Harbor: the war

Half the money coming out of the southern states during the Civil War ended up in New York City. That's pretty amazing, don't you think? 

I suppose people who've studied the Civil War already know that fact and have thought about the implications of NYC's financial position, but I heard that fact a only couple of weeks ago so I'm still amazed.

Ferry Termial for Governors Island Ferry
When we decided to study the Civil War this year, I didn't count on NYC playing a role in our studies. For other eras in history, I've been able to pull together field trips to historic sites or museums in the city, but I figured we wouldn't take many local field trips about the Civil War. We'd visit Grant's Tomb, maybe, and that would be about it for a local touch, I thought.

View of New York Harbor from Governors Island Ferry

I didn't know there were boatloads of things to do in NYC regarding the Civil War, and with this year being the 150th anniversary of the start of the war, there are even more. I didn't plan our studies to coincide with the anniversary, though the math is easy enough and you'd think I would have.

I could claim that I didn't know about New York's role in the Civil War because I didn't grow up here myself and I missed learning the local history in school, but what's my excuse for not knowing about my homes state's involvement in the war?

The gentleman in the photo above is playing the role of a Civil War soldier from Minnesota. I learned last week at a Civil War re-enactment about the important role (and heavy losses) of the troops from Minnesota, my home state. I don't recall hearing anything about the Minnesota regiment when I was growing up there. Maybe in the South kids learn more about the Civil War from a local point of view than we Yankees do.

My family took a ferry ride from the tip of lower Manhattan to Governors Island in New York Harbor last weekend. Civil War re-enactors were there, re-living camp life for the Minnesota regiment when it arrived on Governors Island after fighting at Gettysburg.

A soldier in camp told us that if we wanted to get the dirt on the draft riots in NYC, ask the washerwoman. We walked down the hill from the camp to find the washerwoman, and after she told us about her washing techniques and what she was paid for her work, we asked her about the draft riots. While scrubbing laundry against a washboard, she told us the story of how people reacted to the draft in the city. It was a scary time. The places she talked about are familiar to my family - we walk around the area of the draft riots all the time, without knowing the history under our feet. We know now.

I feel awkward talking to people in costume who reply in character, but last weekend I got a new perspective. I really wanted to know about the draft riots, and the washerwoman character really wanted to tell me, and I didn't feel I was talking to a character, but to a historian who knows that storytelling is the best way to ensure history will be remembered.

Demonstration of a Civil War canon in action.
I didn't feel awkward asking questions from someone working at the washtub, but I did feel awkward enjoing an iced coffee while hearing about tragedy, panic, and riots. Having a picnic while learning about the war somehow didn't seem appropriate. But, during the day's events, I was put at ease when we learned that the troops on both sides of the war loved to play baseball whenever they could, incluing right there on Governors Island.

Perhaps the absolutely appropriate response to remembering war is remembering to enjoy life.


  1. Very interesting and exciting that you can experience it!!

    A few months after moving to our new home (right in the middle of dinner) we started hearing very loud canon shots. It really scared us and had no idea what or where they were coming from. We discovered the next morning that there is an annual re-enactment of a Civil War battle just on the other side of our hills :-0

    We routinely read our small local paper now ; )

  2. Thank you for tying it all up with that last sentence. Relieved to hear NYC escaped catastrophic damage from Hurricane Irene. Another reminder to live life well.

  3. Grace'n'Chaos: Funny! I bet that was a bit of a scare!

    Richele: Here's to good living!