New York State of Mind–er, Archives

I’m beginning to wonder if we even covered the Civil War at all in AP History. Before joining the National Archives, I had never heard of the Battle of the Crater, did not know that Confederate ships sailed all over the world, and had no idea that the Civil War had a draft and you could get out of it. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Did you know that the National Archives is also in New York City?

As my colleague Rob and I attempted to find the entrance on Varick Street, we weren’t too sure it was there. The Archives at New York is in a big building that houses other Federal agencies, including a detention center. We finally found the correct door, got through security, and made our way upstairs.

Staff are excited about their move to the Alexander Hamilton U. S. Customs House. It’s an accessible, welcoming space near the departure port for Ellis Island, with room for exhibits. Imagine going to Ellis Island, getting inspired about your family history, and then stopping by the Archives on your way home to do some free research at the National Archives!

But for now, you can do that at Varick Street. We met with Christopher Zarr, who gave us a tour of the classroom, exhibit space, and microfilm reading room. Researchers were at work in the Textual Research Room (unfortunately, with their back to the amazing NYC view out of the window), and volunteers and a student were busy processing records next door. The move is scheduled for sometime in the fall of 2011, and some records need to be reorganized or reboxed in preparation.

But the most interesting part was behind the nondescript locked doors.

Christopher took us for a tour of the stacks, where long stretches of shelving run parallel to the outside hallway. We walked past archival boxes and huge bound books. It reminded me a little of the scenes in the Harry Potter books, when they go into the “Restricted” section of the library—who knew what was in the records there?

Christopher took down a large, flat archival box and opened it up for us. It was a ledger from the Civil War, listing the names of men excused from the draft. In the far right column were the reasons they were released from the obligations.

Now, the Discovering the Civil War exhibit has the document that shows Lincoln’s substitute, J. Summerfield Staples, who was paid $300 to stand in for Lincoln as a soldier (though Lincoln was not in fact subject to the draft). So I wasn’t surprised to see the notations indicating the name of the person whom the draftee had hired as a substitute.

But I was surprised to see the other reasons listed. Along with being underage or overage or having syphilis, men were excused if they were the “only son of a widow”, an “alien,” or the “father of a motherless child.” Pages after pages of names were listed, each one its own little story. It’s the kind of document that reminds me why I get excited about research and history.

A big thank you to Christopher for showing us around—we’ll be back for another tour in 2011 in the Customs House!

View of downtown New York City from the Textual Research Room
View of downtown New York City from the Textual Research Room (photo by Robert Crotty)

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