The Emancipation Proclamation: Copperheads Respond

In conjunction with a current exhibit, the Brooklyn Historical Society blog is featuring a series of blog posts called “The Emancipation Proclamation: Americans Respond.” Learn more here.

The American political landscape was marked by many different and complicated factions during the Civil War. One group, often dubbed “Copperheads,” remain the most misunderstood. Copperheads were Unionists affiliated with the Democratic party who opposed the Civil War. For reasons including a fear that emancipated slaves entering the labor force would threaten the livelihoods of northern white workers, Copperheads called for immediate peace with Confederate states – essentially on Confederate terms, which meant maintaining southern slavery.

Copperheadism found particular support in areas near the Ohio River, and in larger cities. There they spread their message through newspapers like the Chicago Times. The Times was published by a man named Wilbur F. Storey, and it often employed inflammatory language criticizing the war, black Americans, and Abraham Lincoln’s administration. Unsurprisingly, the Times excoriated Lincoln after the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued in September 1862:

“We protest against this proclamation, in the name of the constitution, in behalf of good faith to the conservative millions of the northern and border states, and for the sake of the only means by which it has at any time been possible to restore the Union. We protest against it as a monstrous usurpation, a criminal wrong, and an act of national suicide.”

In 1863, after the Emancipation Proclamation was enacted, the newspaper became so vitriolic in its criticism of Lincoln that General Ambrose Burnside shut the Times down. Only two days later, President Lincoln, responding to critics demanding freedom of speech, lifted the ban.

Historians have debated how influential Copperheads were in shaping the political landscape during the Civil War. Certainly they shaped the lexicon around which Americans discussed and continue to discuss race. For example, Copperheads were responsible for creating and popularizing the word “miscegenation” during the 1864 presidential election. They proved adept at blending spectacle with racist language and ideas during times of political instability – in ways that influence political rhetoric even today.

In December 1863, a pamphlet entitled “Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races” hit newsstands. Seemingly written by an anonymous Radical Republican, it advocated the intermarriage and blending of the races until race was indistinguishable. To most mid 19th-century Americans – even those who opposed slavery – these ideas were seen as dangerous and revolutionary. Unsurprisingly, it prompted fear among the populace, inflamed tensions during an election year, and caused confusion and discord among Republicans and abolitionists.

The pamphlet turned out to be a Copperhead hoax. It was written by two employees of the New York World – another Democratic newspaper with some Copperhead leanings – and was meant to hurt Lincoln’s re-election efforts and embarrass abolitionists. Yet the word “miscegenation” stuck, in ways that continue to shape Americans’ public and private lives into the 21st century.

Recently, BHS has been exploring, contextualizing, and chronicling the very experience so mocked by Copperheads in their “Miscegenation” pamphlet. Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations (CBBG) is an oral history project and public programming series that examines the history and experiences of mixed-heritage people and families, cultural hybridity, race, ethnicity, and identity. Capturing and preserving the complex experiences of mixed-heritage Brooklynites – it seems like we’ve come a long way from the widespread racist beliefs of the 19th century. Yet the often-inflammatory political rhetoric that still exists in 2014 reminds us why programs like CBBG are so important.

Source: The Chicago Times, September 24, 1862.

Posted in Brooklyn Past & Present, Exhibitions, Oral History | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off

Science Fiction and Multiraciality: CBBG Event Recap

Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations (CBBG), a project of Brooklyn Historical Society, is an oral history project and public programming series that examines the history and experiences of mixed-heritage people and families, cultural hybridity, race, ethnicity, and identity in the historically diverse borough of Brooklyn. 

20131214_What-Are-You-3_LR_001    20131214_What-Are-You-3_LR_007

On December 14th, 2013, BHS’ Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations program hosted a fantastic, creative and well-received event titled Science Fiction and Multiraciality: From Octavia Butler to Harry Potter. This event allowed New Yorkers to critically engage with concepts and histories related to mixed-race identity and racialization through the unique portal of science fiction, fantasy and imagination. The event featured an interactive and multimedia presentation by Eric Hamako, social justice educator from Smith College, and a collective visionary fiction storytelling workshop by Walidah Imarisha, activist, poet, professor and Co-Editor of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements.

Audience members learned about visionary fiction as a tool to imagine inclusive and racially just futures, and analyzed and critiqued sci-fi media narratives (especially in the Harry Potter series) in order to expose stereotypes about mixed-race communities. Participants also learned about the new Hunger Games-inspired Odds In Our Favor campaign through our co-sponsor, the Harry Potter Alliance.

Participants thoroughly enjoyed the presentations and collective visionary fiction storytelling workshop. CBBG was delighted to host this exploratory and creative conversation through our program!

Read the event update and check out more photos here.

