The Civil War started in darkness. At 4:30 a.m. on Friday, April 12, 1861, batteries of the newly formed Confederate States of America commenced shelling the federal installation of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor.
Telegraphed news of the bombardment began reaching New York City’s newspaper offices late Friday afternoon. That night, a little before midnight, Walt Whitman strolled out of the Academy of Music on 14th Street, where he’d enjoyed a performance of Donizetti’s “Linda di Chamounix.” He was walking down Broadway, heading for Fulton Street where he would catch a ferry home to Brooklyn, “when I heard in the distance the loud cries of the newsboys, who came presently tearing and yelling up the street, rushing from side to side even more furiously than usual.” They were hawking late editions. “WAR BEGUN!” the New York Tribune cried. “FORT SUMTER ATTACKED!” The Sun chimed in.
Nearby, a group of prominent businessmen were meeting. No one in the country feared a war between the states more than New York’s business community. They did a tremendous amount of trade with the South. Since the previous December, when South Carolina was the first state to secede after Lincoln’s election, they’d been “studying with intense solicitude the means of preserving the peace.” They’d held numerous meetings and rallies, petitioned their politicians, pleaded with their Southern partners. War, they knew, would not only mean the end of their highly profitable trade with the Southern states. It would leave the business leaders holding more than $150 million in Southern debt. That’s the equivalent of about $4.5 billion in today’s currency.
A messenger burst into the meeting and breathlessly delivered the news from Fort Sumter. “The persons whom he thus addressed remained a while in dead silence, looking into each other’s pale faces; then one of them, with uplifted hands, cried, in a voice of anguish, ‘My God, we are ruined!’ ”
That account was written by Morgan Dix, rector of the elite Trinity Church at the foot of Wall Street and son of the powerful political figure John A. Dix. He doesn’t identify his fretful gentlemen, but their names are unimportant. They were representative of a large sector of New York’s business elite at the start of the Civil War. As dismayed as they were, they could not have been startled by the Fort Sumter news. Conflicts between the North and the South had been festering for most of the century. Gloomy forecasts of ultimate disunion and civil war went back as far as the 1810s. Members of Congress had spent the entire decade of the 1850s alternately trying to bridge the widening sectional gulf and beating each other up over it. The moment the Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln in the spring of 1860, angry Southern “fire-eaters” (as Northerners dubbed the most radical and vocal pro-slavers) had made it unmistakably clear that they would consider his election tantamount to an act of war. In January, five more states joined South Carolina in seceding (Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana); in February, the six formed their own separate nation. Five more would soon join. Overnight, federal installations like Fort Sumter had become foreign military bases. When Confederate troops surrounded and blockaded the fort, hoping to starve the garrison into a bloodless surrender, Lincoln had picked up the gauntlet and sent supply ships steaming out of New York harbor. Neither side had blinked, and now the Civil War had begun.
Lincoln knew well that if he was going to win that war he needed the help of the biggest, wealthiest metropolis in the North. What he did not know was whether he could count on that help. In fact, he had good reason to doubt it.
New York City would play a huge role in the war, but it would be a hugely confused and conflicted one. No city would be more of a help to Lincoln and the Union war effort, or more of a hindrance. No city raised more men, money, and materiel for the war, and no city raised more hell against it. It would be a city of patriots, war heroes, and abolitionists, and simultaneously a city of antiwar protest, draft resistance, and sedition. As America fell into sectional conflict, New Yorkers fought their own civil war among themselves. It was even, in some ways, a localized clash between North and South.
From New England came Yankee émigrés who brought abolitionism with them, and were among Lincoln’s most influential supporters. From the South came cotton, far and away the city’s most important commodity in the decades preceding the war. Cotton threads tied New York to the South and to plantation slavery in a long, intimate, and codependent relationship. From around 1820 until the start of the Civil War, by far the most valuable product New York shipped out was Southern cotton. Cotton represented a whopping 40 percent of all the goods shipped out of the port of New York. New York City’s central role in the huge international cotton market goes a long way to explaining many New Yorkers’ attitudes about Southern slavery. The city was more than just complicit in maintaining the institution. The plantation system and New York City spurred each other’s exponential growth in the first half of the nineteenth century.
The contest between these forces for the heart and soul of the city in the decades before the war helps explain why New York’s actions and attitudes during the war can appear so schizophrenic. The same New York banks that funded the spread of plantation slavery across the Cotton South would provide the start-up capital for the Union war machine that ended slavery. New York merchants outfitted both. The port of New York, which was a hub of both the international cotton trade and the transatlantic slave trade up to the start of the war, became the chief port of the Union navy. New York City gave the Union army some of its bravest and most gallant officers, including the first one killed in the conflict; it also sent some of the most corrupt and insubordinate, including one who came within an ace of single-handedly losing the battle of Gettysburg.
Without his New York supporters, it’s highly unlikely Lincoln would have made it to the White House. Yet the majority of New Yorkers never voted for him and were openly hostile to him and his politics. Throughout the war New York City was a nest of antiwar “Copperheads” and a haven for deserters and draft dodgers. New Yorkers would react to Lincoln’s wartime policies with the deadliest rioting in American history. The city’s political leaders would create a bureaucracy solely devoted to helping New Yorkers evade service in Lincoln’s army. Rampant war profiteering would create an entirely new class of New York millionaires, the “shoddy aristocracy.” New York newspapers would be among the most vilely racist and vehemently antiwar in the country. Some editors would call on their readers to revolt and commit treason. A few New Yorkers would answer that call. They would assist Confederate terrorists in an attempt to burn their own city down, and collude with Lincoln’s assassin.
From the book “City of Sedition: The History of New York City During the Civil War.” Copyright © 2016 by John Strausbaugh. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.