CIVIL WAR STORIES and review of Irrepressible Conflict at New York State Museum
By Susan Ingalls Lewis
In my last blog, I argued for an integrated narrative of New York State history, one that incorporates rather than isolates both the peoples of New York and the regions from which they hail. The Civil War, though not fought on New York’s soil, was a cataclysmic event that united the state and its diverse population in a conflict that was both external and internal. From all corners of New York, volunteers and draftees formed into companies, battalions, regiments, brigades, divisions, corps, and finally armies. At the same time, civilians, men and women, turned their energies to supporting the war effort and the troops through both industry and voluntary efforts. Finally, politicians and citizens within the state disagreed about the necessity for the war itself, the conduct of the campaigns, the appropriate war aims, and who should serve.
The recent exhibit at the New York State Museum, An Irrepressible Conflict, began with a quote from William H. Seward of Rochester (graduate of Union College, NYS Governor 1839-1842, Senator 1849-1861, Secretary of State 1861-1869):
“It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slave-holding nation or entirely a free-labor nation.” October 5, 1858
Seward was a major figure in United States history, but I suspect that for most New Yorkers he is better-known as a member of Lincoln’s cabinet and later promoter of the acquisition of Alaska than as a New Yorker. Although his words clearly echo Lincoln’s points in the far more famous “House Divided” speech of June 1858, using Seward’s quote to open the exhibit and name it put New York – quite properly – at the center of the national debate over slavery.
Displays featuring Gerritt Smith, John Brown and Frederick Douglass connected New York to the national debate and sectional crisis. Most interesting was the discussion of Smith’s economic, social and political experiment, Timbuctoo (1846-53), in which he offered 120,000 acres of his own land far upstate, in Franklin and Essex counties, to 3,000 men of African descent, divided into 40-acre parcels. Smith hoped that turning these individuals into land-owning farmers would increase the African American vote in New York; the state constitution of the time required that black men own at least $250 worth of property, although there was no such requirement for white voters. Smith’s experiment brought the fervent abolitionist John Brown to North Elba, where he purchased a 200-acre farm from Smith with the goal of assisting the black families – and is the reason why Brown was later buried at North Elba. The exhibit also pictured less-noted New York abolitionists, among them Abigail Mott, a Quaker businesswoman from Albany, active in the underground railroad.
Once war was declared in 1861, New York State provided the most soldiers and raised the most money of any state in the union. New York banks made loans to both the states and federal government; citizens across the state paid an income tax and added millions in private donations. The exhibit highlighted contributions of New York industry, such as Erastus Corning’s ironworks and railroads, and the West Point Foundry in Cold Spring.
Who knew that the first martyr of the Civil War was New Yorker Elmer Ellsworth, who was shot on May 23, 1861 while cutting down a Confederate flag on an inn in Arlington, Virginia, or that the first hero was Francis Brownell of Troy, who then avenged Ellsworth’s death by killing his killer (the innkeeper)? Born in Malta, New York, Ellsworth had moved to Illinois, but returned to New York State to raise a regiment for the war.
Although original enlistments were for 90 days only (!) many volunteers re-enlisted for three years. Materials illustrating the diversity of troops included the papers of one William Kenney, identified as Iroquois member of the “Tuscarora Company,” who was captured in North Carolina, and later died in Andersonville prison in 1864, as well as a photograph of a Roman Catholic mass held for the largely Irish 69th New York in 1861. Other volunteers associated with particular locations or ethnic groups included Max Weber’s German Turner Rifle Regiment, and the 14th Brooklyn called “red-legged devils” by Stonewall Jackson after four charges at First Bull Run. That the war created unlikely allies can be illustrated by contrasting the Irish and German volunteers to the 71st Infantry “American Guard,” whose Know-Nothing roots dated to its founding as part of the National Guard in 1850.
The efforts of men, women, and children were featured within a chronological narrative that followed the war year by year. In the Civil War children under the age of 16 served as drummer boys and marched with the troops. While men from New York fought in major battles and minor skirmishes across the South, New York’s women sewed, nursed, and raised millions through mammoth “Sanitary Fairs.”
The most notable New York woman highlighted by the exhibit was Mary Edwards Walker of Syracuse, the first female surgeon to serve in the U.S. army and only woman ever to win the Medal of Honor. (Interestingly, the army revoked her medal – among others — in 1917, but Dr. Walker refused to stop wearing it. Her right to the medal was reinstated in 1977.)
Coverage of ordinary soldiers was balanced by portraits and short biographies of the state’s most noteworthy leaders. One of the last portraits was that of Ely S. Parker, the Seneca chief, lawyer, and engineer who became Grant’s aide and was not only present at Appomattax, but was responsible for writing out the terms of the Confederate surrender.
The exhibit also featured displays on less celebrated aspects of New York and the Civil War, including the New York City Draft Riots and the Elmira Prison Camp. In the case of the prisoner of war camp, however, the accompanying objects and images did not quite convey the grisly details of that chapter of New York history. Lacking adequate food, shelter, clothing, sanitation, and medical care, almost 25% of the Elmira inmates died in the single year of its operation — uncomfortably close to the 29% who died at the notorious Andersonville prison in Georgia.
The exhibit text reported these statistics next to a photograph of camp buildings. Offsetting this grim picture, a nearby case featured intricate jewelry made by the prisoners – blandly describing them as having “idle time on their hands.” However, scholars have found that such items were made not simply to pass the time, but instead to trade with the guards, who then resold the trinkets those outside the camp. This prison “industry” assisted Confederates in making extra money for needed supplies not provided by the U.S. government.
My disappointment in the exhibit’s coverage of the Elmira Prison Camp is a minor point. Overall, this was an outstanding and effective effort and, I hope, a model for the way major historical events can be used to tell the story of the whole state and its peoples. Although the exhibit itself closed in late March, it lives on in digital form on the New York State Museum’s website (see link below).
An Irrepressible Conflict, The Empire State in the Civil War, New York State Museum:
On the Irrepressible Conflict, William Henry Seward, delivered at Rochester, NY, October 25, 1858,
New York History Net: http://www.nyhistory.com/central/conflict.htm
 Michael Horrigan, Elmira, Death Camp of the North (Stackpole Books, 2002), p. 180.
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