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Mapping 13 Surviving Civil War Sites Across New York City

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James Nevius is the author of three books about NYC, the most recent of which is Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers.

One hundred and fifty years ago, on the night of November 25, 1864, Confederate saboteurs attempted to burn down the city of New York. In a coordinated attack designed to both inflict real property damage and instill terror, the agents infiltrated a dozen of the city's finest hotels to set them on fire, including the Astor House, Saint Nicholas Hotel, and the Metropolitan Hotel. Even if the plot had worked, it would not have changed the course of the war or caused a Copperhead uprising, but it certainly would have caused long-term damage to a city that was still recovering from the bloody draft riots a year earlier. Luckily, the attack was ill-conceived and poorly executed; many of the hotel fires were set in rooms that were starved of oxygen and quickly fizzled out.

Of all the spots the saboteurs hit on November 25, only one fragment of one hotel—the Saint Nicholas—still stands, but even though it can be difficult today to get a sense of what New York looked like during the Civil War, there are a number of places around the city that were integral to New York's role in the conflict. This list is neither exhaustive—plenty of famous sites from Trinity Church to Green-Wood Cemetery were important in the era—nor does it include post-war monuments, but it maps a path through the city where you can take in a few slivers of Civil War history.


· As Booth Brothers Held Forth, 1864 Confederate Plot Against New York Fizzled [NYT]

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1. African Burial Ground National Monument

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290 Broadway
New York, NY 10007
(212) 637-2019
Visit Website

It is impossible to talk about the Civil War in New York without remembering that it once had been the second-largest slaveholding city in the United States. While gradual emancipation began in 1801, New York did not fully free its enslaved citizens until 1827, making it the second-to-last northern state to do so (only New Jersey came later). Many early enslaved Africans found their final resting place in the swampy area north of City Hall. In 1991, construction workers digging the foundation of a new federal office building unearthed the first of 424 graves of black New Yorkers—both free and enslaved—one of the largest such archaeological discoveries ever.

2. City Hall Park

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17 Park Row
New York, NY 10038
(212) 966-6530
Visit Website

Once the war began, City Hall Park—the city's de facto town square—played a crucial role. It was here that enlistment offices were set up to recruit Union volunteers. When Mary Todd Lincoln visited the city soon after her husband’s inauguration, she reviewed troops at the "park barracks," very likely set up here. After Lincoln's assassination, his body lay in state in the rotunda of City Hall, April 24-25, 1865. It was here that the only known photo of him in his coffin was snapped by an enterprising photographer. [Photo of City Hall & City Hall Park in 1911 via Wikimedia Commons.]

3. 359 Broadway

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359 Broadway
New York, NY 10013

A century and a half later, photography remains crucial to our experience of the war, and no photographer from that era was more celebrated than Mathew Brady. Brady had a number of studios in the city, but the only one that still stands is at 359 Broadway in Tribeca. Brady occupied the third floor of this building from 1854 to 1860, before relocating to Broadway and Tenth Street. While it has sometimes been reported that Brady's famous 1860 portrait of Lincoln was taken here or at the Tenth Street location, he almost certainly took it at his Bleecker Street studio. Lincoln credited the Brady photo and his Cooper Union speech with winning him the presidency. The building, although a landmark, isn't much to look at; the ground floor houses PS Fabrics and there are commercial tenants on Brady's floor.

4. The Cooper Union

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41 Cooper Sq
New York, NY 10003
(212) 353-4000
Visit Website

On February 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln gave his "Right Makes Might" speech to a standing-room-only crowd at Cooper Union. Having visited the Plymouth Church (#10) the day before to receive the tacit endorsement of the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, Lincoln now laid out his lawyerly argument against slavery. The speech may have earned him the Republican nomination that summer, but it also certainly guaranteed he would not carry a single southern state. [Photo via Wikimedia Commons.]

5. McSorley's Old Ale House

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15 E 7th St
New York, NY 10003
(212) 473-9148
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Arguably, New York’s oldest continuously operating bar—opened in 1854—McSorley's was also the spot where Peter Cooper supposedly hosted Lincoln after his speech at the nearby Cooper Union. This seems unlikely in that Lincoln was both a teetotaler and had a previous engagement. Nevermind. McSorley's was certainly a popular hangout during the Civil War and still features a WANTED poster for John Wilkes Booth, printed during the twelve days the assassin was on the lam. [Photo via Wikimedia Commons.]

