New York City Before, During, and After the Civil War-What changed, and why?




In its long and illustrious history, New York City (NYC) has gone through tremendous change.  From a small trading post on the tip of Manhattan Island, to the greatest metropolis in the world, NYC has continued to evolve over time.  One period in particular that had more degrees of change than many others, was 1860 to 1865.  The lives of the residents of the great port city would be completely changed forever.

The common life of a NYC merchant in 1860 was that of a well-rounded diplomat.  One who was able to make deals with both the Southern plantation owner, who sold him the cotton from which the merchant made his money, and the European who the merchant sold this cotton to.  This merchant was well aware of how the cotton came from the ground, through the gin, and into the bales.  He was well aware that his whole economy was based on this cotton.  He also had moral feelings toward the "peculiar institution" that had given him this cotton to trade.  But the question on his mind is, "why bite the hand that feeds you?"

Anxiety and fear were common emotions faced by these merchants at that time.  If you were to sever the ties between the north and the south, what will America's greatest importing and exporting city do?  Will this schism between the nation cause NYC's growth to stop?  What effect, if any, would the formation of a new republic in the south have on the lives of the people and commerce of the City? 

In 1860, there were several different directions NYC could go.  One option would be to stay firm and represent the ideals of capitalism, freedom, and liberty, which had made the city so strong.  To side with the nation that their grandparents had liberated from tyranny, only eighty years before. Another option is to side with NYC's oppressed southern brothers, who feel as though the federal government is imposing upon their constitutional rights.  With a Republican in office, there would be an end to slavery and their whole way of life.

Surprisingly it was the latter, that NYC adopted first.  There are several important reasons for this.  First, NYC merchants, fearing that if the south formed a new nation, it would lower its tariffs and make NYC's ports obsolete.  There was a great fear that New Orleans, not NYC, would be the major port city to the continent, and would control all imports heading to the vast lands west of the Mississippi river and all cotton exports.  NYC's dominance of goods imported and exported had lasted for almost 200 years, and many feared it would be over.

Another reason New Yorkers were southern sympathizers was the debt owed to NYC merchants by the south, which had accumulated to over 200 million dollars.  Many feared if the sectional conflict had continued, the debt would not be paid.  But if NYC sided with no one and was neutral, the difference between philosophies would not interfere with its commerce and payment of debt.  The flow of cotton, which made so much money for NYC, would not stop.  Many NYC residents also had families and owned homes in the south.  What would these individuals do?

Then on December twentieth, 1860 South Carolina, after a special state assembly, declared that the state would secede from the union.  In January to June nine other states joined them; Mississippi on January ninth, Florida on the tenth, Alabama on the eleventh, Georgia on the nineteenth, Texas on the first of February, Virginia on the seventeenth of April, Arkansas on the sixth of May, North Carolina on the twentieth, and Tennessee on the eighth of June, all just went and seceded.  These states then came together and formed the Confederate States of America.

     What about the lesser sort, the dockworkers, street sweepers, the lower class, how did they feel about the fragile future of their nation.  They especially feared that their jobs would be lost to former slaves who would under bid them every chance they had.  Blacks had been used as strike breakers in the past and many residents in NYC; especially the Irish, who originally had taken the jobs traditionally held by black men, feared that they would be out of work.

At the time of Abraham Lincoln's election, there was a rift forming between the powers in control in Albany, and the Mayor of NYC, Fernando Wood.  Wood felt that Albany had too much control over NYC; he was especially passionate about the Metropolitan police, who took their orders from the governor.  Wood felt that the police who patrol his city should answer to him, that the city itself could and should have more control over its everyday activities.  This animosity toward Albany and Police Superintendent John Kennedy was displayed when the police seized the steamer Monticello, which was traveling from NYC to Savannah, with a cargo of contraband goods including several muskets.   Mayor Wood apologized to Governor Toombs, of Georgia; in a written letter stating how he regretted what had happened and that he lacked the authority to prevent the seizure of the arms.

With the nation imploding and a rigorous battle for more self-rule of his city, Mayor Wood made the greatest, and most controversial proposal of his life.

Wood proposed that if the south leaves the Union, and forms its own nation, that NYC should also leave the union and the rest of New York State, as a "Free City".  The idea was supported by few, but opposed by many.   One such supporter was the New York Daily News, whose chief editor was Benjamin Wood, Fernando's brother.  Benjamin praised the idea and the courage that the mayor displayed in his proposal.  Unlike the Daily News, most papers denounced Wood's idea.  For instance the Evening Post remarked, "It had never suspected Wood of being a fool, and inquired if the city should take along the Long Island Sound, the New York Central Railroad and the Erie Canal (1). Another newspaper, the Tribune stated, " Fernando Wood evidently wants to be a traitor; it is lack of courage only that makes him content with being a blackguard" (2). 

