Cpl. Brownell of the 11th New York "Fire" Zouave infantry regiment. Awarded the Medal of Honor for killing the man who shot his officer Elmer Ellsworth. Here you can see the European (French) style of uniform that was adopted by the regiment, Zouaves were very common on the Union Side (especially from New York) but would have many of their uniforms swapped out for blue coats by the end of the war. Source: https://i.redd.it/frsl2ac15iyy.jpg

New York in the Civil War

The American Civil war was a conflict in which almost a million Americans died fighting each other. Every single part of the nation was affected deeply, some more than others. Yet one of the most interesting histories of the American Civil War comes from New York City. A city made up of hundreds of different religions, classes, and ethnicities had to respond to the call to a war of rights. This war would take its toll on the city and the state, as it did everywhere, but the citizens would end up doing more damage to their own city then the Confederacy ever would. The city of New York during this difficult time period was an interesting place, with people clamoring for secession or independence throughout the city, tens of thousands of young men being formed into union regiments for the war effort, and thousands of citizens rioting to protest conscription laws. New York City has always been an interesting place, but during the 1860’s it was more of an exploding cannon than a melting pot.

The idea of southern secession was a nightmare for most New York City businessmen. New York City was one of the major commerce capitals of the world in the 1860’s, and it has stayed that way since. Now this is important because much commerce and southern business went through the ports in New York City. The American south was one of the few places in the world that mass produced cotton, and this cotton created the clothing of France and Great Britain. With this valuable trade lost, much of the businessmen in New York would find themselves suffering greatly.[1] This caused a lot of anti-war sentiment, as well as a movement for New York independence sponsored by the then mayor Fernando Wood, who suggested the creation of the Free city of Tri-Insula. This early war bashing of heads between pro and anti-war was very much a New York thing. Not many other places in the country had mixed sentiments on the matter and were hardline for one or the other faction. Yet New York City was important for the war effort, so there was no way it could be independent. Money, industry, and manpower all poured out from New York and into the hands of the Union government.

Many regiments of the American military during the Civil War came from New York State, and much of that population came from the city. Twenty one percent of the men in the state would join the union army throughout the Civil War. Many of these regiments were formed communally, meaning there were Irish brigades, German brigades, French brigades, Italian brigades and Scottish highlander brigades. New York City’s cultural diversity was carrying over to the battlefields of the American South. The cultural diversity that could be found in different sections of the city could be found in the battlefields of the American Civil War. Irish soldiers carried green flags, emblazoned with Gold harps. Scottish regiments wore plaid pants, and every regiment with an ethnic background carried with it something that made it unique. Yet one of the most interesting of these regiments were the 11th New York Volunteer infantry, or the New York “fire” zouaves.

Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth was a young New Yorker who by twenty-four had an accomplished career. He had worked in law, which he learned from Abraham Lincoln, and drilled with a local militia in New York. When the war broke out in 1861, he and his militia joined up, and his regiment was dubbed the 11th New York Infantry. He styled his soldiers after the French zouave soldier and dressed them in the bright and classy apparel. His regiment was comprised almost entirely of firefighters from New York City, young men who volunteered in their local fire brigades who sought glory in war. However, they would be some of the first to learn that in war there is nothing to be found but death and a scarred generation. The first New Yorker of this regiment to learn the severity of war was Ellsworth himself, as he went to take down a rebel flag in Alexandria, the home’s owner fired at him with a double barreled shotgun, making him the first Officer to die in the American Civil War. As the man who killed Ellsworth fired his next shot, Cpl. Brownell fired his rifle and killed the owner. This act would later see the New Yorker rewarded with the Congressional Medal of Honor, while Ellsworth would become a martyr and symbol to the union cause.[2]

The 11th New York continued on with their new commanding officer, and their regiment of New York city firemen turned into fancily dressed soldiers were notoriously rowdy. As these men came from the island of vice that never sleeps, they carried with them the same bawdy demeanor throughout Virginia. This caused many of them to be temporarily imprisoned, sent to other regiments, or disciplined by officers. Many of them wore parts of their firemen’s uniforms combined with their sharp zouave uniforms and thus were dubbed the New York “fire” regiment by those around them, and many historians thereafter. Yet it would not all be fun and games as these men were soon to find out; they had lost their commanding officer but would soon lose much more.