6. 36 Lispenard Street

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36 Lispenard Street
New York, NY 10013

Following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, it became imperative to get runaway slaves across the border to Canada lest they be caught and returned to their masters. Many New Yorkers housed slaves as part of the Underground Railroad—many more than for whom there is documentation. One location was the home of David Ruggles, an African American freedman who founded the New York Committee of Vigilance and who devoted his short life to manumission. Though Ruggles died in 1849, his home still stands as a monument to him and the slaves sheltered there. Ruggles's home now features the cafe La Colombe Torrefaction; a plaque just west of the entrance to No. 36 details its role in the Underground Railroad.[Photo via Property Shark.]

7. E.V. Haughwout's

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488 Broadway
New York, NY 10012

Soon after Lincoln's first inauguration in 1861, Mary Todd Lincoln came to the city on the first of many shopping trips. One goal while in the city was to order a new set of White House China (Lincoln's predecessor, James Buchanan, had been a terrible housekeeper), so she made a beeline for E.V. Haughwout's china emporium. Already famous as the first building to have a working passenger elevator, Haughwout's team designed and fabricated new dinnerware for the first lady, which is sometimes still on display at the White House. If you want to get a small glimpse of what Mary Lincoln experienced, clothier Bebe occupies the retail space. Corcoran has offices above. [Photo via Wikimedia Commons.]

8. St. Nicholas Hotel

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521 Broadway
New York, NY 10012

Of the dozen hotels targeted by the saboteurs on November 25, 1864, only a portion of the St. Nicholas—once one of the grandest hotels in New York—still remains. The original building stretched most of the block south from Spring Street and featured rooms for nearly a thousand people, a popular restaurant, barber shop, and ballrooms. Of all the targets of the Confederate plot, the St. Nicholas suffered the worst damage. Four separate rooms were set ablaze and the front of the building burned quite badly; as is often the case, most of the lasting damage was from the water used to quench the fire. The remaining fragment of the hotel now houses a Puma store and a Lady Foot Locker. [Photo via Wikimedia Commons.]

9. William Shakespeare Statue

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65th St. Transverse Rd.
New York, NY 10023

When the saboteurs set fire to a room at the La Farge Hotel, smoke began to leak into the Winter Garden theater next door, interrupting the performance of Julius Caesar taking place. The show that night was a special benefit to raise money for a statue of William Shakespeare to commemorate the playwright's 300th birthday. What made the play extraordinary was that it was the first time the three Booth brothers had acted together: Edwin Booth was America's leading tragedian (his home is now the Players Club on Gramercy Park). Brother Junius is now mostly forgotten, but the third Booth, John Wilkes, would achieve infamy five months later at Ford's Theater with the murder of the president.

10. Plymouth Church

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75 Hicks St
Brooklyn, NY 11201
(718) 624-4743
Visit Website

The minister of the Plymouth Church, Henry Ward Beecher, was the most famous abolitionist in New York. From the pulpit of the church he would host mock slave auctions, showing parishioners how fellow humans were sold like chattel. The basement of the church was the "Grand Central" of the Underground Railroad and Lincoln's appearance here on February 26, 1860, meant he was clearly throwing his weight behind the the anti-slavery movement. In the courtyard next to the church, a statue of Beecher by Gutzon Borglum shows him exhorting his followers. Inset in the wall is a magnificent bas relief of Lincoln, beaten down by the horrors of war. The Plymouth Church holds regular Sunday services and is occasionally open for tours. [Photo via Wikimedia Commons.]

11. Weeksville Heritage

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1698 Bergen St
Brooklyn, NY 11213

One of the most important communities of free blacks in New York before the Civil War, the town of Weeksville was founded in 1840s. Three houses remain, one of which is set up to show what life was like for a free African American family during the Civil War. During the draft riots of 1863, as blacks fled lynchings in Manhattan, some ended up taking refuge in Weeksville. Though the center boasts a new, state-of-the-art visitors center, it is currently not open for casual visitation.

12. Continental Iron Works

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Calyer Street & West Street
Brooklyn, NY 11222

The Continental Iron Works closed its doors in 1949, so there's not much to see in this section of the industrial Greenpoint waterfront, but this spot once housed one of the two most important shipyards in New York. (The other, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, was just down the river.) It was at the Continental Iron Works that the USS Monitor, the first of the ironclads and the most important ship of the Civil War, was built. The Monitor, designed by John Ericsson, was an ungainly "cheese-box on a raft," but its iron hull marked the beginning of modern naval warfare.

