War And Rememberance: History Of Civil War In Westchester

In America’s bloodiest war, no blood was spilled in battle on New York soil. But that doesn’t mean the state didn’t play a role.

“The Civil War was fought in 10,000 places, from Valverde, New Mexico, and Tullahoma, Tennessee, to St. Albans, Vermont, and Fernandina on the Florida coast,” say Geoffrey C. Ward, Ken Burns, and Ric Burns in their epic documentary history of the Civil War. Yet not one of those 10,000 places was in New York State. In America’s bloodiest war, no blood was spilled in battle on New York soil. 

But New York played a critical role in America’s defining conflict. New York was, at the time, the nation’s wealthiest and most populous state. It was considered by many to be the intellectual center of the war’s predominant arguments of abolition and secession. New York State sent more money, more supplies, and more soldiers and suffered more casualties than any other state. In fact, one of the first of an estimated 620,000 soldiers to die in the Civil War was from New York State; he was killed accidentally when a pile of ammunition exploded during a 100-gun salute marking the lowering of the US flag at Fort Sumter before the Confederates took over.

Despite this heroic effort, the lower Hudson Valley had, at best, conflicted feelings about the war. Both Westchester and Putnam Counties voted against Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election and were labeled “secessionists” in more than a few newspapers. While the war’s biggest draft riots occurred to the south, in New York City, and to the north, in Troy, New York, lesser insurrections occurred around Westchester since wealthy residents of the county spent upwards of $4 million to hire others to take their places in the draft. 

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As the sesquicentennial of the war’s end draws to a close, it’s worth remembering how Westchester County was in many ways the most emblematic region in the country of both the better and the worse angels of our nature. 

Antebellum Westchester

In 1860, Westchester County was much larger than it is now (it included all of the Bronx), but, with about 100,000 residents, it had just a fraction of today’s population. In the North, farmland; in the South, industries such as iron foundries, sawmills, textile makers, and gun factories. Those geographic and economic differences, much like today, colored political views. The rural North supported Lincoln, but the more populous industrial South sided with New York City, and the three major Westchester newspapers (the Eastern State Journal of White Plains, the Yonkers Herald, and the Highland Democrat of Peekskill), in opposing him.

The Civil War Monument in Peekskill

“Westchester more than any other county in the state was divided in sentiments to South and North,” says Vernon Benjamin, author of The History of the Hudson River Valley from Wilderness to the Civil War. “The county was a sort of Mason-Dixon line for the state, running roughly through Tarrytown.”

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The Eastern State Journal was particularly virulent in opposing abolition, stating, “The Black Republicans…have declared that Negroes are the equals of white men, and entitled to the same political and social privileges. Let white men, on Tuesday, repel this foul slander by their votes.” After the 1860 election, the newspaper ran a large-print notice under its masthead that read, “Mr. Lincoln is not the United States Government. The Government is ours, and we owe allegiance to it: Mr. Lincoln is not ours, and we do not owe allegiance to him. Mr. Lincoln’s term of office is brief and fleeting; the Government, we hope, will last forever.”

The new president made his first of just two “official” visits to Westchester County on February 19, 1861, when he stopped in Peekskill on his way from Springfield, Illinois, to his inauguration in Washington, DC, as a favor to Westchesterite William Nelson, a former US congressman and friend. (Lincoln also passed through the county on the way to West Point for a secret “unofficial” visit during the war.) It’s unknown if the crowd was for or against Lincoln; he had lost the county’s vote, to the Union-Electoral “Anti-Lincoln” party, by a wide margin.

The attack on Fort Sumter, though, changed everything. The call for volunteers from both the federal and state governments was heeded throughout the state, including in the lower Hudson Valley. “Plenty of men joined the war even if they were not fond of Lincoln,” says Patrick Raftery, librarian for the Westchester Historical Society. “They didn’t feel that they were fighting for abolition. They were more likely to describe themselves as fighting to preserve the Union.”

Anti-Lincoln sentiment in the White Plains-based Eastern State Journal

A company of men that was designated Company B, 17th Infantry, was mustered in Port Chester and became known as the “Westchester Chausseurs.” (Chausseur is a French word, meaning “hunter,” used to describe light infantry.) In Yonkers, the 6th New York Heavy Artillery formed. The 4th New York Cavalry, the 5th Independent Battery, and the 1st Mounted Rifles also included large contingents of Westchester volunteers, as did other companies that mustered in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York City, and farther upstate. 

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Related: Book chronicles the rise and fall of the Hills, once Westchester’s largest African American community

Along with the loss of men off to war, many local industries suffered economic losses initially. Some sold their goods to Southern markets, while others, like the textile industry, needed Southern supplies, and all of them lost a lot of business. As early as November 1861, the Westchester County Board of Supervisors began receiving petitions for war relief, and, on March 1, 1862, the Board passed a $50,000 bond to help families of volunteers. They were given between $1 and $4 a week, and some got an additional $1 per child—up to a cap of $7. The Town of Eastchester then had to pass a resolution after it was discovered that only three of the families receiving relief were actually residents of the town. War fraud: It was ever thus.

“Fueled by booze and fury”

In March 1863, the state passed its first draft, calling all men between the ages of 20 and 45. However, they could avoid service by paying a $300 fee or finding someone else to take their place. This, of course, favored the wealthy—it, too, was ever thus—and the less well-off, already fearful of losing jobs to freed Southern slaves and returning soldiers, rioted.

 “The potential for chaos and violence was much greater in Westchester than anywhere else in the state, particularly below Croton,” Benjamin says. As an example of the tensions, Benjamin, in his book, points to a Westchester resident at the time named Daniel MacFarlan, who wrote in his journal, “Here is a dreadful state of affairs. The Government is responsible for the whole of it. The $300 clause is where the trouble lies. Rich men can get clear of the draft while the poor are obliged to go.”

