Table of Contents
More Advance Praise for
New York at War
“Foreign foes have rarely attacked New York directly, but the city has been profoundly involved in the nation’s many military conflicts. As Steven Jaffe shows in this novel and absorbing study, Gotham has been banker and arsenal, staging ground and recruiting post, cheerleader and critic, fortification and tempting target. Seen in a series, the wartime experiences are strikingly different, and Jaffe respects each war story’s particularity. But he’s also good at spotting commonalities, the most intriguing being the way wars abroad become wars at home, with New York’s polyglot citizenry battling over a conflict’s legitimacy, or which combatant to back. Highly recommended.”
—Mike Wallace, co-author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning
“Anyone who’s ever lived in New York, or visited it, or thought about visiting it will be fascinated by this book. Even historians will be surprised by some chapters. Steven Jaffe has dug deep and come up with literary gold, again and again.”
—Thomas Fleming, author of
1776: Year of Illusions
New York at War
provides a fascinating look at a forgotten aspect of the city’s history—its central role in so many of America’s military conflicts. Steven Jaffe brings this neglected aspect of New York’s past back to life with impressive insight and a great eye for the telling details that make history come alive.”
—Tyler Anbinder, author of
“Steven H. Jaffe’s vividly written narrative restores a crucial thread to the way we understand the history of New York City. In a highly readable style,
New York at War
tells a story of tenacity and endurance, and of social conflict on a grand scale. With a story filled with drama and the drum-beat of violence, culminating with the destruction of the World Trade Center, Jaffe has much to tell us about the way a city responds to crisis.”
—Eric Homberger, author of
The Historical Atlas of New York City
“While most Americans probably see New York as America’s capital of finance and fashion, Steven Jaffe shows how the city has also been the nation’s epicenter during times of war. While New York may have profited from America’s many wars, it also proved the nation’s most vulnerable city, subject to attack both from without and from within. With an impressive span greater than that of the Brooklyn Bridge,
New York at War
reminds readers of Gotham’s centrality in America’s wartime experience from colonial times to 9/11. A great idea for a book, masterfully done.”
—Edward P. Kohn, author of
Hot Time in the Old Town
For Jill, Toby, and Matt
his book evolved out of my experiences on September 11, 2001, and during the days and weeks that followed. On that sunny morning, I stood in a hillside park near my home, about fifteen miles west of lower Manhattan, watching the Twin Towers billowing black and gray smoke. “It’s time to bomb some mosques,” a distraught man standing on a nearby bench was yelling—this before al Qaeda was positively identified over the airwaves as the perpetrator of this act of war.
At the time I was working as a historian and curator at the South Street Seaport Museum on the East River waterfront of lower Manhattan, an institution dedicated to preserving and interpreting New York’s four-hundred-year history as a place linked by sea to the rest of the world. When I finally returned to my office a week after the attacks, I encountered a traumatized landscape. The museum was located about seven blocks from the World Trade Center site, and the air at that distance was full of an acrid smell from the fires that continued to burn in the ruins of the complex. A light gray dust covered many façades, even this far from Ground Zero. “Rebuild,” someone had scrawled with an index finger in the dust of a table outside a shuttered restaurant. On the street in front of my office door, usually a loading zone for retailers picking up seafood crates from the Fulton Fish Market, stood a khaki tent manned by gun-toting National Guardsmen in combat fatigues. My routine journey to and from work had also been transformed. Accustomed to riding a commuter train whose terminal was beneath the Twin Towers, I now boarded a ferryboat each day; the train tunnel under the Hudson River had been flooded by the towers’ collapse.
I was fortunate not to have lost anyone I knew on September 11. Yet, as with millions of other people living in or near the city, I did experience grief, anger, numbness, and a range of other emotions that I struggled to understand. Like my colleagues in the museum and history professions, I began to try to make sense of the events not only in personal and emotional ways (and, in my case, as a native New Yorker) but also in terms of my work as an urban historian and my knowledge of the city’s past.
Over the ensuing months, it dawned on me that I was in the midst of an urban landscape whose historical affinities to the events of 9/11 were hard to avoid. Some of this history I already knew; other pieces fell into place as I began to look for them. A few blocks to the south, for instance, stood Wall Street—so named for the defensive rampart built there by Dutch colonists to keep English armies and Indian warriors at bay. A mile to the north, at Corlears Hook on the East River shore, those same Dutch colonists had launched a brutal surprise attack on Indian families during a bloody and protracted war. If I glanced out my office window, I saw Brooklyn Heights across the river—site of the American Revolution’s most fateful evacuation and of frantic efforts to forestall an expected British attack during the War of 1812. When I took a walk out onto Pier 17 and looked north past the Brooklyn Bridge, I could make out the location of Wallabout Bay—once notorious as the site where thousands of American prisoners suffered and died during the Revolutionary War, later recast as the shoreline of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a bustling city unto itself during the fight against Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. A stroll in another direction took me to the front door of a sister museum at Fraunces Tavern, another landmark of the American Revolution, where in 1975 four people lost their lives to a bomb planted by terrorists seeking independence for Puerto Rico.
