New York City in the American Civil War

New York City in the American Civil War

New York City during the American Civil War (1861–1865) was a bustling American city that provided a major source of troops, supplies, and equipment for the Union Army. Powerful New York politicians and newspaper editors helped shape public opinion towards the war effort and the policies of President Abraham Lincoln. The port of New York served as fertile recruiting grounds for the Army as immigrants from Europe (primarily Irish and Germans) at times stepped off the oceanic transports and into the muster rolls.

The city's strong commercial ties to the South, its growing immigrant population, and anger about conscription led to divided sympathy for both the Union and Confederacy, culminating in the Draft Riots of 1863, one of the worst incidents of civil unrest in American history.


Early war years

New York City had long been the largest, and in many ways, most influential city in the United States. Already a melting pot by 1860 of divergent cultures, views, opinions, and politics. As Southern states began seceding with the election of Lincoln, New Yorkers in general supported the war effort, but there were several notable early exceptions. Mayor Fernando Wood won reelection to a second term, serving from 1860–62. He was one of many New York Democrats who were sympathetic to the Confederacy, called 'Copperheads' by staunch Unionists. In January 1861, Wood suggested to the City Council that New York City secede and declare itself a free city, to continue its profitable cotton trade with the Confederacy. Wood's Democratic machine was concerned to maintain the revenues (which depended on Southern cotton) that maintained the patronage system.

Broadway in 1860

Politically, the city was dominated by Democrats, many of whom were under the control of a political machine known as Tammany Hall. Led by William "Boss" Tweed, they gained numerous offices in New York City, and even to the state legislature and judges' seats, often through illegal means. From 1860–1870, Tweed controlled most Democratic nominations in the city, while Republicans tended to be more prevalent in upstate New York. Lincoln supporters in formed the Union League to support the war effort and the president's policies.

A series of U.S. Army forts, most constructed prior to the war, housed garrisons of Union troops, intent on protecting New York Harbor and the city from any possible Confederate attack, none of which ever came. Fort Lafayette, Fort Schuyler, and several others eventually held hundreds of Confederates prisoners of war. The Army also established or expanded several large military hospitals, including MacDougall Hospital and De Camp General Hospital, to serve the growing numbers of wounded and ill soldiers. Among the military innovations coming from New York City was the "wig-wag" system of signalling, tested in New York Harbor by Major Albert J. Myer.

Riker's Island was used as a military training ground for both white and African-American regiments during the Civil War. New soldiers were trained at "Camp Astor," named for the millionaire John Jacob Astor III who provided funding for the army. Among the early regiments trained at Camp Astor was the Anderson Zouaves, commanded by Col. John Lafayette Riker, a descendant of the family that owned the island.

The New York Navy Yard, established in 1801 in Brooklyn was a major facility for the manufacturing and repairing of Union Navy ships. By the second year of the Civil War, the Yard had expanded to employ about 6000 men. In addition to the government factories, hundreds of small private businesses throughout the New York area–'such as the National Arms Company– provided military accoutrements, supplies, sundries, and items of use and comfort to the soldiers.

Military recruitment in New York City

Despite pockets of objections to Lincoln's call for volunteers to serve in the Union army shortly after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, New Yorkers in general rushed to join the army or to raise financial and other support for the new troops. In one three-month period in early 1861, the city raised $150,000,000 for the war effort. By the end of May 1861, New York had raised 30,000 men for the volunteer army, including the "New York Fire Zouaves" (11th New York Infantry) under a personal friend of Lincoln, Elmer Ellsworth. Troops paraded down Broadway to cheers and shouts as they left for the war. Over the course of the war, the city would send off over 100,000 troops collected from around the state.[1] (in fact, based on the records of New York State, New York City raised over 150,000 volunteers, not including the tens of thousands of militia called up during emergencies during the war. 30 to 50 thousand sailors joined the Navy at New York City.)

Besides the Fire Zouaves, a number of other regiments raised in New York City became prominent in the Union army, including the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters (under Col. Hiram Berdan), the 9th New York (Hawkins' Zouaves), and the 10th New York ("National Guard Zouaves").

In 1862, George Opdyke became mayor of New York City, succeeding Fernando Wood. A staunch supporter of Lincoln since before the war, Opdyke worked hard to raise and equip even more state troops, and to prevent commercial panics on Wall Street as the Union's war successes waxed and waned. Under his leadership, recruiting efforts were renewed, particularly targeted at the vast supply of incoming immigrants.

