This is a reworked article that first appeared on my old blog in 2014.
Let us travel back in time to New York City during the hot summer of July 1863. It consisted only of Manhattan as Brooklyn was a separate city across the East River. A million people crammed into its narrow confines. A large percentage of them were foreign born, Irish and German mostly. Politically the city was solidly in the Democratic Party folds. Modern New Yorkers would be shocked to learn that the city voted 2-1 AGAINST Lincoln in 1860 and again in 1864. This was due to the fact that Tammany Hall and the likes of Boss Tweed controlled the city with an iron fist. The immigrants were loyal to the Democratic Machine and the Irish remembered the fact that prior to the establishment of the Republican Party, many prominent Republicans had been Know Nothings, an anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic organization. The fact that there were anti-Catholics/anti-Irish abolitioninsts often gets glossed over in the history books, but I digress. Given the very close business relationship between New York City and the South, Mayor Fernando Wood proposed seceding from the Union and declaring NYC to be an “open city”, free to trade with either side. New York City business leaders were afraid that they would lose a tremendous amount of money if the war kept them from doing business or if the slaves were freed and their cotton imports dried up.
And what of the city itself? We have a wonderful portrait of the city by virtue of a book called Sunshine and Shadow in New York written by an English visitor in the immediate post war period. It is out of print but you can download it for free on the internets. The population of Gotham doubled between 1825 and 1845 and that is BEFORE the Irish Potato Famine brought hundreds of thousands of poor Irish men, women, and children flooding into the city. By 1860, they made up a quarter of the population. They were crammed into some of the worst urban slums on the planet at the time. While they lived in squalor and extreme poverty on the Lower East Side, a few blocks to the north, the wealthy lived in opulent mansions seemingly oblivious to the plight of so many of their fellow New Yorkers. Crime and poverty go hand in hand and the city was known as a home to every vice imaginable. They city boasted 600 houses of prostitution and scores of other “houses of assignation”. Then you had saloons, lots of saloons. Some of the saloons on the East Side had “waiter girls” which shocked the sensibilities of the English author of the book. He said “waiter girls are not of the highest moral order”. Seeing as how my redhead was a waitress when I met her, I will not comment on that.
The NYPD and the Fire Department were overwhelmingly Irish, a fact that did not escape the notice of the wealthy Protestants in the city. They feared an urban uprising. When the day arrived, would they city’s protectors side with the rioters? Or would they protect the lives and property of the wealthy? No one wanted to find out for sure, though in the summer of 1863, they would. The Fire Department officially carried about 4,000 volunteers on the rosters but only about half of them were active. The police department, led by Superintendent Kennedy numbered around 2,100 men. Both had received plenty of bad press in the 1850s. Their manpower was down due to the number of men enlisting in the Army at the outset of the war, but by 1863, enthusiasm had grown very thin. Whereas other cities had made the switch to professional firemen with horse drawn apparatus, New York City still relied on volunteers who pulled their hose carts, steam engines, and hook and ladder trucks by hand.
That diminished enthusiasm, along with heavy losses is exactly why Congress enacted the Enrollment Act. It was signed into law in March of 1863. Each Congressional District received a quota that they were to fill from the ranks of men between the ages of 20 and 45. It was widely unpopular for two reasons. To escape the draft, you could pay a substitute to go in your stead, something only a wealthy person could do. Or if not substitute could be found, you could pay the princely sum of $300 which represented the average annual wage of a working class person. One thing that often gets left out in the discussion of the draft is why it was needed in the first place. People often ignore the effect that the Emancipation Proclamation had on recruitment. Notice that after the Proclamation was announced, they suddenly needed to institute a draft. Likewise, when the Confederate Congress passed their draft law the previous year, it exempted those who owned 20 or more slaves or those who worked as overseers on plantations and Confederate enlistments dropped and desertion rose. In both cases, this was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. In New York City, the ability of the rich to hire substitutes or pay $300 is ultimately what would cause this unrest.
Rumors ran throughout the Sixth Ward (aka: Bloody Sixth) in the days leading up to the draft days. On Saturday, July 11th, the first names were drawn, slightly over 30. The crowd gathered to listen were somewhat boisterous. They made jokes as the names were read aloud, mostly Irish. Not a wealthy man among them. “Well a nice vacation from the wife, Johnny”. The draft ended and people went home. Two days later, July 13th dawned hot and clear. As crowds began to gather in Lower Manhattan, the police were on high alert. A large crowd congregated around the 9th District draft office, led by firefighters of Engine Company 33, the Black Joke. (meaning dark sense of humor, not race) A pistol discharged and they stormed the building. The men of the Black Joke were upset because their captain had been draft on Saturday. There is a difference between a crowd and a mob. A crowd is just a large group of people. A mob is something quite different. People in a mob get a certain amount of anonymity and a mob mindset can take over quickly, as it did on that hot July day.
Superintendent Kennedy arrived to try and see firsthand what was taking place. The mob recognized him despite his not being in uniform. They dragged him out of his carriage and nearly beat him to death. From the onset, he would be out of commission. The police, armed with clubs and revolvers, charged the crowd but were beaten back. The police took heavy casualties. As buildings were set alight, the fire department responded to the alarms but the mobs cut their fire hoses and attacked them with clubs. The mob then turned its anger on black residents of New York City. Why? The reason is a little more complicated than you may realize. Yes, the fear that freed slaves would come up North and take jobs away from the Irish was true. That idea had been mentioned in Irish newspapers. However, the predominantly working class Irish mobs vented their anger on black residents of New York City because they saw them as symbol. They represented the elite white New Yorkers who, though often abolitionist in sentiment, despised the Irish. Remember the mobs that burned down Catholic Churches just ten years before. Many of the leaders in that movement were now abolitionist and since the Irish could not attack them directly, they instead focused their rage on the people who the abolitionists cared about.