Once I started looking for them, these sites of military significance—and of turmoil and violence—multiplied: Manhattan street corners where Civil War draft resisters, virtually in control of the city, lynched fellow New Yorkers because of the color of their skin; a strip of the Jersey City waterfront across the harbor, shattered by a massive explosion triggered by the kaiser’s saboteurs during World War I; the waters off the beach at Coney Island, where generations of warships, privateers, and U-boats had laid in wait to prey on New York’s cargo-laden merchant fleets. For each era of the city’s history—from its origins as a Dutch outpost on the edge of the wilderness, to its role as a key garrison in the British Empire and as a crucible of revolution, then as the financial and industrial capital of Abraham Lincoln’s Union, and finally as the great metropolis of a globally assertive United States—I found each of these venues distinctive to the events of its day but also part of a larger pattern spanning four centuries. In short, this cityscape was dotted with landmarks of a largely forgotten military history of attacks and attempts to defeat or prevent them.
I also found that no book-length attempt to narrate and assess the city’s entire military past had ever been published. To be sure, numerous books and articles have analyzed particular wars and battles in New York’s past, and, indeed, this book could not have been written without the splendid work of these historians. For the most part, however, these works have treated their topics in isolation, often leaving the impression that the issues and conflicts they recount have been anomalous or relatively short-term in the city’s history. On the other hand, while the grand historical narratives of New York City have covered the wars and their implications for the city, they have, understandably, cast war as a minor theme against the larger sweep of the city’s rise in economic, social, political, and cultural terms.
My purpose in this book is not to recast New York’s history—inaccurately—as that of a perpetual armed camp. When compared to other world cities (London, Tokyo, Calcutta, and Moscow make only a partial list), New York has been lightly touched by war and its devastation. Closer to home, battle is far more conspicuous in the history and public memory of a host of North American cities, ranging from Quebec to Atlanta, New Orleans, San Antonio, and Mexico City. Looked at another way, New York’s nineteenth-century emergence as the nation’s commercial, industrial, and cultural capital, and its twentieth-century role as the world’s largest and arguably most influential metropolis, dwarfs its military history. War is something largely extraneous to New York’s experience, most educated New Yorkers seem to think. And yet New York City occupies a distinctive place. Simply put, no other major American city has so repeatedly faced the risks and realities of wartime turmoil and attack as has New York.
The horror of 9/11 was unique in our urban and national life, and facile historical comparisons run the risk of trivializing events that remain raw, painful, and present for many people. Yet it seems to me that New York’s long past as a military site does afford a context—a deep background—for reflecting on 9/11 and its place in the city’s and nation’s history. The landmarks of bygone conflicts, in fact, suggest a particular double narrative of New York’s relationship to war.
On one hand, the city has repeatedly been a military stronghold. It has been a workshop, warehouse, and bank furnishing the tools of war; a mobilization center and embarkation point for armies and navies; and a vital hub protected by a ring of forts, batteries, and early-warning systems. With their urban economy tied to these imperatives, New Yorkers used war as an opportunity. Making money from war, or trying to, has been a recurring theme in the city’s history, from colonial merchants and privateers to Civil War manufacturers and Depression-weary workers during World War II.
On the other hand, just as repeatedly, the city has proved vulnerable to attack, a target for a steady stream of enemies provoked and lured by New York’s strategic location, wealth, and political importance and eventually by its role as a symbol of American might and values. Indeed, the city’s evolving defenses—from earthen parapets and cannon to air raid wardens and Nike missiles—have represented four centuries of responses to this sense of vulnerability and to the changing nature of the threat.
These two aspects of the city’s history are ironically intertwined, for New York’s very importance—first as one of the major seaports on the colonial seaboard, then as the nation’s largest and most influential metropolis—is precisely what has made it an attractive target and hence vulnerable to attack. New York’s evolution from a marginal to an increasingly central place in American society has repeatedly reshaped the circumstances of its vulnerability and its defense. As the city grew in size, population, and influence, and as it became more complex and more porous, officials, soldiers, and its own people faced the ever-changing challenge of how to defend and safeguard it. In another irony, as New York’s unrivaled size, sophistication, ethnic diversity, and extremes of wealth and poverty led many Americans (including many New Yorkers) to see it as a place standing apart from the rest of America, the city’s very primacy ensured that enemies would target Gotham as the most effective and satisfying way of attacking the United States.