We are entering the second year of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. New York contributed more soldiers, war materiel, money, and support to the Civil War effort than any other state. Dozens of commemorative activities are under way or in prospect in communities across the state. But New York state government is reticent about recalling, studying and commemorating its Civil War past.
The State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center, State Museum and State Archives are launching a number of initiatives. But New York needs more. We need an official state commemoration effort, in part because states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio are proudly trumpeting their roles and contributions, eclipsing ours. It is needed in part because there is a continuing debate over the meaning of the war, with a vocal minority asserting that it was really about federal government overreach rather than preserving the union and eradication slavery.
But mostly it is needed to deepen our understanding of New York’s impact on the war and vice versa, how the war changed New York, and to glean insights from the war that can be applied to issues we face today.
Proposals for an official Civil War sesquicentennial commission or office this year went nowhere, in part because of the state’s budget situation. A highly energetic group of volunteers, the New York State Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee is trying to raise funds, lead, and coordinate. The state established a centennial committee in 1960 but the legislature eliminated its funding in March 1963. The state paid for hundreds of veterans to travel to Gettysburg to attend a reunion on the 50th anniversary of the great battle in 1913, New York’s governor William Sulzer, speaking there, glorified the battle but did not even mention New York. (Sulzer was impeached and removed from office later that year, not for slighting his state’s history but for violating its campaign finance laws.)
New York published a multi-volume documentary history, New York in the War of the Rebellion, in 1890, but not a one-volume history of its role in the war.
There are thousands of books on Abraham Lincoln but only one full-length biography, published in 1938, of Governor Horatio Seymour (D, 1853-1854 and 1853-1864), a supporter of the war but prominent opponent of Lincoln’s wartime domestic policies, including the draft, and Democratic presidential candidate in 1868.
The state social studies curriculum, where young New Yorkers get their grounding in history, understates New York history generally and is very thin on New York’s Civil War experience.
New York needs to do better than this even in hard economic times. It’s mostly a question of leadership, coordination, cooperation, and having clear goals rather than a resource issue. A good “historical” example is the 10-volume History of the State of New York, edited by State Historian Alexander C. Flick, published under the auspices of the New York State Historical Association by Columbia University press, and featuring the work of multiple historians. The 10 volumes were published from 1933 to 1937, at the depths of the Great Depression.
Here are a dozen no (or low) cost things the state can do:
Designate the NYS Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee as the officially recognized New York State commemorative organization.
Proclaim July “New York Civil War History Month” in honor of New York’s prominence at Gettysburg. Emphasize New York’s impact on the war, the war’s impact on New York, neglected topics (see below) and insights from the war that can shed light on current issues, e.g., politics during wartime, war’s impact on the economy, support for and opposition to wars, government policy regarding free speech and civil liberties during wartime, etc.
Establish a web site with links to sources for New York in the Civil War
Set up an interactive web site for researchers in the area of New York and the Civil War
Define a role for officially designated local government Historians in leading, encouraging and coordinating (as well as reporting on) Civil War commemorative activities, as part of an initiative to strengthen their status and role.
Issue an online publication on The Civil War and Your Community (New Jersey’s Discover Your Community’s Civil War Heritage could serve as a partial model)
Issue an online publication on Neglected Topics in New York and the Civil War – subjects that have not received as much attention as they warrant. Examples might include leadership by New York’s three wartime governors; support for the war coupled with resistance to federal policies that contravened civil liberties; how state agencies were managed and functioned in sustaining the war effort; funding the war, including taxation and deficits; women, families and the home front during the war; experiences of returning soldiers (transitioning back to family life, going back to work, dealing with the experiences of the war – the first paper on what we now call post traumatic stress disorder was published in 1876); transition from a wartime to a peacetime economy.
Revise the state Social Studies curriculum to give more attention to New York history, including the Civil War era.
Commission and publish online a book or series of essays that describes New York’s role and contribution and the impact on the state.
Develop a new online publication web site for selected papers from the annual State History Conference and Researching New York Conference, to supplement New York State Historical Association’s journal New York History.
Establish a New York History channel on You Tube and encourage posting of presentations and speeches on New York and the Civil War.
Establish an online Encyclopedia of New York History drawing on such models as The Canadian Encyclopedia; HistoryLink: The Free Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History; Ohio History Central: An Online Encyclopedia of Ohio History.
Encourage articles on New York and the Civil War.
Photo:A reunion of Cayuga County Civil War veterans. Courtesy Cayuga Museum.