On Monday evening a mob lynched a black man and set his body on fire as he hung from a rope, strangling to death. In an eerie scene, something out of the Middle Ages, people danced around the burning body. Another mob marched on the Colored Orphan Asylum with the express intent of burning it down and perhaps murder the children inside. In a feat unparalleled in the history of the police and fire services, a small group of police officers and firefighters fought the mob long enough to allow the children to be safely brought to safety out the back door. The Chief Engineer of the Fire Department, a position similar to that of the Fire Chief, was grabbed by the mob. They slipped a rope around his neck and were about to hoist him skyward when he said “If you kill me, you will only stop my draft.” The crowd began to laugh. They patted him on the back and sent him on his way. Remember, the Irish were considered to be a different race by the elites in New York City, hence the frequent references to them as the “Irish race” and their depiction as monkeys in the newspapers. By attacking blacks, they were trying to racialize themselves as “white”. Of course, they also attacked the homes of the wealthy and Protestant churches, all people who had victimized them in the past. This was an uprising of oppressed underclasses that targeted everyone who upset them. The rich. The military. The city itself. And the black workers of New York who represented the threat of a non-union labor force and who the abolitionist cared more for than the poor Irish immigrants.
Desperate calls for reinforcements went out from city leaders and the War Department rushed soldiers to the city to restore order. New York Governor Horatio Seymour, who was a little pro-South as it was, told Lincoln “Remember this—that the bloody and treasonable doctrine of public necessity can be proclaimed by a mob as well as by a government.” Many of the reinforcements had recently fought at Gettysburg. The mob attacked them too. They pulled up bits of the pavement and carried it to the rooftops. When dropped on the street, the paving stones and bricks shattered, peppering the ranks of police officer and soldiers with shrapnel. Accounts speak of cannons being fired and pitched gunfights in the streets between the mob and the military. I don’t know how accurate those accounts are, but they ring true. And what of those gallant men of the New York City Police Department? They fought armed mobs often armed with nothing more than clubs themselves. Teams of them would stream inside their stations for a break from the action, battered and bruised. Many sported bandages on their heads and supported broken limbs as they walked. After a brief respite they would form up and go back into the fray, clubs tapping out a beat on the pavement as they marched. No one knows for sure how many of them died over the course of those few days, somewhere in the vicinity of 10. A few hundred were injured, some so severely that they could never work again.
From the moment the war ended, there was a constant effort to downplay this incident in the official histories and to turn it into a race riot. It was a race riot, but it morphed into that. The Irish did not wake up that day and say “Let’s go kill some black people.” It started as a riot against the draft which was seen as an unfair and corrupt. Remember, when the war started the Irish were among the first to enlist. Tens of thousands of them fought with gallantry and honor. Historians also like to gloss over this incident because, it doesn’t fit in their nice little Civil War box whereby the North, a paragon of freedom and equality, fought against the slavish backwards South. History is complex. It’s complicated. And to reduce it to soundbites on the evening news does a great disservice to us all.
Furthermore, the official casualties that historians cite are so far off the mark to be laughable. James McPherson states that around 120 civilians died, including 11 black men who were lynched. I will call bullshit on that for a few reasons. First of all, there are plenty of accounts of a few black women being lynched too. Second, you don’t have pitched gunfights in narrow streets for three or four days with only 120 deaths. Third, there are plenty of accounts that say that the mob slipped out under the cover of darkness each night and removed their dead. Finally, what of the military casualties, which are thought to be pretty severe, as are the police department losses. Superintendent Kennedy estimated that around 1,100 people died, which is probably more accurate. Herbert Asbury estimates 2,000 deaths and that is probably too high. Bodies were incinerated in burning buildings, tossed in the rivers, or dragged away and a count of 120 is absolutely insane. These riots are downplayed and when discussed at all, it is turned into a race riot when it was really an example of class warfare AND a race riot. In my opinion, it moved far beyond “riot” category and moved into the realm of an urban insurgency against the police, the fire department, and the military.
Note the simian appearance of the Irish in this cartoon.
So, as you can see, history is not, pardon the pun, a black and white thing. It is nuanced and not as simple as we try to make it. Some blame this “dumbing down” of history on things like the History Channel, but I disagree. I think it has more to do with our idea of a story having good guys and bad guys and a clear distinction between right or wrong. There is nothing wrong with this, of course. But we also need to understand that the truth is always more complicated. Every historian has his or her biases that keep them from being truly objective. The more they claim that they don’t, the more likely they probably do. Remember, the guilty man flees when no man pursueth. I have mine too. As proud as I am of my Irish heritage, murdering innocent people is wrong, no matter what justification you attach to it.
Let us remember that intrepid band of police officers and firefighters who fought back angry mobs of their own people to save innocent lives and property, as they were sworn to do. They were the true heroes of this sad tale and should be remembered as such. And let us ask ourselves what we would have done. Remember too, that the Draft Riots of 1863 is the worst case of urban rioting in American History, bar none. Yet other than the terrible movie Gangs of New York, you don’t seem to hear much about it for some reason. This was not my people’s finest hour to say the least, but just as we discuss the great things the Irish have done for our country, we must also discuss the bad. To do otherwise is to gloss over historical truth.