I keep thinking I’ll take a break from the American Civil War, but it just keeps shoving itself in my face. And so I keep shoving it in yours.
I recently finished an extraordinary book. It had me writing notes to myself in the margins: “check what [someone else] has to say, “compare to X”, or sometimes just “!!!”.* Despite the fact that it looks at the war through the lens of one city, it gave me a new perspective about the war as a whole. Not an easy thing to do given how much time I’ve spent on the Civil War
In City of Sedition:The History of New York City During the Civil War, John Strausbaugh explores New York City’s multi-faceted role in the American Civil War: a role complicated by the city’s close financial ties with the South in the years immediately before the war, conflicts (physical and theoretical) between recent immigrants and anti-immigration “nativists,” political corruption at all levels and the rhetoric of competing “penny daily” newspapers. He portrays a city that was as divided by the war as any border state. So divided that in the months before the war, some city political leaders proposed that New York become a “free port” on the medieval model, seceding not only from the Union but from the state of New York.
Strausbaugh builds his portrait of the city from a multitude of smaller portraits, all set within the context of the larger story of the war. He tells the stories of well known New Yorkers, such as popular preacher Henry Beecher, journalist Horace Greeley, Tammany Hall politician “Boss” Tweed, and poet Walt Whitman. He follows less known figures over the course of the war, introducing readers to characters such as twelve-year-old drummer boy Gus Schurmann, who enlisted with his father in the all-German Mozart brigade and spent an afternoon playing with Todd Lincoln. He considers the fates of slave ship captains, abolitionist businessmen, war profiteers, and military units from all levels of New York society. (I was particularly taken with the volunteer immigrant militias, which were formed in response to laws that kept them from joining the official militia**)
The final result is a richly layered and often surprising history, as crowded and fast-paced as a Manhattan sidewalk.
*I love books that force me to have a conversation with them.
**We’ve been officially stupid about immigration from the beginning. [Insert rant here]
The guts of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.