New York City After the Civil War

By Dillon J. Carroll

"The soldier's rest : The friends of the Seventh and Eighth Regiments, New York volunteers, welcoming th[e] return of their heroes to New York, Tuesday, April 28th, 1863." New York Public Library Digital Collections, Art and Picture Collection.

"The soldier's rest : The friends of the Seventh and Eighth Regiments, New York volunteers, welcoming th[e] return of their heroes to New York, Tuesday, April 28th, 1863." New York Public Library Digital Collections, Art and Picture Collection.

On April 9th 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant’s Union Army of the Potomac near Appomattox Courthouse. While fighting continued sporadically for the next few weeks, the war was effectively over. Most histories of the Civil War end here, and we know little about what happened to former soldiers afterwards.

New York City in the postwar years stood at the confluence of the transition soldiers made to veterans. In the years directly after, New York became, in some ways, a veteran city. Thousands of veterans ambled in the city in search of work. When that failed, they organized marches in protest. Whole industries of conmen and scammers rose to pickpocket and shanghai them. Physically and mentally disabled veterans faced an even steeper uphill battle to find work and settle into postwar civilian life. Some of the most famous and successful philanthropists who tried to help veterans were New Yorkers, who saw firsthand the struggle former soldiers in blue were facing.

Following the surrender of the remaining Confederate forces, Washington prepared a Grand Review of the Armed Forces. On May 23rd and 24th, 1865, General Meade’s Army of the Potomac and General Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee marched along Pennsylvania Avenue to the delight of northern civilians. Following the Grand Review, the Union armies began the process of demobilization. While the United States had passed revolutionary pension legislation in 1862 to support disabled soldiers and the widows of soldiers killed in action; Washington did little to support nondisabled soldiers in their transition back to civilian life. Demobilization has been described by one historian as a “well-organized and rapidly executed means of returning to civilian life just over a million volunteer soldiers.”[1] But as Brian Matthew Jordan has written, in reality demobilization was often a trying process for many soldiers marked by boredom, frustration, and exasperation.[2]

For some, New York City was home. For others, it served as a hub on their way home to farms and towns throughout the Northeast. Still others decided to stay in New York City to look for work. The population of veterans swelled. Luck was not on their side, however, as the economy went into a brief recession in 1866. Much of the economy had been based on the war, and once it was over, jobs disappeared. But the veterans kept coming. More stepped off the railroad cars and clipper ship decks every day. Newspapers all but begged veterans to stop coming. “We have already more than once endeavored to advise young men and women in the country, as well as others, not to come to New York for employment,” wrote William Oland Bourne, the editor of the Soldier’s Friend newspaper, “except in cases where they have friends, situations guaranteed, or means enough to live upon until they can secure a situation.”[3]

The job situation was bleak. “There are at all times thousands of unemployed persons in the city,” Bourne wrote in his paper.[4] These conditions reduced many former soldiers to begging or living on the streets of Gotham. Visitors to the Big Apple often could not help but notice the legions of Union veterans aimlessly plying the streets of the city, especially during the winter months when business lulled. “This arises mainly from the vast influx of labor suddenly let loose upon the community by the mustering-out of our armies,” wrote Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, “and by the hard but truthful fact that there is a prejudice in the minds of employers against the returned soldiers.”[5]

Former soldiers deeply felt that prejudice. It had reared its ugly head even during the weeks after Appomattox. As soldiers marched home from the Grand Review on their way to state capitols to disband rumors often spread that they were going to get drunk and burn down towns. Some rose to such a fevered pitch that city fathers closed the town gates to returning soldiers. A.F. Sperry remembered steaming up the Mississippi with most of the 33rd Iowa Infantry on the way home, when the city of Davenport suddenly came in sight. Eager to step off the ship for a few moments and expecting a patriotic greeting, the veterans were mightily disappointed when the only figure that greeted them was an obnoxious town elder on the deck of the landing who barked, “Don’t let a man get off! Don’t let a man get off!”[6] Sperry never forgave Davenport for the ungracious welcome.

