Civil Wars

The atmosphere in New York was still poisonous when Abraham Lincoln came to town two months later. Lincoln, having emerged as a serious contender for the 1860 Republican nomination, had attracted the attention of Horace Greeley and William Cullen Bryant, on the lookout for a candidate to block Seward. The Young Men’s Central Republican Union of New York City (a group run by such youngsters as Bryant and Greeley) originally intended to have him speak at Beecher’s Plymouth Church in Brooklyn but shifted the venue to the more overtly political Cooper Union in New York. Lincoln’s run through the celebrity production mill also included a stop at Mathew Brady’s studio for an official campaign portrait.

In his talk at Cooper Union Lincoln disavowed Brown, struck a conciliatory pose toward the South, and denied the Republican Party was a sectional organization. But he also remained adamant on the need to stop the expansion of slavery, emphasized there were overarching moral issues at the crux of the sectional confrontation, and displayed oratorical gifts—“Let us have faith that right makes might”—that thrilled his audience. By the time he boarded a train for New England, Lincoln had demonstrated that a western man had appeal in the East, a crucial step toward his triumph at the Chicago convention.

In the ensuing campaign, most Republicans wrote off New York City as a lost cause and indeed boasted of their antiurban animosity in a bid for rural support. Campaigning in the West, Seward reminded audiences that “there is no virtue in Pearl Street, in Wall Street.” Greeley’s Tribunesaid the “moneybags of Wall Street” feared Lincoln because the “rich Jews and other money lenders,” along with the “great dry goods and other commercial houses,” were in league with slaveholders.

Some Republican politicians did try to make headway in the metropolis itself. They argued that the West—finally recovered from the 1857-59 recession—might be a better market, and political partner, than the South. They emphasized Republican support for internal improvements and tariffs, positions that won over some industrialists.

Still, most leading businessmen worked for Lincoln’s defeat. The richest bankers and largest merchants forced contending Democratic candidates to fuse into a joint Union ticket, then promoted it vigorously. One group of dirty tricksters rigged a stock market panic, hoping to scare the country into thinking a Republican victory would create financial chaos. Anti-Lincoln editors escalated their racist rhetoric. The New York Daily News, edited by Fernando Wood’s brother, Benjamin, said that if Republicans won, “we shall find negroes among us thicker than blackberries swarming everywhere,” and Bennett warned workingmen that “if Lincoln is elected you will have to compete with the labor of four million emancipated negroes.”

On election day thousands of stores closed and hung out signs urging patrons to vote the Union (Democratic) ticket. Many businesses circularized their employees, saying that if Lincoln were elected “the South will withdraw its custom from us and you will get little work and bad prices.” New Yorkers gave the Union ticket a majority of thirty thousand and cast 62 percent of their votes for candidates other than Lincoln. The Republican Tribune blamed the showing on the “very general enlistment of the Mercantile and Capitalist classes in the Fusion cause.”

But once again, success in the city was negated by Republican landslides upstate, which in turn helped put Lincoln over the top nationwide. Southerners read the Republican triumph as undermining their ability to veto federal threats to their institutions. South Carolina moved toward secession.

In New York, on December 15, over two thousand panicky city merchants crowded into a Pine Street establishment to draft a resolution of conciliation and reassurance to southern leaders, stressing their racial solidarity: one merchant declared that “if ever a conflict arises between races, the people of the city of New York will stand by their brethren, the white race.” They vowed to defend slaveowner rights in the Union but declared that if southerners chose secession they should be allowed to depart in peace.


On the day before Christmas South Carolina swept out of the Union. Other Deep South states followed over the ensuing weeks. By early February the rebels had formed a government, the Confederate States of America.

One of the first rebel projects was to repudiate debts owed the North, with Manhattan’s businessmen the principal target. Southern nationalists remembered that New Yorkers, with their charges for credit, commodities, insurance, shipping, and storage, had creamed off forty cents of every dollar Europeans paid for southern cotton. As the Vicksburg Daily Whig put it, New York “sends out her long arms to the extreme South; and with avidity rarely equalled, grasps our gains and transfers them to herself—taxing us at every step and depleting us as extensively as possible without actually destroying us.” Now revenge was at hand. “What would New York be without slavery?” James Dunmore De Bow asked, and answered gleefully: “The ships would rot at her docks; grass would grow in Wall Street and Broadway, and the glory of New York, like that of Babylon and Rome, would be numbered with the things of the past.”

Southern secessionists, in calculating whether they could win a military test of strength with the North, factored in what they believed to be the inherent contradictions and structural weaknesses of capitalism. These included Wall Street’s financial instability—vividly witnessed in the 1857 panic—and the class and ethnic conflicts evident in New York City.

During the 1860 campaign, militant secessionist Edmund Ruffin concocted an eerily prescient fantasy he called Anticipations of the Future to Serve as Lessons for the Present Time. “When the Civil War began,” Ruffin’s narrator-in-the-future recalled, “loss of the lucrative southern trade caused massive unemployment in the industrial cities of the North.” The jobless organized vast demonstrations, which turned into riots. At first these were put down by police and militia, with heavy loss of life. But “with the northern forces suffering military defeat and the northern government floundering in financial difficulties, the number of unemployed rose and the price of food spiraled.” The city of New York “broke into open rebellion. Banks were broken open and their vaults robbed. Churches were looted. The avenues were filled with terrified refugees, struggling to escape the mob. . . . Drunk and gorged with plunder, the mob set the city on fire. A high wind whipped the flames into a hurricane of fire, and when morning came New York was a blackened, charred ruin.” In the end, riots in other towns forced the northern government to abandon its efforts to conquer the South.

Ruffin’s first predicted catastrophe arrived as if on cue. Triggered by the interruption of southern commerce, a panic struck New York City in 1861 that in some respects was more severe than that of 1857. Southern debts went unpaid, ruining northern creditors. Merchandise went unordered, and newspapers filled with ads from merchants frantically trying to sell goods originally destined for southern ports. Prices of commodities dropped steadily. Money dried up despite cooperative efforts by bankers to halt the panic. The Herald computed northern losses at $478 million. President Buchanan tried to reassure the city’s capitalists and bankers by appointing one of their own, John A. Dix, as secretary of the treasury. But the crisis worsened. Some, like the Rev. Henry Bellows, feared secession was triggering social breakdown, “driving our populace into panic for bread and violence toward capital and order.”

