Sunday, August 4, 2013

76. How America Goes to War: 1861, New York

     That New York City went to war in 1861 surprised many in the South and even some in the North, for the city had strong commercial ties to the South, and its merchants dreaded war.  In the event of war, Southerners had predicted, "Grass will grow in the streets of New York," for how could the city  survive without the South's business, and above all without its cotton?  Also, the drawl of Southern planters was well known and most welcome in New York, for the Southern genty used to escape the worst summer heat by coming north with their families to spend time here doing business and shopping, before going on to Saratoga for several weeks, and coming back to wind up their business and return to the South.  So as Secession loomed, the city's merchants had advocated compromise with the South, and Mayor Fernando Wood, the slickest and deftest of politicians, had even proposed that the city secede from the North, so as to maintain its ties with the South.  (Not the last time the city dreamed of going it alone.)  `But all that changed in April 1861, when newspaper headlines broke the news:  THE  WAR  COMMENCED,  WAR  AT  LAST.  The South had opened fire on Fort Sumter; it was war indeed.

     I have read about and witnessed several beginnings of war and noticed certain phases common to all of them:
  • Patriotism raised to a fever pitch.
  • Celebration of heroes real or manufactured.
  • Demonization of the enemy.
  • The sobering up.
Let's see how these played out in New York in the spring of 1861.

Patriotism raised to a fever pitch

     When news of the attack on Fort Sumter reached the city on Friday night, April 12, it spread quickly.  All the next day newspaper offices were thronged by crowds eager for newspapers and the latest news.  People gathered at every corner where news bulletins were posted, and the presses printed extras as each new dispatch came in by telegraph.  When the President called for 75,000 three-month volunteers, majors and colonels proliferated overnight, opening rolls for enlistment, and tents soon sprang up at the Battery, and barracks in City Hall Park.  "'Tis sweet, oh 'tis sweet, for one's country to die," sang fresh-faced volunteers, while multitudes scuffed their voices on the Star-Spangled Banner, and preachers preached, "Beat your ploughshares into swords!"  Lawyers and boilermakers shouldered arms and tramped in ragged parade, schoolboys drilled in schoolyards, and 1812 veterans tottered forth, yearning to serve their country yet again.  When the elite 7th Regiment of the National Guard drilled in its armory, hundreds flocked to watch, admission by ticket only; it had been ordered to Washington.

     There was a great demand for flags, streamers, and bunting.  Flags appeared in store windows, on church steeples, on ships in the harbor, in lapels and the fronts of men's hats, in ladies' bonnets, even in the fists of infants and the manes of horses.  On Monday, April 15, a noisy crowd gathered on the sidewalk outside the offices of the New York Herald, whose owner, James Gordon Bennett, was thought to be partial to the South.  While they stared up at the newspaper's windows and hooted and jeered and demanded that it fly the flag, a committee of gentlemen called on Bennett and warned him that not flying the flag would put his paper and perhaps himself in danger.  Bennett, a cynic immune to lofty causes and the surge of sentiment, agreed to do so, but in point of fact had no flag handy to fly.  Finally one was obtained that, in the absence of a flagpole, was hung out a window, to mixed groans and cheers from below.  Meanwhile the Times and Tribune, ardent supporters of the President, were flying huge banners atop their offices.

     Other papers deemed insufficiently patriotic were similarly threatened, as were hotels once graced by the drawl of Southern chivalry; in every case flags were conspicuously displayed.  In all these situations the police followed the crowd discreetly, so as to prevent any violence.  As well they might, since an effigy was found hanging in City Hall Park with a placard in bold letters: ROPE  ALL TRAITORS, and another was seen hanging by its neck out a window on a downtown street with a sign proclaiming, EVERY  TRAITOR  SHOULD  BE  SERVED  THUS.  More than one citizen who expressed, or was thought to have expressed, sympathy for the South or disloyalty to the President was pummeled and felled in the street.  Small wonder that the Herald staff were said to be armed, and to have pumps ready to throw boiling water on any mob attacking their building.

