New York City has a reputation of being a liberal place, but the history of New York is much more convoluted and conservative than most textbooks would have you believe. John Strausbaugh, the author of the new book City of Sedition: The History of New York City During the Civil War, writes that New York was perhaps the most pro-slavery city in the North and fought hard to prevent the Civil War from happening.
NYC also benefitted greatly from slavery: It's the same things that make New York the rich and attractive place today that made it a partner in slavery leading up to the war, namely its ties to finance and commodities trading. New York was enriched by slavery, and then enriched again by the war effort.
Strausbaugh has made a living writing detailed histories of New York (his last book was a 400-year history of New York's Greenwich Village), and City of Sedition is no different in its expansive coverage of the city during the Civil War. It documents the surge of immigrants before the war, the fights between local politicians in the city and abolitionists in Washington, and the role of finance in both hindering the war effort and supporting it once it got underway. It's a history of the Civil War told through the lives of its constituents—newspapermen, politicians, activists, immigrants. But it's also a profile of a rambunctious, complicated, and counterintuitive city—a profile that still feels applicable to New York today. VICE spoke with the author this week to get his take on why this history of New York has been mostly forgotten.
VICE: For starters, when you think of New York City, you never really think of the Civil War. You think of Washington, DC, Abraham Lincoln, and the South. As you write in your book, New York was such a huge part of the war effort, so why do you think it's never really talked about?
John Strausbaugh: New York's giant impact on American affairs was no secret at the time. But over the years, the stories about the Civil War have gotten simplified, as they always do as time passes. The story of New York's involvement is messy and confusing and contested, so that's part of the reason it got left out. I think another big reason is that Civil War history is only taught and only spoken about as military history now. We know in minute detail what happened at the battle at Chancellorsville, but we talk less about the larger issues and how the war happened, and that's where New York plays a big role. The nearest battle to New York was Gettysburg, which was 200 miles away, so it doesn't get spoken about in those kinds of stories.
If New York wasn't a place of battle, how did it affect the Civil War?
New York was arguably the most pro-South, pro-slavery city in the North because it had a very long and deep involvement in the international cotton trade. Cotton blew up in the first half of the 1800s. It went from under a million pounds being exported from the United States around 1800 to more than two billion pounds by 1860. A lot of that was due to New York City's involvement.
New York City banks funded the plantations that spread all across the deep South. New York merchants supplied them everything from their pianos, to their plowshares, to the clothing that they gave their slaves to wear. New York shipped out a significant portion of the cotton that went up to New England and over to England to be milled. Those ships, when they came back bringing other goods back with them, brought them all into New York, where everybody came to buy them. So New York had this very long relationship with slavery and the South, and everybody from the bankers and the businessmen, to the dock workers and waiters in the hotel restaurants had something to do with the plantation industry and depended on it as much as any plantation owner did.
So New Yorkers were against abolition?
In the decades leading up to the war, New Yorkers were very much against the abolitionists. The majority of New Yorkers were very hostile to Lincoln when he was coming up, and remained opposed to him at every step during the war. But at the same time, New York also had some very key abolitionists, like Horace Greeley, for instance, the editor of the New York Tribune. They tended to be guys from New England who came down to New York, so you have a sort of North-South war going on in New York City that mirrored in its way the war going on in the rest of the country. If it wasn't for Greeley and a small group of very visible, very vocal abolitionists in New York City bringing Lincoln to come speak to the Cooper Union in February of 1860, it's highly unlikely he would have made it into the White House.
New York seems to still play a similar role, in terms of dictating the economy of other states through its finance capital.
Yes, except it's role in the US was even bigger [in the 19th century]. It was the banking center, the media center, the capitol of capital, the shipping center. It was the center of everything, and it was a giant metropolis by 1850s and 1860s standards. If you count Brooklyn, which at the time was a separate city, but a sister city, there were about 1,250,000 people here. That was twice as many people as in Philadelphia, which was the next biggest city. It also had a big political influence because it had all those people in it, and New York state had more electoral votes than any other state in the Union by a large margin. It had a huge impact on everything, and we tend to forget that now because the economy and banking and media and everything has been more spread out and dispersed over the last 30, 40 years. There is no central hub anymore, but it certainly was then.
Even though New York didn't have any Civil War-related battles, it still erupted in violence because of the prospect of the end of slavery, right?
New York has always been an immigrant city right from the very start, but huge numbers of them started coming in the 1840s—a lot of them Irish, fleeing the famine and political unrest in Ireland. The other group is German, also fleeing hunger and political unrest in what came to be called Germany (there was no Germany at the time). The Irish, being Catholics who were looked down on in the 1840s and 50s, were on the next to the lowest rung. They were just above black people in New York City, and vastly outnumbered them. There were only about 12,000 free blacks in New York in 1860. And because of their low social status, the black people and Irish people would compete for jobs.
Yet, at the same time, the Irish were terrified that if all the four million slaves in the South were freed, they'd come flooding to the North and take their jobs away. That was a big motivator for the working class, not just the Irish, but the Protestant working class New Yorkers at the time, and it was a big reason they were against abolition and against Lincoln. And so there was a lot of political unrest in New York which sometimes erupted into protest.
We think of New York as this rich, diverse city now, but you say that a lot of that wealth and cosmopolitanism is built on extremely problematic grounds, right?
Yes, and even though many New Yorkers were pro-slavery and opposed the Civil War, once it happened, being New Yorkers, they figured out how to make a profit out of it. The banks lent great amounts of money to the Union's war effort, and much of that money was spent right back in New York for uniforms and horses and food and other supplies. They speculated on gold, which is always in fluctuation during war time. Wall Street went through the roof during the war, so there were people making, in a week, ten times more than the average worker made in a year on Wall Street. They created a whole new class of millionaires called the Shoddy Aristocracy because they weren't old money, but they were brand new money.
The cotton trade had been cut off at the beginning of the war, so New York businesses had to learn to diversify. They looked west, they built up the railroads, they got into petroleum, they got into wheat. The economy boomed throughout the war, and set the city up to come booming out of the war they had opposed the whole time into a huge post-war time of growth and development, the Gilded Age, which set it up to become the capital of the world in the 20th century. So we are still living in a city that, in large measure, was built during and after the Civil War.
New York is often thought of as this liberal place. Why did you want to write a book with this kind of counterintuitive history?
New York has always been a very confused and conflicting place. There were some of the most liberal liberals, like Horace Greeley and the New York Times, the latter which was very liberal from the start. At the same time, there were some of the most conservative conservatives here. You had abolitionists and you had people who were fiercely anti-abolitionist and racist, just plain, flat-out racist. I think the city goes up and down in its conservatism and liberalism. Its reputation as a very liberal city is mostly post-World War II, and now I don't think it's nearly the liberal city it was 30 years ago. It's much more conservative now. It fluctuates, but it's always mixed.
You've also written a book about the history of the West Village, and I understand your next book will be about New York, too. Why keep writing about the city?
New York City history is so rich and so deep and it goes back 400 years. Nowhere else in the US can say that, at least in terms of white people. It's so fragmented and so messy and so intricate that you can just dive in and be telling stories for ten more lifetimes. I'm always antsy when I hear people called "experts" in New York City history, because it's too big for any one person to be an expert in. You can be an expert in some corner of it, but even then, it's just too much. I'm a writer and I love writing about history. If you like writing and history, there's no place better to be then New York.
'City of Sedition' is out now. Order it online.
Follow Peter Moskowitz on Twitter.