In early January two delegations—one Republican, one Democratic—left for Washington to plead for compromise with the South. Both efforts failed. At month’s end thirty metropolitan leaders tried again, clambering aboard a special train with a monster memorial signed by forty thousand New York businessmen. Despite a respectful hearing from Republican congressmen over supper at Willard’s Hotel, they made little impact. Indeed the Republicans soon introduced the Morrill tariff, which raised duties sharply, in some cases by 100 percent.

Some New Yorkers tried to use their financial muscle to force Republicans to compromise, saying they would otherwise refuse to buy the government’s loans. Enraged Republicans countered that if a few wealthy businessmen tried to negate the democratic will, the government would issue bonds directly to the people: Horace Greeley said money could “be raised without difficulty, and in spite of Wall Street.” The would-be capital strike collapsed.


At this juncture, on February 19, Abraham Lincoln, on his way to Washington to be inaugurated, made his second visit to New York City. He arrived at three P.M. on the Albany train at the Hudson River Railroad Company depot on 30th Street at Tenth Avenue. From here he was taken, in a procession of hackneys escorted by the Metropolitans, past crowds almost equal to the turnout for the prince of Wales, to Astor House, across from City Hall Park. Nearby buildings were thick with spectators. Barnum’s Museum across the way was bedecked with bright flags and banners. From the top of a Broadway omnibus gridlocked in traffic, Walt Whitman watched Lincoln step out on the sidewalk, stretch his arms and legs, and scan the crowd of thirty to forty thousand. There was, he remembered, “a sulky, unbroken silence. . . . I had, I say, a capital view of it all, and especially of Mr. Lincoln, his look and gait—his perfect composure and coolness—his unusual and uncouth height, his dress of complete black, stovepipe hat push’d back on the head, dark-brown complexion, seam’d and wrinkled yet canny-looking face, black, bushy head of hair, disproportionately long neck, and his hands held behind him as he stood observing the people. He look’d with curiosity upon that immense sea of faces, and the sea of faces return’d the look with similar curiosity.”

The next morning at eight o’clock, accompanied by Thurlow Weed and James Watson Webb, Lincoln was driven to the Fifth Avenue home of Moses Grinnell’s daughter, where he breakfasted with a hundred of the city’s most prosperous merchants. Present were the leading Republican proponents of compromise. Someone remarked to Lincoln on the number of assembled millionaires, pointedly underscoring the city’s financial clout. “Oh, indeed, is that so?” countered Lincoln deftly, underscoring his political muscle. “Well, that’s quite right. I’m a millionaire myself. I got a minority of a million in the votes last November.”

During the remainder of the day Lincoln made short remarks to Mayor Wood and the City Council before huge throngs at City Hall while his wife visited Barnum’s and received ladies at the Astor House. At night he took in an evening reception, an elaborate dinner, a performance of Verdi’s new Un hallo in maschera at the Academy of Music (to which he wore black kid gloves, a gaffe at which the press snickered next day), and a midnight serenade. The following day he left for Washington.

A week later anxious businessmen followed him there. William E. Dodge, industrialist and financier, explained that New Yorkers were nervous about the position he would take toward the South in his forthcoming inaugural and wanted to know “whether the grass shall grow in the streets of our commercial cities.” Lincoln responded pleasantly that “if it depends upon me, the grass will not grow anywhere except in the fields and meadows.” But when Dodge pressed him, asking if this meant he would yield to the just demands of the South, Lincoln replied grimly that the Constitution must be “respected, obeyed, enforced, and defended, let the grass grow where it may.”


Stymied by Lincoln’s intransigence, some New Yorkers argued that if the Union could not be preserved, the southern states should be allowed to depart in peace, and the city should follow them out the door.

Back in January Mayor Wood had proposed to the Common Council that if the Union dissolved, New York should consider declaring—in the words of the Dongan Charter—-that “New York be, and from henceforth forever hereafter shall be and remain, a free city of itself.” Wood considered the national Republican assault on southern institutions, and the state Republican dismantling of metropolitan home rule back in 1857, to be co-evil assaults on local self-government. A declaration of independence by Manhattanites would liberate them from the meddling and plundering of upstate Puritans and free them as well from federal-dictated tariffs. By making theirs a dutyfree port—apart from a nominal levy on imports that would cover the cost of local gov­ernment and allow the abolition of local taxes—New Yorkers would retain an “uninterrupted intercourse with every section,” including “our aggrieved brethren of the slave states,” and rise to new heights of prosperity.

While Wood’s idea was denounced publicly, it was debated privately in business circles. It had its appealing points. Some cited Hamburg, Lubec, Bremen, and Frankfurt as models. Rumors spread that some merchants were moving beyond contemplation to action. John Forsyth, a Confederate commissioner, wrote Confederate President Jefferson Davis that influential and wealthy men planned to seize the federal government’s Navy Yard, warships, and forts.

Nothing of the sort materialized. Most businessmen calculated that New York’s departure would simply trigger a further round of secessions, and the city would soon find itself cut off from West and South alike by tariff walls. Besides, the city hadn’t the material base to sustain independence. As Lincoln dryly remarked, it would be “some time before the front door sets up house-keeping on its own account.”

Wood’s fantasy died abruptly in March 1861 when the provisional government of the Confederacy announced its tariff policy. After April 1 duties on imports arriving via New Orleans, Charleston, or Savannah would be lowered to half the rates federal law required New York City to impose. It would soon be cheaper for St. Louis or Cincinnati to import European goods through southern ports. The certain result, wrote a horrified New York Times, would be that “we shall not only cease to see marble palaces rising along Broadway, but reduced from a national to a merely financial metropolis, our shipping will rot at the wharves, and grass will grow in the streets.” Worse still, the Confederacy abrogated federal coastal trading laws, thus expanding foreign access to southern ports, allowing the new nation (as the Charleston Mercury put it) to bypass the “New York money changers” and “trade directly with our customers.”

Faced with the specter of the South’s appending itself to the British Empire, the repudiation of millions in outstanding debts, and the disruption of trading and financial networks built up over a century, New York’s bourgeoisie, virtually overnight, opted for war.


At 4:30 A.M., before dawn on the morning of April 12, 1861, Edmund Ruffin pulled the lanyard on one of the shore batteries aimed at federal troops occupying Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. Twenty hours later and eight hundred miles to the north, Walt Whitman heard the report. At midnight, walking down Broadway after leaving a performance of Verdi’s A Masked Ball, he bought a paper from newsboys crying an extra and stopped to read the story under the gaslights outside the Metropolitan Hotel. Civil war had begun.