     And the ladies?  They were in it up to their ears, adorning themselves with flags and bunting, cheering volunteers as they drilled, and evincing a most passionate fondness for uniforms.  At a party a young woman asked her fiancé if he was going to volunteer.  "Do you really want me to volunteer and get killed?" he asked.  Springing up from her seat, her eyes flashing fire, her cheeks flushed, she announced, "If you are a coward and dare not fight for your country, you are not the man for me!"  So if young men flocked to volunteer, they weren't inspired by patriotism alone, but also by the awareness that, to cut a shine with the girls, you had to be in uniform.

     Support for the military came from surprising quarters.  RADWAY'S  READY  RELIEF  was touted in a long ad in the Times as appropriate for every man in the Army or Navy to allay inflammation, prevent mortification in case of gunshot wounds, and prevent the need for amputation.  It was also a cure for malarious fevers, dysenteries, rheumatism, and other maladies.  A retired Colonel Gates of the U.S. Army was quoted as saying that he would no more think of retiring to bed without a bottle of it than to go into battle without his sword.

      On Friday, April 19, the 7th Regiment marched down flag-bedecked Broadway on its way to Washington, shouldering rifles with bayonets, while a huge crowd of spectators greeted them with cheers and tears and cries of "God bless them!"  Mothers watched discreetly from the back windows of closed carriages drawn up on the curbstones, while others watched from windows or rooftops, and boys scaled lampposts, trees, and fences for a better view.  Other regiments would soon follow, including Colonel Elmer Ellsworth's Fire Zouaves in red shirts, gray baggy pants, and blue overcoats.  A regiment of volunteers from the slums impressed the diarist George Templeton Strong as being a "desperate-looking set."  They danced with delight on receiving revolvers and bowie knives, and weren't the least bit put off by reports that a secessionist mob in Baltimore had attacked a Massachusetts regiment en route to Washington: "We can fix that Baltimore crowd!  We boys is sociable with pavin' stones, too!"

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The Fire Zouaves, recruited from the city's firemen, march down Broadway en route to Washington.

     Then, on Saturday, April 20, over one hundred thousand citizens gathered at Union Square for the largest patriotic rally the city had ever seen.  There were speeches from five stands, and lesser spiels from front stoops, carts, and windows, as city officials, rescued from franchise scandals and complaints about manure in the streets, stood brisk and square, flanked by braided generals, as out of the mouths of orators poured acclamations: "Divine Providence ... Constitution ... flag insulted ... Christian civilization ... sacred independence ... freedom against oppression ... God."  Rippling through the sea of waving flags were prayers and resolutions, plus cannon booms and cheers.

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The rally in Union Square.  One detail seems inaccurate: the flag flying from the George
Washington statue, supposedly from Fort Sumter, seems remarkably intact.

Celebration of heroes real or manufactured

File:Fort Sumter storm flag 1861.jpg

     No need to manufacture a hero, as New Yorkers had a real one when Major Robert Anderson, the Fort Sumter commandant, arrived in the city from Charleston on April 18 with his beleaguered garrison and its battle-shredded flag.  The 5th Regiment marched to the Brevoort House to salute him, and he appeared on a balcony to cheers.  The next day, when the 7th Regiment paraded down Broadway en route to the capital, Anderson appeared again on a balcony and was again received with cheers.  At the April 20 rally in Union Square he was hailed yet again with tremendous roars from the crowd, and the flag, now a patriotic symbol for the North, was flown from the equestrian statue of George Washington.  The flag was then taken from city to city for patriotic rallies and fund-raising efforts for the war, and on April 14, 1865, four years to the day after the fort's surrender, it was raised again by Anderson, now a major general, over the battered remains of the fort.

File:Death of Col Ellsworth.jpg
     Another hero was Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, who on May 24, 1861, one day after Virginia's secession from the Union, was ordered with his Fire Zouaves across the Potomac to Alexandria, Virginia, where a large Confederate flag was flying above the Marshall House Inn.  The occupation was unopposed, but when Ellsworth went to the Marshall House and cut down the flag, the hotel's owner, James Jackson, killed him with a shotgun blast to the chest, and was immediately himself killed by a corporal accompanying Ellsworth.  Ellsworth's body was taken to the White House, where it lay in state, and was then removed to the City Hall in New York, where thousands came to view the first man to die for the Union cause.  "Remember Ellsworth!" became a patriotic slogan.

