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Transcript of Live Chat About New York City During Wartime

On Friday March 21, Gotham Gazette held an online chat about New York City during wartime with with Edwin G. Burrows, co-author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning history of New York City, Gotham, and historian Jeanie Attie. Below is a transcript of their remarks.


Gotham Gazette
Welcome everyone, and thanks for coming. Today we are talking to Edwin G. Burrows, co-author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning history of New York City, Gotham, and historian Jeanie Attie. Good afternoon, Mr Burrows and Ms. Attie.

GG:
What lessons might history have for New York City as the war on Iraq continues?

Jeanie Attie:
One thing that comes to my mind is to recall that New York City has always had an exceptionally important position financially and politically in the U.S. While today, that translates into being a "target" it also might mean that the attention of the world will be most focused on New York's response. The other thing that comes to mind is New York during the Civil War. New Yorkers were not united about the purposes or course of the war. Cotton was very important for New York's economy and merchants were extremely nervous about the disruption in their business. As you know, there were also political, class, ethnic divisions--leading to the 1863 Draft Riots.

Edwin Burrows:
I think our concerns about security are very reminiscent of the fear of foreign attack quite common in the 18th and 19th centuries. It's only since the end of World War II that we've had the illusion of security. That's clearly changing. I'd add that New Yorkers live surrounded by monuments to our earlier concerns with safety from foreign attack. Think of Castle Clinton, the Battery, and the forts that overlook the Narrows. That's a huge part of our history.

GG:
Has New York City faced the threat of terrorist attacks during any of America’s previous wars? Of attack in general?

Burrows:
Depends on what you mean by "terrorist." During the Civil War, for example, Confederate agents attempted to burn the city. Rebellious slaves plotted to burn the city in the 18th century. So, yes, this has been an issue before, whatever term you use.

Attie:
Exactly what I started to write--depends on what you mean by terrorism. During the Civil War, elite Republicans worried that "Copperheads" - those Democratic Party members who were opposed to the war or certainly to war for emanicipation, might attack. In 1864, the US Sanitary Commission held a huge fair at Union Square and made plans to protect the base of newly-constructed buildings for fear that Copperheads might saturate it with fuel and set them ablaze. Never happened.

Burrows:
Actually, if it's not stretching the point, the Dutch who colonized Manhattan and Long Island in the 17th century bear a striking resemblance to terrorists. It's one of those words that conceals as much as it reveals.

GG:
A recent New York 1 poll reported that the majority of New Yorkers are against the war on Iraq. Was this the case in past wars?

Attie:
This is a tough one, as polls are a releatively recent device. Certainly, most Americans were against World War I initially--isolationsim was the term. And before World War II, Roosevelt had to exert enormous leadership to persuade Americans that they had to enter the war.

Burrows:
I'm not sure about the numbers, but yes -- opposition to foreign wars has always been pronounced in the city, though not always for the same reasons. I'm always reminded that a substantial number of people in the city even opposed American Independence.

GG:
gail r asks, "Have New Yorkers traditionally been more 'dovish' than other Americans as far as one can tell -- or more isolationist?"

Attie:
These terms are historically specific. Dove, I think really gained prominence during the Vietnam War. Isolationist was used during WWI and to some degree WWII.

Burrows:
Certainly not isolationist, but because the city's prosperity has often been threatened by war, more reluctant. And there are moments, in the early days of the Civil War, for example, when it seemed like everybody was spoiling for a fight.

GG:
The city itself was the site of a major battle during the Revolutionary War. What was the climate like in the city, with New Yorkers supporting both rebel and royalist causes?

Burrows:
The battle you refer to was the Battle of Brooklyn (or Long Island) in 1776. By that time most of the Tories (British supporters) had left -- only to return when Washington was driven out of the city. Prior to 1776, however, the conflict between patriots and tories got pretty intense -- often erupting into violence.

GG:
What was life in New York City like during the British occupation?

Burrows:
Nasty, in a word -- unless you happened to be a British officer with special privileges. The place was overcrowded, chronically short of food and firewood, and about a quarter of it had been burned in a huge fire that broke out in 1776. When Washington returned in 1783, at the end of the war, it was a shambles.

GG:
How was the city economy affected in the past by previous wars?

Burrows:
I suppose, though it's a wild generalization, that New York -- or some New Yorkers -- have always done quite well by wars. Feeding, provisioning, and financing armies is good business. Maybe only during the Civil War was the city's business community worried about the loss of markets.