On Monday, April 15, Lincoln declared that an “insurrection” existed in the South and called on seventy-five thousand men to volunteer for three months to put it down. That very evening a group of “the largest capitalists and most influential citizens” (according to the Tribune) met on Pine Street and set up a committee to organize a gigantic mass meeting on Saturday, April 20. Throughout the week the business community’s various institutions—the Stock Exchange, the Board of Currency, the Clearing House and, on Friday, the Chamber of Commerce, in the largest assembly in its history—gathered to say farewell to conciliation. “We are either for the country or for its enemies,” proclaimed the Chamber’s president. The Seventh Regiment, composed of young merchants, bankers, professional men, and clerks, left its Tompkins Market armory and marched down Broadway to the Jersey City ferry and off to defend the city of Washington, at that point virtually cut off and wide open to Confederate attack.

On Saturday the twentieth, what was reputedly the largest assemblage ever seen on the continent—somewhere between 100,000 and 250,000 people—flooded into Union Square. (In the war years, Union Square would replace City Hall Park as the center of civic life.) It was, all agreed, “a red, white and blue wonder.” Five stands swathed in the official colors groaned with speakers (including Major Robert Anderson, the hero of Sumter). The new bronze statue of Washington was wrapped in the flag that had been fired upon at Sumter. And Broadway emporiums from Stewart’s (at Reade) to Lord and Taylor’s (at Grand) were similarly bedecked as the city’s trade and benefit societies marched behind bands and flags of their own. Virtually every workshop in the city sent a delegation to the rally.

The meeting (as banker John Austin Stevens recalled) had been planned and orchestrated toward having the populace entrust “the guidance of their action” to “the merchants of the city, the chief representatives of its wealth and influence.” As expected, those assembled ratified establishment of a Union Defense Committee (UDC), composed of thirteen Democratic and twelve Republican businessmen. These gentlemen set about launching the war effort.

On Sunday, April 21, Lincoln, impressed by the New Yorkers’ dispatch, surreptitiously ordered the transfer of two million federal dollars into UDC hands, with which to unofficially purchase arms, steamships, and supplies and to use in enlisting and dispatching troops to open the road to Washington. At the urging of none other than


The Great Union Meeting in Union Square, April 20, 1861. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

Mayor Wood, recent advocate of municipal secession, the Board of Aldermen authorized borrowing another million and a half from the Bank of New York and other financial institutions to pay for volunteers and for the relief of their families while they were away. Within a week the UDC started funneling this $3.5 million into chartering ships, procuring supplies, and forwarding troops to Annapolis in armed convoys via the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. New York was established as headquarters of the army’s Department of the East, and four military depots were set up to process recruits. By Tuesday, April 23, six regiments had been dispatched. The following weeks witnessed virtually continuous ceremonies honoring departing troops. Bowery photographers did a booming business printing thousands of pictures of new soldiers decked out in their “regimentals.” By the end of 1861 the UDC had placed sixty-six New York regiments in the field and aided almost twelve thousand volunteers’ dependents.


The German community was aflame with war fever. A huge meeting at Steuben House on the Bowery had already established enlistment stations all through Kleindeutschland. Three-fourths of the New York Socialistischen Turnverein signed up, forming an all-Turner outfit, and many other units—such as the Seventh Volunteer Regiment (Steuben Guard) and Colonel Louis Blenker’s German Rifles—were also manned by veterans of the 1848 Continental wars. Blenker’s Regiment received a regimental flag at City Hall from Mrs. August Belmont, feasted at the Bowery’s Atlantic Garden on sausage, dark bread, and beer, then set off to war.

Hungarians and Swiss flocked to join George D’Utassy’s First Foreign Rifles, which swiftly merged with the Italian Legion formed by Alexander Repetti (who had served under Giuseppe Garibaldi in the Italian reunification struggle of 1848-49). The merged unit—the Garibaldi Guard—followed European practice and equipped wives of members as vivandieres. Dressed in red flannel basques and blue skirts, it was their job to lead troops in dress parade and sometimes into battle, as well as to serve as nurses, cooks, laundresses, soldiers’ confidantes, and matrons of the company in camp. Several young working women from Jersey City ran away from home to serve, marrying men on the spot in order to sail with the Garibaldians. Escorted to the dock and off to war by the Teutonic and Germania societies, they would later be followed by the DeKalb Regiment, composed entirely of German clerks, and by the Polish Legion.

No group surpassed the Irish in enthusiasm. The Sixty-ninth, which had refused to honor the prince of Wales, voted unanimously to enlist under Michael Corcoran. Within days, an additional sixty-five hundred were pleading to serve under the Donegal-born Fenian leader. On April 23 the regiment was blessed by Archbishop Hughes at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and marched off to the ferry. After their ninety-day service was up, which included honorable duty at First Bull Run, they returned to the Battery on July 27 for an uproarious welcome from Irish fire companies, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Sons of Erin, and bands blaring “The Cruiskeen Lawn” and “St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning.” Most reenlisted immediately and inspired yet another wave of Irish to join up.

Corcoran himself, wounded and captured at First Bull Run, didn’t make it back to New York until August 1862, when Lincoln got him exchanged. In his absence Thomas Francis Meagher organized an Irish Brigade. Meagher had been a leader of the Young Ireland agitation of the 1840s. Exiled to Tasmania, he escaped to New York, where he


The Irish Sixty-ninth Regiment departing for the war, April 23, 1861. Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, facing Mott Street, is at the right. Hibernian Hall, “the Irish Headquarters,” is the two-story building with dormer windows on Prince Street in the left center. The large building with two wings on the left is the St. Patrick’s School, run by the Sisters of Charity. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

set up a law practice and led anti-British agitation among the immigrants. Now Meagher recruited thousands into the brigade’s three regiments; Irish women sewed it flags and banners; Daniel Devlin furnished its uniforms free of charge; and the troops departed in late 1861.

When Corcoran returned from Confederate prison to a triumphal welcome in 1862—the kitchen help for miles around flooded to the streets to welcome their hero, noted young Joseph Choate, partner in a Wall Street law firm—he promptly organized yet another four new regiments into an Irish Legion. Corcoran would command its four thousand members—who received an en masse outdoor blessing from Archbishop Hughes—as a brigadier general until his death in 1863.