     Heroes -- and heroines -- are sometimes in short supply and have to be invented.  In Iraq in 2003, Private First Class Jessica Lynch was wounded and captured when her convoy was ambushed by Iraqi forces.  Initial press reports described her as a hero who fought the enemy ferociously before succumbing to wounds and being captured.  The aura around her only increased when, soon after, she was rescued from an Iraqi hospital by U.S. Special Operations Forces.  Returning to the States, she was appalled to learn of the reports about her in the press.  She later testified before Congress that she had never fired her rifle, which had jammed, and that she was knocked unconscious when her vehicle crashed.  Asked about her heroine status, she insisted, "That wasn't me.  I'm not about to take credit for something I didn't do.  I'm just a survivor."  For her honesty alone perhaps she deserves a medal.

      Another case dates from the Philippines in December 1941, soon after the Pearl Harbor attack plunged us into war and we were desperate for heroes.  On December 10 Army Air Corps pilot Colin P. Kelly's B-17 bomber was sent on a mission to attack Japanese naval forces off the coast of Luzon.  Sighting a large warship that they identified as the battleship Haruna, his crew dropped three bombs that they believed hit the target and destroyed it.  When the plane was returning to base, it was attacked and badly damaged by a Japanese fighter; Kelly remained at the controls so his men could bail out, but he himself did not survive.  He was hailed as America's first hero of the war, but his story was exaggerated and garbled.  Many Americans thought he had crashed his plane into the Haruna and destroyed the ship, for which he received posthumously the nation's highest award, the Medal of Honor.  In fact he received the second highest honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, and after the war it was learned that the Haruna was not even in the area and that no Japanese ship had been sunk.  Kelly was nonetheless a hero, having sacrificed his own life to let his crewmen escape.

Demonization of the enemy

     As hostilities heated up, George Templeton Strong wrote in his diary that "these felons," meaning the Rebels, had murdered Northern wounded in cold blood as the Northern forces fell back.  So began the demonization of the enemy.  As the war dragged on, these rumors would only increase.  Sober leading citizens would assert that the Rebels bayoneted the wounded, dug up the remains of a brave officer so they could cut off his head and burn his flesh to ashes.  They were said to have stripped the Northern dead of their uniforms and left them naked on the field to be devoured by dogs or to rot.  They reportedly even boiled the flesh from the bones of the dead and then from those bones made ornaments for themselves and their friends, or for sale in the markets.  Reliable witnesses, it was claimed, had confirmed these stories, which were then included in a report to the Senate.  Today we can voice skepticism about these charges, but in point of fact both sides on occasion committed atrocities, including at times violating and dismembering corpses.  "War is hell," General Sherman famously remarked after the war.  But reports of atrocities during a war should be received with skepticism, even though some of them may indeed be confirmed in time.

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A man you'd love to hate, but to our
democratic eyes a bit ridiculous.

     America has been lucky in its choice of enemies, many of whom lent themselves to demonization.  How could you not hate the fiercely mustached Kaiser, posing in bemedaled uniforms under a spiked or eagle-topped helmet?  Even before we entered World War I, British propaganda had his troops hanging up children by their thumbs and slicing the breasts off women in Bleeding Belgium.  Hitler too was easily demonized, and postwar revelations only confirmed his monstrous guilt.  Saddam Hussein was similarly vilified, nor have we had to date any good reason to rehabilitate him.  But in the Civil War such figures as Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson could not easily be demonized, and today the latter two are admired and eulogized even in the North.  There were monsters back then too, and on both sides, but rarely at the top levels of command.

Even forest fires could be linked to Hitler and Tojo.

    Many of our enemies have been militarists and tyrants, and, taking themselves very seriously, are vulnerable to caricature as well.  If demonization paints your enemies as the direst of threats, caricature makes them ridiculous.  Hitler and the Kaiser were easily caricatured, but with Hideki Tojo, the Japanese wartime premier, cartoonists had a field day -- not without a touch of racism -- making him toothily grotesque.  But caricature has its limits, for one laughs at its victims, whereas war demands that you see them as demons you can hate.

