Confederates from Iowa:

Not to Defend, but to Understand

The pleasure of good storytelling: A review of City of Sedition: The History of New York City During the Civil War

When was the last time you simply enjoyed a history of a city – or any book about the Civil War?  For me, it happened over Thanksgiving at my aunt and uncle’s house in rural Iowa.

The writer in me reveled in John Strausbaugh’s City of Sedition:  The History of New York City During the Civil War.

city-of-sedition-cover-image

This book is a joy to read.  The exception is the barbarity of the 1863 Draft Riots.  But even here, the author puts events in context, portraying a simmering pot, stoked hotter and hotter, that erupts, scalding everyone nearby.

Peopled with leading characters from politics, history, and literature, New York City comes to life in Strausbaugh’s engaging book.   In a nice touch, detailed biographical sketches advance the narrative.

Contradictions abound

The paradox of New York City is trotted out in all its glory.  The author states:

No city would be more of a help to Lincoln and the war effort, or more of a hindrance.  No city raised more men, money, and material for the war, and no city raised more hell against it …

The same New York banks that funded the spread of plantation slavery across the Cotton South would provide the start-up capital for the Union war machine that ended slavery.  New York merchants outfitted both.

Port of slavers

I caught my breath as I read this shocking claim:

By the 1850s, it was an open secret that New York was the North’s major slaving port.  New Yorkers owned and invested in slave ships and financed their voyages.  New York shipyards fitted them out.

New York’s corrupt and easily bribed port authorities turned a blind eye.  In 1865, the Evening Post published a list of 85 slave ships that had sailed from New York bound for Africa in 1859 and 1860.

Skillful writing

The author tries to present and describe things as the characters saw and experienced them.  Strausbaugh paints characters with warts and all.

The author includes excellent quotes.  For example, Jesuit chaplain Joseph O’Hagan described the Excelsior or Sickles’ Brigade in this way:

Most of them were the scum of New York society, reeking with vice and spreading a moral malaria around them.

With a novelist’s eye for details and tension, Strausbaugh describes John Wilkes Booth’s older brother Edwin Booth:

Even with his second sight, Edwin had no inkling of the bizarre and shattering turns it [life] was going to take.

I wrote in the book margin, “Builds anticipation.  My gosh, the author’s good.”

Negative critiques

I have two minor beefs about this book:

  1. The quality of the paper doesn’t match the high quality of the writing.
  2. There are so many interesting nuggets that I frequently flipped back to the endnotes. Unfortunately, the endnotes are rather cursory, and that made it hard to pinpoint some good quotes.

Overall recommendation

Strausbaugh’s 367-page book was well worth my time.  I highly recommend it.

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4 Comments

  1. Dennis Ashby

    OK now I have to read this book. I just finished Edward Rutherford’s historical novel “New York”, and thought to myself, “I have to find some non-fiction about the draft riots”. Thanks David!

  2. Interesting how you took the slave ship stuff, slavery was still legal in the United States until the Constitutional Amendment was ratified by the states to give freedom to slaves. There is also the problem of understanding the amount of wealth tied up in slaves, do you think that the northerners of New York when they decided to end slavery did not dispose of their slaves by sending the vast majority south? Ending slavery in the upper New England states condemned many house servants to death in the cane fields of Louisiana where life expectancy was two years at most. Once the northerners redeemed their slaves, they were all good; not so much for those who held them in the south, and the government of these United States did not have the money to buy and free them, so there is a bit of a bone of contention about this whole mess. On another side of this is the cost of cotton was also reflected in the cost of maintaining and buying slaves. If the industrialized north could reduce the cost of raw materials by the introduction of machinery and eliminating the slave it was a win-win for them, not so much the south. Lots of different themes that get repeated over and over through history and most are based in greed or the lack of redistribution of wealth through out the economy. Often economies grow like yeast, feeding on things until whatever it was they fed on started to run out or the waste the thing produced killed off the industry itself. Many good socialist themes here!

    • David Connon

      Hi, Steve.
      You raise many good points! Your thoughtful comments remind me that this is a very complicated topic. Thank you for reading my blog!

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