Many prominent businessmen in NYC supported Wood's idea, but only if the Union was" dissolved or on the verge of dissolution" (3). The idea of a Republic of New York was not a bad one if there were two separate nations.  With its vast ports and low tariffs, NYC would still be the trade capital of the western hemisphere.  Being a free city that made its money on tariffs alone, Wood wanted a town whose monetary problems could be dealt without the need to tax its people. 

Arguing for a free city, Wood said "Instead of supporting by her contributions in revenue two-thirds of the expenses of the U.S., become also, equally independent?  As a free city, with a nominal duty on imports, her local government could be supported without taxation upon her peoples…Thus, we conclude, we should live free from taxes, and have cheap goods nearly duty free…When disunion has become a fixed and certain fact, why may New York City disrupt the lands which bind her to a venal and corrupt master - to a people and a party that have plundered her revenue, attempted to ruin her commerce, taken away the power of self-government and destroy the confederacy in which she was the proud empire city" (4).

Being a free city would have made NYC neutral in the disagreement between the north and the south, and would not sever those historically profitable ties between the two.  Mayor Wood never imagined that if fighting broke out, that NYC would not side with the south.  Wood stated, "New Yorkers would not fight for the inferior Negro race" (5).

Unfortunately for the supporters of Wood's proposal, it never made it to reality.  On April 12, 1861 at 4:30 in the morning confederate troops began to bomb Ft. Sumter, a union fort off the coast of South Carolina.  After a thirty-four hour siege, the federal fort surrendered.  Once news of the attack reached NYC, the pro-union supporters of the city galvanized the town and NYC was in full support of the Union.  As one NYC merchant said "There is but one feeling, and that is to sustain our flag and government at all cost" (6).

The insurrection of the rebel states caused Lincoln to call for 75,000 men to fight for three months and end the revolution.  Many Americans in the north and the south began training and forming into regiments.  In NYC many of the recruits were Irish immigrants who had recently arrived from starvation and persecution in Ireland.  These men used the war to prove their allegiance to the nation that let them in.  For many of them, fighting in the war would make them American, or at least show Americans that the Irish were here to stay.

Many NYC residents fought bravely in the war, those who didn't had to do something, as the cotton trade was all but dead.  The need to transport soldiers and supplies became a major NYC industry.  Factories producing railroads and machinery emerged.  Shipping those goods meant that the ports were not abandoned after the end of the cotton trade.  War supplies such as uniforms, boots, belts, and weapons had to be manufactured and delivered to the front line.  Huge canning plants were made to hold the food shipped to the soldiers.  Large scale manufacturing of farming machinery became an important industry in NYC.   Most of the farmland was south of the Mason-Dixon line, the north had to, through the use of new technologies, replace it.

As days became weeks and months became years, the battles continued.  Though looked at as an advantage by many confederate generals, most of the fighting was done in the states that had seceded.  For the rebels, they knew the land very well, for it was their home.  For the federal advancement, rail had to be laid to transport men and supplies to the deep down south.  Once again NYC took advantage and produced all the raw materials the Union could need.

As time went on, so did the fighting, which most thought would end in a relatively short time.  It didn't, and the casualty lists kept growing and growing.  The need for more troops prompted the greatest urban riot of the modern age.  On July 23, 1863, the new Draft Act was put into effect, which spawned a mob, which began spilling out of the Bowery armed with iron bars, bricks, and bludgeons, and began to angrily and drunkenly riot. 

Ironically, it was Benjamin Wood who was fanning the flames and inciting angry and anti-governmental views.  In his Daily News he printed that the riots were "a popular uprising against enforcement of the Conscription", Wood also printed "Conscription draws lots… for its victims from among the sons of industry, leaving the rich man to his luxurious repose" (7).

The mob was made up of mostly Irishmen, who feared that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation would lead to their unemployment.  Newly freed slaves would come north and compete for jobs in an already congested and overpopulated working place, began to destroy the draft office.  Many institutions, which supported Lincoln and the Republican Party, had to barricade their entrances to keep the mob out.  Horace Greeley's house was rumored to be stoned, and many Fifth Avenue mansions were sacked, looted, and burned.  The feeling that this was a rich man's war fought by poor men was given more credibility because of the $300 that could be paid for exemption.  Thus the battle cry for the rioters was "there goes a $300 man!" and "Down with the rich men!" (8).

