New York at War: Four Centuries of Combat, Fear, and Intrigue in Gotham
(Basic Books, 2012)
In Jules Dassin’s 1948 black-and-white noir classic, The Naked City, the narrator ends the film with the famous lines: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” Steven Jaffe’s well-written and very informative work, New York at War, is also one of those stories.
There are many ways to capture the monumental character of New York’s four centuries of evolution from an insignificant Dutch outpost in the New World to the capital of the 20th century. One could examine its architecture, the waves of migrants and immigrants who’ve remade the city, and the changing character of its grand 1%. Each offers a unique insight into a vital strand of a complex narrative, one that few authors have been able to satisfactorily embrace. (The only comprehensive narrative account remains Ted Burrows and Mike Wallace’s 1998 classic, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, which runs some 1,400 pages and ends with the formation of the modern city of five boroughs.)
Jaffe approaches the city from the perspective of war, examining how war has affected the city’s changing fortunes. His account starts from the murder of one of Henry Hudson’s sailors at the hands of the native Lenape people in 1609. It ends with the 9/11 attacks.
As he solemnly notes, “September 11, 2001, of course, changed everything.” He describes, often in very revealing detail, a half-dozen or so war episodes (e.g., Revolution, Civil War, World War II) and the economic and social consequences for the city. He reveals how the city both benefited and suffered as the nation’s figurative capital. In the decade since 9/11, this role, as represented by Wall Street, has only gotten stronger.
Jaffe is a scholar associated with the South Street Seaport Museum and the New-York Historical Society. He sometimes takes a lot for granted from readers. During the colonial and early-Republic era, much of the city’s fortunes were tied to the sea trade. However, many readers, especially landlubbers, would not know the difference between a frigate, sloop, schooner, or other vessels he discusses. A footnote distinguishing these ships would have been helpful.
New York at War begins with Henry Hudson sailing into the harbor. Jaffe recounts how Hudson and his men encountered a group of Lenape Indians, engaged in a bloody skirmish in which one of his crew, John Coleman, was killed. This incident set the tone of European engagement with native people for the first half-century of city formation. Missing from Jaffe’s account is a different, perhaps more apocryphal tale of Hudson’s visit that claims that he served gin to a party of Lenape on what is today’s Manhattan Island. According to this legend, “the Indians passed out, to a man.” The often-forgotten part of the story is that the Lenape named the place “Manahachtanienk”—the island where we all became intoxicated.
The half-dozen or so historical episodes that Jaffe details can be grouped into three epoch-defining categories: (i) the colonial, from the initial Dutch settlement to the English occupation and ending with the Revolution; (ii) the traditional, from the Revolution, through the War of 1812 and the Civil War; and (iii) the modern, from WWI, through WWII, the Cold War and 9/11.
As a chronicler of historical change, Jaffe raises a perplexing conundrum with regard to 9/11. Does it represent the end of modern warfare, essentially battles between nation-states, or does it represent a new historical phase of Western civilization? Jaffe’s study is a narrative of how, as war increasingly shifted overseas, it disappeared from the city’s streets. Yet, was 9/11 the first salvo in the new age of war in the age of globalization?
During each period of war, Jaffe carefully lays out the complexity of what happened in the city, uncovering some surprising incidents. The first half-century of Dutch rule, until 1664, was witness to repeated and often bloody confrontations with the native peoples around the city, on Long Island and up the Hudson. The author notes how in 1625 or ’26, some 11 African men, seized by Dutch privateers from Spanish or Portuguese ships and with names like John Francisco, Antony Portuguese, and Simon Congo, became the city’s first slaves.
The British took possession of New Amsterdam in 1664. This new New York was distinguished by a “connection between waging war and making money,” that “would characterize life and business in Manhattan throughout its decades as an English town and beyond.” This continues to characterize the city today.
More significant, Jaffe recalls the 1712 Ghanaian slave rebellion, in which nine whites were killed and six rebels executed. He also points out that by 1741, one in every five New Yorkers was a slave and one-third of the city’s workforce were slaves.
One of the most compelling episodes in Jaffe’s saga is how the Revolution played out in the Big Apple. Following General Washington’s defeat in the Battle of Brooklyn, until 1883 and the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the British controlled Gotham. Washington engaged in a cat-and-mouse contest with the Brits, exploiting the city’s strategic position and keeping the Red Coats tied down.
For those who may well have forgotten the post-Revolutionary American days, there were repeated skirmishes between the fledgling new nation and Imperial Britain. These skirmishes were mostly over British impressment of American sailors and seizure of American ships. These skirmishes culminated in the War of 1812. While Washington D.C. was sacked and the White House burned, New York escaped violence.
The second most compelling episode in Jaffe’s saga is how the Civil War split the city, culminating in the infamous Draft Riot of 1863. The city was deeply tied to the cotton trade and the South’s dependency on slavery, a “Copperhead” stronghold; Copperheads were northerners who supported the South. As the war dragged on and the city’s economy tightened, there was increased competition for low-wage jobs between freed blacks and poor Irish, many of whom had arrived in the wake of the 1848 potato famine.
Both the Confederacy and Union imposed a draft to maintain their respective armies. In the North, one could pay a $300 exemption fee to pay for a substitute. Jaffe rightly calls the Draft Riot a “pogrom,” in which white mobs assaulted, raped, and hung black people, looted and set fire to their shanty homes, and even torched the African-American orphanage.
One incident stands out: a mob attacked a disabled coachman, Abraham Franklin, hung him from a lamppost on 28th Street at Sixth Avenue and, after he was cut down, a teenage butcher’s apprentice tied a rope around his genitals and dragged him through the city. It was only when Union troops, having just defeated the Grey Coats at Gettysburg, were dispatched to Gotham that the riot was quenched.
In the century-and-a-half following the bloody Civil War, New York was essentially free from war at home. Thus, the second half of Jaffe’s study consists of stories of the innumerable plots, spies, attempted sabotage, civil strife, and never-ending rumors of attacks and invasions. These episodes set the stage for 9/11.
Jaffe has written an informative yarn which, given the subject matter, can get a little tedious as it plows on and on. While he ties war episodes to the bigger story of the city’s demographic, social, and economic development, he could have leavened his tale with more attention to the role of war in the lives of ordinary New Yorkers. For example, what was the impact of war-imposed shortages on ordinary New Yorkers’ daily lives?
These criticisms are small potatoes. New York at War will likely become the definitive work on this critical subject. It is a well-written, well-researched work, offering a compelling portrait of a defining aspect of the city’s history. It draws on both scholarly and first-person accounts and, amidst a revealing, straight-forward narrative, introduces many almost forgotten New Yorkers. Readers will learn just how significant a role war has played in the life of Gotham.