Everyone on the homefront had heard about the soldier’s apparent propensity for liquor. Civilians believed that soldiers had consumed epic amounts of alcoholic libations during the war, and some worried that that “immoral” habit would follow them back into civilian life. Other civilians worried about how former soldiers would reintegrate into civilian society. After all, they had been marching and fighting for four years, how would one of “Sherman’s Bummers” settle into life as an accountant or bookkeeper? “Why is it that so large a number of the business men throughout the country hesitate to employ the returned soldier?” asked one veteran in a newspaper editorial. “There is no disguising it boys; the people are afraid of us! They heard many strange and bad stories about us while we were in the army-stories which did us no good, but were heard greatly to our disadvantage.”[7]

In early August 1865, a meeting of discharged soldier and sailors was held at Canal Street for the “purpose of bringing their claims prominently before the community” and “enlisting public sympathy in their behalf.”[8] Amidst the series of resolutions being proposed and passed, these former soldiers decided to hold a procession. They designated the procession to meet at the corner of Bowery and Canal Streets on August 11 at 9 a.m., in the morning. An estimated 500 Union veterans gathered on a muggy August morning in the Lower East Side. Most spent the morning milling about and the crowd was a cacophony of “greetings and salutations” “cheering” and “speech making” while a haze of cigar smoke drifted up among the tenements.[9] By noon, they were ready to push off of their moorings and begin. Carrying banners that read “We represent thousands of discharged soldiers and sailors now asking for Bread and Work” as well as “Give Us Employment to Support Our Families” they marched down Bowery to Chatham Street, then to Chambers Street, then to Broadway where they finally stopped at City Hall.[10] The mayor was not present, so a deputy gave a speech promising relief to the soldiers and calling on citizens of New York to contribute aid to unemployed soldiers as well, until the economy picked up and jobs became more plentiful.

Former soldiers living in New York City faced more problems than employment, namely navigating a sea of conmen feasting off of returned soldiers. Once soldiers were discharged they were given their final pay, which for some, included bounties and back pay which could amount to hundreds of dollars. They returned to the city with their pockets stuffed with greenbacks. These soldiers became easy marks for the army of conmen in the city. “The business of fleecing and abusing our returned soldiers is getting to be very lucrative and general in some quarters,” wrote the NY Daily Tribune.[11] Most of the fleecing involved robbing soldiers of their discharge pay. Stories abounded of naïve newly discharged soldiers being convinced by conmen to invest in a new thresher, and when the soldier would hand over the cash the thief would disappear to another room with the promise to return with a stock certificate, only to abscond with the soldiers money. Other soldiers were lured into brothels, which filled the Lower East Side of New York, and once there, would be easily robbed. The vilest form of theft occurred when a soldier was offered a fine cigar in appreciation of his service, but unbeknownst to him, the tobacco was laced and the soldier would lose consciousness and awake to the horrible truth that he had been shanghaied of his discharge pay.[12] Things got so bad that the Sanitary Commission issued public warnings to returning soldiers. The Sanitary Commission warned soldiers to beware of anyone offering help who was not part of a “responsible relief organization” as well as “hawkers” “railroad tickets at reduced prices” as well as “all liquor shops.”[13]

At an even greater disadvantage in the job market, were the amputees of the war. More than 21,000 Union soldiers survived an amputation, though that number was undoubtedly higher since the army did not begin keeping track until 1862 and surgeons busy sawing away after battles often failed to keep an accurate count. The work that Americans performed in the 19th century was overwhelmingly physical. The vast majority were farmers; difficult work, especially for a one-handed man. And employers were reticent to hire amputees for labor they could do, such as accounting or bookkeeping. Consequently, many veterans in New York fell into poverty. On the ferry from Manhattan to Jersey City, the Rev. M.G. Hansen was often greeted by an “ex-soldier of the Union” in a “soiled and worn” uniform with an empty sleeve at his side, slinking through the cabin with cap in hand to make “a mute appeal for charity.” Edward Crapsey, a journalist, found several Civil War amputees living in the “slimy” and “reeking” tenements of Cherry Street in Manhattan.[14]

There was a handful of support for physically handicapped veterans. Pensions, for instance, often supported amputees. But they did not pay for medical care, which many amputees needed a lot of, and which was very expensive. Moreover, pensions had pretty paltry payouts. In 1865, physically handicapped veterans received eight dollars a month, just above the poverty line. To fill the void, philanthropists stepped in. One of the most successful was William Oland Bourne. Bourne was a Pennsylvania native who as a young man apprenticed in New York at a newspaper and then never left the city. When Central Park Hospital opened, he immediately volunteered and spent several years ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of wounded and sick soldiers. The plight of amputees especially moved him, and he worried about their future after the war was over. In 1864, Bourne started The Soldier’s Friend, a newspaper for veterans and specifically for wounded veterans. The paper was filled with stories, poetry, and advice, as well as information on how to get a pension, and artificial limbs. In 1865, Bourne sponsored a penmanship contest for Civil War veterans who had lost their right arms and re-learned to write with their left. Bourne offered five hundred dollars of his own money as a payout. The winner received two hundred dollars, and the entries were put on display in a gallery in Washington, D.C. Bourne hoped that employers would notice the entries and hire amputees as bookkeepers and accountants.[15]