The fury, which over time had built up for the Metropolitans, consumed the city quickly as most of the city's defenses were off in Pennsylvania fighting General Robert E. Lee's army of Northern Virginia.  The small squads of police called in were no match for the mob.  Anarchy was all around; even Police Superintendent John Kennedy was beaten until he was unrecognizable.  The mob beat every policeman they saw; they even burned the houses of people they thought were aiding the fleeing cops.

Unfortunately this was not the only portion of the population to feel the crowd's fury.  The black population in the city was devastated.  Blacks were dragged out of carriages and beaten or hung or burned or all three.  A black Orphanage was burned killing over 200 children inside.  After nearly four days, Lincoln sent in union troops fresh from the fields of Gettysburg to put down the rioters.  After all was said and done over a thousand people are believed to have died.

     The NYC draft riots had been the largest single incident of civil disorder in the history of the United States.  The black population in NYC dropped by 20% afterward and several black communities arose in the outskirts of the city, in New Jersey and Brooklyn.  The re-building process, which is common in NYC didn't take very long.  And after the riots the city was back to business as usual.  And the workers went back to work, the teachers taught again, and the city tried to forget.  But the long-term scars of the riot could not be foreseen 

The inhabitants who remained in NYC were able to get back on their feet.  One practice that was common to get some quick cash was to trade with the enemy, but the need to was lagging.  One could get cotton cheaper from captured confederate towns like Memphis, Vicksburg and New Orleans.  Trade on the stock market was as good as it had ever been.  Gold, with government greenbacks, which were unsecured by precious metal, plunged and soared depending upon the battlefield. 

As the war dragged on, General Ulysses S. Grant was slowly tracking down the Army of Northern Virginia, and General William T. Sherman was inching his way to Atlanta, the fate of the 1864 election was not clear.  Then as the tide of the war continued to turn for the union, the slim lead former General George McClellan had over Lincoln disappeared.  Although Lincoln never won NYC in both of his elections he again carried New York State and the nation.

As a semi-direct retaliation for General Sherman burning down Atlanta and the rest of the Shenandoah Valley several confederate conspirators devised a plot to burn down NYC.  On a chilly evening of the twenty-fifth of November, the conspirators set several Broadway Hotels ablaze.  The sounds "Find the rebels!  Hang them from a lamppost!  Burn them at the stake!" (9) Could be heard as fire trucks quickly put out the fires.  Only $400 worth of damage was estimated but the story made headlines around the world as the culprits fled to Canada.

There was relief as the end of the war could be seen.  Then, it finally happened at a courthouse at Appomattox, General Lee surrendered.  This Great War had finally concluded, the sixteenth amendment was put into effect and all the slaves had been freed.  Then at Ford's theater, a young actor named John Wilkes Booth assassinated the President, ending Lincoln's plans for reunification.

Before he was killed Lincoln tried to mend the scars which divided the country," with malice toward none, with charity towards all… let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind the nations wound…" (10). His slain body was brought straight through the streets of NYC.  Thousands filled the streets to pay respect and mourn their fallen leader, whom few in the city voted for.

The changes in NYC were dramatic, new machinery was produced in new factories, new people had to fill the place of those who had fallen on the battlefield.   A new force came into NYC more powerful then ten thousand ironclads, mass Immigration.  This would give the new factories, which were recently created to aid in the war effort, but now were creating an assortment of goods, workers and the drive that would keep NYC the greatest city in the world.

























1. Alexander A.M., De Alva Stanwood A Political History of the State Of New York VII 1833-1861

New York: Ira J. Friedman, Inc.1909

Pages 334-360

2. Barrows, Edwin g., Wallace, Mike a history of New York City to 1898

New York: Oxford University Press, 1999

Pages 864-968

3. Burns, Ric New York an Illustrated History

     New York: Random House, 1999

     Pages 70-128

4. Cannable, Alfred, Silberfarb, Edward Tigers Of Tammany – Nine men who ran New York

     New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Wilson, 1967

     Pages 133-140

5. Foner Ph.D., Phillps Business and Slavery, The New York Merchants and the Irrepressible Conflict

     New York: Russell and Russell, 1968

6. Freeman, Andrew A. Abraham Lincoln Goes to New York

     New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1960

     Pages 100-121

7. Harris, Bill The History Of New York City

     New York: Archive Publishing, 1999

     Pages 98-111

8. Pleasants, Samuel Agustus Fernando Wood Of New York- Studies in History, Economics, and Public Law

     New York: Colombia University Press, 1948

     Pages 102-125



















Works Cited



1.     Pleasants page 115

2.     Pleasants page 115

3.     Pleasants page 116

4.     Alexander page 348

5.     Pleasants page 103

6.     Barrows page 869

7.     Pleasants page 143

8.     Barrows page 893

9.     Barrows page 903

10.          Gettysburg Address