If New York City had guided the country, America probably would not have rebelled against King George III. For that matter, if New York had set the national tone, the North probably would not have fought the Civil War and the South would have been allowed to secede into the Confederacy. At least since the early 1900s, when New York overtook Boston as the nation’s largest cultural center, the city has prided itself on being the Great Metropolis of America. But in truth, New York has never marched comfortably alongside the rest of the country. The Pied Piper of Manhattan has never managed to make much of America follow.
Just look at Revolution on the Hudson, the latest historical study from the prolific naval historian George C. Daughan. The book was begun, its author suggests, as an attempt to explain what everyone who studies sea power knows: the fact that Britain should have crushed the American revolutionaries. The Royal Navy was overwhelmingly large, generally competent, and usually able to deliver British troops and firepower wherever they were most needed. So how did the British manage to turn a brief little colonial war into a major defeat in battles from Lexington and Concord in 1775 to Cornwallis’ surrender in 1781?
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The usual answers involve the French and the fact that, large as it was compared to the nascent American forces, King George’s military was spread too thin by the global commitments of Britain. But Daughan insists we look first at the disastrous British strategy in the early years of the war.
The British defeat, Daughan writes, begins with the military planners in London who thought they could win the war cheaply and quickly with one grand stroke. The strategy first involved seizing New York City as the main British base. The British intended then to grind their way up the Hudson River Valley to Albany, where they would meet a second major British army forcing its way down from Canada. The closing of this Hudson River corridor would isolate New England from the rest of the colonies, strangling Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island into submission and allowing the army to topple the remaining central and southern colonies one by one, like dominos.
As a strategy, it was at least wishful if not outright crazy. Curiously, the Americans accepted the premise that a key to the war was the Hudson River Valley, and Washington fought hard to resist the British plan. His defeat at the Battle of Long Island forced a retreat to Manhattan, which he could not hold despite his minor victory at Harlem Heights. The loss of Fort Lee and his defeat at the Battle of White Plains convinced Washington that he could not threaten New York directly, and he retreated to New Jersey and Pennsylvania at the end of 1776.
The British failed to capitalize on their victory, and Revolution on the Hudson is relentless in chronicling the tinkering, incompetence, backbiting, fearfulness, and rivalries that ruined the campaign. But, Daughan contends, the plan was ridiculous from the beginning. The technology and military presence necessary to seal off New England simply didn’t exist, and a few thousand British soldiers were not going to be able to accomplish it, even if they had been led by someone more skillful than General Burgoyne.
Meanwhile, however, New York City remained in British control until the end of 1783, and it became the largest and most important stronghold for Loyalists. Despite the city’s hosting of the 1765 "Stamp Act Congress," the first organized resistance to the crown, New York was not a rabidly revolutionary town, never matching Massachusetts and Virginia in anger against Britain. The Loyalists who gathered there during the war were met by a population that was generally meliorist, hoping to ease oppressive treatment while remaining loyal to the king. Although it’s not Daughan’s major point, Revolution on the Hudson demonstrates that, from its earliest moments in the American republic, New York was different from the rest of the nation.
A curious pattern emerges if readers jump from Daughan’s account of the Revolution to John Strausbaugh’s City of Sedition: The History of New York City During the Civil War. Strausbaugh is more a cultural commentator than an academic historian, but his 2013 The Village, a broad history of Greenwich Village, demonstrated his love of New York topics. In City of Sedition he proves willing to face squarely what many lovers of New York turn away from: the city’s shameful behavior during the Civil War.
Not that City of Sedition is a complete history. Maddeningly episodic, dancing back and forth through the years, the book is a delightful read in some ways and a bothersome text in others. The material on Walt Whitman and Herman Melville feels unoriginal, the tale of John Wilkes Booth and his famous actor relative Edwin Booth is old news, and the account of the Draft Riots of 1863 has all been collected from secondary sources.
But Strausbaugh’s tale of Major General Dan Sickles, a New York politician turned glory-seeking soldier, is worth the price of admission. Sickles is the man who in 1859 killed his wife’s lover—Philip Barton Key, son of Francis Scott Key—and then escaped a guilty verdict with the previously novel defense of temporary insanity. And Sickles is the man who lost a leg at Gettysburg and almost lost the battle when he refused to follow orders for deploying his troops. Sickles is even the man who, in the weeks before he left to join his troops, ran up one of the largest known debts at Delmonico’s restaurant—and then blithely signed the bill as a recruitment expense, charging the whole amount to the government.
Along the way, City of Sedition shows how quickly New York turned against the war. Initial enthusiasm had helped deliver the state’s electoral votes to Lincoln, and the Brooklyn Zouaves and other New York regiments marched off to join the newly formed Northern forces. The 1861 defeat at Bull Run disabused them of the notion that the Union could be preserved quickly and easily, and New York began to remember how much of its economy depended on Southern cotton.
Just as the Loyalists gathered in New York during the Revolutionary War, so the Copperheads, Northern supporters of the South, looked to New York during the Civil War. The large immigrant populations, especially the Irish, couldn’t understand why they should fight for a Union that barely accepted them, and Tammany Hall used their discontent to ensure its power. Meanwhile, what Strausbaugh calls a "shoddy aristocracy" began to emerge, as government contractors grew rich on shady deals, oppressed workers, and inferior products.
The flashpoint was the draft, which excluded blacks and allowed the wealthy to avoid military service by paying $300 (approximately half a working man’s annual wages). The combination proved too much for the poor of New York, and in July of 1863, during the official draft enrollment week, they rioted—shooting at free blacks and wealthy whites with equal abandon. By the time they were finished, at least 117 people were dead. Most historians think that officially announced figure is much too low, but even if we accept it, the New York Draft Riot killed more people than any other civil riot in the history of the nation.
Subsequent martial law did little to salve New York’s Copperhead feeling, and Tammany Hall would use ethnic tensions created by the Civil War to claim political power in the city for another century. Perhaps more to the point, after the war, the disgust of the rest of the nation at New York’s Southern sympathizing, when contrasted with the moral stature granted Massachusetts by its long history of abolitionism, ensured that Boston would remain the cultural center of the nation for the rest of the 1800s.
During the Iowa caucuses this year, Ted Cruz was roundly attacked when he mocked Donald Trump for having "New York Values." And maybe Cruz’s critics were right to remind him of New York’s long history of conservatism and contributions to the Republican cause. But, as Revolution on the Hudson and City of Sedition remind us, New York City has often been a little different from the rest of the nation. A little out of step. A little wrong at moments when it needed to be right.