Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Gotham at War

Long before September 11th, the threat of terrorist acts kept New Yorkers in a panic and local authorities in a state of alert -- though not alert enough.

In November, 1864, a dozen agents of the Confederacy infiltrated the city and, using a "combustible liquid" prepared by a chemist in a secret laboratory off Washington Square, they set fire to major hotels, public buildings and ships in lower Manhattan.

Damage was not as severe as the plotters had hoped for, because the material they set aflame did not ignite as easily as they had expected. But this was neither the first nor the last attempt at sabotage during the Civil War, according to Gotham At War: New York City, 1860 - 1865 (213pp. Wilmington: Scholarly Resources Inc., $17.95), by Edward K. Spann, just published. There were reports of an attempt at germ warfare and rumors of an effort to poison the water supply, as well as speculation that a huge waterfront fire that destroyed some 30 vessels along the Hudson River below 14th Street was arson.

At a time when America is again at war, a war that may escalate, historians and curators are looking back at New York City during wartimes past. Although there have been surprisingly few books written on New York City at war over the years (see list), there are three new books out now about the city during the Civil War and Revolutionary War, and an exhibition recently opened downtown comparing New York City's renaissance after the revolution with the city's recovery after 9/11. A fourth book, though first published in 1927, and devoting only two chapters to wartime New York, is likely to get by far the most attention: The Gangs of New York, by Herbert Asbury, has been made into a movie directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, scheduled to be in the movie houses in December.

Although no army of enemy soldiers have been on Gotham's shores since 1783, when the last British redcoats left Manhattan, New York City has been heavily involved with all American wars. "New York has always been a symbol for its enemies." said Barnet Schecter, author of the new Revolutionary War book The Battle for New York (454 pp. New York: Walker & Company, $30.00).


Civil unrest and rioting swept New York City at the start of the American Revolution, as New Yorkers struggled to choose sides; rebel or royalist. "We are all in Confusion in the City.... What will be the end of this, God knows," a New Yorker wrote in 1770 to a friend in London. Richard Ketchum's new book Divided Loyalties (447pp. New York: A John Macrae Book/Henry Holt & Company, $30.00) tells the story of how the revolution began in New York City, and how religious and business ties helped decide where New Yorkers' allegiances fell. In 1775, tensions were so high that local patriot committees spied on their neighbors, and even tarred and feathered supposed British informers.

The most actual combat in New York City history took place in 1776, when the British defeated troops in Brooklyn and captured Manhattan. "Before September 11, 2001, the last time New York was attacked by an outside force was on September 15, 1776," said Schecter, whose new book The Battle for New York picks up the story of the Revolutionary War in New York City just after the point that Divided Loyalties closes.

Schecter spoke after a reading at the Revolutionary War-era Fraunces Travern, where a current museum exhibition, called "New York Battles Back" celebrates New York City's recovery after the revolution and draws parallels to recovery efforts after 9/11. The city rebuilt after suffering great damage and devastation during the Revolutionary War, said Fraunces Tavern Museum executive director Andrew Batten. "In 1776, large portions of the city burned to the ground. The Fraunces Tavern itself was hit, when at least one cannonball from a British ship went through the roof," said Batten.

In The Battle for New York, Schecter argues that the British lost crucial battle time wrapped up in New York City's whirling social life and devoted too many needed troops to protecting Gotham. "The British had a fondness for New York City, and were, in a sense, captured and captivated by the city," he said.

On September 15, the British first invaded Manhattan at Kips Bay, which was an actual bay before it was filled in and became a neighborhood in the East 30s. (Schecter's book is filled with similar details, which connect battle scenes to present streetscapes. A New York City Revolutionary War walking tour is online at After landing, British commander General William Howe and his staff did not immediately send the first division of troops after the Americans. Instead, they visited the Murray family of Murray Hill--prominent loyalists--for refreshments while waiting for the second division to arrive.

The British stayed for several hours, drinking Madeira, eating cakes and chatting with the Murray daughters, leaving General George Washington and the American army just enough time to retreat uptown. A (highly unproven) legend has grown that Mary Murray was a patriot in disguise, and delayed the British on purpose.

Less than a week after the British invasion, a fire started in lower Manhattan that spread up the city's west side. A quarter of the city burned down, including Trinity Church, the tallest building at the time.

Both the British and the Americans blamed each other for setting fire to New York City. However, in The Battle for New York, Schecter writes that the fire most likely happened of natural causes. Its impact on the city's psychological well-being was tremendous. "The fire introduced an element of paranoia and contributed to a siege mentality that made British commanders fiercely protective of the city," writes Schecter. The British occupation lasted seven years, during which 11,000 American prisoners aboard jail boats in the harbor starved to death. "People were living under a military regime," Schecter said, "in charred ruins and tents."

