Four Days in July: the Draft Riots, Pt. 1

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On June 27, 1863, the Confederacy invaded the North. Four days later, Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia would give battle to the Union's Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, PA. Nearly every soldier in New York City went to the front, including 17 National Guard regiments. Thus, Major Gen. John Wool, commanding the U.S. Army's Department of the East from his headquarters at Governor's Island, calculated his command consisted of 550 men in the eight forts about the harbor. Otherwise, the only troops in the city were roughly 1000 National Guardsmen, 200 members of the Invalid Corps (crippled and wounded soldiers assigned to light duty) and 700 sailors and Marines from the Navy Yard and the few warships in the Hudson.

There were also the Metropolitan Police, created by a Republican state government to replace the Tammany-controlled Municipal Police. Headquartered at 300 Mulberry St., the Metropolitans had proven reasonably effective, and its superintendent, John A. Kennedy, tough and honest. On the morning of Monday, July 13, 1863, he commanded 2297 men of all ranks, of which 1620 were patrolmen. Eight hundred were on duty.

The nation's first Conscription Act had become law in March 1863. A month later, President Lincoln had ordered a draft of 300,000 men, the first New Yorkers to be chosen on Saturday, July 11, 1863. Popular revulsion to conscription was intense. Many New Yorkers had emigrated from Europe precisely to avoid compulsory military service. For a worker, soldiering meant the risk of death for pay insufficient to support a family. The Conscription Act also discriminated by class: any draftee with $300?roughly a worker's average annual income?could lawfully purchase an exemption from the government.

Many white workers also hated the war because they feared black competition for their jobs. Only a few weeks before, 3000 longshoremen, mostly Irishmen loading Army transports, had struck for higher wages. The shippers hired black strikebreakers and federal troops protected them from the strikers. Worse, wealthy men such as Peter Cooper publicly called on President Lincoln to import blacks into New York to provide cheap labor.

On Saturday, July 11, 1863, the authorities drew the first 1236 names for the draft at the Ninth District draft office at Third Ave. and 46th St. There were no incidents. The remaining 264 names were to be drawn on Monday.

Sunday seemed quiet. The newspapers had printed a list of draftees. Men on street corners bitterly discussed the $300 exemption clause. Kennedy's detectives learned that downtown gangs were stockpiling rocks, bricks and clubs in their lairs. That night, huge bonfires illuminated the slum streets.

Around 6 a.m. on July 13, 1863, a hot and clear Monday, groups of men and women began moving from Five Points and the Bowery toward the west side and then up 8th and 9th Aves., their numbers increasing as they advanced. Hundreds of railroad, shipyard, factory and construction workers walked off their jobs to join them. Headed by marchers beating copper pans as if they were gongs, the crowds gathered at a lot just east of Central Park by 8 a.m., where they were harangued by speakers. Who the agitators were or what their message was is unknown.

Kennedy dispatched 60 patrolmen to the 3rd Ave. draft office. At 9 a.m., he ordered all officers to duty and summoned reinforcements from Brooklyn.

The crowd, estimated at 5000 to 15,000, moved downtown toward the draft office. The mob jammed 3rd Ave. from curb to curb for a half-dozen blocks both north and south of 46th St. Between the mob and the office were the police, clubs drawn, some with their backs literally to the wall. The air was oppressive (as if you had washed yourself in molasses and water, one onlooker recalled); the street stank of the ever-present horse manure; the tension was palpable.

Then someone in the crowd fired a shot into the air. The mob charged and the cops fell back, clubs swinging, with the mob so close behind that the doors could not be closed. Then the mob was among them: clubbing, turning, running and clubbing again, the cops fought their way through the halls to the rear exit and sprinted down an alley to 2nd Ave.

Meanwhile, Kennedy left 300 Mulberry St. to see for himself, driving alone in a light carriage. At 46th St. and Lexington Ave. he dismounted and walked through the mob toward 3rd Ave. as the draft office burst into flame. Then a former policeman shouted his name and the mob was upon him. Knocked down, Kennedy jumped up and slashed at his assailant with his cane. A gang knocked him back down and then kicked and stomped him. The Superintendent struggled to his feet, only to be rushed by the mob to a construction site and thrown down an embankment onto a pile of rocks. He sprinted toward 47th St., was cut off by another gang, beaten with a club and thrown in a mud hole. Now a mass of gore, Kennedy staggered through the muck to Lexington Ave., where he fell into the arms of John Eagan, a local businessman. Eagan kept the mob back while others hustled Kennedy into a passing feed wagon, covered him with empty sacks and drove him back to Mulberry St. He was unconscious and, with 72 bruises on his body and more than a dozen cuts and slash wounds, so badly beaten that his men did not recognize him.