Posted in Events, Oral History, Public Programs | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off

Coney Island Aflame

Coney Island's Biggest Fire Disaster, 1907

Coney Island’s Biggest Fire Disaster, 1907, v1973.4.707; Postcard Collection, v1973.004; Brooklyn Historical Collection

This is the fifth in a series of posts on the records of Brooklyn’s Corporation Counsel, which are currently being processed with funding provided by a Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) “Hidden Collections” grant.

One of the greatest threats to public safety in 19th century Brooklyn was fire.  The vast majority of buildings were wood framed, and very few had fire escapes.  Coney Island, with its famous boardwalk and densely packed amusements, was especially vulnerable. The most famous fire in Coney Island’s history occurred in 1911 and completely destroyed the grandiose amusement park Dreamland. But through the years it was the unfortunate site of many other destructive fires. Today we will examine a blaze which causes hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage to Coney Island’s east end in 1895.

Details regarding the 1895 Coney Island fire can be found in several contemporary newspapers. The fire began near Surf Ave. and West 8th St., around the present-day site of the New York Aquarium.  The exact cause of the fire remains unknown, although the New York Times attributed the blaze to a group of tramps who had “made their headquarters in a small extension connected with Victor Leavitt’s photograph gallery.” The newspaper believed that the chemicals stored at the studio contributed to the destructive nature of the fire, which quickly spread to adjacent buildings, including numerous hotels, apartments, and businesses.[1]

The records of Brooklyn’s Corporation Counsel include several claims made against the city for damages incurred during the fire.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that “there are few hydrants in the neighborhood and only a sluggish stream of water could be procured.”[2]  The Town of Gravesend (which included Coney Island), had been recently annexed by the City of Brooklyn.  Various claims alleged that ever since annexation the Gravesend Fire Department had become “disorganized and worthless and its apparatus was not properly manned or provided for and … was not in condition for immediate use in case of fire.” Making matters even worse, the city had allegedly “cut and tap[ped] the main water supply of the Town of Gravesend” in order to bolster its own water main which ran along Ocean Parkway.  As a result, “a stream of water could not be procured from the said mains as was formerly the case.”[3]

Claim of Charles R. Myer, 1895.

Claim of Charles R. Myer, 1895; Brooklyn, N.Y., Department of Law, Corporation Counsel records, 2013.015; Brooklyn Historical Society

The claims each provide small glimpses into life in Coney Island at the turn of the 20th century.  Among the claimants were several residents of the “McKane Flats.”  This is referring to housing owned by the dominant political figure of Coney Island at the time, John Y. McKane. McKane, who was eventually jailed for corruption, often feuded with another famous Coney Islander, George C. Tilyou.  Tilyou, who would go on to open Steeplechase Park, also lost a hotel in the blaze.[4] Other claimants included William Liomin, owner of a billiard and pool parlor, and Conrad Stubenbord, the proprietor of Stubenbord’s Hotel. Charles R. Myers made claims for lost amusements, including a Ferris Wheel and one Illusion, entitled “Trip to Chicago.” John R. Merritt appeared to have operated a beverage wholesale business. He made claims for numerous bottles, corks, fountains, boxes, soda, beer, wine, and liquors, along with cigars and a shot gun.

The Brooklyn Historical Society is home to a wealth of books, manuscripts, maps, photographs, and artifacts related to Coney Island. For more information please see our Guide to Coney Island and Gravesend Archival Materials at the Othmer Library.


[2] Brooklyn Daily Eagle. May 16, 1895.

[3] Claims of Cohen, Kennedy, Liomin, Merrit, Myers, Stubenbord, and Vischer, 1895-1896. Brooklyn, N.Y., Department of Law, Corporation Counsel records, 2013.015; Brooklyn Historical Society.

[4] New York Times. May 17, 1895.

Posted in Brooklyn Past & Present, Hidden Collections, Library & Archives | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off

Photo of the Week: Portrait of Mrs. Henry T. Fleitman


[Mrs. Henry T. Fleitman], circa 1930; Portrait collection; Brooklyn Historical Society.


Sometimes a single image is all that you need to imagine the entire story of somebody’s life. That is how I felt when I happened upon this beautiful image of Mrs. Henry T. Fleitman while rifling through Brooklyn Historical Society’s portrait collection. Her face pointing away from everybody else in the photograph, and the contrast of her light clothing with the clothing of the people around her, give an impression of sadness and isolation. At the same time, her casual slouch, and her ensemble – complete with white gloves, a string of pearls, and a clear disregard for the dangers of wearing white in the grass – suggest a Gatsby-esque world of high society excess and insouciance.

