I had a meeting in the city today and afterward went to the nearby New York Central Library to do some research. The Conference on New York State History in Cooperstown is now just three weeks away. My presentation is on how Theodore Roosevelt Sr, William E. Dodge and other Republican leaders assisted in the Union war effort and then rebuilt the city in their own image when the fighting ended. A mistake many people make is to think of New York history, especially New York City history, in vacuum, placing it outside the scope of wider events in our national story. It is understandable in a way; the city is so complicated and densely layered that it is easy to think of it as its own thing. I am trying to avoid that in my discussion. Overall I feel pretty good about how the talk is coming along.
Another reason I was at the library was to get ready for the upcoming season at Governors Island National Monument. It reopens next Saturday, Memorial Day Weekend, and will be open to the public on weekends and holiday Mondays through the end of September. This week I re-read chunks of Barnet Schecter’s The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America. I find Schecter’s book helpful because he puts the draft riots into broad context without losing sight of the scale and human cost of the violence. It is difficult to wrap one’s mind around the idea that thousands of individuals battled in the streets of Manhattan against, not just police, but battle-conditioned American soldiers. And these weren’t just angry mobs. The rioters showed tremendous tenacity, organization, and unity of purpose, and sustained it for nearly a week before eventually succumbing to hastily-gathered greater force. The rioters also had, if not the support, at least the sympathy of many political and intellectual leaders, including important newspaper publishers. In all these ways the New York draft were similar to the fighting in Europe during the failed revolutions of 1848 and the carnage of the Paris Commune in 1871. I don’t know if it is a stretch–maybe not–but Schecter argues that Reconstruction began with the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863. He carries the story into the 1870s, which is something too few “Civil War” books manage to accomplish. I wanted to re-read the book to refresh my memory and get some new insights to incorporate into my Interpretation at Governors Island this season. Much of the military response to the rioting came from the Department of the East headquarters there in the harbor. These are the types of things I am exploring as I get ready for Cooperstown and for the Governors Island season.