The Worst Riot in U.S. History

Battle cry of freedomJames McPherson’s Pulitzer Prize winning Battle Cry of Freedom is often pointed to as one of the best, if not the best, books on America’s Civil War. I bought it shortly after it came out in 1988, though it took me a few years before I worked up the stamina to read the full book. I’m glad I did as it is excellent and very well written. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to get through the whole thing again though, but I’m glad to keep the ebook handy to read around in it from time to time and for reference.

I remember when I picked it up in the bookstore and opened it to a random page and began reading about the draft riots of 1863, a dark day in U.S. history that I had never previously heard about.

Faced with dwindling recruitment by the beginning of 1863, the Republican Congress enacted a draft, but when called up, a draftee could hire a substitute or he could pay a fee of $300 (perhaps $9,000 or more in today’s money). This led some folks to believe that the army was only for the poor, although an analysis has shown this not to be the case.

Even if the dichotomy rich man’s war/poor man’s fight lacked objective reality, it remained a powerful symbol to be manipulated by Democrats who made conscription a partisan and class issue. While 100 percent of the congressional Republicans supported the draft bill, 88 percent of the Democrats voted against it. Scarcely any other issue except emancipation evoked such clearcut partisan division. Indeed, Democrats linked these two issues in their condemnation of the draft as an unconstitutional means to achieve the unconstitutional end of freeing the slaves. A democratic convention in the Midwest pledged that “we will not render support to the present Administration in its wicked Abolition crusade [and] we will resist to the death all attempts to draft any of our citizens into the army.” Democratic newspapers hammered at the theme that the draft would force white working men to fight for the freedom of blacks who would come north and take away their jobs. The editor of New York’s leading Catholic weekly told a mass meeting that “when the President called upon them to go and carry on a war for the nigger, he would be d______d if he believed they would go.” In a Fourth of July 1863 speech to Democrats in the city, Governor Seymour warned Republicans who pleaded military necessity for emancipation and conscription: “Remember this—that the bloody and treasonable doctrine of public necessity can be proclaimed by a mob as well as by a government.”

Such rhetoric inflamed smoldering tensions. Draft dodgers and mobs killed several enrollment officers during the spring and summer. Anti-Negro violence erupted in a number of cities. Nowhere was the tinder more flammable than in New York City, with its large Irish population and powerful Democratic machine. Crowded into noisome tenements in a city with the worst disease mortality and highest crime rate in the Western world, working in low-skill jobs for marginal wages, fearful of competition from black workers, hostile toward the Protestant middle and upper classes who often disdained or exploited them, the Irish were ripe for revolt against this war waged by Yankee Protestants for black freedom. Wage increases had lagged 20 percent or more behind price increases since 1861. Numerous strikes had left a bitter legacy, none more than a longshoremen’s walkout in June 1863 when black stevedores under police protection took the place of striking Irishmen.

Into this setting came draft officers to begin the drawing of names on Saturday, July 11. Most of the militia and federal troops normally stationed in the city were absent in Pennsylvania pursuing Lee’s army after the battle of Gettysburg. The first day’s drawing went quietly enough, but on Sunday hundreds of angry men congregated in bars and vowed to attack the draft offices next morning. They made good their threat, setting off four days of escalating mob violence that terrorized the city and left at least 105 people dead. It was the worst riot in American history. [Exaggerated contemporary estimates of more than a thousand persons killed found their way into popular histories of the riot. But the careful research of Adrian Cook has established that only 105 people were definitely killed, and another dozen or so deaths may have been linked to the rioting. Eleven of those killed were black victims of the mob, eight were soldiers, and two were policemen; the rest were rioters. Cook, Armies of the Streets, 193–94, 310n.]

Many of the men (and women) in the mobs indulged in indiscriminate looting and destruction. But as in most riots, the mobs singled out certain targets that were related to the underlying causes of the outbreak. Draft offices and other federal property went up in flames early in the rioting. No black person was safe. Rioters beat several, lynched a half-dozen, smashed the homes and property of scores, and burned the Colored Orphan Asylum to the ground. Mobs also fell upon several business establishments that employed blacks. Rioters tried to attack the offices of Republican newspapers and managed to burn out the ground floor of the Tribune while howling for Horace Greeley’s blood. Several editors warded off the mob by arming their employees with rifles; Henry Raymond of the Times borrowed three recently invented Gatling guns from the army to defend his building. Rioters sacked the homes of several prominent Republicans and abolitionists. With shouts of “Down with the rich” and “There goes a $300 man” they attacked well-dressed men who were incautious enough to show themselves on the streets. These hints of class warfare were amplified by assaults on the property of reputed anti-labor employers and the destruction of street-sweeping machines and grain-loading elevators that had automated the jobs of some of the unskilled workers who made up the bulk of the rioters. Several Protestant churches and missions were burned by the mobs whose membership was at least two-thirds Irish.

Untrained in riot control, New York’s police fought the mobs courageously but with only partial success on July 13 and 14. Army officers desperately scraped together a few hundred troops to help. The War Department rushed several regiments from Pennsylvania to New York, where on July 15 and 16 they poured volleys into the ranks of rioters with the same deadly effect they had produced against rebels at Gettysburg two weeks earlier. By July 17 an uneasy peace returned to the shattered city. Determined to carry out the draft in New York lest successful resistance there spawn imitation elsewhere, the government built up troop strength in Manhattan to 20,000 men who enforced calm during the resumption of drafting on August 19. By then the city council had appropriated funds to pay the commutation fees of drafted men—including, no doubt, some of the rioters.


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