The war's end brought Gotham a change of fortune. General Washington made a triumphant entry into New York City after winning the war, and the city, its population booming, was rebuilt to become the new nation's first capital. "The city never returned to its prewar status, but it immediately jumped ahead," said Batten of the Fraunces Tavern Museum. "New Yorkers take adversity and run with it."

WAR OF 1812

After U.S. Congress declared war on Great Britain in June of 1812, and British ships arrived at Sandy Hook with the threat to invade, New Yorkers widely volunteered to defend their city. "Women organized in Brooklyn Heights to dig trenches and the Council of Defense recruited artisans, free blacks, and students to build barricades," writes Arnold Markoe in the Encyclopedia of New York City. Their preparations, however heroic, were never tested, as the city itself was not attacked.


If the only actual battles in New York during the Civil War were riots and acts of sabotage, the city had a great influence on the war, and the war, a great effect on the city.

Few New Yorkers welcomed the conflict. In fact, the city was a center of anti-war sentiment. "The most dangerous foes of the Republic are in New York City," said Frederick Law Olmstead, the chief architect of Central Park and ardently pro-Union. Businessmen feared that a break with the South, their lucrative trading partner, would cripple the city's economy. And many New Yorkers, says Edward Spann in Gotham At War, were resentful of the rich citizens' ability to opt out of the draft, and were also anti-abolitionist and outright racist -- wary that the war would free the slaves, who would then take away their jobs. The infamous Draft Riots of 1863 -- which, in a startling inversion of current events, were said to have been instigated by resentful firefighters -- resulted in the death of more than 100 New Yorkers, many of them black.

Several books have been written about the draft riots alone, and there are two chapters about it in The Gangs of New York, by Herbert Asbury. He writes that the riots began, "as a protest against the Conscription Act which had been passed by Congress in March, but that phase of the struggle was soon forgotten, and thereafter the riots were an insurrection of the criminal element against the established order. The disturbances were the natural end of the ruinous road along which the city had traveled during the preceding fifteen years, and the logical result of the governmental corruption which had permitted Manhattan Island to become the Mecca of criminals from all parts of the United States and the slums of Europe."

Despite the fear and anger, the war proved to be a great boon to the city's population and to its economy; New York, wrote New Yorker George Templeton Strong, had become the "grand commercial money-making center of the universe," the city having won a central role in the new economy. This was due in part to massive government purchases of goods manufactured in New York, especially of clothing -- not always to the benefit of the nation. It is in New York City during the Civil War that the term "shoddy" got its modern meaning. At the time, shoddy simply meant ground-up rags. But the New York clothing manufacturers who were contracted to make army uniforms used shoddy, and the uniforms fell apart. That company is still in business, Brooks Brothers. Much of the prosperity focused on the wealthy elite, while many New Yorkers, especially women, were increasingly impoverished. Two years before the draft riots, some soldiers' wives rioted on the Lower East Side. "One woman warned that she would get her husband to desert from his unit," she said, "rather than see her family starve."

The story of New York during the Civil War is clearly not all uplift. But neither is it thoroughly downbeat. The city's bankers lent the Union government most of the money it needed to conduct the war. New York was at the forefront of medical advances to treat the war-wounded, witnessed a rise of organized labor to combat the increasing exploitation of workers, and a rise of organized charity to meet the needs of the unfortunate.


New York City was home to the planning and propaganda that led up to the Spanish American War. Cuban leader Jose Marti, exiled in Manhattan, built the momentum for an uprising against Spain among Cuban cigar worker communities in New York. In 1895, Marti rolled the order for a revolt into a cigar, and sent it to be smuggled into Havana. Prominent New Yorkers like William Randolph Hearst and John Jacob Astor supported the Cuban rebellion, urging President McKinley to declare war against Spain in 1897. "Within weeks, the war was over, both Cuba and Puerto Rico taken," write Mike Wallace and Edwin Burrows in Gotham: A History of the City up to 1898. "New Yorkers went wild over America's emergence as an imperial power."


During World War I, anti-German paranoia spread to New York City's cultural and educational institutions. City public schools stopped offering German-language classes and German works were banned from the Metropolitan Opera's repertoire. The U.S. Department of Justice carried out "slacker raids," rounding up draft evaders in New York City during the spring of 1918.

