|Unit History Project|
Ideals Before Glory:
“It is most appropriate for New York, with the enactment of this bill, to join the ranks of those states commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Civil War through state Civil War Centennial Commissions. This state played a major role in the Civil War. New York contributed over 480,000 troops or ¼ of the Union Army. 53,000 New Yorkers lost their lives in battle”.1 With those words on April 12th 1960, then Governor of New York Nelson Rockefeller signed legislation creating the New York Civil War Centennial Commission (NYCWCC).2 Members of the commission would not be appointed for another 6 months, but New York had finally joined the national effort to commemorate the Civil War.3 That effort had begun several years earlier with the creation of a National Civil War Centennial Commission (CWCC) and numerous state commissions.4 While New York’s centennial planning was late to start, it was in no way handicap. Instead, the late start provided an opportunity. Having witnessed the racism and controversy that plagued the National Centennial efforts, the NYCWCC was able to transcend such detractions. It embarked upon a Centennial Commemoration program that emphasized the ideals of the conflict instead of just the battlefield events. In doing so, the NYCWCC became a model for other commissions and foreshadowed the coming Civil Rights Movement.
The legislation that created the NYCWCC laid out a plan for a 15 member commission. Five members each were to be appointed by the Governor, the President of the Senate, and the Speaker of the Assembly. One of the Governor’s appointees had to be his Chief of Staff. According to the legislation, the Commission was created “In order to provide for appropriate observances, ceremonies and other activities to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Civil War.” $25,000 was allocated for this purpose and though the commission members were unpaid, they were permitted to employee a staff. The commission was to operate through the entirety of the Centennial, terminating on March 1st 1966.5
Those eventually appointed to the commission represented a mixture of well known academics, business leaders, politicians, and local Civil War and history enthusiasts. One of these appointees, Carl Haverlin, eventually became the commission’s secretary. As president of the Civil War Centennial Association (CWCA), he had been involved in the creation of the national CWCC.6 Another key appointee was historian Bruce Catton. Along with Haverlin, Catton had also been a member of the CWCA and himself was a member of the CWCC.7 Chosen by Rockefeller as the NYCWCC’s President, Catton was perhaps the most well known member of the commission. In addition to being senior editor of American Heritage magazine, he had also won a Pulitzer prize several years early for his book, “A stillness at Appomattox.”8 A third key member of the commission was its Vice President, Dr. John Hope Franklin. He was a well known African American historian and the head of the history department at Brooklyn College.9 These three individuals were directly responsible for the inspired yet tasteful and scholarly approach to the Centennial taken by New York State.
As the NYCWCC began to prepare its programming over the winter of 1960 to 1961, a major Centennial controversy emerged. Each year the CWCC hosted a National Assembly attended by members of each state’s commission. The 4th Annual Assembly was to take place in Charleston, South Carolina in April of 1961. Trouble began when New Jersey discovered that its African American Commission member would not be allowed to sleep or eat in the Frances Marion hotel in which the assembly was taking place. After asking the CWCC to address the situation, the New Jersey Commission was ignored and soon announced its intention to boycott the meeting.10 Quickly the boycott was joined by 3 other state commissions including the recently formed NYCWCC. Bruce Catton speaking for the NYCWCC stated, “we do not believe that any bigotry belongs in any Civil War Centennial ceremony.”11 Eventually President John F. Kennedy intervened, forcing the commission to move the assembly to a desegregated Charleston Naval Base. All four states ended their boycott and attended the assembly, but tensions over the race question continued throughout.12
The racism surrounding the assembly had a powerful effect on the still planning NYCWCC. Almost immediately following resolution of the crisis, the NYCWCC presented its interim report to the state legislature outlining its plan for the next 4 years. The report included several references to the recent national assembly, including a resolution sent to the CWCC and the President of the United States. The resolution demanded the racial situation be addressed and stated the NYCWCC’s intention to “do its utmost to emphasize the fact that the Civil War marked America’s complete dedication to the ideal of an all embracing freedom and equality for all Americans forever.” The report also made clear the commission’s intention to be a leader among commissions in promoting an interpretation of the Centennial that emphasized “not so much the military glories of the Civil War but the ends for which it was fought”. While the federal commission seemed to ignore the role of slavery in the Civil War, New York intended to rally around it.13
The interim report also included less radical, more traditional Centennial programming on the part of the NYCWCC. Its plan was to structure each year of the Centennial on a one word theme corresponding to one major state event. In 1961 the theme would be “reconciliation” and the event a Memorial Day commemoration at the site of a Civil War prison in New York State. In 1962 the theme would be “emancipation”, culminating in a large scale function to be held in New York City due to its status as a major center of the Underground Railroad. The themes for the remaining years were to be “rededication”, “recall”, and “recognition”. Other programming presented in the interim report included a monthly publication “New York State and the Civil War”, educational programs for schools, improvements to Grants Tomb in New York City, and general assistance to local commissions and organizations with their events.14
The NYCWCC officially began commemorating the Centennial on April 17th 1961 with its First Statewide Assembly. Held in Albany it began with a wreath laying in front of the Capital Building, at the statue of General Philip Sheridan. Next, a large meeting was held in Chancellors Hall at which Catton, Franklin, and Haverlin spoke. On the more traditional side of commemoration, Color Guards from 8 New York State National Guard Units held the flags and wore the uniforms of their Civil War era ancestor units. On the slavery focused side of commemoration, the original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, owned by New York State, was on display.15 During their speeches, the commission introduced to the public their intention to emphasis slavery in the centennial. Bruce Catton addressed the audience “The Civil War was about something. It was fought for something. And let us never for a moment forget it won something…the war was fought for freedom”. He went on to directly equate that freedom with the end of slavery and the experience of the African American in the Civil War.16 Later Franklin took this theme even further giving it present day meaning. He said, “we can best observe the Centennial of the Civil War by redoubling our efforts to complete the task begun by those who fought and died to preserve the Union, eradicate the barbarism of slavery, and establish equal rights for all people.”17 Following the assembly the NYCWCC’s programming began with its combination of traditional commemoration and slavery focused commemoration.