Attie:
During the Civil War, inflation was a huge problem. As was war profiteering. One thing New Yorkers commented on was seeing newly-rich people displaying expensive clothing, items from Tiffany, cementing beliefs that these people were immorally benefitting from the war. And there was truth to it. Many of the "Robber Barons" of the late 19th century, got their start by staying out of the military, hording supplies, and then selling them for huge profit. Again, during the Civil War, there were labor strikes, walkouts, to protest low wages, high cost of living. Much resentment about the economic inequality that the war was creating.

GG:
Mr. Burrows, thanks for joining us in our live chat today.

Burrows:
My pleasure. It was fun.

GG:
Benjamin Miller asks, "Wasn't the business community very much affected--adversely--by the War of 1812 as well as by the Civil War?"

Attie:
Ah, you've stumped me on this one. But I think you are right. I was just about to add that the when we talk of New York, even of the business community, must sometimes separate out Wall Street--the stock market-- from industrial and mercantile concerns. Part of assessing the impact of 20th-century wars on New York involves taking measure of stock market as well as of whether the city benefited from war contracts. Here I'm thinking of the Brooklyn shipbuilding yards, during WWII. I also wanted to mention earlier that the Mexcian War also divided New Yorkers (and all Americans). Very bitter divisions over "Polks' Dirty Little War" to gain Mexican land and more land for slaveholders. Before the 20th century -- mass communications -- newspapers were extremely partisan and few Americans would have understood the modern notion of a "consensus" view in their news sources. I think this is significant for understanding the ways in which we can assess the divisiveness during early wars.

GG:
What was the press like in New York City during the Civil War?

Attie:
Well, as I mentioned, newspapers were partisan. Everyone knew where a paper stood on certain issues. This also gave some editors, like Horace Greeley, enormous sway over public opinion. Greeley inserted himself into political debates as well events. Interesting to remember that for our current war, we are all going to the Internet, or getting information from the Internet and e-mail. But before then, people were actively engaged in reading newspapers that were posted on walls in parts of the city (for those who did not buy them), and there were flyers or broadsides that would broadcast news as well as partisan opinions. People wanted information about the warfront from their newspapers. They relied on papers to hear about battles, to have scenes recreated for them. This is also why Matthew Brady's photographs became significant for New Yorkers. Brady had his studio in downtown Manhattan. He and his team of photographers took thousands of photographs of the war. Many, as we now know, were staged. But for New Yorkers, the exhibition of these photographs were seen as a way of "feeling" the war. I wonder if the 24/7 coverage we are currently getting is doing the same thing?

GG:
During past wars, were municipal concerns in New York City given the attention they needed? If not, what kind of complications did this cause?

Attie:
Was it Tip O'Neil who said, "all politics is local?" This was true in every war. People are always most concerned about what affects them most. I think it is fascinating to see how much city politics, services, labor, etc. continued, sometimes unabated, during wars. In part this was because most wars Americans have been involved in were not on American soil. War economy certainly has an impact, but as I mentioned before, labor strikes, reform movements, party politics has a life of its own.

GG:
This week, all Iraqi immigrants in the country are being interviewed by the FBI. In New York City’s past, have immigrant populations faced special, restrictive measures if their country of origin is at war with the United States?

Attie:
Yes, of course. As we know, during World War II, Japanese-Americans were interned in camps during the war. This was actually precipitated by the desire of native-born farmers in California, who saw an opportunity to remove successful Japanese-Americans farmers from competition. There were some German-American and Italian-Americans rounded up at certain points, though not placed in camps. One thing to keep in mind about German-Americans -- I believe Germans still hold their place as largest immigrant group to America -- is that few German-Americans, after World War I continued to identify themselves as hyphenated Americans.

GG:
Was New York City specifically affected by the internment of such groups during World War II?

Attie:
During the Red Scare of the 1920s, Russian and other European immigrants who were leftists -- communists, anarchists, etc. -- were deported. But I can't think of an analogy to the current rounding up, questioning of Iraqis or Middle-Easterners after 9/11.

GG:
Our last question: In your opinion, what wartime moment in history has had the strongest impact on New York City?

Attie:
If we understand the idea of "impact" as being limited in time, that is, impact does not always last for decades, perhaps the American Revolution -- with departure of Tories, fighting near the city. But Draft Riots during the American Civil War not only tore apart the city politically but led to a mass exodus of African Americans from Manhattan, most to Brooklyn who never returned. I don't consider 9/11 a "wartime" event, strictly speaking. But certainly it is still having an enormous impact on the city's economy, built environment, services, and state of mind.


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