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Civil War 150 years later: Exploring its heritage in Gotham


amny Credit: Brian Driscoll

April 12 marks the 150th year since the start of the war that pitted brother against brother, and though no battles were fought on Gotham’s soil, reminders of the Civil War can be found throughout the city.

Less appreciated, however, is how city locales figured in the war’s broader narrative. Cooper Union, for instance, is where Abraham Lincoln memorably articulated a rationale for the looming war. Stops along the Underground Railroad were hidden inside homes and churches, some still in existence. And there is no shortage of commemorative statuary — and a massive tomb that once was the biggest tourist attraction in New York.

“It’s difficult to memorialize something so horrific as war,” said Cal Snyder, author of “Out of Fire and Valor: The War Memorials of New York City.” “But war memorials from whatever time and place have suffering at their soul, and the sacrifice they record bestow on us the responsibility for love and hope.”

Blood was in fact shed on New York’s streets. The terrifying Draft Riots of 1863 that brutalized black New Yorkers fostered long-lasting social effects on the nation.

“For working people, the lesson of the Draft Riots would be that they must find strength in numbers: Labor unions must enroll blacks, rejecting the racism that politicians had long exploited in order to divide and control the masses,” said New York City historian Barnet Schecter, author of “The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America.”

Other events are just strange, such as the Confederate plot to burn New York City in November 1864.

Said Manhattan Borough Historian Michael Miscione: “You can talk about factories and ironworks and regiments, but that’s all pretty routine stuff. Now the idea of trying to burn the city down — that’s a grabber.”

Below is amNewYork’s guide to exploring the Civil War legacy in New York.

The Monitor and Merrimac Monument
Nassau Street and Russell Street, Greenpoint
The Monitor and Merrimac Monument in Msgr. McGolrick Park commemorates the USS Monitor warship, which was partially built and launched in Greenpoint.

227 Abolitionist Place
227 Duffield St.
An abolitionist home at 231 Duffield St. in downtown Brooklyn will be a sleek hotel, but the house at 227 Duffield is a museum called 227 Abolitionist Place, offering daily tours of the house and tunnel.

Soldiers and Sailors Arch
Northeastern entrance to Prospect Park at Flatbush Avenue and Plaza Street West
The grandest of all tributes is the Soldiers and Sailors Arch at Grand Army Plaza, designed by the Grant’s Tomb architect and ornamented with bronze sculptures noted for their realistic details.

Cypress Hills Cemetery
833 Jamaica Ave., Brooklyn, or 68-10 Cooper Ave., Glendale
Straddling the Brooklyn/Queens border is the Union Ground at Cypress Hills Cemetery, the first national cemetery created by President Abraham Lincoln for the Civil War dead.

Green-Wood Cemetery
500 25th St. (at Fifth
Throughout Green-Wood Cemetery are monuments to 16 Union generals, two Confederate generals and thousands of soldiers, but an enduring symbol of the war are the graves of brothers Clifton Kennedy Prentiss and William Scolay Prentiss, who fought on opposing sides, now buried side by side. Also here: Horace Greeley and abolitionists James and Abby Gibbons.


African Burial Ground
290 Broadway
The African Burial Ground Interpretive Center and the adjacent African Burial Ground recall the trials of some 20,000 people buried in the six-acre plot. The remains of hundreds of Colonial-era enslaved Africans were discovered in 1991 and were reinterred with honor in 2003.
The General Grant National Memorial

122 Riverside Dr. (Gen. Grant memorial); 89th Street and Riverside Park (Soldiers and Sailors Monument)
Grant’s Tomb has become somewhat of a pop-culture phenomenon through the famous Groucho Marx riddle, “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?” but it draws Civil War buffs for its solemn beauty as well as its Hudson River views. Nearby, a Greek temple structure, based on the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates (Athens), is one of several monuments in the city that pays tribute to soldiers and sailors.

Cooper Union
The Great Hall, 7 E. 7th St.
It’s said that Abraham Lincoln’s “right makes might” speech at Cooper Union on Feb. 27, 1860, propelled him into the presidency. An abolitionist, Lincoln crafted a logical argument against the expansion of slavery into northern territories. It was reported, “No man ever before made such an impression on his first appeal to a New York audience.”


John Bowne House
37-01 Bowne St. (at 37th Avenue)
The 17th-century John Bowne House in Flushing has long been a peaceable place. It was first a Quaker meeting house, then served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Now a museum, it’s closed for renovations.

Staten Island

Sandy Ground
1538 Woodrow Rd., Rossville
Near the southern tip of Staten Island is Sandy Ground, the oldest continuously inhabited free black settlement in the United States. Once known as “Little Africa,” it became a thriving community for free blacks living on the Eastern Seaboard and the site of the Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, and was also a stop on the Underground Railroad. Its museum and historical society currently hold the largest documentary collection of African-American culture and history on Staten Island.


Fort Schuyler
6 Pennyfield Ave., Throggs Neck
The well-preserved 19th-century Fort Schuyler, on the southeastern tip of the Bronx, once held as many as 500 Confederate prisoners as well as Union convicts. Part of a historic complex that houses a library, museum and offices of the SUNY Maritime College, it’s considered one of the finest examples of French-style fortifications.


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