In the commission’s first year of operation, 1961, the majority of programming leaned more to the traditional side, though still sophisticated and ahead of its time compared to many other state’s events. On a national level, the first major battle to be commemorated in 1961 was the Battle of Bull Run or Manassas. The State of Virginia intended to host a two day large scale reenactment of the battle, including 3,500 reenactors, watched by 100,000 spectators. While 1,200 of the reenactors would come from the North South Skirmishers association, a nation wide organization of re-enactors, Virginia hoped to draw the other 2,300 from the National Guard. They requested the attendance of 100 National Guardsmen from each state that fought at Bull Run.18
Though the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs had expressed interest in participating in the reenactment before the NYCWCC had been fully formed, ultimately the state did not. The NYCWCC opposed reenactments as a form of official commemoration.19 Franklin explained that commemoration could not be achieved “by appropriating millions of dollars to put on sham battles and going through ludicrous ceremonies that make a mockery of that tragic period and of this solemn moment of remembrance.”20 Not participating ended up being a smart move on the part of the NYCWCC as the Bull Run event was highly criticized by the press. It led the National Park Service and CWCC to oppose future reenactments, though they still occurred.21 Later the NYCWCC did endorse one small scale reenactment as part of a centennial pageant put on by the Rochester and Monroe County centennial commissions. However, the pageant also included a reenactment of a conversation between President Lincoln and Fredrick Douglas, fitting well with the NYCWCC’s intention to emphasize slavery.22
Though not participating in the Bull Run reenactment, New York still commemorated the battle. As part of 1961 theme of “Reconciliation” New York gave 126 acres of land it owned on the Bull Run battlefield to the State of Virginia. The land included three monuments to New York units who fought in the battle.23 A dedication ceremony for one of the monuments was held on July 21, 1961 during the reenactment.24 Reconciliation was the theme behind another major effort on the part of the NYCWCC in 1961 involving Virginia. At the ceremony for the opening of the Virginia Civil War Centennial Center, representatives of the NYCWCC returned two Virginia Civil War battle flags captured by New York units. In line with the goal of recognizing slavery, the speech of the NYCWCC representative included a reference to Thomas Jefferson as a national leader from Virginia and his intention to eliminate slavery in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence.25
The NYCWCC also planned or participated in many other events across the state throughout 1961. On Memorial Day, as part of the theme of reconciliation it did host a ceremony at the site of a prison for Confederate soldiers in Elmira, NY. Members of the State Commission often individually attended events hosted by local commissions, schools, and other organizations. Usually the Commission members were speakers at these events or delivered messages from Governor Rockefeller or Bruce Catton.26
In 1962 with the theme of “Emancipation,” the NYCWCC focused much more on slavery, specifically through programming involving the Emancipation Proclamation. Through several strange accidents of history, the surviving original copy of the Proclamation is owned by New York State and in 1962 it became the perfect centerpiece to the state’s Centennial efforts. As Governor Rockefeller put it “it is fitting that in observing the solemn centennial of this tragic conflict, the New York State Centennial Commission is focusing attention upon the Emancipation Proclamation for it is the one document which sums up the purpose of the struggle, the recognition of human dignity and the inalienable right to freedom of all men everywhere.”24 To focus that attention, the NYCWCC put on events such as a human rights exhibit in the State Capital and a series of articles on the Emancipation Proclamation that appeared in the New York Times and were written by Catton. The Proclamation itself toured New York State throughout the year.28
The twin climaxes of the Emancipation Proclamation programming came in September of 1962. On the 12th, the commission hosted a large scale 100th anniversary event for the Proclamation in New York City. Speakers for the occasion included Governor Rockefeller and Civil Rights Leader Dr. Martin Luther King. The Proclamation then went on tour in New Jersey and Maryland. On September 22nd 1962 the NYCWCC and the CWCC under new leadership, cosponsored an Emancipation Proclamation event in Washington DC. At that event, on behalf of New York State, Governor Rockefeller presented the Proclamation to be displayed in Washington for 1 month. 29 Though opposed by the Commissions of some Southern States, the event was of national significance and included speeches by UN Ambassador Stevenson and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshal.30
