New York’s Civil War Contradictions by Eileen Charbonneau

NYC Draft Riots of 1863
Draft Riots Lynching of a Free Black Man

No city was more of a help to the Union war effort, or more of a hindrance than New York, New York. The city raised more men, money, and materiel for the war than any other. It also almost burned itself down in sedition. It was a city of patriots and abolitionists, draft resisters, and spies.

Without New York support, Lincoln would not have won the presidency, but because of the city’s business ties to the Cotton South, most New York voters did not cast their ballots for our sixteenth president. New York City had many nests of antiwar “Copperheads.” New Yorkers reacted to wartime policies with the deadliest rioting in American history just after the battle of Gettysburg, in the summer of 1863. War profiteering created New York millionaires, called the “shoddy aristocracy,” who live on in the name of their infamous production of inferior supplies for the troops.

The plot to burn New York City was an attempt by the Confederate secret service to bring some of the destruction of the Civil War to the streets of Manhattan. It was part of a late in the war plan to infiltrate Confederate agents into northern cities and commit widespread arson. In the resulting confusion, it was hoped that southern sympathizers could seize control and bring the battlefield to the streets of America’s largest industrial centers.

After the election of 1864, conspirators set fires in 13 major hotels in Manhattan, as well as in public buildings such as theaters and one of the most popular attractions in the country, the American Museum run by Phineas T. Barnum. It was packed with lecture patrons. The fire was set in a stairwell. A panic ensued, with people rushing out of the building in a stampede. But no one was killed or seriously injured. The fire was quickly extinguished. In the hotels, the results were the same. The entire plot seemed to fail because of ineptitude, but had the plan included the gasworks, it may have burned the city down. The wider plot might have created a diversion to pull Union troops away from the front. That could have had an impact on the course of the war. As it was, the effort of the southern spy network was an odd sideshow worthy of PT Barnum himself.

New York newspapers were among the most racist in the country. Yet, in March of 1864, a crowd of over 10,000 proud New Yorkers watched in awe as 1,000 freshly-trained Union army troops left Rikers Island and marched west to the Hudson River. The soldiers were Black, part of a dream: that of a new society that would take place once the South was defeated and the country united. The 20th and the 26th Colored Regiments were part of the 180,000 Black soldiers and sailors who served the Union with fierce bravery. It is doubtful that the war could have been won without them.

Weeksville, Brooklyn with a population of over 500, was one of the largest free Black communities in pre-Civil War America. It was a space of self-reliance, resourcefulness, celebration, and liberation. Weeksville had its own churches, schools and businesses. It supported a home for the aged and an orphan asylum. It had its own cemetery and its own newspaper called The Freedman’s Torchlight.

Weeksville became a safe haven during the Civil War Draft riots of 1863, when angry mobs took over vast sections of Manhattan and searched out Black residents. They murdered hundreds over a series of days before city, state and federal troops were brought in to restore order.

Black Troops at Training Facility on Rikers Island
Presentation of the Colors: Colored troops, NYC
Edwin Booth as Hamlet

Sometimes New York’s contradictions were embodied in one family. Edwin Booth was the most talented actor of the three Booth brothers, world-eminent interpreters of the works of William Shakespeare. But the family name now lives not in fame, but in infamy. John Wilkes Booth, the younger brother of Edwin, assassinated President Lincoln in 1865 making Booth the most hated in the country. John Wilkes was a secessionist. Edwin supported the Union cause and was a New Yorker. For days after the assassination, he was afraid to leave his house in the Gramercy Park section of Manhattan. But a year later Edwin Booth made his return to the stage playing his signature role of Hamlet. A statue of him can still be seen through the gates of his beloved Gramercy Park neighborhood.

My Civil War series of novels, Seven Aprils, Mercies of the Fallen, and Ursula’s Inheritance all feature New York City and its many contradictions among their stories. Although not the site of any battles, New York City participated fully in our nation’s continuing struggle with itself.

Research Sources

City of Sedition, the History of New York City during the Civil War by John Strausbaugh

Good Brother, Bad Brother, The Story of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth, By James Cross Giblin

New York Times, “Weeksville, a Haven for Free African-Americans Before the Civil War, Is Fighting for Survival”—May 10, 2019

Eileen Charbonneau enjoys exploring the perspectives of those often left out of history: its women, its immigrants, its poor, its first peoples. Eileen has published historical fiction for adult as well for young readers.

Eileen’s young adult novels The Woods Family Trilogy (The Ghosts of Stony Clove, In the Time of the Wolves, and Honor To the Hills) were chosen as Best Book by the Children’s Book Council for Social Studies curriculum and NY Public Library system and  have won the Golden Medallion and were nominated for the Newbery.

Her Linda Tassel Mystery series is set in 1990s Georgia. The first is called Death at Little Mound.

The American Century Novel Series (The Randolph Legacy, Rachel LeMoyne. Waltzing in Ragtime).  have been finalists in Hearts of the West and Rita awards.

Eileen’s Code Talker Chronicles suspense series (I’ll Be Seeing You and Watch Over Me) have won a Chanticleer Award for Women’s fiction and been named a finalist in the Daphne du Maurier Award and Golden Leaf Award for Romantic Suspense.

The first of Eileen’s American Civil War Brides series Seven Aprils, won the grand prize Laramie Award. The second is Mercies of the Fallen, a Laramie and Chatalainefirst place winner. The third Ursula’s Inheritance

Eileen lives in the brave little state of Vermont. She runs a small historic house B and B with her husband Ed.  She adores him, her kids and sweet grandchild Desmond. Eileen also loves American roots music and dance, and maple creemies.


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