Draft Riots

Main article: New York Draft Riots

President Lincoln and much of the Republican element of the U.S. Congress, concerned with the numbers of veteran troops whose terms of enlistments had expired and wanting to press the war to a conclusion, had approved of a conscription law to draft soldiers into the army to augment the number of volunteers. "Draft Week" in New York City was scheduled for mid-July 1863. Lincoln sent several regiments of militia and volunteer troops (some fresh off the Gettysburg battlefield) to control the city. The rioters numbered in the thousands, and were predominantly ("uniformly") Irish (this is a dubious claim, no doubt rooted in Nativist prejudices. Most of the over 400 arrested per "Armies of the Streets" did not have Irish names, and it is clear that many of the instigators were native born Americans and other nationalities with Southern sympathies).[2] Smaller scale riots erupted in other cities about the same time.[3]

Initially intended to express anger at the draft, the protests quickly degraded into civil disorder against the Republicans and especially against Black Americans. The conditions in the city were such that Maj. Gen. John E. Wool stated on July 16, "Martial law ought to be proclaimed, but I have not a sufficient force to enforce it." Using artillery and fixed bayonets the military suppressed the mob, but not before numerous buildings were ransacked or destroyed, including many homes, the Tribune office, an orphanage for blacks, and even P.T. Barnum's museum of oddities.

Media and the war

New York City had a number of widely read and influential newspapers and periodicals, whose influence was felt across the country, not just in the city itself. Horace Greeley, one of the founders of the Republican Party, grew his New York Tribune into America's most influential newspaper from 1840 through 1870. Greeley used it to promote the Whig and Republican parties, as well as antislavery and a host of reforms. Greeley, who during the secession crisis of 1861 had espoused a hard line against the Confederacy, became a voice for the Radical Republicans during the war, in opposition to Lincoln’s moderation. By 1864 he had lost much of his control over the newspaper, but wrote an editorial expressing defeatism regarding Lincoln’s chances of reelection–an attitude that was echoed across the country when his editorials were reprinted.

The New York Herald, under owner James Gordon Bennett, Sr., was a constant source of criticism of Lincoln's administration and policies, although Bennett and his paper strongly supported the Union. He had endorsed John C. Breckinridge early in the 1860 presidential campaign, then shifted to John Bell. In 1864, Bennett promoted George B. McClellan against, but officially endorsed neither candidate.

In addition to the powerful newspapers, New York City housed the printing presses of several other important periodicals such as Harper's Weekly , Frank Leslie's Illustrated News, and New York Illustrated News. Political cartoonist Thomas Nast became a well-known commentator on the war, and his efforts helped stir patriotism and fervor for the Union. Field war correspondents and artists such as Alfred Waud provided the public with first-hand accounts from the Northern armies.

Two journalists for the Brooklyn Eagle conspired to exploit the financial situation during early part of 1864, a plot known as the Civil War gold hoax. On May 18, two New York City newspapers, the New York World and the New York Journal of Commerce, published a false story that President Lincoln had issued a proclamation of conscription of 400,000 more men into the Union army. Share prices soon fell on the New York Stock Exchange when investors began to buy gold, and its value increased 10%. Officials finally traced the source of the story to the two men from the rival Brooklyn newspaper and arrested them.

In another celebrated case, Thomas W. Knox, a veteran journalist for the New York Herald, published a series of scathing attacks on General William Tecumseh Sherman and his men, which helped fuel speculation over Sherman's sanity. Knox also printed important information pertaining to the Vicksburg Campaign that led to him being charged, tried, and found guilty of disobedience of orders, although he was acquitted on espionage charges.

1864 Election Day sabotage

Secret agents from the Confederacy had been in New York City throughout the war, providing information on troop strengths, political views, shipments, etc. back to Richmond. Some of these agents planned an act of terrorism for Election Day in November 1864, when they would simultaneously burn down several leading city hotels. The plot was initially foiled due to a double agent who turned over communications to Federal officials, and to a massive military presence that deterred the plotters. Election Day passed without incident. However, on November 25, the saboteurs finally struck, setting fires at several hotels and other leading landmarks, including P. T. Barnum's museum. Fervent efforts by the city's firefighters extinguished most of the blazes, and most of the conspirators fled to Canada.[4]

Civil War notables from New York City



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