Skip to comments.Marking 150 Years Since the New York City Draft Riots
Posted on 07/13/2013 5:43:00 AM PDT by Sherman Logan
The Deadliest Riot in American History
At the height of the Civil War, just weeks after thousands of men had died on the battlefields of Gettysburg, Pa., a sweltering New York Citycrowded, filthy, and seething with class and ethnic tensionserupted in mob violence. The draft riots would rage across the city for five brutal days, during which the white working massesmany of whom had narrowly escaped Irelands devastating potato faminevented their fury on wealthy New Yorkers, abolitionists, Republicans, and, most viciously, the African-American populace. To this day the riots of July 1863 remain the bloodiest civil disturbance in American history, with an official death toll of 119, though the actual number is probably closer to 500. In the wake of the violence, thousands of blacks fled the city.
Set the scene for us. What was New York City like in 1863? And what was its relation to the Civil War?
The wealthy in New York were making a fortune off the war. But for the working class, things were worse than ever. You had this huge inflation going on. Every day you could literally see merchants putting new signs in the windows with the prices going up. Goods were harder and harder to get, and they were often adulteratedit was not uncommon to find sawdust in your coffee, sand in the sugar, red lead in the pepper, Prussian blue dye in the tea. Before the war, in the 1850s, the death rate in New York exceeded the birth rate. The population kept growing just because of the enormous immigration, but people were not living well.
And then you have this war come. Union troops volunteer, and a huge number of them were the immigrant Irish. They were very grateful to America. The war was cast as Were fighting to keep the country together. They were all for it. They signed up in droves. They went down to the South, and they got butchered. They fought very bravely, but youd come home without a leg or something, you couldnt work; there was almost no social welfare system. Going to war really meant you risked plunging your entire family into poverty forever, even if you did return.
So its summer in the city in 1863
Theres tremendous unrest. There are a lot of strikes going on, which are being broken regularly. You had all these newspapersseveral of them quite racistsaying the war is horrible, its a mistake, saying black men are staying here seducing your wives while you go off to war; theyre taking your jobs; theyre breaking strikes. Which they werent. Actually, very few of the strikebreakers were black, and black men were the only people begging to go to war at this point. They were petitioning the governor constantly to form regiments and being denied that. So all these lies were being spread; this whole atmosphere was being created. A lot of people are being arrested. So this is a city really just burning with unrest and ferment.
Lincoln desperately needs troops, and so he passes the nations first draft law. [But] you could buy your way out of it. For $300, you could buy a substitute. $300 was nothing to the wealthy, but it was maybe two years wages for a workingman in New York. Were talking about a time when sewing girls made 17 cents a day for a 12-hour day.
So you have a lot of people who are not exactly inclined to drop everything and go fight a war. And yet they didnt have much of a choice.
There were a lot of signs that people werent terribly pleased with this. The Provost Marshals guard had gone around getting everybodys names in the weeks before, and suspicious things were happening to themlike, they would come to some tenement building in the Five Points, and the chimney would happen to collapse just then, or somebody would drop a flowerpot right next to their head.
Baker's 2002 novel evokes the riots in visceral detail. But they gathered enough names, and they took them up to this big wooden box that they turned. They got a known blind man to pull out the names, and they had this lottery. They had an armed guard on hand, and a big crowd gathered, and they werent all that happy but they got through it. It was a Saturday, and they figured, okay, the next day is Sunday, so everybody will cool off.
It was a mistake. Sunday was the day everybody goes off to the neighborhood tavern and talks about this, and theyre getting angrier and angrier, and theres a [volunteer fire] companyNumber 33, the Black Jokewhich has had a lot of their guys drafted, and theyre really ticked off about this. So they decide when the draft resumes on Monday that they are going to stop it.
At the height of the Civil War, a sweltering New York Citycrowded, filthy, and seething with class and ethnic tensionserupted in mob violence. To this day the draft riots of July 1863 remain the bloodiest civil disturbance in American history. To mark their 150th anniversary, Brian Palmer sat down with Kevin Baker, author of Paradise Alley, a novel that brings the riots to life in wrenching detail. Click here to read the first half of the interview.
The riots started on Monday, July 13.
