, we find ourselves looking back and trying to take a measure of its flow.
What kind of year was it? Who died? Was a job lost or gained? Health problems? The kids? Fall in love?
In the end, was 2011 a good year or not?
Often that is an easy question (Vince Fumo had a bad year, for instance), but it can be complicated, a balancing act between what life gave you and what was taken away.
What's even more difficult is making sense of a year in the life of a city, or a nation. Has an awful economy made it a terrible year for Philadelphia and the United States? The easy answer is yes.
But before answering too quickly, understand that, before any evaluation, a wise move may be to let some time pass. See how things look five years later. Or 10 years later. Historians routinely wait much longer to take the measure of a time or of an event.
So let's go back, way back, 150 years ago, to 1861, and see what the city and nation looked like, and how that year may have been valued as a good or a bad one.
First, there was a war going on, which is never good. But the Civil War created lots of jobs in Philadelphia, so it may have been a good year for the 3,000 women making clothes for soldiers at the arsenal building in Grays Ferry and the 609 shoemakers making knapsacks and shoes. How might the workmen putting together breech-loading rifles at the Sharp & Rankin factory on the west bank of the Schuylkill have valued the year, or those making ammunition at the Frankford Arsenal?
Not everyone was having a good year of work. Newspaper advertisements told of "An American Protestant cook . . . wishes a good home," and "Several good girls (Catholics) with references, competent chambermaids & waitresses can be had."
Society then demanded more information from a job- seeker: "Wanted - A Good, Colored Cook wants a situation. . . . Superior Colored Waiter . . . wants a situation. . . . Nice young Irish Girl . . . wants a situation."
The city was full of men in uniform - marching down Washington Avenue on the way to the train station on Broad Street or waiting for their ships to be repaired at the Navy Yard. Did the men recuperating in one of the city's 24 military hospitals consider it a bad year?
City police added to their uniform, getting new, heavy, double-breasted, blue, cloth overcoats Dec. 1. The coats had a cape attached.
The war had many supporters in the spring, when Fort Sumter was attacked, but that seemed an eternity ago. Now, as Union losses increased, most of the public meetings were against the conflict. The city's bankers, businessmen, and political leaders were calling for a rapprochement with the South. In fact, when a handful of business leaders loyal to Lincoln opened the Union League in 1861, they conceded that it was to show everyone that not all of the city aristocracy supported the South.
Black leaders, who were excited initially that a War Between the States would surely end slavery, heard President Lincoln in his December message to Congress urge that "steps be taken" to buy "colonial territory" so that Negroes who fled behind Union lines to escape slavery could be colonized to another country. Another country.
Those black leaders did not know what to think, other than that they were disappointed - again - by their government. African Americans argued among themselves about fighting in this war. If the government wanted to kick free blacks out of the country, why should they fight? And Union Gen. William T. Sherman had said plainly that it would be "unjust to the brave soldiers and volunteers" to place them on an equal footing with black men. Besides, he added, he could not count on Negroes "with arms in positions of danger and trust."
If you were black and seeking equality, the year was not going so well.
Perhaps their mood brightened some as large crowds, black and white, came to the three-day antislavery fair that opened Dec. 17. A flag proclaimed "Anti-Slavery is True Democracy." And there was a flag with the words from the Liberty Bell, "Proclaim Liberty throughout the land, and to all the people thereof." Mayor Alexander Henry had not permitted this flag the year before, or in 1859, fearing it would create trouble. Not this year.
The weather grew cold by that third week of December, as ice skaters appeared on the Schuylkill near Fairmount Park. The division between rich and poor was seen on the streets as elegantly dressed men and women thronged Chestnut Street to shop, but south of Independence and Washington Squares, the crowds were different, "groups of dissipated-looking loungers, black & white, male & female, hanging about low taverns and poor lodging houses." As it grew closer to Christmas, poor people went door-to-door begging for food.
So, even given the gift of hindsight, rating 1861 is a difficult exercise. Nationally, patriotism rose, but so did bitterness. Soldiers were wounded, soldiers died, and no one knew then if those sacrifices were worth it, if the nation would truly be saved.
In Philadelphia, more manufacturing jobs were available, but not everyone was able to find work. Ships arrived at the Delaware River docks with tobacco from the Carolinas, coffee from Brazil, toys from Germany, and mahogany from the forests of Nicaragua. Still, there was not enough food for the city's poor.
To my mind, 1861 sounds like a bad year in Philadelphia, a year of uncertainty, a year when loved ones could be called into battle. As for the current year drawing to a close, the economy is lousy, and too many are hurting. Not a good year for the city.
As for us, well, our children are good, so it has been a stellar year. It's always about the kids, isn't it?