City of Sedition; The History of New York City During the Civil War

City of Sedition; The History of New York City During the Civil War by John Strausbaugh. Twelve, 2017 paper.

In April 1861 Fort Sumter was fired on by rebel guns, provoking the American Civil War. New York City was then the largest city in North America with 813,000 residents. That included all of the five boroughs that would eventually unite in 1898. Manhattan, at this time, did not extend much beyond 42nd Street.

New York had had a long relationship with the American South, with its cotton exports but also with the slave trade. Its banks supplied the financing that sustained the economy of the Southern States. John Strausbaugh quotes a figure: in 1861, southern plantation owners owed $200 million (in current dollars) to New York banks and other financial institutions. The outbreak of the Civil War left those loans uncertain. New York capital journeyed south; Southerners journeyed north. New York, the American metropolis, was a major travel destination for the South.

During the Civil War, New York quietly continued to buy cotton for mills in the North, but also for British mills. At the same time the city was a center for war production. Perhaps the best known was the shipbuilding industry located in the Brooklyn Naval Yard.

New York was the focus of both Irish and German emigration in the 1840s and 1850s. With some enthusiasm these emigres joined the city’s volunteer regiments raised after the war began. They were less enthusiastic about the military draft imposed after the North ran out of volunteers. Hence the New York draft riots in March 1863. The Irish were not enthusiastic about fighting a war when the stated purpose was to free African-American slaves toiling on Southern plantations. It was not their war.

City of Sedition gives some idea of the sorrow and bereavement that accompanies any war of this magnitude. Many of those who joined or were inducted were very young. They witnessed the huge numbers of fatalities and the seeming indifference of the military leadership to their suffering.

Strausbaugh describes the importance of journalists and newspapers in support of, but also opposing Abraham Lincoln’s decision to resist secession. They used the telegraph, a new technology, to flash their field reports back to their home offices in New York City so the suffering and death seemed almost next door.

War correspondents evolved what we now call photo-journalism. Matthew Brady, perhaps the most famous, sent a team of documentary photographers to follow the army. They had their own wagons to carry their photographic equipment and supplies and could develop exposed film in the field.

“The Dead of Antietam” is perhaps the first ever photographic essay. It was hung in Brady’s New York gallery in October 1862. The exhibition’s tone was somber rather than heroic. (Think about it, photographic essays of the wars of the twentieth century tend to be heroic. Those photographing World War II battlefields were rarely allowed to include the dead.)

One other means of participating in the celebrations and sorrows of the War was through popular music. The same songs were often popular in both the South and the North, songs like Dixie, Battle Cry of Freedom, and We’re Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground. They were sold as sheet music and sung around the parlor piano.

It seems as though Strausbaugh has many of the individuals prominent in the Union gathering in New York and taking part in its wartime ‘street theater.’ Naturally those regiments raised in New York returned to the city when their enlistment was over, to much excitement. But also many of the various groups that opposed the War and Negro emancipation arose in New York or found refuge amongst its disorderly streets and alleys.  They were a haven for draft dodgers. Hence the author’s “city of sedition” is an appropriate moniker.

New York streets had long been the venues for the mob violence characteristic of city life at this time and place. These ruffians destroyed property; they also took their anger out on the free blacks they found in the city. Lynchings were common.

That abolition was not their cause seemed even more obvious with the Emancipation Proclamation issued in January 1863. Lincoln was responding to the frequent calls from substantial numbers of prominent New Yorkers and others to free the slaves. He continued to claim, however, that the war was fought over the right of a state to secede from the union, not the end of African slavery – or even its expansion.

Since Canada was neutral, Confederate agents found a haven, and the Canadians had little control over their movements back and forth across the border. We would consider these agents to be terrorists, but the situation never became a crisis in international relations. Great Britain never recognized the Confederate States of America. Had they done so, the Union’s relations with Canada would have been more difficult.

New York may have been close to sedition and certainly individuals were, but they nevertheless celebrated the end of the war as though it had been their war. Thousands of Union soldiers paraded through its streets, Irish, German, and even regiments of black troops. Church bells tolled all over the city; canons boomed.

But the tone of the post-Civil War was already established in the segregated Union regiments that paraded down New York streets. Racial segregation in the U.S. armed forces did not end until 1948. And in many ways New York City would remain the segregated city that it had been prior to the Civil War.





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