The most famous draft riots were in New York City and Troy, but enrolling offices in Westchester were looted by mobs that burned draft lists and destroyed railroad tracks as far as Yonkers. Another mob marched from Tuckahoe to Mount Vernon, intending to burn the houses of all Republicans for their support of Lincoln and the war. They stopped at Gould’s Hotel in Mount Vernon for a drink, though, and were talked out of their rampage. The wife of newspaper editor Horace Greeley, who lived in Chappaqua, rigged her own house with explosives to protect it from a mob of 300 or so, “fueled by booze and their own rising fury”; as Benjamin writes, the mob was bent on revenge for Greeley’s support of the draft and criticism of the New York riots in that week’s Tribune (Greeley’s paper). Fear of more rioting led the towns of Yonkers and Tarrytown to form local militias to, as was written in militia regulations, “defend the Persons and Property of the Citizens of Westchester from riotous persons and mobs.”

The situation changed when local and state government switched to a bounty system, in which they paid men to volunteer and avoid the draft. Towns such as Eastchester levied a tax, “sufficient to raise the sum of three hundred dollars for such & every person drawn and accepted in the service of the United States,” Benjamin notes in his book. That sum went up to $450 per man by 1864. The town also added a resolution requiring those who took the local bounty, paid $300 to avoid the draft and then pocketed the difference, to refund their profiteering. (All together now: It was ever thus.)

On the home front

While the war raged elsewhere, Westchester residents helped where they could. This included the sizable African American population in Westchester, which numbered 2,000 in the 1850 census. Freed by New York law in 1827, they lived throughout the county, in New Rochelle,
Ossining, Rye, Yonkers, and, most notably, the Hills, a community in Harrison that began in the 1780s when Quakers and Methodists freed their slaves and settled them in the area near Silver Lake. Some of these free blacks enlisted in so-called colored regiments formed in Rhode Island and Connecticut, which served in Louisiana and fought in important battles
in Virginia. 

Women also pitched in. Some served as nurses in army hospitals, one of which operated on Davids Island off the coast of New Rochelle from 1862 to 1867 and also became a prison hospital for captured Confederates after Gettysburg. Women also headed up fundraising and relief efforts and formed “lint societies”—collecting lint off of old cotton clothing and bedding when cotton became scarce. 

As in all wars, some local businesses profited during the Civil War. “The Bronx River was an important industrial stream,” says Stephen Paul DeVillo, author of The Bronx River in History and Folklore. “It is one of the few streams near New York City with enough [vertical] fall to produce water power and power mills.” Already a center for textiles, rubber and leather goods, and explosives, the region experienced “a general uptick in all
kinds of industries related to the war,” DeVillo says.  

“Peace, magic word”

Lincoln won re-election in 1864, but he again lost handily in Westchester County, whose citizens preferred George McClellan, the dithering former head of the Union Army. McClellan’s eventual replacement, Ulysses S. Grant, however, orchestrated General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse soon thereafter. Upon hearing that happy news, Rye resident Cornelia Jay, the great-granddaughter of John Jay, the first chief justice of the US Supreme Court, wrote in her diary: “Last night I stayed awake till midnight. The silence of the street was broken by the cry of ‘Extra,’ ‘Surrender of Lee’s Army’… Peace, magic word, is on everybody’s lips.”

A week later came tragic words: Lincoln had been assassinated. Jay wrote another diary entry after attending church the following Sunday, which was Easter: “As [the Bishop] began, the bright sun clouded up, and he said it was a fit emblem of the cloud that had come over our Easter joy.” 

Though divisive in life, Lincoln was unifying in death. “He was deified as the Great Emancipator, and Westchester County shared that [sentiment] with everyone else in America,” Benjamin says. Lincoln’s funeral train passed through Westchester County on April 25, 1865—his second official visit—on its way to his burial in Springfield, Illinois. Residents crowded every station along the line to pay respects. In Ossining an arch over the tracks that read, “We Mourn A Nations [sic] Loss,” and at the Peekskill station, the New York Times reported, “Flags and mottoes were here displayed, and a band of music performed a funeral march, greatly adding to the solemnity of the scene.”

Postbellum Westchester

In the five years after the war, Westchester boomed. The total population grew by approximately 30 percent as the Industrial Revolution took hold and the county’s rural roots steadily withered and, eventually, died. “The end of the war helped spur suburbanization of the Bronx River Valley,” DeVillo says. “A lot of money went to the mercantile class during the war, so a lot of them had new or increased wealth and began buying miniature country estates.”

War veterans became a powerful force. They established a national association, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), which had at least 10 posts in the county. Veterans also began erecting monuments, and more than a dozen still stand throughout the county—including one dedicated to the Confederates in Mount Hope Cemetery in Hastings-on-Hudson, in a burial ground for those who left the ravaged South after the war. And a monument on Broadway in White Plains was built in 1872, despite the objections of the man whose home it fronted. J. Warren Tompkins even got a court order to stop construction, but Southern veterans who were sponsoring it had it built anyway, in just two hours, by firelight, after midnight. They made sure to turn the statue’s back to Tompkins’ home. 

Ossining pays tribute as President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train passes through on April 25, 1865.

If there is a lasting legacy to the county’s involvement in the Civil War, it may be dedication to military service. “In the Civil War, [Westchester citizens] weren’t abolitionists but felt that the preservation of the Union was important,” the Westchester Historical Society’s Raftery says. “They came back and put up monuments because they were quite proud of their service…I
think it’s reflective of the county’s service to the country.” 

David Levine, an Albany-based freelancer, is a contributing writer to Hudson Valley magazine. He has written for the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, American Heritage, and many other publications.

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