When I searched for Mrs. Henry T. Fleitman’s name on the web, I found stories of a life even more lavish than what I had imagined from her portrait.[i] The New York Times is filled with articles from the 1920s and 1930s of Mr. and Mrs. Fleitman with homes in both Manhattan and Long Island, sailing to Europe, hosting luncheons, and attending dog shows, races, and various high society events. The sadness and isolation are also in these stories. In one article, Mrs. Fleitman is rescued from a downed seaplane while on her way to Sweden, while Mr. Fleitman was at his home in Long Island, “spending the day at the beach” and could not be reached.[ii] Mrs. Henry T. Fleitman was originally from England, and appeared to have lived an increasingly separate life from her husband, eventually divorcing Henry. Years after the divorce, another article reports that Mr. Henry T. Fleitman was found dead in his home, “slumped in front of a gas stove which had two burners open,” after a change of fortune.[iii]

While the details of the social events, and the seaplanes, and the suicides may not be in this image of Mrs. Henry T. Fleitman, the impression of that life is there in the composition of the photograph, and the clothing of the woman, and the contrasts of the shadows and the light. It is only one of the many beautiful and telling portraits that Brooklyn Historical Society has in its collections. I can only imagine what incredible stories there are to go along with the other photographs.


Interested in seeing more photos from BHS’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. Interested in seeing even more historic Brooklyn images? Visit our new website here.  To search BHS’s entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections visit BHS’s Othmer Library Wed-Fri, 1:00-5:00 p.m.

Author: Halley Choiniere

[i] There are two photographs of Mrs. Henry T. Fleitman in the Brooklyn Historical Society Portrait collection, and one is labeled “Fleitman” and the second is labeled “Fleitmann.” Similarly, The New York Times articles from this period use both spellings when referring to Mr. and Mrs. Fleitman of Locust Valley, Long Island. While the correct spelling is not clear, it seems safe to assume that the New York Times articles are referencing the same people shown in the images in the BHS collection.

[ii] “Freighter Rescues Two New York Women Adrift in a Disabled Seaplane Off Sweden,” The New York Times, August 27, 1933

[iii] “Broker is Found Dead,” The New York Times, December 7, 1937

Posted in Brooklyn Past & Present, Library & Archives | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off

The Emancipation Proclamation: Black Soldiers Respond

In conjunction with a current exhibit, the Brooklyn Historical Society blog is featuring a series of blog posts called “The Emancipation Proclamation: Americans Respond.” Learn more here.

As I discussed a few weeks ago, the promotion of black military service was among the Emancipation Proclamation’s most controversial and significant provisions.

Black men were eager to join the Union military from the start of the Civil War. Freedmen penned letters to President Lincoln and other officials calling for black recruitment as early as 1861. Rarely did officials respond to these poignant letters (most of which can be found at the National Archives), but they reveal that it was black Americans themselves who advocated for their right to fight – long before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.

Black men’s zeal to become soldiers was motivated by the same forces that made the administration hesitant to permit their enlistment. America had always maintained a strong connection between military service and citizenship. As Frederick Douglass, who campaigned for black military enrollment throughout the war, succinctly put it:

“He who fights the battles of America, may claim America as his country and have that claim respected.”

The black soldier in uniform created a new, powerful image. He was brave, willing to sacrifice, and thus entitled to far more than was given to people valued only for their labor. By the war’s end, approximately 200,000 blacks fought under the Union banner, and many black veterans would serve as political leaders during Reconstruction.

Fighting for the Union not only elevated black men’s role in the public sphere. It also improved their own self-esteem. No longer defenseless against white brutality, as soldiers black men could fight for the betterment of their race and defend their loved ones. They could fulfill traditional gender roles and embody mainstream understandings of manhood.

Freedom, of course, was not distributed equally, but afforded only to those men who enlisted in the army, and was thereby inextricably tied to gender.

The Emancipation Proclamation was noteworthy – at least in part – because it granted freedom to enslaved people irrespective of their gender. Black “manhood,” defined by military service, created its converse, black “womanhood,” and divided the race into two distinct groups, whereas as slaves, both men and women were no more than property. It was men who fought in the war and were thereby entitled to demand rights as recompense for their sacrifice.

As more and more black men served, the fight for political equality morphed from a black struggle to a struggle of black men. The connection between the military, civil opportunity, and manhood came through clearly in a letter written by Zack Burden, a black soldier, to President Lincoln, calling attention to the squalid and unhealthy conditions at his camp:

“I think it is hard to make a man go and fite [fight] and Wont let him vote and wont let him go home when he is sick… give us A chenc [chance] of A man.”

Frederick Douglass, “Why Should a Colored Man Enlist,” Douglass’ Monthly, April 1863.

Zack Burden to Abraham Lincoln, February 2, 1865, Colored Troop Files, National Archives, quoted in Harold Holzer, ed., The Lincoln Mailbag: America Writes to the President, 1861-1865 (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press), 221.

Posted in Brooklyn Past & Present, Exhibitions | Tagged , , , | Comments Off