Meet the Copperheads — A Brief History of New York City’s Civil War Pro-Confederate Movement

A Harper’s magazine cartoon depicting pro-Confederate New Yorkers as venomous copperhead snakes. The name stuck.

“A number of New York’s most prominent citizens, including the city’s own mayor, quietly supported the Southern cause and for a time even openly advocated secession.”

IN 1860, New York City was seen by many as the commercial, cultural and industrial epicentre of the United States. Its bustling streets, lively wharfs and booming mills and workshops seemed to embody the very modernity and prosperity that characterized the whole of the North.

Yet surprisingly, when rebellion split the Republic the following year, many in this quintessentially ‘Yankee’ metropolis balked at the prospect of fighting to preserve the Union. In fact, a number of New York’s most prominent citizens quietly supported the Southern cause and for a time even openly advocated secession.

One of them was the city’s own mayor, Fernando Wood.

Fernando Wood.

The 49-year-old former Democratic Congressman, along with an assortment of anti-war businessmen with southern ties known collectively as Copperheads, rightly feared that a conflict between North and South would impair the city’s lucrative trade with cotton growers below the Mason Dixon Line.

Some Copperheads even pushed for New York to itself withdraw from the Union, declare the city neutral and continue to trade with the Confederacy. To that end, in 1861, Wood sent envoys to Richmond and was in communication with the leaders of six southern states.

An 1860s political cartoon lampooning New York City mayor Fernando Wood.

And it wasn’t just the Big Apple’s elites that were opposed to the war — many rank and file New Yorkers, particularly recent immigrants from Europe, had little interest in the conflict as well.

Many newcomers felt the war didn’t concern them, while others feared that a Southern defeat would lead to an influx of freed slaves that would create additional competition for jobs and drive wages down.

Eventually, President Lincoln arranged a trip to New York to bring the truculent mayor in line. Shortly after the meeting, Wood toned down the rhetoric and backed away from New York independence. The following year, voters placed a local Republican and staunch Unionist named George Opdyke in the mayor’s office.

Violence erupts in the streets of New York as anti-conscription rioters, clash with federal troops.

The Draft Riots

While the secession scare may have ended early in the war, a surprising number of New Yorkers were still hostile to the conflict in general. When in July of 1863, Congress authorized conscription, New York exploded into three days of bloody riots. Angry mobs attacked and killed free blacks by the dozens and even burned a hospital for African American orphans. Militia units that were rushed into the city were quickly reinforced by regular infantry and artillery fresh from the field at Gettysburg. Authorities temporarily suspended conscription in New York while the federal troops cracked down on the mobs. More than 120 died in the unrest; at least 2,000 were injured.

New York volunteers in a Union army camp, circa 1861.

New York Pitches In

Despite the turmoil, other New Yorkers were enthusiastic contributors to what some labelled as Mr. Lincoln’s War. More than 150,000 citizens of the Big Apple flocked to the Union colours, while another 50,000 enlisted in the navy. Noted outfits like the 10th and 11th New York Volunteer Infantry and the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters were all formed in New York. The city itself also financially supported the Union – New Yorkers contributed $150 million to the war effort.

Southern Terrorism

While the Big Apple was initially seen by many as a hotbed for southern sympathy, Confederate agents planned a series of attacks on the city in 1864 – ostensibly to disrupt the federal election that year. While the operation, which targeted a series of Manhattan hotels on voting day, was thwarted by an informant within the Rebel cell itself, a follow-up attack in late November did see a number of buildings burn, including a museum belonging to circus magnate P.T. Barnum. The fires were all doused before too much damage was inflicted and the agents fled north to Canada.

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