The Draft Riots, Part II

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Four Days in July, Part 2

Monday, July 13, 1863, the first day of the Draft Riots, had seen property torched, blacks lynched and nearly every police officer wounded while 70,000 rioters, many with guns, ruled the streets. Tuesday was no better. Rioters tore down telegraph poles to sabotage police communications (the police superintendent of telegraphy and his men, often in disguise, constantly replaced, repaired and rerouted the lines?the men were attacked several times by policemen who thought they were saboteurs).

They continued attacking individual policemen and soldiers whenever they were found. Col. Henry O'Brien of the 11th New York Volunteers, who had cleared a mob from 2nd Ave. with artillery fire the previous day, attempted to see whether his house was safe. He was recognized, beaten, stripped, tortured with knives, shot in the head and hung from a lamp post.

Mobs also targeted the city's elite. Well-dressed men risked death in the streets: the rioters saw any wealthy person as a "$300 man," one of those who could lawfully purchase exemption from the draft. They went for the rich where they lived, trashing 5th Ave. and Lexington Ave. mansions. They even attacked Brooks Brothers (more than $10,000 of Brooks Brothers merchandise would be recovered from the slums that night).

Rioters attacked the black neighborhood around Bleecker and Carmine Sts.; the residents drove them off with rifle fire. Elsewhere, however, as E.S. Sandford of the U.S. Military Telegraph Service reported to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, the rioters chased "Negroes as hounds would chase a fox." James Costello, a black shoemaker, pursued by a crowd, turned and fired a pistol, reportedly wounding or killing one of his pursuers. The others caught him, beat, kicked and stoned him, stripped him of everything but his shirt, stomped him, hung him from a tree and set him afire. He was still alive: reports indicate that he screamed for some time, begging even for death as rioters danced beneath him. Abraham Franklin, a handicapped black coachman, was hung three times and his body dragged through the streets by its genitals.

At noon, Mayor George Opdyke wired Secretary of War Stanton for federal troops to put down the riots. The day before, Lee's Confederates, who had been defeated on July 3 at Gettysburg, had finally withdrawn south of the Potomac. Now, Stanton had troops to spare, and immediately ordered five regiments to New York.

The Republicans and anti-slavery intellectuals, who seem to have written most of the accepted history of the riots, saw them as mere anarchy or treason. With the relish of those who will not have to do the killing, they demanded "an immediate and terrible" display of federal power. Thus The New York Times: "The mob must be crushed at once. Give them grape and plenty of it."

By contrast, many businessmen and Democrats, while seeing the riots as the horror they were, also saw them as a violent appeal to the elites for relief from the war's burdens. Gov. Horatio Seymour was meeting the city's Democratic political leadership at the St. Nicholas Hotel, near City Hall. Among the most effective was former Congressman William M. Tweed, newly elected Tammany boss (many of whose constituents were either rioters, sympathetic to the rioters or merely indifferent to the war effort). Seymour first declared the city to be in "a state of insurrection" under New York state law, effectively preempting a federal declaration of martial law.

Seymour spoke that morning from the steps of City Hall in remarks ever after known as the "My friends" speech because he used that commonplace to open his remarks. Thereafter, the Republicans insisted that he had used the phrase because the rioters were indeed his friends. Seymour said the Conscription Act would be postponed until its legality could be argued in the courts. This was effectively true, even though the Republicans denounced him for saying it: the draft would not be reinstated for weeks. Seymour pledged that if the draft continued, the $300 draft exemption would be paid by the state. The machine politicians underlined the promise later that day when the city's Board of Aldermen met at City Hall, with City Hall Park in ruins after the previous night's fighting outside the Tribune Bldg.: they voted money to help the poor pay the $300 exemption.

Thus, Seymour clearly identified the immediate cause of the riots?the draft itself, and the $300 exemption that permitted only the rich to evade military service?developed a palliative that would weaken the ranks of the rioters and publicized it, also allowing the machine politicians to pass the word to their ward heelers and constituents.