New Yorkers feared an attack in the city itself after ammunition stores in Black Tom, New Jersey exploded in 1916, probably because they were set alight by German saboteurs. The explosion broke windows in Brooklyn and shell cases hit the Statue of Liberty. However, German forces never targeted the city.


The onset of the Second World War brought new fears to Gotham. "With the outbreak of war, a terror of a kind not felt since the British invasion of 1776 gripped New York, widely presumed to be the number one target for transatlantic German bomb runs," write Ric Burns and James Sanders in New York: an Illustrated History. The fear never materialized, because the Germans weren't able to create a bomber capable of making the round trip.

The war returned prosperity to a New York City downtrodden by the depression years. "In an odd way, what happened during the Second World War was that the city returned to an 18th century mode. Not since the British colonial era had the city been a supply base," said historian Mike Wallace who was astonished to find that there is no book yet written about New York City during World War II. He is researching the era for a companion volume to Gotham: A History of the City up to 1898, the history of the city Wallace spent 20 years writing with Edwin Burrows.

The war's effect on the city replayed what went on during the Civil War, only to a much greater degree. Over three million soldiers and 63 million tons of supplies were shipped through New York during the war. New defense contracts at the New York Navy Yard and business in medicine, electronics and other industries helped end city unemployment for many. But not for all. African Americans were excluded from working in the weapons industry until 1941, and a Harlem riot began in 1943 after a white police officer shot a black soldier during an argument.

During World War II, the city became synonymous with the two r's: rest and recreation. "The whorehouses were happy, the entertainment industry was happy, sailors were flooding the bars and night clubs and the rest of it," said Wallace. "This is a time when the b-boppers are inventing an analogous new kind of music uptown...ballet, film, and the Broadway theater goes to the ceiling."

It is at this time as well, said Wallace, that President Franklin Roosevelt transferred many of New York's New Deal labor and social programs onto a national level. "Also, the deals were cut to bring the United Nations here, making this place the de facto capital of the world," he said.


Anti-war protests were common in the Vietnam-era New York City, and many influential demonstrations took place here. In 1967, Martin Luther King and 125,000 anti-war demonstrators marched from Central Park to the United Nations. Poet Allen Ginsberg was arrested for blocking the entrance to the Whitehall Street building where New Yorkers reported for the draft. In April 1968, the anti-war group Students for a Democratic Society occupied five Columbia University buildings.

The Vietnam War's drain on the national budget led to inflation, and after the war's end in 1975 many New York City businesses verged on bankruptcy.


What will it mean for New York City if the U.S. goes to war with Iraq? Many New Yorkers are already fighting to keep paranoia in check, while the press stokes fears about possible retaliatory attacks. "Among American cities, none is as tempting a target as New York," wrote the New York Observer in October. "Those who say that Saddam Hussein would never be able to unleash smallpox in Times Square, or deliver a crude nuclear weapon into New York harbor, would surely also have dismissed the possibility--as we all did--of men armed with box-cutters flying airliners into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, killing thousands of U.S. civilians."

Not everyone is panicking about the same thing. A recent article in Crain's New York about tourism and the brewing international conflict went so far as to say that it is very poorly timed. "A war that begins in the next few months would be particularly damaging for New York's tourism industry. From late September to just before Christmas, [hotel] rooms are typically full of conference attendees, shoppers and people in the city to enjoy the fall season." The article cited in all seriousness a recent report by PFK Consulting, which predicted that a lengthy war with Iraq would cause hotel industry revenues to fall by 4.6 percent.

Market analyst Jude Wanniski said that the prospect of war is already making havoc on Wall Street. She tells investors that their biggest risk is "the possibility that President Bush will pull the trigger on Iraq." A war with Iraq could drive oil prices through the roof, deepening the current recession into a full scale depression, said Wallace. "The consequences [for New York City] could be homelessness, unemployment and food lines."

Some disagree with such a gloomy forecast. New York City has a tradition of continuing on with its business, oblivious of national or global struggles, said Kenneth Jackson, president of the New York Historical Society. "During the Civil War, many commentators said that you couldn't tell there was a war going on. During World War I, there were blackouts, and more people in uniform, and many more ships, convoys lined up in East River, but on the streets, the city remained the same."

"Most of the time in New York," Jackson observes, "you wouldn't know there was a war on."

Books About New York City During Wartime

You can sort the list by clicking on the categories at the top of the list.

Title Author Release Date Publisher Subject

American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles Thomas Keneally 2002 Doubleday and Company Civil War
An often "spellbinding" biography of Dan Sickles, a notorious New York politician and Civil War general who was acquitted of murdering his wife's lover.

