Why New York Fought the Civil War

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recruitsWe will celebrate Presidents’ Day next month, on February 20. But we don’t celebrate Governors’ Day or anything similar. If we did, we might note the contributions of New York’s three Civil War governors — Edwin Morgan (R, 1859-1863) Horatio Seymour (D, 1863-1865) and Reuben Fenton (R, 1865-1869). All three were nationally known leaders at the time. Seymour was a critic of the wartime draft and other Lincoln administration domestic policies. Morgan and Fenton both went on to become United States Senators from our state, where they also played leadership roles. Seymour ran for president in 1868, losing to Ulysses S. Grant.

Of course, New York’s role in the Civil War was critical to the Union’s success. New York contributed more soldiers, sustained more casualties, and also contributed more war materiel and financial support for the war than any other state.

Amazon.com/books listed 27,102 books about Abraham Lincoln on January 5, 2017. By contrast, there is one biography of Edwin Morgan, by James Rawley, dating from 1955. There is one biography of Horatio Seymour, by Stewart Mitchell, dating from 1938. There is no biography of Reuben Fenton so far as I know though the Fenton History Center, in his home town, Jamestown, presents a good deal of information on his career.

One reason for giving the New York governors more attention would be to understand how they explained the causes of the war, and New York’s reasons for fighting it, to the people of the state. One way to get at their interpretations is to study their annual messages to the State Legislature. It is also interesting to see how what the governors of the Union’s most important state compared to what President Abraham Lincoln was saying.


Governor Morgan, in his annual address to the legislature in January 1862, traced the origin of the way back at least to the 1830’s, when southerners had first threatened secession. Since then, “slowly but surely the process of poisoning the Southern mind has been going forward.” Southern extremists were waiting for something to justify secession and the 1860 election gave them the excuse they needed. The South was obligated to accept that result “without dissent; but the leaders of disunion with amazing audacity, made it a pretext for precipitating the catastrophe of attempted secession upon the country….Legislative bodies and conventions of the people were suddenly changed from the object of their convocation; power most arbitrary was usurped; in a word, the leaders [of secession] halted at no barrier, and were deterred from no deception, to carry into execution their long concerted scheme of disrupting the Union.”

The attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861 confirmed the South’s determination to break up the union. “This gratuitous violence…conclusively proved that it was the design of the [secession] leaders to break up the Government. An immediate reaction took place in the popular mind, completely uniting the people of the loyal States. They deliberately determined to put down the rebellion, and his purpose has been strengthened by time and reflection.”


Governor Seymour, in his address to the legislature on January 6, 1863, said that “this war should have been averted” and that it came because northern abolitionists provoked the south, the federal government was perceived as threatening slavery, and southern secessionists asserted a constitutional right to leave the Union. “When the leaders of the insurrection at the extreme South say that Free and Slave States cannot exist together in the Union, and when this is echoed from the extreme North by enemies of our Constitution, both parties say they cannot, simply because they will not, respect the law.” He insisted that “the assertion that this war was the unavoidable result of slavery is….erroneous.” The war might still be ended if only we could “adjust conflicting interests” and compromise.

“Under no circumstances can the division of the Union be conceded,” he continued. “We will put forth every exertion of power; we will use every power of reconciliation; we will hold out every inducement to the people of the South to return to their allegiance, consistent with honor; we will guarantee every right, every consideration demanded by the Constitution, and by that fraternal regard which must prevail in a common country; but we can never voluntarily consent to the breaking up of the Union of these states, or the destruction of the Constitution.”

Seymour’s explanation of the causes of the war seems off the mark in its criticism of the north as well as the south and is mistaken in not acknowledging the central role and evil of slavery. At the same time, though, Seymour went on to confirm New York’s strong, continuing commitment to the war effort.

But soon after taking office be began criticizing the Lincoln administration for its curtailment of freedom of the press and other civil rights and for instituting the draft. Seymour’s criticism of the draft may have contributed to the Draft Riots in New York City in July 1863, when a mob rampaged through the city, burned buildings, and attacked blacks to protest the law. His January 1864 address to the legislature includes a good deal of criticism of Lincoln’s policies.


In part because of his ambivalent stance on what really caused the war, and the impression that he contributed to the spirit of resistance to the draft that led to the 1863 Draft Riots, Seymour was defeated for re-election in November 1864.

Here is what his successor, Republican Governor Fenton said about the causes of the war, in part of his first address to the New York State Legislature, January 3, 1865:

“In the years of peace and prosperity of our country, the northern mind, as a general thing, reposed in the anticipation that slavery would ultimately be removed by methods, though peaceful, as imperative and inexorable as are the laws of population and the progress of Christian civilization. The like consideration or apprehension rendered the slaveholding class in the South politically desperate, and with the bitterest hatred towards free industry, finally led to the conspiracy against the Government. The slaveholder contemplated his own class, which, numerically, did not include more than a million and a half. He saw, on the other hand, that the preponderance of free labor, with its increasing power and right, would, in the future, govern the country.

It was this view of the case which led the privileged portion of the South to enter upon the project of revolution, which not only meant separation from the North, but also a change from a democratic to an aristocratic government to abrogate popular government in the South, and create another upon the ruins of the old which would perpetuate slavery. It was a conflict over the fundamental principles of government. This is alike evident from the purposes of those fomenting and leading the revolt…”


Here is what Lincoln said in a comparable part of his second Inaugural Address about two months after Fenton’s address, on March 4, 1865. Lincoln’s eloquent address is rightly famous, well known, and often quoted.

“On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.”


Of course, these are selective and are only excerpts from four speeches. Other historians might select other pronouncements of these four leaders.

But New York’s governors were, at the time, recognized as among the most important leaders in the nation. New York’s contribution to the Union cause was essential. Studying the governors more would remind us how the war effort looked different from the Executive Chamber in Albany than it did from the White House in Washington.

More study would also give us insights into how governors framed issues, particularly those that required important contributions and in this case sacrifices from the people of the state. Morgan, Fenton, and Lincoln seem more or less aligned in the way they framed and explained the causes. But Seymour seems at odds with them, critical of the president but at the same time supportive of the war effort, showing how complicated New York’s politics can be.

Finally, this post has briefly examined perspectives on the causes of the war. It might be even more interesting to look at their different perspectives on war aims — what a victory in the war could or should accomplish. That is well known in the case of Lincoln. But for the New York governors, more research and publication would be useful.

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Bruce Dearstyne

About Bruce Dearstyne

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne served on the staff of the New York State Office of State History and the State Archives. He was a professor and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies and has written widely about New York history and occasionally writes about New York history issues for the “Perspective” section of the Sunday Albany Times Union. Bruce is the author of two books published in 2015: The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History (SUNY Press) and also Leading the Historical Enterprise: Strategic Creativity, Planning and Advocacy for the Digital Age (Rowman and Littlefield and the AASLH). He can bereached at dearstyne@verizon.net.

3 thoughts on “Why New York Fought the Civil War

  1. Carol Kammen


    Interesting essay. I wonder if you can say more about Seymour, who was a Democrat, and in a tricky position while governor. Being in opposition to the federal policy while being governor of New York and a member of a party that opposed the war for a number of reasons was difficult. Seymour also had strong views about allowing African Americans to join the military and finally made the USCT deal allowing service but in federal units. We tend to look at that era as the rise of the Republican Party without seeing that the Democrats were being squeezed, not only by internal divisions, but by the events of the time. Being the loyal opposition at a time of war was not easy.
    How would Seymour regard the states’ rights’ issue?


  2. Pingback: William Seward’s and Horatio Seymour’s Gettysburg Addresses | The New York History Blog

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