For many Irish, joining up had political overtones. Patriotic participation, some hoped, would forever silence nativist charges that Hibernian Catholics were unworthy of citizenship. Recruiting posters also emphasized that the war was a blow against England, natural ally of the Confederate “cotton lords.” Many noted, too, that Union army training would serve them well in Ireland’s coming war of liberation. For others, volunteering was part lark and part escape from hard times. It was impossible to get work in the panic spring and summer of 1861, and many followed suggestions in the Herald to sign up for the soldier’s pay of thirteen dollars a month. These companies, extremely rambunctious, constantly tested the limits of military authority.

Billy Wilson’s Boys, the Sixth Regiment, were a case in point. Wilson, an expugilist and ex-alderman, recruited his volunteers at a dogfighting and ratbaiting house in White Street. His pugnacious men, armed with slung-shots and seven-inch knives, envisioned the war as an adventurous brawl-writ-large. In their camp on Staten Island, they trained by scrapping with other regiments, plundering the neighborhood, and drinking prodigiously.

Equally notorious were the men of the Eleventh Regiment (the Fire Zouaves). Composed largely of volunteer fire laddies, the unit was commanded by Ephraim Elmer Ellsworth, the man who popularized the uniform of the Franco-Algerian Zouaves: red billowing trousers, loose tunics, sashes, and turbans. These b’hoys went boisterously off to war and, on arriving in Washington, promptly broke into taverns, ordered meals, and charged them to Jeff Davis. They redeemed themselves in Washingtonian eyes, however, when a building next to Willard’s Hotel caught fire. Ellsworth’s men, quartered nearby in a wing of the Capitol, leapt out the windows, broke into the engine houses, and reached the spot before the city’s firemen were even awakened, saving the whole structure. More to the point, they fought well at Bull Run, though after the rout hundreds melted away and returned to New York, denouncing their officers who had fled the scene of battle. The regiment was reorganized, and though it remained refractory and brawled repeatedly, in the end it returned to the fray.

African-American troops were conspicuously absent from that fray, though not for lack of trying. Back in May, black New Yorkers had started drilling on their own in a privately hired hall. Chief of Police Kennedy warned them that “they must desist from these military exercises, or he could not protect them from popular indignation and assault.” In July the community tried again. Three regiments of black soldiers were offered to Governor Morgan for the duration of the war. The black population of the state guaranteed their arms, clothing, equipment, pay, and provisions. The governor declined.

Overall, however, the outpouring of metropolitan manpower and firepower was tremendous. Walt Whitman was ecstatic. In a new poem (Beat! Beat! Drums!) that he read aloud at Pfaff’s in September, Whitman claimed that the “torrents of men” he’d seen marching off that summer represented “DEMOCRACY” in all its primal energy: “I have witness’d my cities electric; I have lived to behold man burst forth, and warlike America rise.”


The South was furious at its former ally. A Richmond Dispatch editorial entitled “Execrable New York” proclaimed it the inferior of “Sodom, to which, on account of its horrible profligacy of morals, it has often been likened,” because Sodom, unlike New York, had had at least one principled man “amid an unclean and accursed generation.” The Charleston Courier—railing at “the treacherous cowardice and hypocrisy of [its] merchants and Mammon-worshippers”—declared that “the interests of Christianity, civilization, humanity, and intelligent self-government, require that New York, the metropolis of shoulder-hitters, prize-fighters, blackguards and mercantile gamblers should be blotted from the list of cities.”

For a time it looked as if the Courier would get its wish. Southern crowds menaced the offices of northern firms until their occupants packed up and returned home. The Confederacy prohibited the payment of debts to northerners. Even merchants who refused to repudiate announced a suspension of remittances until the war’s end. By July trade had virtually ceased.1

Severed from its southern connection, New York’s manufacturing economy crashed, too. The East River shipyards and ironworks came to a standstill. Boot and shoe production was drastically curtailed. Half the two thousand workers in the carriagemaking trade, heavily dependent on southern slaveocrat orders, were laid off. The dry-goods business was prostrated—the hoop skirt trade had sent 75 percent of its product to southern belles—and by summer one-fourth of the jobbers in Manhattan had gone under. Even the ice industry was crippled by lack of orders from the South.

With thirty thousand idled, droves of workingmen requested commitment to the workhouse. The superintendent of the outdoor poor got ten thousand applications for coal. Hundreds of homeless sought shelter in police stations. In July two thousand German workers demanded municipal public works programs. It looked like 1857 had come round again.

By fall, however, war had resurrected and reoriented the economy. Wheat began surging into the city. In 1860 and 1861 European (and particularly British) crops failed, while at the same time, the American West produced bumper harvests and great quantities of livestock. With the Mississippi closed by war—paddle wheels on sixteen hundred steamboats had stopped turning—westerners shifted from rivers to railways. Freight tonnage and passenger usage expanded rapidly on established East-West lines like the Pennsylvania, the Erie, and the New York Central. Demand spurred the strengthening of old lines—the Hudson River Railroad spanned the Hudson at Albany with a revolutionary two-thousand-foot long iron bridge—and induced construction of new ones. British capital and fifteen thousand British laborers and engineers were dispatched from Europe to lay tracks for the Atlantic and Great Western. It ran from Cincinnati through the newly discovered and already booming oil fields of Pennsylvania, and on to Salamanca in western New York, where it connected with and revivified the half-defunct Erie, cutting Cincinnati-New York travel time to less than a week. Looking ahead to still grander vistas, New Yorkers, including Dix, Dodge, and A. A. Low (now president of the Chamber of Commerce), assumed key roles in the federal government’s 1862 incorporation of the Union Pacific, which they planned to run to the eastern border of California. Together with the flood of waterborne traffic—Great Lakes and Erie Canal tonnage was still twice that of the New York Central and Erie combined—the new routing finished off New Orleans as a contender for leading export center. Atlantic seaboard competitors fell even farther behind: while exports of wheat, wheat flour, and corn from New York City mounted from nine million bushels annually to fifty-seven million, Philadelphia limped along with a mere five million, Boston with but two.

The amber waves of grain that rolled into the harbor flowed right out again to European ports. To speed the wheat on its way, merchants at Brooklyn’s Atlantic Dock deployed the first floating elevators. These could remove, weigh, bag, and reload grain from canal boats onto steamers at the rate of five thousand bushels per hour. Hundreds

of Irish grain shovelers were fired; the company boasted that thousands more would go. In July 1862 two thousand shovelers, organized by the Grain Workers Protective Association, joined three thousand longshoremen and stevedores in a strike to demand the machines be abandoned. The grain merchants used scabs from ships’ crews around the harbor to break the strike, something the grain workers would remember.

