In 1860, immigrants made up nearly half of the population of New York City. Immigrants fueled the growth and power of the city, but they occupied its lower economic and political rungs. By the 1890s the Irish would be a dominant political presence in New York, but on the eve of the Civil War they were still struggling to win even the most local of elections.1
Although almost half of the city’s 1 million people in the 1860s were foreign-born, immigrants had only begun to wrest control of government from wealthy native-born elites. The Irish, nearly 200,000 strong, led the way, with German immigrants right behind at over 100,000. New York was the center of Irish cultural life in America, and was also the third largest German-speaking city in the world. By the time Lincoln had become president, the worst of Know Nothing fears had come true. Catholics outnumbered Protestants in the city and Jews made up 5% of the population. 2
This chart shows the place of birth of New York City residents in 1865. Immigrants made up nearly half the total. Many of the native-born were the children of immigrants.
Irish immigrants had many loyalties. Religion, politics, and economics helped define identities. They were mostly Catholics. Nativist Protestants tended to see the Catholic Archbishop John Hughes as a dictator with immense control over his flock. Hughes, who himself came as a poor immigrant from Ireland, was a major force, but most Irish community leaders insisted that they were republicans who believed in secular democracy. 3
Immigrants generally, and the Irish in particular, were Democrats. The heavily immigrant Five Points gave nine out of ten of its votes to the Democrats in the 1856 election. The city’s Democratic machines, Tammany Hall and its rival Mozart Hall, were solidly under the control of native-born Protestants as were the city’s major Democratic newspapers. Immigrants, however, made up the majority of Democratic voters.4
The lightning rod at the heart of the Democratic Party was Fernando Wood, the chieftain of Mozart Hall.
Wood was a native-born Protestant. His Spanish first name was given to him by his Anglo-Saxon mother after she saw it in a romance novel. When he was a rising young politician he took up the cause of the struggling urban working class. As mayor during the Financial Panic of 1857, which threw many workers on the streets, Wood denounced the wealthy and tried to create public works projects for the unemployed. He advocated deficit spending to fund public employment in hard times, relief for the poor, and he supported the unionization of workers. When German and Irish trade unionists occupied Wall Street in protest against their misery during the economic depression, Wood lent his support and he stood up to big business and a Know Nothing backlash.5
New York Mayor Fernando Wood was the central figure in the city’s Democratic Party between 1855 and 1863.
Defeated for reelection as mayor when Tammany Hall pulled its support from him in 1857, Wood won election again in 1859. In a three-way race between his own Mozart Hall political machine, the Tammany Hall Democrats, and the Republicans, Wood won with just 38% of the vote. Wood ran in support of the workers, and in resistance to Republican efforts to restrain slavery. Wood was a firm ally of the Southern slave owners who formed an important pillar of the national Democratic Party. When South Carolina seceded from the Union at the end of 1860, Mayor Wood incredibly floated the idea that New York City should leave the Union as well and become an independent “free city.” 6
Leaving the Union would also mean leaving New York State, a prospect attractive to many in the city. “Upstate Puritans” were regularly derided for trying to pass laws designed to reign in the lifestyles of immigrants. Upstate Know Nothings and Republicans wanted to bar immigrants from alcohol, restrict their sex lives, and keep down their unions. During Wood’s administration, the state actually disbanded the city’s Municipal Police and replaced the force with a state-controlled Metropolitan Police. The new Republican police had few immigrants in it and it was despised as an occupying force of outsiders by many in the city. Old Municipal Police fought street battles against the new cops. Local civilians, who claimed the Metropolitans were brutal towards immigrants, joined in the battle on the side of the Municipals. 7
Upstate Republicans tried to reduce New York City’s autonomy by taking control of the police force away from the City and creating the Metropolitan Police. Metropolitans and City-controlled Municipal Police fought in a bloody riot in 1857. Many immigrants joined in the fighting on the side of the Municipals.
