The Top 5 Most Overlooked Civil War Sites in New York City: Introduction

by Brett Schulte on March 10, 2014 · 1 comment

Editor’s Note: Bill Morgan, the author of The Civil War Lover’s Guide to New York City (published by Savas Beatie), was kind enough to offer up his list of the top 5 most overlooked Civil War sites in the Big Apple as a series of guest posts here at TOCWOC – A Civil War Blog.  Bill’s introduction will be followed by one overlooked NYC site per week, every Monday for the next five Mondays.  Join Bill here at TOCWOC – A Civil War Blog, as he counts down his list.

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The Top 5 Most Overlooked Civil War Sites in New York City

by Bill Morgan

Introduction

CivilWarLoversGuideToNewYorkCityMorganSavasBeatieOn February 25, 1860, a little-known Illinois politician by the name of Abraham Lincoln arrived in New York City to deliver a speech to the Young Men’s Central Republican Union in the new auditorium at Cooper Union. No one recognized him as he walked along Broadway to his hotel near City Hall, where he was to revise much of his “right makes might” speech. Lincoln himself would later say that it was that speech that made him president. Five years later, Lincoln’s body lay in state under the rotunda of that very same City Hall, and more than a half million people waited to file past the catafalque of their assassinated leader. On April 25, 1865, the entire city was draped in black for the funeral procession of the man who died at the hands of John Wilkes Booth, brother of New York’s most prominent Shakespearean actor, Edwin Booth. “A Nation Mourns” read the banner over the steps of City Hall as millions poured into the city to line the streets to bid Lincoln farewell.

In many ways, these two events frame the Civil War era, and it is surprising that very little literature focuses on the role that New York City played in that war. Of course, no great battle took place in the city, but much of the tumultuous history of the period played out here. As the largest city in the nation, New York sent more troops to the war than any other—and lost more men as a result: nearly 100,000 soldiers from the city marched off; more than 10,000 never returned. As America’s publishing center, New York’s newspaper and magazine editors played a crucial role in shaping public opinion, both for and against Lincoln and the war. As the capital of commerce, New York produced the materials of war, manufacturing everything from uniforms to ironclads like the USS Monitor. Wall Street banks financed the war, making millions in the process. And after the war, New York became a prime location for memorials and monuments to the victors.

By 1865, the city had recovered from the financial setbacks caused by the loss of the cotton trade and was prospering because of the war. Business interests began to rival those of London and Paris in importance, and New York left other American cities behind in the provincial dust. As Kenneth T. Jackson, professor of history at Columbia University, has said about the city’s urban growth during that period, “The result would probably have been the same even if President Lincoln had somehow avoided war, but there can be little doubt that the foundation for New York’s industrial, financial, cultural, and commercial supremacy had been strengthened by the conflict between 1861 and 1865. And over those four years New York City and State made it possible for the United States to remain one nation.”

When I began work on my book The Civil War Lover’s Guide to New York City, I considered using a controversial title such as “New York: The Largest City of the Confederacy” to express the Southern sympathies shared, at least initially, by many New Yorkers. But that would only obscure the real purpose of the guide, which is to lead people to Civil War sites around the five boroughs. Still, it is surprising to learn that a large majority of the voters in New York City were not supporters of “Mr. Lincoln’s War.” In fact, the fiercest civilian rebellion to ever take place in America was the New York Draft Riots of 1863.

At the outset of war in 1861, many people felt that the conflict would destroy business and the economic backlash would ruin the city’s prosperity. New York was tied to the Southern economy more than any other city in the North. Southern businessmen owed tens of millions to Northern banks, and on behalf of the latter institutions some feared that if war came and the South refused to honor those debts, the losses would create a financial panic on Wall Street.

