The Chamber of Commerce of New York

Politics and War > Splendid Little War at Home

By 1898, the City’s hodgepodge military defenses had been somewhat improved. The smoothbore cannon on Sandy Hook had been replaced by “the latest type of large rifles and mortars and other appliances,” while new fortifications at Willets Point and Throg’s Neck guarded the entrance from Long Island Sound. Engineers confidently declared that “it would now be an impossibility for a squadron to damage the city by trying to bombard it.” These guns and mines, “would prove fatal to the strongest vessels.”

Well protected, at last, from a danger that could never again occur, the City elites realized almost immediately that they remained exposed to a real and present threat in their midst. In the spring of 1898, President McKinley called for 100,000 volunteers for the promising war with Spain. As many of these recruits as possible were to come from units of the National Guard. The City’s regiments – with one exception – convened in their respective armories.


As the uniformed troops departed the City – ushered out by cheering crowds – the merchants began to feel their vulnerability. In June, Governor Frank S. Black responded to the concerns of Chamber President Alexander Orr, “The city and state have not been left without protection,” he wrote, “there has been no time that the state has not had ample protection. I realized that the departure of the Guard from this state would leave us unprotected here, but the call from Washington was for the National Guard, and I complied with that call.”

But, with the waterways secure, the businessmen had no need to fear an attack by the Spanish navy. So, what was the concern? Gov. Black’s letter acknowledged the answer: “there has been no time,” he assured the Chamber, “that a riot or any other disturbance would have caught us unprepared.”

In part, his confidence was due to the one Guard unit that had not been deployed. The Seventh Regiment – known as the “rich men’s regiment” – was the City’s most elite fighting force. During the Draft Riots of 1863, it had deployed to restore order. In its new armory – built like a fortress on Park Avenue, amidst the metropolis’ richest neighborhood – this gentleman’s militia viewed its mission as the suppression of another working-class rebellion.

As the fighting began, however, the soldiers of the Seventh began to feel qualms about their continued passivity. While less-storied units died of dysentery in military camps, or reconnoitered in Cuba, they remained inactive at home. They faced “sneers, jests and reproaches” from their fellow citizens. “In the eyes of the public,” an ex-sergeant complained in December, “the Seventh Regiment shirked its duty and is placed on the defensive.”


The City faced no serious disorders during the fighting, but the Chamber remained concerned. Its involvement was reflected in a telegram from the White House in November acknowledging the merchants’ best wishes. “The President appreciates the cordiality of the message of congratulations of the New-York Chamber of Commerce tendered through yourself,” replied McKinley’s secretary, “upon the victories of the war and confidence in the solution of the problems arising from it which remain to be settled under his guidance.”

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