City of Sedition: The History of New York City During the Civil War
By John Strausbaugh
423 pages, $30.
The City of New York holds a curious fascination for countless Americans, author John Strausbaugh among them.
For some, it’s the excitement of the bright lights and tall buildings. For others, it’s the tremendous wealth pulsing through the city’s arteries. And for still others, it’s the continuing saga of immigrants escaping the abject poverty, civil strife or autocratic rule which drove them from their homelands.
New York has been a city of extremes for 200 years, a city of stark contradictions. And no period exemplifies that internal dissonance like the mid-19th Century, the years leading up to and including the Civil War.
That is the delicious slice of the city’s history captured by long-time New York chronicler Strausbaugh in “City of Sedition.”
By 1855, the state was a hotbed of abolition but New York City was not so sure. It feared emancipation would trigger an influx of freed slaves who would threaten the jobs of the new Irish immigrants, and even the more established German immigrants. And while the state cast its nation-leading 35 electoral votes for Abraham Lincoln in successive presidential elections in 1860 and 1864, Lincoln lost New York City, which then consisted of Manhattan and Brooklyn, both times.
New York harbor was the center of the cotton trade between southern plantations, New England textile mills and Europe. The Vanderbilts, J.P. Morgan, the Gracie family, the Lehman brothers, August Belmont and the Opdykes all grabbed their hunk of the profits from the two billion pounds of cotton that flowed through the city in the year prior to the Civil War.
Mr. Lincoln’s war cost New York merchants millions in lost trade. In addition, New York banks financed a major portion of the cotton crop and speculated on its price, all of which was effectively wiped out when the Confederate States cancelled its citizens’ debts to Union lenders. The very Irish who most feared losing their menial jobs to freed slaves were devastated by docks layoffs.
Yet contradictions abounded. New York bankers put up 80 percent of the Union cost of the war in 1861 in the hopes, according to Strausbaugh, of recouping a portion of their losses. And jobless immigrants signed up to battle the Confederates, in exchange for a suit of clothes and two square a day. Later they profited as paid substitutes for the city’s well-off draftees.
The city formed and financed volunteer regiments led by political office-seekers in the first years of the war. An estimated one-third of the casualties at Bull Run were New Yorkers. Later the city would become the center of draft riots.
This all is part of Strausbaugh’s story, a meandering anecdotal tale of gossip, rumor, news mongering and scandal, strung together, sometimes quite loosely, by a war which seems incidental to the central action.
By now, New York was the nation’s largest city, and Broadway its most exciting thoroughfare. P.T. Barnum’s American Museum at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street, with Tom Thumb and boiled whales, was doing a smashing business.
Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass were addressing overflow crowds across the East River in Brooklyn. Herman Melville and Walt Whitman were penning opinion pieces for the city’s weeklies. And over at Printing House Square, the editors of the Herald, the Tribune and the Times were at each other’s throats.
James Gordon Bennett of the Herald was involved in fistfights in the streets. Henry Raymond of the Times went to the war zone to coordinate coverage personally. And the Trib’s Horace Greeley waffled between condemning rebels who dared destroy the Union, and illegally brokering peace talks with the enemy.
The reader at times comes away feeling Strausbaugh’s Civil War was between New York’s newspapers or the city’s neighborhood political factions. Of course, history sees it differently.
Mathew Brady was gaining fame with his new-fangled portraits of Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, and his exhibition of grotesque photos of the dead at Antietam which attracted crowds that queued around the block.
The brand new Associated Press with its telegraph wires leading back to New York was the CNN of the day. Stephen Foster was struggling to make a living writing songs like “Oh! Susanna,” while President Lincoln’s favorite tune was “Dixie.”
Strausbaugh’s book is a mix of New York City history and lore, a treasure chest of trivia about America’s greatest city. Where else would you learn that “shoddy” was a cloth-like material made from shredded rags, paper and glue? “Shoddy” didn’t become an adjective until rain soaked the material and it became, well, shoddy.
Or, while the war progressed a few hundred miles away, an inventor named Elisha Otis was developing a “vertical railroad” to facilitate the city’s skyward expansion.
For all its alluring and beguiling factoids, Strausbaugh’s book is not without its problems. His narrative tends to wander afar without a central protagonist to constrain it. His often-successful style falters when he interrupts his narrative mid-stream for a page or two of background on a New Yorker whose name has been lost to history.
The author shows equal irreverence to all comers, whether they be Presidents, civic leaders, generals, newspaper editors or up and coming immigrants beginning to capture top positions over at Tammany Hall.
Much of Strausbaugh’s war is told in terms of the arts, literature and theater. The Booth brothers played “Julius Caesar” in New York. Eldest brother Edwin’s lover, Laura Keene, was making a name in a farce called “Our American Cousin,” which would play the night of April 14, 1865, at Ford’s Theatre in Washington. Youngest brother John Wilkes Booth would be there.
Meanwhile, the battles in the west, where many historians think the war was won, are treated incidentally. New York’s sons fought mostly around Washington.
But none of this detracts much from the story of the city which one Lincoln historian describes as “the vortex of treason and war, profit and chaos.”
While not a monumental history in any sense, Strausbaugh’s book entertains, captivates and reveals the push and tug of New York during the Civil War which often is lost in the more tumultuous struggles of a nation fighting to save itself from disintegration.
Edward Cuddihy is a retired managing editor of The News.