 The sobering up

      "On to Richmond!" Horace Greeley's Tribune urged, as the blue-coated ranks headed south.  For weeks afterward cannon were trundled through the city's streets, bunting makers toiled, and hoopskirted ladies in front parlors sewed nightcaps for soldiers, while in the kitchen their maids did the same.  Letters arrived reporting that the boys had been assaulted by mosquitoes and flies.  "On to Richmond!" exhorted Mr. Greeley, fretting at the front's calm.

    Then, on July 22, came stark tidings: the Northern legions had been trounced by the Rebels and stampeded from the field in disgrace, along with a panicky horde of sightseers -- politicians and their wives, who had come out to picnic and watch the battle -- the rout going almost to the gates of Washington.  Shame spread throughout the city, resolve tightened.  Wrote George Templeton Strong in his diary: "We are not yet fighting in earnest.  Our sluggish, good-natured, pachydermatous people need much kicking to heat its blood.  Not a traitor is hanged after four months of rampant rebellion.  We have got to hang rebels, arm the niggers, burn their towns."  More volunteers were called for, anthems sung, bounties offered.

     Weeks stretched to months, to a year.  In the city screaming factory saws hewed out gunstocks, while nurses in hospitals put white gauze on splotches of gore, and artificial legs were advertised.  Mindful of daguerreotypes of uniformed loved ones on the whatnot, grim-faced, the ladies stitched and knitted.  It was going to be a long war.

     The last war where these phases were clearly displayed was World War II, and the sobering up then came quickly, given the initial Japanese victories throughout the Far East, and the toll taken by enemy submarines off both our coasts.  Since then we have been involved in undeclared wars that the public could not embrace wholeheartedly, and that often did not end in clear-cut victory.  Even in World War II there was more grim determination than patriotic fervor, a mood far different from the intense patriotism of World War I, which my parents told me of, including an account of a young man so ashamed of being rejected by the services that he often kept to the alleys of Indianapolis, rather than be seen on the street.  Nor did the slogans of World War II match in fervent idealism those of the previous war, as for instance "Make the world safe for democracy" and "The war to end wars."  Maybe we've learned something along the way.  Maybe.

A World War I recruiting poster,
just as relevant for World War II.
File:William Allen Rogers - Only the Navy Can Stop This (WWI U.S. Navy recruitment poster).jpg
A demonized Germany wading
through a sea of dead bodies.

     Personal note:  When news of Pearl Harbor came to my hometown, Evanston, Illinois, the city fathers at once placed a guard around the water works, lest Tojo and his perfidious legions corrupt our water supply.  Unlikely, but why take a chance?  Fortunately, no Japanese submarines were reported in the placid waters of Lake Michigan.  But one dissident escaped the authorities' notice: my father, an unrepentant isolationist, whose loathing of the President knew no bounds, and who even insisted that FDR was just a bit loony.  In Great Britain he would probably have been jailed for defeatism or undermining the nation's morale.  (But that's another story.)

     Bank note:  My beloved bank, J.P. Morgan Chase, has just settled a charge of manipulative scheming bought by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, paying $410 million, and has plans to settle other cases as well.  Talk about hitting a man when he's down!  That poor bank is still reeling from the loss of $6 billion -- or was it $8? -- in a bad trade some months back.  If it has to pay additional  hefty fines, how can it continue to offer free candy and pens at my branch?  And at the same time comes news that giant drug maker Pfizer has settled a marketing case with the Justice Department for $491 million!  Doesn't the government realize that corporations are the essence, the lifeblood, the very soul of our society?  Let the government fight its wars and regulate beekeeping, but leave these noble institutions alone.

     Wienie update:  What's to say?  Mayoral hopeful Weiner won't quit, he's still at it.  So the voters will decide.

     Coming soon:  Next Wednesday, Thomas Nast and the Power of the Pen (a cartoonist with a savage pen becomes the nemesis of Boss Tweed).  Next Sunday, the Hercules of Parks (about the world's greatest builder since the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, his rise, his fall).

©  2013  Clifford Browder

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