The Civil War's Impact on Race Relations in New York State

By Seraile, William | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 31, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Civil War's Impact on Race Relations in New York State


Seraile, William, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


THE CIVIL WAR'S IMPACT ON RACE RELATIONS IN NEW YORK STATE, 1865-1875

The Civil War brought about tremendous social, political and economic changes as the South was in ruins and its cornerstone, slavery, was destroyed. The north originally entered the conflict to preserve the union. In the latter phase of the war, emancipation became the great moral issue, although it arose from military necessity. C. Vann Woodward has concluded that equality became the third war aim of the radicals.(2) Nevertheless, many radicals were advocates of white supremacy, a fact which made it difficult for them "to revolutionize the southern social order without first improving the status of northern Negroes."(3)

In 1865 New York's black population amounted to 44,708;, five years later, there were 52,081 blacks in the Empire State. This was nearly twice the black population in all of New England and the largest in the former non-slaveholding states, excluding Ohio and Pennsylvania.(4) During the war, New York received credit for putting 4,125 blacks into the military, a feat excelled only by Ohio and Pennsylvania in the free states.(5)

What impact did the war, and New York's sable sons' contributions have on race relations in the Empire State? On January 8,1865 General Benjamin F. Butler addressed the Negro troops of the Army of the James and told them that they had proven themselves in battles. "With the bayonet," he commented, "you have unlocked the iron-barrel gates of prejudice, opening new fields of freedom, liberty, and equality of rights to yourself and your race forever." Speaking at the New York State Soldiers Depot on May 20, Governor Reuben E. Fenton declared that "the soldiers have made the Declaration of Independence a living embodiment of the truth that all men are endowed with the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness without regard to the color of their complexion." Henry W. Bellows of the Union League Club, speaking in 1880, noted that service made the black man a citizen and "put him on a level with the whites."(6)

Such comments were grandiose but inaccurate. As C. Vann Woodward has observed, "equality was a far more revolutionary aim than freedom...." A similar view was expressed in 1865 by the American Colonization Society, which concluded that "the end of the war will be but the beginning of the negro question."(7) The Civil War showed that blacks were loyal to the Union; now they wanted to know if the North could "conquer its race bias as to eliminate segregation" in educational institutions the job market, Public accommodations and in the right of suffrage.(8)

Institutional racism was very much alive in New York. There were some hints that perhaps reasoning and good will were chipping away at the ingrained prejudice, but this was illusory. In 1864, after the widow of Sgt. William Anderson of Company F, 26th U.S.C.T., was removed from the white section of the Eighth Avenue Railroad by a police officer, the Union League Club, the Police commissioner and the Merchants Relief Association combined their efforts effectively to remove racial restrictions on the line in New York City.(9) Their successful protest was in stark contrast to juries upholding the right of the Sixth Avenue Railroad to forcibly remove black riders from "white only cars" in 1856 and 1858.(10)

The tragic death of President Lincoln in April 1865 quickly showed black New Yorkers that aversion for them was not alleviated by the sacrifice of their kinfolk on the battlefield. When the chief Executive's body was brought to Manhattan for public viewing, a debate developed whether blacks should participate in the April 25 procession. The Common Council of the city refused to permit them to march on the grounds that they had filed their application too late. Ironically, on April 15, the Common Council passed a resolution calling upon all of New York's residents to mourn the martyred president. The War Department notified General John A. …

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