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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 359

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This is the grave of Fernando Wood.

Born in 1812 in Philadelphia, Wood’s Spanish first name, highly unusual for an English-American at the time, came out of a gothic novel his mother liked. His family moved to New York in 1820. Wood became a bar owner, became a successful merchant, and went into politics as a Democrat. In 1840, he was elected to Congress and lost his re-election bid. But already deeply connected politically and to the New York elite, he was given the position of dispatch agent for the State Department at the Port of New York. During this period, he also spent some time in California, where he made a whole bunch of money in shipping, allowing him to basically retire from business and focus on politics.

Wood’s politics were terrible. He was an open racist. Like much of the New York City elite, he had major shipping connections with the South and also had great sympathy for southern planters. When Wood became mayor of New York City in 1855, he would commit to supporting the worst of Democratic politics at that time. His first stint as mayor however was largely caught up in battles with his enemies in Albany. There was good reason for that. Wood’s police force was nakedly corrupt, which he was totally fine with. So he was elected in 1855 to a two-year term. The state legislature overturned it and reduced it to 1-year, not just for him but for New York elections generally. They also created an alternative police force with an outside superintendent and tried to force it on Wood. He refused to disband the city’s usual police force. When one captain backed the state over Wood and was ordered to arrest the mayor, 300 policemen rushed City Hall and physically threw the captain out the door into the street. The two police forces engaged in a pitched battle in the streets in what became known as the New York City Police Riot. The two police forces continued to fight each other over the next couple of years. Crime skyrocketed in the city as both sides basically left the gangs, so vividly displayed in Martin Scorsese’s wonderful Gangs of New York, to attack each other, rob and rape, with each side saying it was the other police force’s problem. Such was the loveliness of the 19th century city. Finally, Wood was denied a third term in 1858 despite his using a street gang to register the city’s dead and add them to the voter rolls.

But in 1860, Wood was reelected as mayor. This was the same election that put Abraham Lincoln in office and led to southern states committing treason to defend slavery. How would the mayor of New York respond? Of course, he fully committed to supporting the Confederacy. In fact, he led a group to the Southern Democrats’ convention in Charleston after the extremists walked out when Douglas was nominated and put the hideous John C. Breckinridge up instead. Wood’s position, as was that of much of the northern Democratic Party, was that, first, black people did not deserve any concern from white people and second, that even if they did, the government needed to commit to helping the white worker and farmer. New York, and especially Wood’s corrupt political machine, a rival within the Democratic Party to Tammany Hall, relied on southern receipts from cotton. So that’s where Wood’s loyalty lie. In fact, Wood was so corrupt that Boss Tweed himself said, “I never went to get a corner lot, that I didn’t find Wood had got in ahead of me.” Impressive! Wood also pioneered the practice of directly connecting with newly arrived immigrants upon their arrival and having them placed in critical wards to help just in the right place come election time.

In 1862, Wood went so far as to suggest that New York City secede from the Union and declare itself an independent city that would recognize the legitimacy of the Confederacy. Horace Greeley responded, “Fernando Wood evidently wants to be a traitor; it is lack of courage only that makes him content with being a blackguard.” It was people such as Wood and his allies that would spark the New York City Draft Riots the following year. Lincoln basically hated Wood, thinking him just the worst, but he was also a lot craftier than Wood and so generally ignored him when possible. Wood consistently misread the climate of the North, especially as the war went on and so ignoring him became easier over time. At the same time, Wood constantly sucked up to Lincoln in letters and visited the White House as often as he could, driving Lincoln nuts. Basically, this was a stone-cold opportunist of the highest order, in way over his head against a man such as Lincoln. Lincoln’s secretary John Nicolay later remembered:

“This morning early Edward came into the President’s office and announced that Mr. [Fernando] Wood was here to see him. ‘I am sorry he is here,’ said the President. ‘I would rather he should not come about here so much. Tell Mr. Wood that I have nothing as yet to tell him, on the subject we conversed about when he was last here.’ Edward went out to deliver his message.

“‘I can tell you what Wood (F.) Wants,’ said the President to me. ‘He came here one day last week to urge me to publish some sort of amnesty for the northern sympathizers and abettors of the rebellion, which would include Vallandigham, and permit him to return; and promised that if I would do so, they would have two Democratic candidates in the field at the next Presidential election

In 1862, Wood built upon this lovely legacy by being elected to Congress. There, he was a leading opponent of the Thirteenth Amendment and engaged in blistering attacks on Democrats who did not support slavery, saying they had “a white man’s face on the body of a negro.” Always a harsh speaker, he would later be censured by Congress during Reconstruction after calling a bill, “A monstrosity, a measure the most infamous of the many infamous acts of this infamous Congress.” He remained active in city politics as well. When the military arrested the vile Clement Vallandigham for treason, Wood led rallies denouncing the federal government for tyranny, even though Wood and Vallandigham hated each other because both wanted to be the leader of the hardcore Democratic opposition to Republicans. He left Congress after the 1864 elections but returned in 1866 and remained there the rest of his life. As Democrats retook power in Congress after the Panic of 1873, Wood became chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means between 1877 and 1881. He died in 1881 while on vacation in Hot Springs, Arkansas. He was 68.

Fernando Wood is buried in Trinity Church Cemetery, Manhattan, New York. This is the uptown one, not the one near Wall Street where Hamilton is buried.

If you would like this series to visit other awful racist politicians of American history, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Pitchfork Ben Tillman is in Trenton, South Carolina while Theodore Bilbo is in Poplarville, Mississippi. Although there are really so many racist politicians in American history. You can hardly visit a cemetery without stumbling over one. And there’s no question that these are my favorite posts to write. There are so many monsters of American history. We should know more about them. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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