When Lincoln was elected, New York’s mayor, Fernando Wood, proposed that the city secede from the United States and become a free city, placing it in a position to continue doing business with both North and South. On Lincoln’s inauguration day, Wood refused to fly the American flag over City Hall. It was not until Lincoln’s death that the slain president became a martyr popular with the majority of people of the city. What surprised me most when I began collecting notes for my book 25 years ago was that no one had ever set down a guide to all of the places of Civil War interest in New York City. I believe that the city has more monuments, markers, forts, homes, public memorials, buildings, graves, museum exhibits, and relics of the Civil War era than any other place in the country. It is interesting to note that Generals Grant, Sherman, Scott, McClellan, Hancock, Sickles, and others all lived in the city at one time. Even more surprising, I learned that General Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Mrs. Jefferson Davis lived here for extended periods. The famous Confederate song “Dixie” was first performed in a New York theater, the ironclad was invented and built here, The Red Badge of Courage was written here, and Grant’s tomb is here. The country’s most beautiful Civil War monuments, by artists such as Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Daniel Chester French, J. Q. A. Ward, and Gutzon Borglum, stand in the city’s parks, and countless Civil War-era homes, businesses, forts, and public buildings still survive in a city that is constantly changing.

A study of the demographics of New York City proves that the city center has constantly been on the move northward. When the original Dutch settlers arrived on Mannahatta, they established a trading village at the very southern tip of the island. In the early years of the settlement, the residents of Nieuw Amsterdam built a wall at the northern edge of the town, which eventually became Wall Street. As the population grew, the city expanded beyond the wall, and farms and country houses began to dot the countryside below what is today 14th Street. Still, up to the Revolution Greenwich Village was no more than pastoral acreage. But late in the eighteenth century people fleeing from yellow fever and cholera epidemics in the city proper began to build homes there, and the northward expansion began in earnest.

In 1807, a visionary map that would be adopted as the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 was drawn up. It projected a grid plan for all future streets north of Houston. Few people believed that there would actually be a need for streets numbering well into the hundreds; but, just in case, the town fathers made a survey and allowed for cross streets from 1st Street up to 220th Street. By 1860, the eve of the Civil War, the population of New York (and the Bronx) had grown to 814,000, making it the largest city in the nation. Brooklyn was the third-largest city with 267,000 residents; it would not become part of New York City until 1898, when Queens and Staten Island also consolidated to form the five boroughs of the current city. For comparison’s sake, New Orleans was the only Southern city in the top ten, and it had a population of just 169,000. New York’s population was beginning to fill in the new blocks above 14th Street, with the wealthiest people building their homes along Fifth Avenue and spreading east and west from there. Real estate speculators were busy trying to make areas around Gramercy Park and Madison Square desirable by building new townhouses and providing mass transportation to the work centers in Lower Manhattan. For the most part, retail businesses were located along Broadway and heavier industries took up the areas along the riverfronts. During the Civil War, there were only a few scattered buildings in the blocks north of 42nd Street; so sparse was the population there that the city allowed the production and storage of explosives in factories built north of 62nd Street during the war. After the war, the creation of large works such as Central Park, Grand Central Station, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral gave impetus to continued northward expansion, so monuments erected at the end of the nineteenth century in honor of Civil War veterans are often found north of 57th Street. As Manhattan became more and more residential, heavy industries found it easier to conduct business in the boroughs and eventually closed their operations along the waterfronts.

The Civil War Lover’s Guide to New York City grew out of my own interest in the Civil War and slowly developed over the years. As I took friends on walking tours of the city, I realized that many people pass by Grand Army Plaza, Lincoln Center, and Sheridan Square every day without thinking about the history behind those places. It wasn’t until I was sitting in the grand lecture hall at Cooper Union—unchanged since the day Lincoln spoke from that same stage in 1860—that I decided to put it all together in one guide. Finding the sites and locations 150 years later became a challenge and an adventure, one that has taken me to all parts of the city, from Gracie Mansion on the Upper East Side to the free black community of Weeksville in Brooklyn. I hope you enjoy this look at “The Top 5 Most Overlooked Civil War Sites in NYC,” and the history of the Civil War that still resonates on the streets of New York City.

Camp Pope Publishing

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Savas Beatie March 11, 2014 at 11:43 am

Thanks for this post, Bill Morgan, and A Civil War Blog for providing a platform to continue this discussion. This is an intriguing topic that brings a lot of valuable information to the table for everyone to enjoy—from avid readers of Civil War material to people who have nothing but basic knowledge about the time period. We look forward to seeing the upcoming posts in the following weeks.

You can read more information about the book, including an excerpt and author interview, at publisher Savas Beatie’s website here: http://tinyurl.com/d8a57vc

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