During the three months between South Carolina’s secession and the inauguration of the new president Abraham Lincoln, Wood said the United States must guarantee slavery’s survival to maintain the Union. He used his family’s newspaper, The Daily News, to publish pro-Southern news and editorials. 8
In January 1861, Wood sent a message to the city’s legislature in which he concluded that “It would seem that a dissolution of the Federal Union is inevitable…” He informed the city’s leaders that “We must provide for the new relations… With our aggrieved brethren of the Slave States, we have friendly relations and a common sympathy…. “ He told them that the city had more to fear from Albany than from the Confederacy; “It is…folly to disguise the fact that…New York may have more cause of apprehension from the aggressive legislation of our own State than from external dangers….For the past five years, our interests and…rights have been repeatedly trampled upon. “ He warned that the state legislature was “the instrument by which we are plundered to enrich their…Abolition politicians.”9
This 1863 cartoon from the Republican paper Harper’s Weekly depicts Fernando Wood tearing the country in two.
The mayor gave his proposal to assert New York City’s rights, he said; “why should not New York City, instead of supporting by her contributions in revenue two-thirds of the expenses of the United States, become also…independent? As a free city, with but nominal duty on imports, her local Government could be supported without taxation upon her people. Thus we could live free from taxes…”10
For the first two years of the Civil War, Fernando Wood would use his pulpit to mold an anti-war constituency in New York’s working –class neighborhoods. He would tie the suffering of immigrant soldiers on the battlefields and the neglect of their families on the homefront to what he claimed was the favoring of blacks over poor whites by the Lincoln administration and a desire by Republican factory owners to replace the highly unionized Irish proletariat with docile former slaves. 11
Video: The Importance of Slavery to New York
Selections from Fernando Woods proposal that New York leave the Union:.
Fernando Wood, Mayor of New York City
To the Honorable the Common Council:
It would seem that a dissolution of the Federal Union is inevitable….If these forebodings shall be realized, and a separation of the States shall occur, momentous considerations will be presented to the corporate authorities of this city. We must provide for the new relations which will necessarily grow out of the new condition of public affairs.
With our aggrieved brethren of the Slave States, we have friendly relations and a common sympathy…. It is…folly to disguise the fact that…New York may have more cause of apprehension from the aggressive legislation of our own State than from external dangers….For the past five years, our interests and corporate rights have been repeatedly trampled upon.
Thus it will be seen that the political connection between the people of the city and the State has been used by the latter to our injury. The Legislature, in which the present partizan majority has the power, has become the instrument by which we are plundered to enrich their speculators, lobby agents, and Abolition politicians.
[W]hy should not New York city, instead of supporting by her contributions in revenue two—thirds of the expenses of the United States, become also equally independent? As a free city, with but nominal duty on imports, her local Government could be supported without taxation upon her people. Thus we could live free from taxes, and have cheap goods nearly duty free. In this she would have the whole and united support of the Southern States, as well as all the other States to whose interests and rights under the Constitution she has always been true.
1. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 byEdwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace (1998); The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America by Barnet Schecter (2007); The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1990; Five Points: The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum by Tyler Anbinder published by Simon and Schuster (2001); The Tiger: The Rise And Fall Of Tammany Hall by Oliver E. Allen published by De Capo Press 1993; Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788–1850 (1984).
2. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace (1998) p. 737.
3. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace (1998) p. 752
4. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace (1998)
5. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace (1998) p. 849-850
6. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace (1998) p. 860- 867
7. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace (1998) p. 867.
8. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace (1998)
9. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace (1998); Letter of Wood to Common Council January 06, 1861
10. Wood said that New York City supplied 2/3 of Federal revenues. This was because at the time most Federal revenues were from tariffs on imports and New York was the leading port. Although the taxes were paid in New York, they were ultimately paid for by customers in other states. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace (1998); Letter of Wood to Common Council January 06, 1861
11. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 byEdwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace (1998)
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites