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March 7, 2011
A Grim Forecast for New York CityBy Greyhawk
Alternative histories of the Civil War have been popular for many years. Modern author Harry Turtledove has produced several titles in the genre, which seems to attract non-full time writers, too. Newt Gingrich has co-authored a series. Even US Civil War buff/future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill tried his hand at it back in 1930, with a magazine piece asking what if Lee had won at Gettysburg. (Churchill's answer, condensed: The South takes Washington, frees their slaves - thereby ending European moral opposition to their cause - and wins the Civil War. North and South continue a tense relationship for years, but at last learn to live in peace under US President Teddy Roosevelt and Confederate President Woodrow Wilson. The two nations then combine with Great Britain to peacefully resolve "the European crisis of 1914, which followed the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand" and prevent what could have been a horrific global war: "It was said that Germany's Kaiser received the news with a scream of joy, and fell exhausted into a chair, exclaiming: "Saved! Saved! Saved!" Thus was a European war avoided which could have resulted in the deaths of millions of people. Kaiser Wilhelm II became one of the most respected elder statesmen of Europe." While complex and imaginative - Churchill chose to write from the perspective of an author in a world where Lee had won at Gettysburg, and titled his piece "What if Lee Had Not Won at Gettysburg" - the result is not among the eventual Nobel Prize for Literature winner's better efforts...)
But before them all came Edmund Ruffin's Anticipations for the Future, to Serve as Lessons for the Present Time. Ruffin's book could be called the first example of Civil War alt-history - except it was written before the Civil War. The Virginia author published his work in June, 1860, just a few weeks after the new Republican Party had nominated Abraham Lincoln as their candidate for president over New York's William Seward. Ruffin predicted Lincoln would take the White House, but not all his forecasts were that accurate. His notion that the Civil War would begin after Lincoln was replaced by Seward in 1864 is one example. (That the South would win is another - but hey, maybe if they'd done things Ruffin's way...) Still, much of his work can be called prescient, and most - if not all - of what he got wrong can nonetheless be viewed as insight to the conventional wisdom of the immediate pre-Civil War day.
And much of the thinking reflected was not limited to the minds of those gentlemen living south of the Mason-Dixon. Ruffin's description of the economic impact of secession on the North...
Added to the loss of trade of the northern states, is the want of employment for their shipping, in place of the virtual monopoly formerly enjoyed of all the southern carryingtrade. And worst of all, are the effects now felt by the merchants and manufacturers of the North of the forty millions due them from the South, and sequestrated by the government of the new confederacy, for as long time as the war shall continue.
...matched the anticipations (fears, in their case) of those New York City businessmen whose very lives were dependent on the commerce described.
While one anticipated result of that economic downturn he described ("as many as one-fourth of all the usually laboring and self-supporting poor of the great northern cities, and throughout the manufacturing rural districts, are now paupers and beggars") was not their primary concern, in the real world - then as now - New York's elite had their money in the bank and their voters in the slums (but had no illusions regarding the limits of their control over either) and recognized a threat to one as a threat to both.
More from Ruffin:
And the 30,000 to 40,000 able-bodied men of this class, who burden and terrify each of the great cities of Philadelphia, New York and Boston, are not meek and humble, but sturdy and insolent beggars... There are daily assemblages, or processions of the unemployed poor, in the cities where they are most numerous, to show their numbers and strength to the rich, as a significant warning. On one late occasion such a "hunger procession" of 40,000 men, marched through the wealthier streets of New York, and took especial care to exhibit their strength in the Fifth Avenue of sumptuous palaces, the chief place of residence of the "merchant princes" of that great and rich city.
"To hunger processions there soon succeeded hunger mobs and riots, in which food only was seized at first, but in which the actors soon proceeded to plunder other moveable property, and especially money and other valuables," Ruffin wrote. No New Yorker would need his description to add to their ever-present concern, and they certainly wouldn't laugh at the idea. The panic of 1857 was still a fresh memory, and a very real one.
By September 1857 estimates of New York unemployment ran as high as forty thousand. By late October Hunt's Merchant Magazine calculated the figure in Manhattan and Brooklyn had risen to a hundred thousand.
That's not a passage from Ruffin's imagination, it's from a 21st Century history of the city. The year 1857 - in which New Yorkers had already seen Fernando Wood's police riots followed by gang battles in Five Points - did not end on a high note, and unlike those earlier episodes, this time Wood saw no friendly faces in the mob...
"Gaunt men and women, clad in tatters, gathered in the Park, and that most fearful of all cries, when raised by a mob, "Bread," arose on every side," recalled historian J.T. Headley in 1873.
Propositions were made to break open the stores, and get what they needed. Flour was hoarded up in them because so little could be got on from the West. The granaries there were groaning with provisions; but there was no money to pay for the transportation. There was money East, but kept locked up in fear. As this became known to the mob, their exasperation increased. To know that there were both food enough and money enough, while they were starving to death, was enough to drive them mad, and there were ominous mutterings. Fortunately, the authorities saw in time the threatened danger, and warded it off. A great many were set to work on the Central Park and other public works, while souphouses were opened throughout the city, and private associations formed to relieve the suffering; and the winter passed without any outbreak...
The ink had barely dried on the newspapers that reported those stories when Ruffin published Anticipations; Manhattanites can thus be forgiven for believing such dire predictions were anything but far-fetched.
In Ruffin's work, early riots are put down by military force - and by recruiting members of the unemployed masses into the army instead of employing them in public works - but that short-term fix doesn't reverse the North's economic death spiral, and soon "new and much more alarming riots occurred in the cities..."
An edited version of Ruffin's anticipation of the fate of the Empire City in the Civil War:
In New York the rioters and plunderers, even in advance of seizing food or money, rushed to the shops where fire-arms and ammunition were sold, and from them, and from all the private houses subsequently entered, procured as large supplies as could be obtained. The arsenals of two of the volunteer military companies also were broken open, and all the arms carried off...
"The reports of all the circumstances of this awful event," added Ruffin, "even induced the commiseration of all but the most embittered of the southern foes." But in Ruffin's world there is no economic recovery for the North after the South wins the war, and "many northern residents predict... that the site of New York will remain, as now, overspread by the ruins left by the conflagration."
That's an edited version, lacking many of the details Ruffin provided, such as the wealthy and their children being murdered in their homes and streets. It's difficult to read Ruffin's detail-rich full account of the fate of New York City without concluding that his purpose was to terrify rich Northerners. How well that worked is debatable. As we've seen, in New York City they had reason for concern whether they read his work or not. Beyond that, if his larger purpose was to get New Yorkers to oppose Republicans they didn't need his help in that regard, either. If his even larger purpose was to prevent (and if so he seems a bit too enthusiastic about the course of events described) civil war he - like anyone else who wanted to, regardless of method - can only be called a failure.
As to where he went wrong in his description of the city-destroying riots, it's at least in part due to his jaundiced view of the potential rioters: the North's poor and near-poor (working poor) class. They weren't quite the plague of class-envying, murderous thugs overflowing every city in the North and threatening the decent citizens that he believed they were. He must have based his expectations of them on what he'd heard of them - though his mistake might have been to assume that New York was exemplary of all cities of the North. Perhaps that lack of first-hand knowledge accounts for his mistakes - he knew no such people personally because there were no such people in the South, Ruffin was convinced, and thus the problem would never exist there - because they had slaves instead of people of this class. (Stalin and Hitler would have loved this guy.)
But such people did (and do) exist - everywhere, and in New York City even the smallest minorities number in the tens of thousands. What might have happened if - per Ruffin's forecast - the economy plunged downward and stayed there is fodder for other writers of what-if scenarios - it didn't happen in the real world, where war on a scale previously unimaginable proved profitable on a scale previously unimaginable, too. Still, his anticipation for New York City wasn't completely wrong. Those are his words above, but the illustrations aren't from his book; they depict events during New York City's Civil War "draft riots" of 1863, when tens of thousands of New Yorkers did much of what Ruffin said they were capable of (and during which heavy rain saved much of the city from burning; Ruffin failed to predict the weather...) and are taken from Headley's Great Riots of New York, published ten years after they actually occurred.
The tendency to define a group by the example of its worst members (or best, if its your group) is an all-too-human trait that's led to many disasters (large and small) throughout history. But if Ruffin's "low class Yankee trash rioting" prediction was mistaken - at least in degree - for most of the North, he was almost proven right in New York City in 1863. But in that case Ruffin's mistakes include underestimating both the ability of that metropolis at that time to absorb and recover from violent blows (one can almost look at earlier panics and riots as "practice" in that regard) and the capability of the US Army - built on the caliber of the men (drafted and otherwise) who comprised that force.
There is, however, one superior military advantage, or nursery for soldiers, which the northern states have, in the many thousands of the vagrant, destitute, and vicious population, and worst nuisances of their great cities. For materials for a regular or standing army, and for a long, protracted war, requiring regular forces, these men, good for nothing else, and dangerous at home, would offer a valuable supply. But such soldiers, would be destitute of every higher quality than mere physical force and obedience (if under the strictest discipline) to despotic military rule. For any moral or patriotic principle of conduct, or as volunteers, the free negroes of the South would be as respectable; and with the like necessary military rule and discipline, perhaps, would be equal in military array and conduct to the northern loafer and convict soldiers.
Ruffin's "free negroes of the South" taking arms to defend their former masters' "property rights" were a greater fantasy than the conscripted dregs and vestiges of northern slums he imagined them fighting to the death - neither he nor any southerner staked their hopes for victory on that absurdity. But his fatally flawed view of the northern army was universal throughout the South at the time, and persisted throughout the war.
In their memoirs, Union veterans would describe an army the exact opposite of the one Ruffin imagined:
Almost every known trade, profession, or calling, has its representative in our regiment--tailors and carpenters, masons and plasterers, moulders and glass-blowers, pudlers and rollers, machinists and architects, printers, book-binders, and publishers; gentlemen of leisure, politicians, merchants, legislators, judges, lawyers, doctors, preachers,--some malicious fellow might ask the privilege of completing the catalogue by naming jailbirds, idlers, loafers, drunkards, and gamblers; but we beg his pardon, and refuse the license. Were all this talent, skill and energy set to work, a city could speedily be reared, and all the multiplied appliances of civilized life set in motion and successfully carried on within the compass of a single regiment.
That example from Alexander Morrison Stewart, who published his account in 1865, the year the war ended. Through the decades that followed others would abound, including Leander Stillwell's memoirs, written after his career on the bench and published in the early twentieth century. All could be accused of bias, of course, but whatever its composition, in the end the Union army won the war. But before that day came, some units, recently dispatched to Gettysburg, would wheel around and march on (or back to) New York City, to quell the very real riots there.
The outcome is rarely obvious during any war, and certainly the North didn't march to war convinced their southern counterparts were the superior soldiers of an unbeatable army - no nation would. They too were convinced of the opposite. But Ruffin's opinion of the bulk of the Union army as vagrant, destitute loafers and convict soldiers good for nothing else and dangerous at home - and destined for a beating - not only prevailed through (and sustained) the South but gained popularity in the North (especially among northern Democrats, whose enthusiasm for the conflict plunged rapidly after its first few weeks) even as Sherman's army approached the sea. That didn't prevent victory, but it hardly helped the cause; Grant and Sherman would address the issue in their memoirs but, as with the recollections of the more "common" soldiers, obviously too late to sway public opinion during the war.
Unfortunately, that view of American soldiers as inferior beings persists. Ruffin didn't invent it, he merely documented - and helped popularize - what would prove to be wishful thinking. Call it a byproduct of a slave-owner mentality (something not unique to slave owners), it has no geographic boundary and remains fixed in the minds of many today.
Of course, if Stewart's description is the more accurate, his jailbirds, idlers, loafers, drunkards, and gamblers - Ruffin's vagrant, destitute loafers, dangerous at home - were at home, with many of the "city builders" occupied elsewhere.
The bulk of Ruffin's book describes his anticipations for an imagined future, but it concludes with his "Lessons for the Present Time." In that section he urges the slave states to secede without hesitation or delay. Among his explanations why he thought that a great idea: "...there will be much less probability, after a separation, of any important insurrection of our slaves, with even temporary and short-lived success, than there will be of the great cities of Boston, New York and Philadephia, and others, being sacked and burnt, and their wealthiest inhabitants massacred, by their own destitute, vicious, and desperate population..."
If they didn't rise up, Ruffin saw nothing wrong with helping them along: "Suppose that there existed in the southern states organized, numerous and rich associations... whose avowed object and whose continual action and effort through secret emissaries, were to persuade the destitute and suffering people of the North that they had equal rights to the riches and luxuries of their cities and of the world--that they were defrauded of their just rights and starved and made wretched by the actual possessors of wealth, and that they ought, and easily and safely and honestly could, take their full shares of the wealth of others ... all the probable consequences of massacre, conflagration and irregular appropriation of the property in dispute, would be the fault of the previous property-holders, and not of their former destitute victims, who could in no other way obtain their rights..."
Next: The View From Park Row offers a different perspective on the future...
Posted by Greyhawk / March 7, 2011 9:02 AM | Permalink
"Streetcars on Park Row, circa 1860," reads the caption accompanying this photo on the New York Times web site. "The large building in the background is the headquarters of The New York Times." It was a new building then, built just for the Times, and... Read More
Virginian Edmund Ruffin - the man who forecast the Civil War - became an urban legend in his own time. Seventy-four years old at the outbreak of the war, he was credited with firing the first shot at Ft Sumter and the critical shot that turned Union r... Read More
The end of April, 2006 - five years ago in Iraq - US Army Captain Dan Sukman was asked if he thought the country was in a civil war:I have chosen to reserve judgment for the next 150 years. If in 150 years I return to Iraq and everyone in Baghdad is dr... Read More
So there I was, writing about the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War (though the story of Fernando Wood has obvious parallels to our modern world...), when all of a sudden we got involved in the Libyan Civil War, and captured Osama bin Laden.... Read More
November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
The Mudville Gazette is the on-line voice of an American warrior and his wife who stands by him. They prefer to see peaceful change render force of arms unnecessary. Until that day they stand fast with those who struggle for freedom, strike for reason, and pray for a better tomorrow.
Furthermore, I will occasionally use satire or parody herein. The bottom line: it's my house.
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