An Irrepressible Conflict

The Empire State in the Civil War

By Robert Weible, Jennifer A. Lemak, and Aaron Noble
Foreword by Harold Holzer

Subjects: New York/regional, American History, History
Series: Excelsior Editions
Imprint: Excelsior Editions
Paperback : 9781438453484, 288 pages, December 2014

Table of contents

Director’s Message
Mark Schaming
Harold Holzer
Robert Weible
Antebellum New York
Jennifer A. Lemak
The Civil War, 1861–1865
Aaron Noble
Reconstruction and Legacy
Robert Weible, Jennifer A. Lemak

Examines the pivotal role New York State played in the Civil War.


An Irrepressible Conflict documents the pivotal role New York State played in our nation's bloodiest and most enduring conflict. As the wealthiest and most populous state in the Union, the Empire State led all others in supplying men, money, and material to the causes of unity and freedom. New York's experience provides significant insight into the reasons why the war was fought and the meaning that the Civil War holds today.

A companion to the award-winning exhibition of the same name, displayed at the New York State Museum from September 2012 to March 2014, An Irrepressible Conflict includes reproductions of objects from the collections of the New York State Museum, Library, and Archives, as well as more than twenty-five different institutions across the state. Among the many significant objects are a Lincoln life mask from 1860 from the New-York Historical Society; the earliest photograph of Frederick Douglass (a rare 8″ x 10″ daguerreotype image, courtesy of the Onondaga Historical Association); the only known portrait of Dred Scott, also from New-York Historical Society; and a bronze medal given to the defenders of Fort Sumter by the City of New York from the museum's own collection.

The title is inspired by an 1858 quote from then US Senator William H. Seward, who also served as governor of New York (1839–42) and Secretary of State (1861–69). Seward disagreed with those who believed that the prospect of war between the North and South was the work of "fanatical agitators. " He understood that the roots of conflict went far deeper, writing, "It is an irrepressible conflict, between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slave-holding nation or entirely a free-labor nation. "

Robert Weible is New York State Historian and Chief Curator at the New York State Museum. Jennifer A. Lemak is Senior Historian at the New York State Museum and the author of Southern Life, Northern City: The History of Albany's Rapp Road Community, also published by SUNY Press. Aaron Noble is Associate Museum Exhibition Planner at the New York State Museum.


"…[a] handsome full-size volume … This collection serves as a testament to the value of material culture in telling a narrative, and the value of including color photographs in works of history. " — H-Net Reviews (H-War)

"…An Irrepressible Conflict is a triumph of public history, both a beautiful rendering of the rich collection displayed by the New York State Museum to mark the Civil War sesquicentennial and an effective piece of historical narrative … [it] will be a joyful adventure for anyone interested in New York history or in the history of the Civil War; it should find a place on the coffee tables of many historically minded New Yorkers … a copy of this approachably profound look at New York in the Civil War should be available in every public school in the Empire State. " — Hudson River Valley Review

"This richly illustrated and easily digestible catalog … makes a strong case for New York's Civil War primacy, even though Seward, New York's favorite son, lost the 1860 Republican nomination to Lincoln. " — New York Times

Praise for the exhibition:

Winner, Award of Merit from the American Association of State and Local History

"The exhibition reveals New York not only as indispensable to the Union (and to its ultimate victory) but also as essential to the continued pursuit of justice among the formerly enslaved and their descendants. It admirably realizes its objective: To establish New York's significance in the Civil War and its lasting battle for freedom. " — Wall Street Journal

"…adroitly interweaves a rich trove of paintings and engravings, artifacts, photographs, and documents, many borrowed from institutions throughout the state, with a lucid interpretive script to make a convincing case for the Empire State's pivotal role in the conflict … The exhibition is well conceived intellectually, written in an engaging, mercifully concise style and designed with visitors of all ages in mind. " — Journal of American History