13. Castle Williams

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Governors Is
New York, NY 10004

New York's many military installations saw no action during the Civil War, but they did see plenty of prisoners. Castle Williams on Governors Island, which had been built to protect the harbor during the War of 1812, was first used as a barracks for soldiers being shipped off to the front. Later, it was converted into a prison for Confederate POWs. In summer months, when Governors Island is open to the public, the National Park Service runs tours of Castle Williams and other historic sites on the island.

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1. African Burial Ground National Monument

290 Broadway, New York, NY 10007

It is impossible to talk about the Civil War in New York without remembering that it once had been the second-largest slaveholding city in the United States. While gradual emancipation began in 1801, New York did not fully free its enslaved citizens until 1827, making it the second-to-last northern state to do so (only New Jersey came later). Many early enslaved Africans found their final resting place in the swampy area north of City Hall. In 1991, construction workers digging the foundation of a new federal office building unearthed the first of 424 graves of black New Yorkers—both free and enslaved—one of the largest such archaeological discoveries ever.

290 Broadway
New York, NY 10007

2. City Hall Park

17 Park Row, New York, NY 10038

Once the war began, City Hall Park—the city's de facto town square—played a crucial role. It was here that enlistment offices were set up to recruit Union volunteers. When Mary Todd Lincoln visited the city soon after her husband’s inauguration, she reviewed troops at the "park barracks," very likely set up here. After Lincoln's assassination, his body lay in state in the rotunda of City Hall, April 24-25, 1865. It was here that the only known photo of him in his coffin was snapped by an enterprising photographer. [Photo of City Hall & City Hall Park in 1911 via Wikimedia Commons.]

17 Park Row
New York, NY 10038

3. 359 Broadway

359 Broadway, New York, NY 10013

A century and a half later, photography remains crucial to our experience of the war, and no photographer from that era was more celebrated than Mathew Brady. Brady had a number of studios in the city, but the only one that still stands is at 359 Broadway in Tribeca. Brady occupied the third floor of this building from 1854 to 1860, before relocating to Broadway and Tenth Street. While it has sometimes been reported that Brady's famous 1860 portrait of Lincoln was taken here or at the Tenth Street location, he almost certainly took it at his Bleecker Street studio. Lincoln credited the Brady photo and his Cooper Union speech with winning him the presidency. The building, although a landmark, isn't much to look at; the ground floor houses PS Fabrics and there are commercial tenants on Brady's floor.

359 Broadway
New York, NY 10013

4. The Cooper Union

41 Cooper Sq, New York, NY 10003

On February 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln gave his "Right Makes Might" speech to a standing-room-only crowd at Cooper Union. Having visited the Plymouth Church (#10) the day before to receive the tacit endorsement of the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, Lincoln now laid out his lawyerly argument against slavery. The speech may have earned him the Republican nomination that summer, but it also certainly guaranteed he would not carry a single southern state. [Photo via Wikimedia Commons.]

41 Cooper Sq
New York, NY 10003

5. McSorley's Old Ale House

15 E 7th St, New York, NY 10003

Arguably, New York’s oldest continuously operating bar—opened in 1854—McSorley's was also the spot where Peter Cooper supposedly hosted Lincoln after his speech at the nearby Cooper Union. This seems unlikely in that Lincoln was both a teetotaler and had a previous engagement. Nevermind. McSorley's was certainly a popular hangout during the Civil War and still features a WANTED poster for John Wilkes Booth, printed during the twelve days the assassin was on the lam. [Photo via Wikimedia Commons.]

15 E 7th St
New York, NY 10003

6. 36 Lispenard Street

36 Lispenard Street, New York, NY 10013

Following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, it became imperative to get runaway slaves across the border to Canada lest they be caught and returned to their masters. Many New Yorkers housed slaves as part of the Underground Railroad—many more than for whom there is documentation. One location was the home of David Ruggles, an African American freedman who founded the New York Committee of Vigilance and who devoted his short life to manumission. Though Ruggles died in 1849, his home still stands as a monument to him and the slaves sheltered there. Ruggles's home now features the cafe La Colombe Torrefaction; a plaque just west of the entrance to No. 36 details its role in the Underground Railroad.[Photo via Property Shark.]

