Remembering the Civil War in New York

Monday, April 11, 2011


Late in the evening on April 12, 1861, New York poet Walt Whitman was walking home from the opera when he heard newsboys shouting on every corner: "Extra! Extra! Shots fired on Fort Sumter!"  The War Between the States had begun.

But now, 150 years later, New York, the state that contributed more money, hardware and men (of whom 46,000 died) than any other is barely remembering the event.

"New York just isn't a big Civil War town," said Karen Quiñones, who runs Patriot Tours, a company specializing in historical walking tours of Lower Manhattan.

While the Revolutionary War was fought in many corners of the city, the closest battle of the Civil War occurred in Pennsylvania at Gettysburg. 

Many of the largest financiers on Wall Street made their fortune on the cotton trade, and Mayor Fernando Wood at one point proclaimed that "New York shall be and remain, a free city of itself" and would trade with anyone even "our aggrieved brethren of the Slave States."

New York eventually came around to become the largest supplier of money and and material in the war. And at one point, New Yorkers accounted for one-fifth of the entire Northern Army. So today, in the absence of an official commemoration, how can New Yorkers remember the Civil War?

It turns out the ghosts of the city's Civil War past are in more places than one might think. Beyond obvious sites like Grant's Tomb (don't ask who's buried there), the city boasts several Civil War landmarks hiding in plain sight. 

"They're everywhere if you just know where to look," Quiñones said. 

Here is a brief list of some of the better known Civil War landmarks in New York:

Monitor and Merrimac Monument

This monument in Greenpoint's leafy McGolrick Park honors the Swedish-American engineer and inventor John Ericsson as well as the Monitor, the ironclad ship he designed at the nearby Continental Iron Works. Created by the Italian-American sculptor, Antonio de Filippo the sculpture was dedicated in 1938. The statue depicts a heroic male nude pulling a rope attached to a capstan, and honors the memory of the men of the Monitor.

Soldiers and Sailors Arch at Grand Army Plaza

The Arch that sits at the main entrance of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park was designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted and modeled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.  Its cornerstone was laid in 1889 by former Union general William Tecumseh Sherman. Inside the arch are relief sculptures of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant on horseback.  Nearby are statues of the Civil War generals Gouverneur Kemble Warren and Henry Warner Slocum.

Plymouth Church

Located in Brooklyn Heights, Plymouth Church was established in 1847 under the famous abolitionist pastor Henry Ward Beecher.  it eventually would become known as "the Grand Central Depot" of the Underground Railroad.

Fort Totten

Jutting out into Little Neck Bay, in Bayside, Queens Fort Totten was built in 1857 but was never completely finished.  During the Civil War it served as a kind of boot camp for New England recruits, and approximately 5,000 Union soldiers were treated at the fort hospital.


We've barely scratched the surface.  Tell us in the comments section below of other local Civil War landmarks in your backyard.


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Comments [3]

Bill Twomey

Fort Schuyler in the Throggs Neck section of the Bronx was another trainin ground for troops heading into combat. Gen Thomas Francis Meagher embarked from the Fort with his Irish brigade.

Jul. 11 2011 02:21 PM
Katie from Connecticut

Interesting about the draft riots. My great--great grandfather Theodore Weberg who served on the 83rd Regiment-New York and also the 59th Regiment, New York was one who could not wait to serve his country. I was told that he tried to enlist when he was 17 and was turned away. At 18 he served and was imprisoned at Andersonville Prison in Georgia and survived. He received a few medals which we have displayed in a casing on our wall with his photo. I am very proud of my heritage and the freedoms we have in our wonderful country!

Apr. 12 2011 01:40 PM
Jeff from Chinatown, Manhattan

Thanks for today's article about New York City and the Civil War. I noticed one big omission in your article though....the Draft Riots that took place in Manhattan in July 1863.

Although they are not commemorated by any monuments or statues that I know of, there are lots of locations in Manhattan that are documented in the historical record as being associated with the 1863 New York City Draft Riots. The riots were the largest and most violent civil insurrection in New York City's history. For better or worse, the riots were one of New York City's most important associations with the Civil War.

Apr. 12 2011 07:40 AM

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