But veterans suffered other handicaps. Some were mentally and emotionally affected, suffering what disability historians call “nonvisible disabilities.” These carried symptoms such as insomnia, depression, anger, substance abuse and sometimes suicide. Many Civil War veterans likely suffered symptoms that were eerily similar to modern day Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Margaret Hare’s husband George Hare returned to New York City from his time in the 93rd New York Infantry in 1864 and she “noticed immediately upon his return that her… husband seemed to be affected in his mind.” George’s mental illness centered on the war, which he still believed required his service in some way. “While he was never violent he appeared to think he was still a soldier,” Margaret recalled, “often marching around the room making remarks.” Perhaps predictably, this made finding work difficult for George Hare. It was already difficult to find work in New York, and nobody wanted to hire a man still trapped in the war. “He often obtained employment but remained in one place no longer than a few days,” Margaret remembered. “His employers not being able to keep him on account of his actions.”[16]

Over time New York slowly ceased to be a veteran city. Many eventually left the city to seek work opportunities elsewhere. Others joined the “tramp army” that traveled the United States by rail, to find temporary labor where available. Many disabled veterans left as more social support became available, such as the Soldier’s Homes which opened branches throughout the country in ensuing years. Veterans with psychological issues were often sent to insane asylums, many of them going to St. Elizabeth’s Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C., others to state asylums in New York such as Utica Asylum. By the 1870s, New York City was no longer the veteran city it had been in the years immediately after the war.

All that remained of the Civil War in New York were the dead. The dead from the many hospitals set up in the city — such as Central Park Hospital — were interred in a portion of Cypress Hill Cemetery known as “Union Grounds.” Union Grounds in Cypress Hill Cemetery soon held “the remains of over three thousand of our brave soldiers who died in the various hospitals and camps, in and around the city, during the war.”[17] In 1870, Cypress Hill sold the Union Grounds portion of the cemetery to the Federal Government, who turned it into a National Cemetery. It still stands today, unknown to many New Yorkers. The last reminder of the war’s impact on Gotham.

Dillon J. Carroll is Adjunct Assistant Professor of History at Hunter College, CUNY.

[1] William B. Holberton, Homeward Bound: The Demobilization of Union & Confederate Armies, 1865-66 (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2001), 34-35.

[2] Brian Matthew Jordan, Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014), 1-6.

[3] The Soldier’s Friend (New York, NY), December, 1866.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (New York, NY), 21 October 1865.

[6] Gergory J.W. Urwin and Cathy Kunzinger Urwin, eds., History of the 33d Iowa Infantry Volunteer Regiment, 1863-6 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1999), 188.

[7] The Soldier’s Friend (New York, NY), June 1866.

[8] New York Herald, (New York, NY), 12 August 1865.

[9] Id.

[10] Ibid.

[11] New York Daily Tribune (New York, NY), 4 August 1865.

[12] Eric J. Wittenberg, ed., Under Custer’s Command: The Civil War Journal of James Henry Avery (Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 2000), 155; Theodore J. Karamanski, Rally ’Round the Flag: Chicago and the Civil War (Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1993), 240-41.

[13] The Soldier’s Friend (New York, NY), June 1865.

[14] The Soldier’s Friend (New York, NY), October 1866; Edward Crapsey, The Nether side of New York; or, The Vice, Crime and Poverty of the Great Metropolis (New York: Sheldon & Company, 1872), 111-15.

[15] Brian Matthew Jordan, Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014), 52, 108-20; Frances M. Clarke, War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), 145-68.

[16] Margaret Hare Deposition, 25 January 1888, in Soldier's Certificate No. 396413, Private George Hare, Co. I 93rd NY Volunteer Infantry; Civil War and Later Pension Files; Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs; Record Group 15; National Archives Building, Washington, D.C.

[17] The Soldier’s Friend (New York, NY), June 1868.Dillon J. Carroll, Ph.D
Adjunct Assistant Professor
Hofstra University