Staten Island's role in the Civil War
Published: Sunday, September 25, 2011, 5:34 AM By Thomas Matteo for the Staten Island Advance
The Planters Hotel in Stapleton was frequently used by Southern plantation owners before and during the Civil War.
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — This continues to be a year of many historical commemorations. We have celebrated Staten Island’s 350th birthday, as well as Mount Manresa’s 100th and the 10th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, just to mention a few.
There are a few more significant commemorations yet to come.
This year also marks the 150th commencement of the Civil War — a war that resulted in the death of more Americans than all other wars combined.
The war often pitted brother against brother, North against South, and although no battles took place on Staten Island, we were still very much involved in the conflict.
Before the war broke out, Staten Island was a very popular place for Southerners to visit. Some plantation owners would bring their cotton to New York for sale. Often they would bring their families and spend some time vacationing on the Island.
Many stayed at the Planters Hotel, while others built their own homes. Leng and Davis went so far as to say that “Staten Island was a notable resort for Southerners.”
After the Civil War broke out, many of these Southerners brought their families here to escape the war and live in safety.
There were encampments throughout the Island where training of the New York State Militia took place before their deployment to the front. In addition to Fort Richmond (part of Fort Wadsworth), regimental encampments were located in Elm Park, New Dorp, Port Richmond, Old Town, Stapleton and Tompkinsville. These encampments were critical to the war effort and played an important part in the North’s success.
Many believe that Staten Island was a major stop on the Underground Railroad for escaping slaves on the way to sanctuaries in upstate New York and Canada. Staten Island had a large free black community in Sandy Ground and is close to central New Jersey; it would be easy to slip people across Raritan Bay or the Kill van Kull.
In addition, Staten Island was the home to several noted abolitionists and, according to Leng and Davis, many of them provided a hiding place for slaves.
Before the Civil War, Livingston’s two most prominent citizens — George William Curtis and Sidney Howard Gay — played an important role in the fight against slavery.
Both men were active abolitionists, Gay had been the editorial editor for the New York Tribune, and Curtis wrote editorials for Harper’s Weekly in opposition to slavery.
More importantly, they supported the Underground Railroad by hiding slaves in their homes until they could be moved to safety in Canada.
Gay’s commitment to the abolition movement brought him to New York in 1844, where he was the editor for the National Anti-Slavery Standard. He moved to West Brighton in 1848 to live in a cottage on Hayley’s Lane, near Davis Avenue.
In 1858, he joined the New York Tribune and became its managing editor. The paper was a strong opponent of slavery and became a target of a mob during the Draft Riots of 1863. He and the newspaper’s staff barely escaped an attack when the mob stormed the paper’s headquarters.
Gay was active in the Underground Railroad, hiding slaves in his home until they could be moved to safety in Canada. Gay’s daughter, Mary Otis Gay Wilcox, founded the Staten Island chapter of the Red Cross and succeeded in recruiting 18,000 members during World War I.
George William Curtis lived at 234 Bard Ave. in New West Brighton and was a well-known author and editor. Among the publications Curtis edited was Harper’s Weekly. He wrote on many subjects, but was best known for his fight for human rights.
Long before the Civil War, Curtis spoke out against the injustice of slavery. When public opinion turned on those they believed responsible for the war — the press — Curtis risked his life by hiding Horace Greeley, who was the editor of the New York Tribune, in his home as well as slaves until they could be moved to safety in Canada.
After the Civil War, Curtis fought for the rights of women, workers and the poor. In recognition of his contributions, Curtis High School was named for him. Curtis died in 1892 and is buried in Moravian Cemetery.
Francis G. Shaw was born in Boston in 1809 and moved to Staten Island in 1847 so his wife could be near Dr. Samuel MacKenzie Elliott, the famous eye doctor. A long-time resident of West New Brighton, Shaw’s interest in political and social issues drew him and his son into the Civil War.
He served as president of the National Freeman’s Bureau, which was created by the government to improve the lives of freed slaves. His son, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, commanded the all-black 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment made famous by the motion picture “Glory.”
According to Leng and Davis, Staten Island’s quota of draftees for the Union Army was 400 men, single or married, between the ages of 20 and 35. These men served with bravery and distinction; many lost their lives, two were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their bravery — Theodore Greig and Joseph Keele.
BITS AND PIECES
Sandy Ground Historical Society has a wonderful exhibit, “Faces of the Underground.” The exhibit is open on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from 1 p.m.- 4 p.m. This is truly an exhibit you do not want to miss!