The success of the Washington and New York City events further encouraged the NYCWCC. Under an organization called the Catton Commission, they began to push for the creation of a shrine for the Proclamation similar in design to the National Archive’s display of the Declaration of Independence. This plan however, never materialized.31 The entire series of Emancipation Proclamation programming also inspired other Northern States. Several requested permission to reuse recorded speeches from the September events and expressed a desire to adopt the programming in their own states.32
By the end of 1962 and the beginning of 1963, with the success of the Emancipation Proclamation event the NYCWCC was at its peak performance. Traditional commemorative activities such as sending a representative to the ceremonies at Antietam in September continued.33 Meanwhile, other actives were anything but traditional in character or impact. By the beginning of 1963 350,000 copies of the NYCWCC’s publication “New York in the Civil War” had been distributed. The publication received high praise from educational institutions and libraries which saw it as filling a void in sources available on New York State history. The publication was so popular the NYCWCC was having trouble filling the requests for inclusion on the mailing list. The new President of the CWCC Dr. Allan Nevins said of it, “You are greatly to be complimented on the high quality of this periodical. It is much the best thing that the Civil War commemorations have brought forth.”34 Another notable event in 1963 for the NYCWCC was the recording and broadcast of a television special featuring Bruce Catton and former President Eisenhower at Gettysburg.35
The NYCWCC’s peak dropped rapidly in 1963. For that fiscal year, Governor Rockefeller had requested $100,000 for the Commission.36 That number paled in comparison to Southern States like Mississippi and Virginia, whose allocations had numbered in the millions.37 However, the New York Legislature refused to provide more funding and all activities of the NYCWCC ceased on March 31st, 1963, 3 years before they were scheduled to.38 One of its last actions was to secure Gen. Charles Stevenson, the New York State Adjutant General, to represent New York State in Gettysburg the following summer.39 The NYCWCC’s Executive Director insisted that the state that contributed the most to the war, be represented there.40 Though 4 other State’s commission also prematurely folded, nationally the Centennial continued. Ending as scheduled, in its last years the National Centennial lacked the wide spread popularity and attention it once enjoyed.41
While the service of the NYCWCC was short lived, it had a profound effect not just on the Civil War Centennial within New York State but across the nation. This effect was not just in the realm of good programming, but in linking commemoration to present day concern. With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War quickly approaching, and the 100th anniversary of World War I only a few years after that, it is important to recognize the lessons taught by the experience of the NYCWCC. Perhaps the most important of those lessons being, the importance of commemorating “not so much the military glories of the Civil War but the ends for which it was fought”.42
2000.0030 Civil War Centennial Commission Papers, New York State Military Museum.
A1444 Office Files, 1961-1964, New York Civil War Centennial Commission, New York State Archives.
Cook, Robert J. Troubled Commemoration. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007.
Fried, Richard M. The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Lorello, Daniel. The Union Preserved. New York: The New York State Archives Partnership Trust, 1999.
New York State and the Civil War. July 1961. Albany: New York State Civil War Centennial Commission.
New York State and the Civil War. November 1961. Albany: New York State Civil War Centennial Commission.
Interim Report, New York State Civil War Centennial Commission, March 31, 1961. 2000.0030 Civil War Centennial Commission Papers, New York State Military Museum.
News Release, “Eight Color Guard Units Feature State-Wide Civil War Observance,” New York State Civil War Centennial Commission, April 14, 1961. 2000.0030 Civil War Centennial Commission Papers, New York State Military Museum.
“100 Men Sought for New Bull Run,” New York Times, December 10, 1960.
Nelson A. Rockefeller to Lindsay Almond 6/3/1959. 2000.0030 Civil War Centennial Commission Papers, New York State Military Museum.
Division of Military and Naval Affairs Memorandum, February 8, 1961. A1444 Office Files, 1961-1964, New York Civil War Centennial Commission, New York State Archives.
New York State and the Civil War, July 1961 (Albany: New York State Civil War Centennial Commission)
Daniel Lorello, The Union Preserved (New York: The New York State Archives Partnership Trust, 1999), 85-87.
Robert J. Cook, Troubled Commemoration (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007), 184.
New York State Division of Military and
Naval Affairs: Military History