Yes. The Black Joke [fire company] brings up its fire wagon filled with paving stones and other rocks theyd gotten from construction sites that were all over the city. When the draft starts, they attack itthey throw the rocks through the window of the draft office, they chase away the known blind man, they beat up the soldiers, then they burn the records for the draft. And that was all that they intended to do. But this whole mob thats gathered around them sets the block on fire, and they attack the commissioner of police and beat him half to death. And then the riot is on.
This quickly changes from being a riot against the draft to being a class riot where they attack the houses of leading abolitionists, loot them, burn them sometimes. Then it becomes a riot of opportunityI think the draft records are in that tavern with the really good Madeira! Lets go and see! And then, horribly, it becomes a race riot.
How did it turn into a wholesale attack on the African-American community?
The feeling was that these people were to blame for the war. And, of course, there were the things that politicians and journalists had promotedthe idea that these people were here taking your job or taking your wife while you were off at war.
You have to realize, about the people in these mobs, what conditions they lived in and what they were coming from. By the 1840s [in Ireland], you had people living in literal ditches they had dug; as long as you could have a little plot where you could grow potatoes, you could survive. Then comes the famine, which overnight basically wipes out potatoes. These people had nothing else to eat. You had to get out of that island or you were going to die.
So then you maybe barely made it over here, and you were Catholic, maybe didnt speak English, you had no money, no resources, and you were despised by a Protestant population. [Irish immigrants] were very conscious of themselves as a race at a time when any nationality was considered a raceItalians were a race, Germans were a race. They were very conscious of wanting to keep themselves above anybody they could. And in the U.S. that meant black people.
It was an odd thing, because at the same time, theyre living cheek by jowl with black Americans more than any whites would for another century or more in the city. It was kind of a tragedy that there was this real race mixing and at the same time all this built-in racial hatred. And this all comes bubbling out during the draft riot. The mob just starts attacking black people wherever they can find them. Theres a black sailor who comes ashore from a ship just looking to buy a loaf of bread without knowing whats going on; hes set upon and brutally beaten to death by a mob. Other people are lynched from trees, from lampposts. And, in possibly the single most horrible crime ever committed by New Yorkers, a mob marches on the Colored Orphan Asylum and burns it to the ground, chanting, Burn the n nest! Fortunately, the orphans all escaped by the skin of their teeth.
Was anyone trying to stop the racial violence?
There are whites who help. Its probably the best day in the history of the New York City police force, which not only courageously fights the mob but shelters black New Yorkers wherever they can and actually arms them at times, which for the time was pretty extraordinary.
Baker's 2002 novel evokes the riots in visceral detail. But the police are wildly outnumbered. Theres only so long that this can go on. Finally they rush up troops fresh from GettysburgInvalid Corps but also whole regiments, some troops from New York, including Irish New Yorkers. So the troops come in and they set up barricades in the streets, and when the mob charges, they shoot them. They chase them with bayonets, and they put down the rebellion. This really saves the Union.
If there had been an actual out-and-out rebellion, and if, say, the troops had sided with the rioters, or if, say, the Irish troops had revolted en masse, it would have been impossible to keep conducting the Civil War. The other thing that saves the Union is, theyre having to send huge numbers of white troops down to Virginia in shackles because otherwise theyre going to desert and sign up again to get the signing-up bonus under a different name. So the question is, who is going to fight the war? The answer was, 180,000 black troops in the Union Army from this point to the end of the war, 38,000 of whom died. This is like having three new armies put into the war on the Union side. And the first time after the riot is when New York State says OK, you can form these black regiments, and they march off to war. Theyre honored by various white abolitionists and pro-Union groups, but completely mocked by a lot of the Democratic papers. But they go off and essentially win the war.
Are the draft riots part of the Civil War story now?
Its one of these things thats slowly emerging more into the public consciousness. A lot of Americans dont want to hear this, but its a vital part of our country.
This island of Manhattan is one of the most fought-over pieces of real estate in America. You go back to things like the slave revolt of 1712, the supposed slave revolt of 1741, the draft riots, the Irish-ethnic riots, the riots in Harlem in 35 and 43, the Stonewall uprising in 69this has always been the place where people have fought out who is going to be an American and what thats going to meanwho has rights and what those rights are going to mean.