The first Battle of Bull Run would be a wake-up call for most of the nation. This was the first major battle of the war, and many were about to die. The Confederate forces under the superior leadership of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and his subordinates held throughout the entire battle and beat back any Union advances. The Union army would eventually break, and their retreat would need to be covered. This is where the 11th New York came in. These brave New Yorkers turned soldiers stood as the rear guard of the army and held out under withering fire against Confederate forces. Row after row of New Yorkers fell into a bloody heap on the field until the retreat was at a safe distance. This was just the start of a long and brutal war for many New Yorkers who would now rush to join the union army.[3]

As the war grew in severity over the years and tens of thousands of men began to die, the pressure on the Union to recruit more men was going to be felt all throughout the country, but especially in New York. The draft laws said that those who did not wish to get drafted could pay 300 dollars to have someone else take their place.[4] This did not sit well with many who could not afford this fee and felt that they had no choice but to fight and die because of their economic status. On top of this, the recent emancipation proclamation, combined with the formation of the USCT which allowed black men to enlist in the army, created a hostile environment in New York as racial tensions skyrocketed. Poor white working class (mainly Irish) began to protest at the idea of free black people taking their low wage jobs although there had been no evidence this was going to happen. These working-class whites began to riot throughout the city, causing much destruction throughout. “We have had great riots in New York today and I thought they were exaggerated”[5]. The rioting became so bad that President Lincoln ordered multiple regiments to leave Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and go to New York to stop the rioting. Many gangs in the city also took this chaos as a moment to go to war with each other, and spilled each other’s blood in the streets, which is famously depicted in the movie Gangs of New York. Mob members killed police, police killed members in the mob, poor whites attacked and killed black citizens, soldiers fired into crowds, it was complete and total chaos. The damage the city sustained costed well over a hundred million modern day dollars to repair, and the deaths caused during the riot were pointless. It took thousands of Union soldiers to restore order in the city again. The riot was so huge that in order to tackle it, the Union army treated it as a battle with a full order of battle and dispatched strategic orders on which streets to take first, instead of just marching in and trying to take order.[6]

This New York of the past can tell us much about the New York of today. It shows us the importance of New York city’s economy, the importance of its diversity, and the importance of New Yorkers themselves. New York City is not only one of the most important cities in the world but one of the most important historical sites in the world. It lives and breathes its history every single day. There are a million things that can be said about the city that never sleeps, but what should be said more is that New Yorkers are some of the strongest people the world has to offer, and some of the most sensational. The American Civil War put the entire country to the test. It tested the wills of everyone involved. The family losing a son, or brother, the businessman losing his entire business, the soldier losing a limb to a minieball or doctor’s saw, it was one of the greatest tests to ever be thrown at the country. Yet the Union prevailed, and New York city is one of the major reasons for this. The major investment of manpower through over two hundred regiments of infantry combined with New York’s industry and financial infrastructure all helped to reform the Union. Because of New Yorkers like Elmer Ellsworth, who gave their lives for their city and their Union, the nation New York calls home is still around today. Even in the draft riots we see a flash of the New York today. A city famous for its various ethnic groups, its competition, mobs, crowds, risks and rewards, and crime. In New York there is everything, and although the American Civil War was just a footnote in the great history of the city, it should not be forgotten behind other great achievements. Thousands of New Yorkers died to preserve the union, but the New York fighting spirit kept the Union going along the way to victory.


[1] Jaffe, Steven H., and Jessica Lautin. “THE CIVIL WAR: 1861–1865.” In Capital of Capital: Money, Banking, and Power in New York City, 1784-2012, 66-89. New York; Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University Press, 2014. Accessed February 19, 2020. doi:10.7312/jaff16910.8.


[2] Coddington, Ronald S., Michael J. McAfee, and Ron Field. “Elmer Ellsworth, Haute Couturier?: A Previously Unknown Portrait of the Union Martyr Offers Insight into His Design Method.” Military Images 36, no. 2 (2018)

[3] Correspondence, etc. Union”. The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official                                                                                              Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume II, Chapter IX. United States Department of War. 1880. Retrieved March 17, 2008. Correspondence, etc. Union”. The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume II, Chapter IX. United States Department of War. 1880. Retrieved March 17, 2008.


[4] Dupree, A. Hunter, and Leslie H. Fishel. “An Eyewitness Account of the New York Draft Riots, July, 1863.” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 47


[5] Dupree, A. Hunter, and Leslie H. Fishel. “An Eyewitness Account of the New York Draft Riots, July, 1863.

[6] Joyce, Toby. “New York Draft Riots 1863.” History Ireland 12, no. 1 (2004): 13.

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