Police Commissioner Thomas C. Acton took command. Young, active and aggressive, he saw his duty as ending the riots whatever the cost. Between Monday morning and Friday afternoon, Acton neither slept nor removed his clothing and, except for brief tours of inspection, never left 300 Mulberry St. He would receive and answer more than 4000 telegrams while commanding the police, citizen volunteers and whatever troops were available.

Throughout the city, small detachments of police fought on. Sgt. McCredie of the 15th Precinct, known as Fighting Mac, arrived at 44th and 3rd with 15 men. Gathering stragglers, Fighting Mac clubbed his way up to 45th St. before his men were overwhelmed. McCredie, alone and still fighting, was driven up the front steps of a house, beaten with an iron bar and thrown through the front door. He scrambled to his feet and dashed up to the second floor, where a young German woman hid him in her mattress and told the mob he had jumped from the window. They fired the house anyway: she hoisted McCredie on her back and carried him across lots to Lexington Ave., where a carriage took him back to his police station.

With the draft office ablaze, the mob marched on the state armory at 2nd Ave. and 22nd St. By 2:30 p.m., some 10,000 rioters were roaring outside the building. Inside were Sgt. Burdick and 32 officers of the Broadway Squad, armed with carbines, revolvers and clubs. At 4 p.m., the mob charged. Led by "a giant thug brandishing a sledge-hammer," as noted by Herbert Asbury inGangs of New York, and wielding axes and uprooted trees, the rioters smashed through the armory's massive front door. The police fired. The mob paused and then pressed on, trampling its own dead. Burdick had to get his men out. One by one, the cops jumped from a hole 18 feet above the pavement in the rear of the building, held their ground until the last man was out and then clubbed their way to the 18th Precinct stationhouse at 22nd and 3rd.

Back at the armory, rioters had begun arming themselves when fresh police officers attempted to retake the building. Rioters closed off the entrance. The building caught fire. No one knows how many died in the flames.

Another 10,000 rioters were marching down Broadway toward police headquarters. Commissioner Acton's detectives informed him that they intended to destroy police headquarters, break through to Wall St. and loot the financial district.

Every man who could stand and walk was mustered in front of headquarters. Inspector Daniel C. Carpenter and 125 men marched to Broadway.

The mob was some blocks away, filling Broadway from curb to curb as far as the eye could see, moving south. Carpenter deployed his men in four lines of skirmishers. Then he marched north, striding two or three yards before them.

A man armed with a club rushed toward Carpenter. Carpenter strode forward, nightstick in hand. The thug swung for Carpenter's head. The Inspector dodged, turned and swung, shattering the man's skull as his men charged into the mob in close order, swinging for their lives. There was a pause and a wavering. The rioters began running away, the cops chasing, clubbing mercilessly, and then only the smoke of burning buildings filled the empty street.

Three blacks were lynched on the first day of rioting. At 5th Ave. and 43rd St., rioters attacked the Colored Orphans Asylum, which housed roughly 200 children under the age of 12. The superintendent, William Davis, barricaded the front doors as the mob, screaming, "Burn the niggers' nest," gathered outside. Davis got most of the children out the back door, marched them to a precinct house and later ferried them to Blackwell's (now Roosevelt) Island under military escort. As the last child left, the mob smashed in the front door. They found one little girl of two or three, who in her terror had crawled under her bed, and beat her to death. Then they burned the Asylum.

Thousands poured from the tenements to join the mob as the riots spread. By late afternoon, up to 70,000 rioters were in the streets, looting shops and 5th Ave. mansions, wrecking and burning police stations, attacking the homes of government and police officials. They stopped streetcars along 2nd and 3rd Aves. and tore up the 4th Ave. line. They attacked tenements, dancehalls, bars, boardinghouses and virtually every business or institution that catered to blacks, whether on the waterfront or near the Five Points or in Greenwich Village.

Around 8 p.m. they attacked the newspapers along Park Row, across from City Hall. The Times had Gatling guns in its windows; the editor, Henry Raymond, manned one himself. Accordingly, the mob attacked the Tribune instead. Horace Greeley, its editor and publisher, was recognized in the street. He ran for his life into a Park Row restaurant. He dove beneath a table and a waiter flung a tablecloth over it. The mob rushed in; the maitre d'hotel, who must have been formidable, convinced them that Greeley had run out through the kitchen.

As rioters began setting fires in the Tribune Bldg., police from the 1st Precinct came charging up Nassau St. and, with officers from the City Hall detail, clubbed their way through its back door. The rioters retreated into City Hall Park, where Inspector Carpenter and his men, reinforced by Brooklyn police, smashed into them from the north. He swept them from the park by storm and harried them down the side streets.

Around 11 p.m., a heavy rain extinguished most of the fires in the city. Even so, millions of dollars' worth of property was destroyed. Nearly every policeman was wounded. And this had been only the first day.

To be continued...

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