New York at War

Steven H. Jaffe |
Author: Steven H. Jaffe
Publisher: Basic Books/The Perseus Books Group
Publication Date: April 2012

After the attacks of September 11, historian Steven H. Jaffe, then a curator at the South Street Seaport Museum, began researching his book, “New York at War.” This edited excerpt of the book’s introduction includes his observations of war-related history near Ground Zero.

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.

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This sketch of a Civil War recruiting day in New York City Hall Park ran in an 1864 newspaper. New recruits received $677. flickr/Marion Doss

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.

No other major American city has so repeatedly faced the risks and realities of wartime turmoil and attack as has New York. 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.

The U.S.S. Connecticut, built in 1906, was the lead vessel of the New York Naval Yard, now known as the Brooklyn Navy Yard. flickr/Konabish

On one hand, the city has repeatedly been a military stronghold. 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.

Ironically, 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.

During times of war, New Yorkers have grappled with the conundrum of how to ensure domestic security while maintaining a society defined by openness and inclusion. The difficulty of distinguishing enemies from innocents in a place where different peoples converge but remain suspicious of each other is one of the more sobering legacies of New York’s experiences. So is the difficulty of sustaining tolerance in times of great stress and fear, a truth borne out by the speed and eagerness with which generations of New Yorkers have been willing to accuse each other of disloyalty and treachery during wartime.

After September 11, as I stumbled on sites of military significance scattered across the city, I was struck by how thoroughly erased their history was, or at best how modestly they were distinguished by plaques and monuments largely ignored by natives and visitors alike. Founded not as a refuge for embattled religious groups but as a base for commercial exchange, New York has always been about pursuing the main chance today or tomorrow and has little time for the events of yesterday. “The present in New York is so powerful that the past is lost,” John Jay Chapman recognized in 1909.

Adapted with permission from “New York at War: Four Centuries of Combat, Fear, and Intrigue in Gotham,” by Steven H. Jaffe.  Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group.  © 2012.  Jacket design: Nicole Caputo.  Jacket images: The Departure of the Seventh Regiment to the War, April 19, 1861 by Thomas Nast / U.S. Army infantry units march up Fifth Avenue in New York City, June 1942 © Corbis.


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