The West shipped cattle along with wheat. By the summer of 1862, Illinois alone was forwarding two thousand head a week. The city was overrun with cows being driven through the streets to more than two hundred uptown slaughterhouses. By 1864 over two million beasts were being butchered annually in New York (more than in Chicago) and the air reeked from boiling bones and rendering fat. Lumber came rolling in too, more than enough to sustain Brooklyn’s building boom. Sugar poured in, enough to warrant the opening of six new refineries during the war. The Havemeyer family rose to prominence as the sugar business became one of the city’s largest industries. Oil gushed in. Within a scant few years of the 1859 discovery of black gold in Titusville, millions of barrels were flowing out of northwestern Pennsylvania to the nation’s two hundred new oil refineries. Twenty-five of these still-small (ten-man) operations were in the metropolitan area, notably in Williamsburg and Greenpoint along the East River and Newtown Creek, where they produced “kerosene,” the cheapest illuminant ever known. By 1863 almost half a million barrels of petroleum product were being exported from New York.

Shipbuilding, like almost every other city industry, was stoked by war contracts. As early as August 1861 the Tribune noted that local yards were busy producing a new gunboat fleet for the navy, refitting old steamers and merchantmen for war, and meeting businessmen’s demand for vessels to handle the exploding coastal, lake, and river trade. “Recently so idle and empty, [they] once more resound with the cheery hum of labor and the new music of the adze and anvil.” Soon four thousand men were at work in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard alone.

Skilled machinists were in great demand to develop and repair naval machinery. By 1863 the great ironworks—Neptune, Fulton, Morgan, Novelty, Continental, Allaire, Delamater, and McLeod—were turning out vertical and horizontal engines, boilers, furnaces, plates, and anchors. At the Novelty works twelve hundred men were kept busy refitting the Roanoke with a thousand tons of armor and three revolving turrets for fifteen-inch guns, while simultaneously making a beam engine for a Pacific mail steamship and machinery for three side wheel steamers.

The maritime engineering triumph of the war years came at Thomas F. Rowland’s huge Continental Iron Works along the Greenpoint waterfront at Calyer and West streets. In 1861, while most of its fifteen hundred hands were producing gun carriages and mortar beds for the Navy, the company began work on a design by Swedish engineer John Ericsson for an ironclad warship. Ironclads were an old idea. The United States had flirted with them during the Mexican War, and French success with them in the Crimean War (1854-56) had led the English and French navies to pour millions into their construction. The Monitor, launched at Greenpoint on January 30, 1862, was also a success: it fought the Confederate’s Merrimac to a standoff on March 9 and generated a host of additional government contracts for Continental.

Underwritten by federal dollars and protected by federal tariffs, New York manufacturers of every description expanded rapidly. Cooper, Hewitt turned out gun car­riages and gun-barrel iron; Phelps, Dodge, and Company churned out iron forgings and castings; the Hendricks Brothers Copper Rolling Mills worked at full capacity throughout the war. Conrad Poppenhusen’s Enterprise Rubber Works in College Point flourished on orders for hard rubber flasks, cups, and buttons. City carriagemakers produced hundreds of ambulances and baggage wagons for the Quartermaster General’s Department. War galvanized Brooklyn’s fledgling pharmaceutical industry too. Edward Robinson Squibb, a former navy doctor, manufactured drugs (including ether) for the military, first in rented quarters on Furman Street, then in additional buildings on Columbia and Vine streets in order to handle the bulk orders of bandages, splints, and panniers (baskets of medicines and surgical instruments). Charles Pfizer, who had immigrated hi 1848 and established a chemical manufacturing plant in Williamsburg on Bartlett Street, similarly expanded to meet wartime demand.

War orders and the tariff on foreign ready-mades boomed the clothing trades too. A. T. Stewart’s army and navy contracts netted him nearly two million dollars annually during the conflict, and Brooks Brothers received its first contract from the New York State Military Board—for twelve thousand uniforms—as early as April 1861. Brooks Brothers also pioneered the use of “shoddy” when, discovering it lacked enough suitable cloth, it resorted to using shredded rags that were rolled, glued, and smoothed into ersatz cloth. When artisan tailors alerted government officials to the fact that the contractor was “fitting out soldiers with suits of clothing that disgraced the State” while paying a “grinding standard of wages,” the firm replaced the inferior goods. However, many of those who snared subsequent contracts were speculators who had influence and connections, but no experience in the business. After taking a hefty cut of the appropriated funds, they subcontracted the work to jobbers who, to extract their own profit, jammed wages down, demanded blistering rates of production from artisans and female outworkers, and scrimped on materials. This became apparent when shoddy uniforms fell to pieces in the rain, leaving soldiers almost naked. The army also marched on shoddy shoes. Even the New York Chamber of Commerce later admitted that local contractors had sold the government great numbers of boots whose soles, made of pine chips pasted over with thin leather, dropped off after a half-hour’s hike. Contractors also supplied rotten blankets, tainted pork, glued knapsacks that came apart in rain, and even shoddy horses: stables on 24th Street—in collusion with inspectors—fobbed off partially blind nags on the cavalry at premium prices.

War boosted the communications industry. New technology allowed newspapers to bring the fighting vividly before the literate public, and as Sabbatarian reservations crumpled, special Sunday editions offered detailed recounting of battles. The press reached the illiterate as well: the dailies, and especially Harper’s Weekly, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, and the New York Illustrated News, carried Currier and Ives etchings or sketches by artists that graphically portrayed battlefields, soldiers, and hospitals. The soldiers themselves were mass consumers, and it was rumored that during the battie of Antietam newsboys hawked the latest extras to the troops.

The war did deal a severe blow to one sector of the city’s economy. New York’s merchant marine—badly buffeted in 1857 and 1858—was finished off by Confederate cruisers. After 284 captures by southern privateers (sixty-four by the dreaded Alabama alone) and the inevitable hike in insurance rates, most American and overseas traders had transferred to foreign flags. The total value of goods carried in U.S. vessels sank from $507 million in 1860 to $185 million in 1864. By war’s end three-fourths of the commerce in New York’s harbor was carried by foreign lines, and most of the steamship lines that serviced the city were heavily subsidized British and German firms.

Overall, however, the war forged powerful new bonds between metropolitan manufacturing and the national state—neatly symbolized by the Bronx-built Capitol dome set in place in 1863—which wrought a revolution in productivity. The industrial output of New York City almost outpaced that of the entire Confederacy.


