New York Ignores Its Civil War History

The standard narrative is that slavery was a Southern institution and the north, including New York fought to preserve the union and end slavery. But the reality of history is never so simple.
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2011 marks the sesquicentennial celebration, the 150th anniversary, of the American Civil War - except in New York State, which apparently is pretending that the war never happened. Last fall, a bill was introduced in the State Legislature to create a commission to recognize the anniversary and promote historical tourism. But Governor Paterson and legislative leaders torpedoed the idea, reportedly because of budgetary concerns.

While no Civil War battles were fought in New York City or State, despite suggestive scenes in the movie Gangs of New York, both the city and state played central, although not necessarily positive, roles in the union victory and the end of slavery. Whatever the state and city ultimately decide to do, teachers should use the anniversary to involve students in exploring the complexity of history and to challenge historical myth making.

The standard narrative is that slavery was a Southern institution and the north, including New York fought to preserve the union and end slavery. But the reality of history is never so simple.
For example, as a Congressman in the 1840s, New Yorker Fernando Wood was a strong supporter of slavery and the South. He continued his support of the South when he became Mayor of New York City in the 1850s. On January 8, 1861, the New York Times published the transcript of Mayor Fernando Wood's annual report to the city's Common Council. In this message, Wood spoke about the city's options as the United States federal union appeared to be dissolving and he called for the city to secede as well.

Woods told the Common Council, "It would seem that a dissolution of the Federal Union is inevitable." He reminded its members that with their "aggrieved brethren of the Slave States we have friendly relations and a common sympathy" because "we have not participated in the warfare upon their constitutional rights or their domestic institutions." He proposed that "New York should endeavor to preserve a continuance of uninterrupted intercourse with every section," and to do this it should secede from the Union itself and become "a free City." Wood concluded, "When disunion has become a fixed and certain fact, why may not New York disrupt the bands which bind her to a corrupt and venal master. New York, as a Free City, may shed the only light and hope for a future reconstruction of our once blessed Confederacy."

Wood's sentiments were supported by the New York Herald and the Journal of Commerce. The Herald published a statement by department store magnet Alexander Stewart charging that "the refusal at Washington to concede costs us millions daily." The Journal of Commerce warned President-elect Lincoln that, "there are a million and a half mouths to be fed daily in this city and its dependencies; and they will not consent to be starved by any man's policies."

While Mayor Wood backed away from this position once the actual fighting broke out, in 1864 he represented the city in Congress where he opposed the 13th amendment to the Constitution - the amendment that finally outlawed slavery. On June 15, 1864, the New York Times reported on debate in the House of Representatives over passage of "the Anti-Slavery Constitutional Amendment." Wood claimed the amendment was an attack on property rights and "involved the extermination of the whites of the Southern States and the forfeiture of their property, and lands to be given to the black race, who may drive the former out of existence." In addition, southern planters owed large amounts of money to northern merchants and bankers and an end to slavery would make it impossible for them to repay their debts. For Wood and his supporters, economic interests trumped ethical considerations and human freedom.

Of course, New York and New Yorkers also contributed to the Union victory. Nearly 450,000 White and Black New Yorkers fought about 46,000 died as a result of wounds or disease. New York factories were also vital to the war effort producing everything from horseshoes to the ironclad battleship Monitor on the docks at Greenpoint in Brooklyn.

With a new governor in office, it is time to reconsider the possibility of an official commemoration. New York's Civil War history is a history that needs to be told.

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