36 Lispenard Street
New York, NY 10013

7. E.V. Haughwout's

488 Broadway, New York, NY 10012

Soon after Lincoln's first inauguration in 1861, Mary Todd Lincoln came to the city on the first of many shopping trips. One goal while in the city was to order a new set of White House China (Lincoln's predecessor, James Buchanan, had been a terrible housekeeper), so she made a beeline for E.V. Haughwout's china emporium. Already famous as the first building to have a working passenger elevator, Haughwout's team designed and fabricated new dinnerware for the first lady, which is sometimes still on display at the White House. If you want to get a small glimpse of what Mary Lincoln experienced, clothier Bebe occupies the retail space. Corcoran has offices above. [Photo via Wikimedia Commons.]

488 Broadway
New York, NY 10012

8. St. Nicholas Hotel

521 Broadway, New York, NY 10012

Of the dozen hotels targeted by the saboteurs on November 25, 1864, only a portion of the St. Nicholas—once one of the grandest hotels in New York—still remains. The original building stretched most of the block south from Spring Street and featured rooms for nearly a thousand people, a popular restaurant, barber shop, and ballrooms. Of all the targets of the Confederate plot, the St. Nicholas suffered the worst damage. Four separate rooms were set ablaze and the front of the building burned quite badly; as is often the case, most of the lasting damage was from the water used to quench the fire. The remaining fragment of the hotel now houses a Puma store and a Lady Foot Locker. [Photo via Wikimedia Commons.]

521 Broadway
New York, NY 10012

9. William Shakespeare Statue

65th St. Transverse Rd., New York, NY 10023

When the saboteurs set fire to a room at the La Farge Hotel, smoke began to leak into the Winter Garden theater next door, interrupting the performance of Julius Caesar taking place. The show that night was a special benefit to raise money for a statue of William Shakespeare to commemorate the playwright's 300th birthday. What made the play extraordinary was that it was the first time the three Booth brothers had acted together: Edwin Booth was America's leading tragedian (his home is now the Players Club on Gramercy Park). Brother Junius is now mostly forgotten, but the third Booth, John Wilkes, would achieve infamy five months later at Ford's Theater with the murder of the president.

65th St. Transverse Rd.
New York, NY 10023

10. Plymouth Church

75 Hicks St, Brooklyn, NY 11201

The minister of the Plymouth Church, Henry Ward Beecher, was the most famous abolitionist in New York. From the pulpit of the church he would host mock slave auctions, showing parishioners how fellow humans were sold like chattel. The basement of the church was the "Grand Central" of the Underground Railroad and Lincoln's appearance here on February 26, 1860, meant he was clearly throwing his weight behind the the anti-slavery movement. In the courtyard next to the church, a statue of Beecher by Gutzon Borglum shows him exhorting his followers. Inset in the wall is a magnificent bas relief of Lincoln, beaten down by the horrors of war. The Plymouth Church holds regular Sunday services and is occasionally open for tours. [Photo via Wikimedia Commons.]

75 Hicks St
Brooklyn, NY 11201

11. Weeksville Heritage

1698 Bergen St, Brooklyn, NY 11213

One of the most important communities of free blacks in New York before the Civil War, the town of Weeksville was founded in 1840s. Three houses remain, one of which is set up to show what life was like for a free African American family during the Civil War. During the draft riots of 1863, as blacks fled lynchings in Manhattan, some ended up taking refuge in Weeksville. Though the center boasts a new, state-of-the-art visitors center, it is currently not open for casual visitation.

1698 Bergen St
Brooklyn, NY 11213

12. Continental Iron Works

Calyer Street & West Street, Brooklyn, NY 11222

The Continental Iron Works closed its doors in 1949, so there's not much to see in this section of the industrial Greenpoint waterfront, but this spot once housed one of the two most important shipyards in New York. (The other, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, was just down the river.) It was at the Continental Iron Works that the USS Monitor, the first of the ironclads and the most important ship of the Civil War, was built. The Monitor, designed by John Ericsson, was an ungainly "cheese-box on a raft," but its iron hull marked the beginning of modern naval warfare.

Calyer Street & West Street
Brooklyn, NY 11222

13. Castle Williams

Governors Is, New York, NY 10004

New York's many military installations saw no action during the Civil War, but they did see plenty of prisoners. Castle Williams on Governors Island, which had been built to protect the harbor during the War of 1812, was first used as a barracks for soldiers being shipped off to the front. Later, it was converted into a prison for Confederate POWs. In summer months, when Governors Island is open to the public, the National Park Service runs tours of Castle Williams and other historic sites on the island.

Governors Is
New York, NY 10004