It was anything but civil. On Jan. 7, 1861, Mayor Fernando Wood exhorted New York’s Board of Alderman to declare the city’s independence from Albany and from Washington — a bold stroke of self-preservation that he maintained “would have the whole and united support of the Southern States.”
Two years later, the federal government diverted Union troops fresh from the Gettysburg battlefield to quell bloody draft riots in Manhattan, a defensive military maneuver that might have allowed Robert E. Lee to escape and prolonged the war.
If that’s all New Yorkers remember about the Civil War, it’s no wonder that the state Legislature balked at authorizing an official sesquicentennial commemoration.
Once its ambivalence was reversed, New York banks helped finance the war. The state’s industrial capacity exceeded that of the entire South (a factory in upstate New York turned out 60 iron horseshoes-a-minute). More New Yorkers, hailing from the most populous state, went into battle (nearly 450,000) than residents of any other state and more (about 46,000) died as a result of fatal wounds or disease.
“The Union does not win the war without New York,” said Kenneth T. Jackson, a historian at Columbia University who edited the “Encyclopedia of New York City.”
Yet earlier this year, the State Senate failed even to authorize a sesquicentennial commission much less appropriate any funds to support commemorations, exhibitions, retrospectives or any other events around the state to mark the start of the Civil War 150 years ago.
“In my mind, the war starts here in the 1830s with the Underground Railroad and abolition,” said Robert Weible, the official New York State historian.
“New York poured more money and manpower and matériel —weaponry from Cold Spring, iron from Troy and ironclads like the Monitor from Greenpoint — than any other state,” said Harold Holzer, a Lincoln scholar and co-editor of “The New York Times Complete Civil War.” “It produced the most home front patriotic images and the most newsprint. And it had the only ‘battle’ ever to hit a northern state — the one we too often forget — the race riot/pogrom we call in a misnomer the New York Draft Riots.” (After the first conscripts were selected in 1863, angry mobs — mostly immigrants who could not afford to buy their way out of the draft — roamed Manhattan for several days terrorizing blacks, abolitionists and other New Yorkers.)
New York also houses what is billed as the largest collection of Civil War battle flags and is home to imposing monuments to Civil War veterans, including Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn and the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Monument in Riverside Park. Just no official commemoration.
“It’s probably yet another embarrassing case of historical Alzheimer’s, which means that New York’s failure to commemorate the Civil War will be an inducement for other states, not to mention its own municipalities, to walk away, too,” said Dr. Allen C. Guelzo, a history professor and director of Civil War Era studies at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. “Which is a pity, because New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio formed the central pillar of the Union, both in terms of politics and their military contribution.
Mayor Wood unabashedly embraced the South initially because its cotton merchants were financed by New York banks, protected from loss by New York insurers and transported their harvest in New York ships.
“It behooves every distinct community as well as every individual, to take care of themselves,” Wood said (although a little more than a month later, in welcoming President-elect Lincoln to City Hall, Wood said: “If the Union dies, the present supremacy of New York may perish with it”).
Many aldermen were not averse to Mayor Wood’s initial suggestion. Only a few days before, a lawmaker introduced legislation for a state convention “to take into consideration the present state of the Union.”
“Do you want to secede from the state?” another alderman asked the bill’s sponsor.
“That is just what we will do if they don’t let us alone,” he replied.
But legislation promoting secession died once the war began. This year, the same thing happened in the Senate to a bill introduced by Assemblyman John J. McEneney, a Democrat from Albany, to create an unpaid 14-member sesquicentennial commission to promote historical tourism. A Senate sponsor, George D. Maziarz, a Republican from Niagara County, said: “I think what happened is that the governor telegraphed to the leadership ‘Don’t pass any more of these commission bills. We can’t afford it.”
While the state is not officially remembering the Civil War, other groups are. The New-York Historical Society is presenting a five-year program of lectures and walking tours, Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn has been identifying and honoring Civil War veterans buried there, and a number of other organizations are planning sesquicentennial events. But Sara Ogger, executive director of the New York Council for the Humanities, said: “The state would have put a huge imprimatur on the commemoration.”