By July 1861 the Union was nearly broke. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase had two million dollars on hand to meet federal needs he estimated at $320 million. He turned to the banks. In August, after a week-long conference in Manhattan, a consortium of financiers from New York, Boston, and Philadelphia—headed by Moses Taylor of City Bank and James Gallatin of National Bank—agreed to lend the government $150 million. Charging a 7.3 percent rate of interest, compared to the 5 to 6 percent they got from railroad companies, the consortium began with a first installment of $50 million, of which New York’s share was $29.5 million, apportioned among thirty-nine of the city’s fifty banks. Secretary Chase took the loan in gold (the government was, by law, not allowed to accept bank deposits). This quickly depleted the banks’ reserves, especially given the hoarding of gold that had commenced with the war. By December 30, 1861, the New York banks had ceased making specie payments, and bankruptcy was at hand.

So Congress authorized the treasury to print money. In February 1862 the government began issuing legal tender “greenbacks,” and by March 1863 it had authorized $450 million worth. The arrival of the nation’s first uniform currency did not stop state banks from continuing to print a bewildering array of notes, which also served as money, so to regularize the currency, Congress reorganized the entire banking system in February 1863. The law created the new status of “national bank”—chartered directly by the federal government and required to obey certain rules and regulations. Many state-chartered banks, particularly in New York and other eastern cities, were hostile to the new system, as the inducements didn’t seem to warrant accepting federal regulation. Finally, in 1865, they were bludgeoned into acquiescence by the imposition of a stiff tax on state bank notes. For all their grumbling, Manhattan bankers soon found the new national system, which quickly came to center in the metropolis, to be highly lucrative.

To raise money to pay the interest on its bonds and back its greenbacks, the Republican administration instituted taxes on manufactured products and on professional and business activities and initiated a 3 percent levy on incomes over eight hundred dollars. When these revenues failed to bring in enough funds, the government decided to borrow from the general public. Secretary Chase appointed Philadelphia financier Jay Cooke as the nation’s investment banker. He organized a syndicate of the ablest investment houses in several cities (Livermore, Clews, and Company was the New York choice), and this group in turn hired twenty-five hundred subagents who hawked the treasury’s “five-twenties” in almost every town and village. For a time Cooke’s bond drive, which brought in a million dollars a day, proved sufficient. During the war’s last grueling years, however, expenditures soared to over $3.73 million a day, and the government was again forced to rely heavily on New York financial houses to sell bonds and negotiate loans.

The Civil War gave the city’s bondholders and bankers—as it had local manufacturers—a tremendous stake in the fortunes of the federal government. By 1863 the Chamber of Commerce added to its list of reasons for putting down the rebellion the “vast pecuniary obligation” the war itself had created, noting Union defeat would put “in jeopardy one thousand millions or more of public debt.” Command of the fiscal sinews of war in turn would give the northern commercial classes, especially the Manhattan bourgeoisie, ever greater influence over affairs of state.

The flood of government greenbacks and the large issue of short-term interestbearing notes made money abundant, facilitated the war boom, and ignited the financial exchanges. The stock market fluctuated wildly with the military situation. When McClellan landed his army on the peninsula, stocks rose; the first reverses brought them down; they rose with the fall of New Orleans; they dropped with defeats on the Chickahominy. Yet through all the gyrations—which afforded fertile field for speculators—the direction of the market was unmistakably up. In the space of two years, the overall value of stocks on the New York market increased by two hundred million dollars.

Merchants, dowagers, and clergymen accordingly flocked to Wall Street. In January 1862 the Tribune’s financial editor wrote that “the excitement in stock circles today we have never seen equalled in our very long experience of the street. . . . The intense desire to buy almost any kind of securities amounted almost to insanity. . . . The oldest members of the Board cannot remember such a day of rampant speculation.” The bull market was further fueled by margin buying. Stock buyers could put up as little as 10 percent (at times even 3 percent) of the purchase price in cash. Banks were only too willing to lend the rest at up to 10 percent interest. Stockbrokers were delirious: by 1863 they were averaging three thousand dollars a week in commissions.

One beneficiary of the war boom was the New York Stock Exchange, which received a permanent home after flitting for years from stables to attics along Wall, Hanover, William and Beaver streets. In 1863 a group of brokerage firms incorporated a building company, hired architect John Kellum to design a Tuscan palazzo-style structure, bought a site for it two blocks west from where the Exchange had started back in 1792, purchased iron and stone from the Cornell Works and the East Chester Marble Company, and had the building finished a few months after Appomattox.


In March of 1863 William Dodge wrote a friend in England: “Things here at the North are in a great state of prosperity. You can have no idea of it. The large amount expended by the government has given activity to everything and but for the daily news from the War in the papers and the crowds of soldiers you see about the streets you would have no idea of any war. Our streets are crowded, hotels full, the railroads, and manufacturers of all kinds except cotton were never doing so well and business generally is active.”

New York’s upper classes made money in quantities never before seen or even imagined. In 1863 the upper 1 percent of income earners (sixteen hundred families) garnered about 61 percent of the city’s wealth. And where in 1860 there had been a few dozen millionaires in the city, by war’s end there would be several hundred, some of them worth over twenty millions.

In celebration of their expanded or newly minted fortunes, the rich went on a shopping binge. After striking successful deals at the Astor House, speculators decked out in velvet coats, gold chains, breast pins, and rings dined at Delmonico’s on partridge stuffed with truffles. The “shoddy aristocracy” paraded down Fifth Avenue on Sundays or trotted around the new Central Park in their shiny equipages wearing thousand-dollar camel’s hair shawls. Contractor parvenus gloried in liveried servants and imported luxuries. In 1862 the genteel Maria Daly was horrified to hear that “a saddler’s wife went to Tiffany and Young’s . .. and ordered the greatest quantity of pearls and diamonds and plate.”

Among the most prodigious shoppers was Mary Lincoln. When Congress appropriated twenty thousand dollars for her to redecorate the White House, she hastened to New York City’s department stores, overspent her budget, then pleaded with bureaucrats to make up the difference without telling her husband. Throughout the war she went on repeated and increasingly pathological spending sprees in the metropolis. Mrs. Lincoln was driven by personal demons, but in milder form, her ardent consumerism became commonplace.

