By Charles Deur
I never thought a visit to New York could be considered a “Civil War vacation,” but the trip with my wife to the Big Apple and its environs turned out to be one of the best little Civil War trips we have done. I identified three basic themes: Antecedents, Secret Missions and Agendas, and Memory.
The search for Antecedents took us to Hartford, CT and started with two neighbors: authors Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain. The Beechers were evangelicals who believed slavery was wrong. Harriet’s anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was the first American work of fiction to become an international bestseller. (After the Bible, it was the best-selling book of the 19th century.) In the Stowe house we saw Harriet’s handwritten research for the book, a photograph of Josiah Henson (the model for Uncle Tom), one of more than 20 volumes of signatures of British readers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin who endorsed Harriet’s anti-slavery position, her writing table and inkwell. Mark Twain, author of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, lived next door in a highly ornamented, 19-room house on three floors.
We were amazed that these famous writers—separated by a generation, but united in their anti-slavery views—could cross the driveway to borrow sugar. Twain was also a publisher and encouraged some of his visitors (including Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan) to write their memoirs. Why did Twain settle in Hartford? At the time of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Hartford was a major publishing center in North America.
Two blockbuster exhibits in New York City highlighted the Secret Missions and Agendas theme. The NY State Historical Society Museum on West Central Park hosted “Lincoln and the Jews” with several hundred artifacts and signed documents. Early in his career Lincoln was supported by Jews. Jewish families from Illinois were big suppliers of provisions for the Union Army. British Jewish immigrant Joseph Jonas became a major Lincoln supporter even though his family was divided—members served in both Union and CSA armies. When Confederate Charles Jonas ended up on Johnson’s Island (Sandusky, Ohio) as a POW, he was released on a three-week pass to attend his father’s funeral. (That pass was on display and signed by Lincoln.) We saw the commission papers of the first Jewish chaplain in the U.S. Army, read Grant’s “Order 11,” which ordered all Jews to be driven out of the Western Theater (Lincoln personally cancelled it), and discovered the Jewish version of “James Bond,” Dr. Issachar Zacharie. This physician became the presidential podiatrist (Lincoln had a serious bunion problem) and soon was promoted to secret emissary and agent. He traveled across the lines as a “health care professional” and carried out secret missions from his famous patient (A. Lincoln) to his co-religionist Judah Benjamin, Secretary of State of the CSA. (In 1864, while behind Union lines in Savannah under a presidential pass, Zacharie was arrested as a spy by the uninformed Secretary Stanton.) Jewish U.S. Army surgeon Charles Liebermann, the president’s last physician, hand-wrote his progress notes as Lincoln lay dying in the apartment house across the street from Ford’s Theater. The dried blood on the original pages brought tears to my eyes.
The other Agenda site was the J. Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum (225 Madison Ave.) where the exhibit “Lincoln Speaks: Words That Transformed a Nation” provided primary sources about the motivations of Honest Abe. We saw original copies of Lincoln’s inaugural addresses, the Emancipation Proclamation, letters of clemency (and letters of execution for captured spies), and—my personal favorite—the signed copy of the 13th Amendment, the only such document ever signed by a president. Documents about desertion, hiring of substitutes, and the great Draft Riot showed me other (disappointing) aspects of the Civil War.
Memory of this war rarely focuses on the role of New York City, but this urban area was probably one of the biggest contributors to the Union victory. If it were not for the thousands of Irish and Northern European immigrants who continually poured into the port of New York (and into the depleted ranks of the army), the North might well have lost.
We found a connection that was surprisingly relevant—the relationship between Theodore Roosevelt and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The earliest photographic record of Teddy Roosevelt is of him leaning out the second floor window of his grandfather Cornelius’ home off Union Square to see Lincoln’s cortege pass. Later Roosevelt became a huge supporter of a little-known sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and they worked together in redesigning American gold coinage. New York City is the site of two of Saint-Gauden’s greatest monumental tributes to the leaders of the Union forces: the Farragut Memorial in Madison Square Park and the sculpture of General William Tecumseh Sherman in the Grand Army Plaza.
I hope this whets your appetite for little Civil War vacations.
By Charles Deur