More Information About This Book
Banished Children of Eve: A Novel of Civil War New York Peter Quinn 1995 Viking Penguin Civil War
A novel focusing on the experiences Irish immigrants in Civil War-era New York.
Battle of Brooklyn 1776 John J. Gallagher   Perseus Publishing Revolutionary War
Despite a British victory, this first major battle of the Revolutionary War symbolized the spirit of independence that eventually lead the United States to win the war.
Behind the Lines Isabelle Holland 1994 Scholastic Trade Civil War
A "moving historical novel" for young adults about class and race differences that is set against the New York City draft riots.
Chaining the Hudson: The Fight for the River in the American Revolution Lincoln Diamant 1994 Citadel Press Revolutionary War
Tells the story of the struggle for command of the Hudson River during the Revolutionary War and the story of the chain stretched across the Hudson River at Bear Mountain.
Divided Loyalties: How the American Revolution Came to New York Richard M. Ketchum 2002 Henry Holt and Company, Inc. Revolutionary War
Describes how the Revolution's arrival in New York City tore apart the community. Ketchum explains why New Yorkers with similar life experiences--even members of the same family--chose different sides when the war erupted. Ketchum "weaves a complex but forceful narrative web from many diaries and memoirs."

More Information About This Book
Duty, Honor, Privilege: New York City's Silk Stocking Regiment and the Breaking of the Hindenburg Line Stephen L. Harris 2002 Brasseys, Inc. World War I
Elmira: Death Camp of the North Michael Horigan 2002 Stackpole Books Civil War
History of the Elmira, New York prison camp, which had the highest death rate of prison camps in the North
Father Knickerbocker Rebels: New York City During the Revolution T. J. Wertenbaker 1948 C. Scribner's Sons Revolutionary War
Generous Enemies: Patriots and Loyalists in Revolutionary New York (Early American Studies) Judith L. Van Buskirk 2002 University of Pennsylvania Press Revolutionary War
Van Buskirk examines loyalists and rebels in New York, showing how personal concerns -- among British and American soldiers, free blacks, slaves, and businessmen -- often triumphed over political ideology.
Gotham at War: New York City, 1860-1865 (The American Crisis Series, No. 9) Edward K. Spann 2002 Scholarly Resources Civil War
A history of the complex role New York City played in the Civil War.
History of New York During the Revolutionary War Thomas Jones 1879 New York Historical Society Revolutionary War
New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War Iver Bernstein 1994 Oxford University Press Civil War
A "Rashomon-like investigation" of the 1863 New York City Draft Riots.
New York City During the War for Independence Theodore Barck Jr. 1931 Columbia University Press Revolutionary War
New York in the American Revolution Wilbur Cortez Abbott 1973 Haskell House Publishing Revolutionary War
A picturesque account of New York in the time of the Revolutionary War.
Paradise Alley: A Novel Kevin Baker 2002 HarperCollins Civil War
A historical novel set during the Draft Riots of 1863, widely regarded as the worst episode of civic unrest in New York's history.

More Information About This Book
Redcoats and Petticoats Katherine Kirkpatrick and Ronald Himler 1999 Holiday House, Inc. Revolutionary War
"Basing the book on true incidents and real people of the Revolutionary War, Kirkpatrick re-creates the actions of Patriot spies begun by Robert Townsend and assisted by strong-willed, cool-headed Nancy Strong in the little town of Setauket, New York," wrote Kirkus Reviews.
Reluctant Revolutionaries: New York City and the Road to Independence, 1767-1776 Joseph S. Tiedemann 1997 Cornell University Press Revolutionary War
In a study of New York City between 1763 and 1776, Tiedemann explains how residents labored to build a consensus under difficult circumstances. He pays close attention to the dynamics of British colonial rule and its impact on New York.
Second Founding: New York City and the Reconstruction of American Democracy David Quigley 2003 Hill and Wang Civil War
David Quigley argues that New York City's politics and politicians lay at the heart of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.

Print Friendly and PDF

Editor's Choice

Gotham Gazette: New York Voters Approve $4.2 Billion Environmental Bond Act
New York Voters Approve $4.2 Billion Environmental Bond Act
Gotham Gazette: 
New York City Voters Approve Racial Justice Ballot Measures
New York City Voters Approve Racial Justice Ballot Measures
Gotham Gazette: Max Politics Podcast: A Winning Formula for Democrats in Tough New York Races
Max Politics Podcast: A Winning Formula for Democrats in Tough New York Races
Gotham Gazette: Max Politics Podcast Max Politics Podcast