The grand symbol of the wartime boom was A. T. Stewart’s “New Store.” Abandoning his Marble Palace on Broadway and Chambers, Stewart had architect John Kellum design a structure farther uptown on a plot bounded by Broadway and Fourth Avenue, 9th and 10th streets, just across Astor Place from Cooper Union. The New Store was of cast iron (produced at the Hudson shoreline by the Cornell Iron Works). Painted white, the building rose five stories around a great rotunda. Its graceful molded arches in the Venetian manner—Stewart compared them to “puffs of white clouds”—also permitted rows upon rows of windows, and the building featured two thousand panes of French plate glass.

Stewart put no displays in the ground-floor windows, relying instead on views of the shoppers within to draw additional customers. On opening day, November 10, 1862, crowds entering the largest retail store in the world found countless orderly displays, laid out with “military precision,” Harper’s Monthly noted approvingly, and an army of five hundred clerks and cash boys (who ran back and forth between cashier and clerk) waiting to serve them. On the first floor customers could purchase silks, dress goods, men’s furnishings, linens, and domestics’ clothing. Here the wealthy could buy outfits for balls (like the glittering 1863 reception for officers of the Russian fleet at the Academy of Music) or for the summer season. Though the prices tended to the staggering, the less well heeled could find bargains at the calico and remnant counters.

The upper floors were devoted to production, not consumption. On the fourth, 500 seamstresses and dressmakers labored in well-lit, well-ventilated workrooms considered the finest in the city, though annual wages ranged only from $100 to $250. The fifth floor was given over to a linen service that employed another three hundred women. The store thus had nearly a thousand employees, neatly segregated by gender—eight hundred women or girls on the production side, a hundred supers, cashiers, bookkeepers, ushers, porters, clerks, and cash boys on the consumption end—though as the war generated a male labor shortage, women entered the sales force for the first time. In some ways the cast-iron palace, the largest worksite under one roof in the city, resembled a gigantic factory. Reviewers noted the clerks were placed on a strict regimen during their twelve-hour days and that Stewart treated his “employees as cogs in the complicated machinery of his establishment. . . . The men are numbered and timed.” All the latest technology was deployed: steam engines heated all the floors, pumped water to the laundry, and powered the sewing machines in the carpet-manufacturing department. At night the building was brilliantly illuminated by gaslight chandeliers.

In summer many New Yorkers traveled north to Saratoga on Daniel Drew’s sumptuous new steamboats. There the women arranged fancy dress balls while the men indulged in liquor, races, and gambling at establishments created by John Morrissey, the Democratic politico, boxer, casino operator, and now turfman.

In fall, back in the city, the great hotels were glittering and crammed. Hundreds of contented Republican males packed the Astor House’s smoke-filled, gas-lit Rotunda Bar each evening, to banter and drink tap-beer and eat roasted meat before heading out for evening expeditions. Pleasure seekers might take in the theater, the city’s flourishing bawdy houses, or an opera at the Academy of Music. After 1862, they could dine at Lorenzo Delmonico’s latest and most luxurious restaurant, in the converted Moses Grinnell mansion at Fifth and 14th, one block west of Union Square.

For the ladies, there were days at the milliner’s or department stores. Wartime fashion ran to carriage cloaks of moire or amber velvet, to sable or mink furs, and to gowns of organdy, grenadine, and brocade silks in deep and brilliant magenta, gold, or fuchsia. Hoop skirts blocked traffic, which is why Mme. Demorest’s Imperial “dress-elevator” was immensely popular: its weighted strings allowed women to raise or lower their skirts at will, thus clearing New York’s mud and slush.

Even charitable occasions could be turned into festivals of consumption. In April 1864 the U.S. Sanitary Commission held a Metropolitan Sanitary Fair to raise money for its activities. Organized by the wives of leading businessmen, it was held in two buildings erected at Union Square (with interior decoration by the young architect Richard Morris Hunt). For three weeks, an estimated ten to thirty thousand daily shoppers thronged the stalls, raising $1,365,000.

The extravagance did provoke some opposition. A Harper’s 1864 article called “The Fortunes of War” denounced the “suddenly enriched contractors, speculators, and stock-jobbers” who were “spending money with a profusion never before witnessed in our country, at no time remarkable for its frugality.” The magazine rebuked those who used gold and silver dust to powder their hair and noted caustically that the price of a dinner at Delmonico’s or Maison Doree could “support a soldier and his family for a good portion of the year.” At a May 1864 Cooper Union meeting called by the Women’s Patriotic Association for Diminishing the Use of Luxuries, various speakers denounced the purchase of foreign superfluities while young men were dying on the Potomac, and all assembled pledged to reject imported luxuries. But the campaign was a flop: many promoted republican simplicity, but few were prepared to practice it.


Reformers—environmentalists and moralists alike—saw the great contest as an opportunity to educate the United States into a grander understanding of nationhood. In New York City they had fought to promote the public welfare. Now the war would allow them to apply, on a continental scale, ideas and programs they had developed while fighting metropolitan poverty and squalor.

The object of their reform efforts was the Union Army. Armies, they believed, were like cities: in both, vast numbers of men, mostly undisciplined workers, were packed into small deprived environments, which threatened their health, morals and lives. The organizational instrument they established to reform military life was a commission in many ways analogous to the commissions Republicans had established in the late 1850s to reform New York City.

The genesis of the U.S. Sanitary Commission lay in the response of northern women to the outbreak of war. By 1861 thousands of ladies, exhorted by women’s magazines, had gathered at one another’s homes or in churches to make bandages for the troops. Upper-class ladies worked for the Seventh Regiment at George Templeton Strong’s, and Henry Ward Beecher’s church kept a dozen sewing machines going. In addition, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, seeing the need for nurses, began giving two-month training courses in her infirmary, and at Bellevue or New York Hospital, then sending volunteers on to Washington.

Soon, several elite women decided these efforts needed coordination. Dr. Blackwell joined with Mrs. William Cullen Bryant, Mrs. Peter Cooper, and “Ninety-Two of the Most Respected Ladies” in calling for an oversight organization. On April 26 four thousand women gathered at the Cooper Union to form the Women’s Central Association of Relief for the Sick and Wounded of the Army. The twenty-four-year-old Louisa Lee Schuyler, a member of the Rev. Henry Bellows’s fashionable All Souls Unitarian Church on Gramercy Park, became the key organizer.

They soon found that federal administrators paid women little heed, so they turned to Bellows, Strong, and some prominent male physicians for assistance in gaining official approval and establishing a working relationship with military authorities. These men prepared a report for Lincoln that adopted an expert, “scientific” approach. Analyzing data generated by the British and French Commissions of the Crimean War, they observed that during that conflict (1854-56) an estimated 22 percent of British war deaths (30 percent for the French) had stemmed from possibly preventable disease.

