“New York City Divided: Slavery and the Civil War”

an exhibit at the New-York Historical Society

On November 17, 2006, the New-York Historical Society opened its wonderful new exhibit “New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War,” which will remain open until September 3, 2007. Nestled across from Central Park, the NYHS building is spacious and easily accessible, and the exhibit has drawn large crowds so far.

Walking into the exhibit hall, your eye is first drawn to several massive bales of cotton suspended from the ceiling. On a nearby wall, in huge letters, is a short passage describing how essential “King Cotton” was to the growth of New York City’s economy in the antebellum period. And as a brochure about the exhibit says, “New York shippers, traders and insurers drew 38 cents of every dollar earned in the production of cotton.” New York City and the South were business partners, both profiting extensively from slavery.

Much of the New York Divided exhibit details the intimate relationship between New York’s commercial establishment and the South. Throughout, the exhibitors have used an array of multimedia, from newspapers and books to the bales of cotton, expensive chairs (purchased in New York City by rich Southern planters) and machinery used in New York City merchant counting rooms.

In 1860 New York City Democratic Mayor Fernando Wood and his merchant supporters were sympathetic to the South and its “peculiar institution.” The exhibit shows the reaction in the city’s print media to Mayor Wood’s famous proposal to secede from the Union so Gotham could continue its lucrative trade relationship with the seceded South.

But the exhibit also highlights the city’s black abolitionists, especially James McCune Smith. Among the most gripping parts of this large exhibit is a taped reenactment of Smith expressing his views, as portrayed by actor Danny Glover.

The NYHS possesses a treasure trove of Civil War–related materials and has displayed it impressively. I stood fixated examining an antebellum copy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and then moved on to reading the full front pages of William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. You could spend hours exploring the books, newspapers, letters and other printed material on display there.

There are also wonderful visual elements, including prints from the era, such as one of the Emancipation Proclamation and (my personal favorite) a brutal print mocking John Frémont, the Republican presidential candidate in 1856. The Frémont print shows a line in front of the bearded Republican nominee, seeking political favors. First in line is a fancily dressed African American seeking equality with whites; behind him is a woman in pants seeking equality with men. Then comes a drunken vagrant. Needless to say, the print was promoted by the Democratic Party, whose 1856 candidate, James Buchanan, won the presidency.

Some of the exhibit is devoted to the New York City draft riots of July 1863. The curators have displayed a wonderfully preserved 1863 wooden “draft barrel,” which could be turned with a handle. Also displayed are the pieces of paper upon which names of potential draftees would be written and placed in the barrel. These objects, held in draft offices, were among the targets of the July 1863 rioters, who sought to destroy them.

It will be clear to anyone after walking through this eye-opening exhibit that New York was truly a divided city in the Civil War period. Both abolitionists and pro-slavery merchants walked the streets of Gotham rallying supporters; they passionately debated the issue of slavery in the city’s many newspapers and public halls; and during the war, New Yorkers of all stripes joined the Union war effort—from Irish and German immigrants and African Americans who became soldiers to Wall Street financiers and clothing manufacturers who raised money and made uniforms.

New York Divided is a marvelous exhibit. The exhibit’s chief historian, James O. Horton, and its curator, Richard Rabinowitz, are to be congratulated for pulling together such an array of historical resources and objects into an exhibit that vividly tells the story of New York before and after the Civil War. There is also a “Distinguished Speaker Series” organized in conjunction with the exhibit, which brings renowned Civil War historians and writers to the NYHS, including novelist E.L. Doctorow (The March), James Swanson (Manhunt) and Nicholas Lemann (Redemption). If you’re visiting the Big Apple and have any interest in history, you should head over to Central Park West to see New York Divided. For more information, call the NYHS at 212-873-3400 or consult the Web at www.newyorkdivided.org.


Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.