Unfortunately, the author being interviewed for this piece, going along with modern obsessions, has to turn the riot into a race riot, with evil whites attacking innocent blacks as the main event.
Which did indeed happen. But the riots did not start over race, and most of those killed were not black.
Also, the notion that "black troops won the war" is pretty stupid.
Just a byproduct from an earlier post of an infantile liberal trying, desperately trying to find some example of white-rioting to counter the very, very real threat of black rioting, over virtually anything, today.
It is rather pathetic if you ask me. Liberals just don’t have the artillery to do battle on a logical and reasonable level.
That's a questionable claim.
“It is rather pathetic if you ask me. Liberals just dont have the artillery to do battle on a logical and reasonable level.”
They get activist judges to impose their will on the rest of us so they don’t have to.
A little more devious than that. They proactively, proactively FOMENTED and INCITED discord far in advance of any judicial action.
Witness - employees of the CRS unit of the DOJ actively incite and foment black protests to get the Florida authorities to charge Zimmerman. Failing that, the limp-peckered Florida Governor was pressured to appoint a special prosecutor who did.
The author also doesn’t seem to understand that even 150 years ago, New York - despite pockets are poverty - was still fairly rural. Most of NYC was concentrated in what is now Lower Manhattan.
I believe it was mostly Irish immigrants who rioted and looted and lynched. They held it against black folks that they were being conscripted to fight a war they didn’t understand. Of course, NYC was the hotbed of Copperhead activity.
But, if as we are being told, the Zimmermann trial ends in some other fashion than The Racist-in-Chief and his gang of traitors desire, your point:
"...the very, very real threat of black rioting, over virtually anything, today...",
may be realized.
No, its not a questionable claim, its a nutty claim. The war was won ten days earlier at Gettysburg and Vicksburg; although it would drag on for twenty months, Lee had lost the ability to maneuver and the South had lost Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas with the fall of Vicksburg and the capture of the Miss. River. Once they arrived in Manhattan, it took the Union Army, including many disabled soldiers (the Invalided ones) about 15 minutes to take on and clear out the mob of rioters in New York, “tough guys” in a mob (some of whom had burned down a black orphanage with the kids in it) but who went running, terrified, for shelter at the first sign of the Army.
My point has already been realized - daily almost.
Black women jumping up on the counter at Burger king , anywhere public, freaking out because they did/didn’t get ketchup or the server ‘dissed’ them; hundreds of blacks storming stores to destroy and loot; blacks EVERYWHERE playing “knock out on some whitey because it’s ‘fun’; playing “white girl bleed a lot” when it’s more than ‘fun’; 4 Trayvons beating pushing a white man into traffic that killed him; and on and on and on and on.
Watch Gangs of New York for a version of these events.
It is also very important to note that some of the major New York newspapers had been purchased by rabid “Copperheads”, northern Democrats bitterly opposed to the war, who used those papers to stimulate rioters as much as possible.
Copperheads damaged the Union war effort by fighting the draft, encouraging desertion, and forming conspiracies to undermine the war effort. They talked of helping Confederate prisoners of war seize their camps and escape. They sometimes met with Confederate agents and took money. The Confederacy encouraged their activities whenever possible.
Importantly, the Copperheads were radicals, mostly pro-slavery, and distinguishable from the “Butternuts”, who were more pacifistic.
Unfortunately, that version bears essentially no relationship to reality.
Agreed. Scorsese’s version of events was melodramatic and bogus.
Mayor Opdyke to the Common Council July 27, 1863
Just Democrats acting as they always do. KKK, Jim Crow laws, anti-civil rights, etc.
And to the NSA trolls, FU.
Also pretty silly is mentioning all the battles/revolts in NYC without mentioning any of the Revolutionary War battle.
He equates it with Stonewall as well. Sick.
Strangely there seems to be no mention of Tammany Hall of the of the Democrat party and its’ roll in the riots.
Nobody wanted to fight for the old Whig Lincoln, the Africans or his Yankee Banditos. Should have been forced from office before he attacked SC!
More like the democrat New Yorkers didn’t want to fight the democrat southron insurrectionists.
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