In June, Stanton and Lincoln authorized establishment of the Sanitary Commission as a semiofficial agency to take charge of the health and welfare needs of the army. The organizers established a committee of associates, composed mainly of Republican bankers and merchants, to help solicit funds. The initial stake came from life insurance companies; many communities had taken out policies for local volunteers, so the firms stood to benefit from decreases in soldier mortality.

Their next move was to establish the predominance of their male, professional, and highly centralized staff over the volunteer women already organized in benevolent associations in most of the cities and small towns of the north. By 1863 the Sanitary Commission had become the mediator between these women’s groups and the military, circulating information on hospital and army supply requirements to thousands of local Soldiers Aid societies. The commission also investigated troop, camp, and hospital conditions and established an elaborate battlefield relief system, introducing reform methods into the government bureaucracy.

The sanitary commissioners proved extremely effective. They also made a lot of enemies by their insistence that discipline and subordination should be imposed on unruly armies, as on unruly cities. They thought Lincoln’s pardoning of condemned deserters smacked of just the kind of fuzzy-minded and indiscriminate charity they had battled in New York. Female volunteers, in turn, resented the male commissioners’ domination of the one public arena, charity, in which women had established some authority and objected to the commission’s use of agents who were paid fifteen hundred to four thousand dollars annually when soldiers were getting $156. Nor did the commis­sion members’ wealth, professionalism, Republicanism, or residence in New York City endear them to the mass of the volunteers.

Many switched their support to another Manhattan operation, the U.S. Christian Commission, founded November 16, 1861, by the YMCA. Its leadership was an interlocking directorate of the American Bible Society, the American Tract Society, and the Sunday school and temperance movements, with its New York Committee chaired by the indefatigable William Dodge. The Christian Commission’s concern was the “Spiritual Good of the Soldiers.” Its methods too grew out of approaches to the urban poor long since worked out by tract societies and missionaries. Pious and devoted volunteers—1,375 of them—distributed religious literature and medical supplies directly to the wounded men in the hospitals, rather than, like the Sanitary Commission, to doctors for distribution as they saw fit.


Meanwhile, New York’s working classes were experiencing the world’s first modern war in all its horror. What had seemed at first a lark or a living became a ghastly death trap. Between April and November 1862—at Shiloh, Seven Days, Second Bull Run, Antietam—tens of thousands were killed or maimed. In December came the disaster at Fredericksburg when the blundering General Ambrose Burnside led the Army of the Potomac in a suicidal charge against Confederate entrenchments. The Fifty-first New York Volunteers were ordered to advance over a narrow plain so well covered, said a southern gunner, that “a chicken could not live in that field when we open on it.”

Among the ninety-six hundred Union wounded at Fredericksburg (though luckily not among the 1,284 who died there) was Walt Whitman’s brother George. Walt hurried from Brooklyn to Virginia. On arriving, the author of Beat! Beat! Drums! had his first direct encounter with war: an immense heap of amputated arms and legs (“cut, bloody, black and blue, swelled and sickening”). Whitman would stay on for the next three years as a volunteer worker, make six hundred visits to hospitals, comfort soldiers, and record images of a war that resembled nothing so much as the cattle pens of New York City: “a great slaughter-house & the men mutually butchering each other”; a “butchers’ shambles” replete with “groans and screams” and the “odor of blood.”

As city soldiers were shot to pieces—the Irish Brigade and the Garibaldi Guard virtually ceased to exist by 1863—the bright marching songs gave way to mournful ballads. Around the campfires survivors sang sentimental songs of home: “Shall I Never See My Mother,” “It Was My Mother’s Voice,” “Mother, I’ll Come Home Tonight.” The sheet music sales of “Weeping, Sad and Lonely; or, When This Cruel War Is Over” (published in 1863 by Sawyer and Thompson of Brooklyn) reached nearly a million.

Word of the dreadful course of events quickly got back to the northern metropolis a thousand miles or more behind the lines. Newspaper reports and pictures finished off the “picnic” image of the early days of the war as the press routinely printed catalogs of death and disfiguration (“Thomas Mcguire, Co. A, leg amp”; “M. Riley, Co. C, groin”; “H. Mcilainy, Co. I, forehead, severe”). Still more direct testimony was furnished by the thousands of hobbling wounded on the city’s streets, the incessant funeral processions, and the many deserters who had fled the wanton waste of life for the anonymity of the big city, rather than return to their small hometowns, where certain arrest awaited them. The city’s hospitals, moreover, were jammed with wounded soldiers, notably Belle­vue—whose Dr. Stephen Smith produced the pocket text A Handbook of Operative Surgery, which became a standby in Union field hospitals—and the special military hospital set up in Central Park at the former Mount St. Vincent, where nursing duties were given over to the Sisters of Charity.

All these sources made abundantly clear that at the front, pay was not only low but late (and arrears of up to a year were disastrous to those with families dependent on them); that soldiers were gouged by the sutlers who sold them tobacco, ink, stamps; and that nativist bigots ruled some of the camps. Army General Orders required attendance at religious services of the commander’s choice (despite Archbishop Hughes’s plea that soldiers be free to attend or not). The tendency of Republican officers to use their rank to impose their views was particularly objectionable at a time when the southern press dwelt on the foreign character of the northern armies (calling the Germans Huns and the Irish barbarians) and debated whether to grant such savages prisoner-of-war status or simply to hang them outright when captured.

Word also got back to New York that if officers weren’t bigoted, they were incompetent. Whitman was not alone in believing that many of the deaths were unnecessary: he called Burnside’s Fredericksburg operations “the most complete piece of mismanagement perhaps ever yet known in the earth’s wars.” The root of the problem, it seemed clear, was that most of those who raised, and therefore led, the volunteer regiments early in the war were not military professionals (who remained segregated in the regular army) but wealthy businessmen, socially prominent gentlemen, or successful politicians. Their only qualifications were their connections to the state governors who commissioned colonels and brigadiers. Many proved corrupt as well as incompetent, extorting money by making up fraudulent payrolls, forcing their men to answer to fake names, and pocketing their pay.

As word got back, enthusiasm for enlistment fell. The recruiting tent in City Hall Park was shut down for lack of business. And the federal government, faced with similar manpower problems throughout the North, began to explore the possibility of instituting a draft.

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