It was brilliantly effective. Many of the first-day rioters were protesters, mounting a kind of one-day demonstration aimed at the machinery of the draft. They included hundreds of such men as Thomas Fitzsimmons, who had rioted on Monday morning, only to sense by Monday afternoon that the riots had become, as Burrows and Wallace note in Gotham, "a general onslaught on private property." By nightfall, Fitzsimmons and his friends were patrolling their neighborhood against rioters. They would save a black man from a lynch mob on Wednesday night.

Wednesday, July 15, was as oppressive as the day before. Rioters still hung, burned and drowned black men along the lower west side, looted and burned black homes on 6th Ave. and attacked the homes of prominent Republicans and Protestant missions. In Brooklyn, for the first time, a mob attacked the Atlantic Docks and burned two grain elevators; blacks were beaten and killed north and east of Fulton St. Meanwhile, in Manhattan, mobs captured the Union Steam Works on 22nd St., an arms factory, amidst heavy fighting.

It would be the rioters' last major success.

Federal troops began arriving that afternoon by rail from Maryland and Pennsylvania. Surprisingly, Gen. John E. Wool, who commanded the U.S. Army's Dept. of the East at Governor's Island, placed them under the command of Major Gen. Charles Sandford, a state militia general rather than a federal officer, who, having successfully commanded troops during the Astor Place, Dead Rabbit and Police Riots, probably had more experience in irregular urban warfare than any officer in the United States.

Col. William F. Berens and the 65th New York Regiment had not even reported to Gen. Wool before they began fighting. As they marched from the ferries to Wool's headquarters at the St. Nicholas Hotel, a mob rushed them, trying to lynch two blacks attached to his command as cooks. Ordered to hold an arms factory at 28th St., the 65th New York had to fight its way up Ave. A for the last six blocks and then fend off a mob of some 4000 rioters with volley fire. By mid-afternoon, six federal regiments were fighting for the streets. They would fight through the night into the next day as the hardcore rioters resisted with desperate courage, sniping from windows, hurling bricks from the roofs.

Journalists consistently dehumanized the rioters. None ever mentioned a rioter by name: Iver Bernstein, writing in 1990, seems to have been the first researcher to identify a few of them. The writers characterized the necessary military actions as "severe lessons" to the rioters in their "infected" neighborhoods. These included, however, artillery firing grapeshot and canister (antipersonnel weapons, analogous to our fragmentation bombs) into the mobs and infantrymen fighting their way through tenements, room to room, shooting and bayoneting all who opposed them.

It ended Thursday night. Gen. Sandford reported, "In Broadway, Forty-second, Twenty-seventh, Twenty-eighth, Twenty-ninth, Thirtieth, Thirty-first, and Thirty-second streets, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth avenues, mobs were attacked, and in every instance defeated or dispersed." The Seventh Regiment held Third Ave.; the Eighth Regiment's howitzers guarded the streets around Gramercy Park; the 152nd New York held Stuyvesant Square.

Unlike the responses of the French elite to the Paris riots of 1848 and Commune of 1871, New York saw no mass trials or executions. Only bigots like politician, lawyer and diarist George Templeton Strong called for making "war?on the Irish scum." Seymour, Tweed and the city's political leadership understood that critically supporting the war did not require excessive federal vengeance. The authorities' response becomes almost humorous when analyzing the arrests, indictments and convictions related to the riots, brilliantly set forth in Adrian Cook's The Armies of the Streets. Of some 70,000 rioters, the authorities arrested 443. Of those, 221 were released without charge; 10 were discharged for insufficient evidence; 74 were indicted but never brought to trial; and 67 were convicted, most pleading to a lesser charge and only a few receiving serious jail time. Today, such a record might have led to District Attorney Abraham Oakey Hall's removal from office. Instead, Hall became mayor.

No one now knows how many died. Unofficial police estimates ranged from 1000 to 1500 rioters. The official numbers total a little over 100 dead: 84 rioters, 11 blacks, two police officers and eight soldiers alike. Seventy blacks were missing: probably, as some eyewitnesses said, they had been mobbed into the river.

President Lincoln ignored the calls of The New York Times for federal occupation of the city and the proclamation of martial law. Instead, Lincoln chose Gen. John Adams Dix, a Democrat, former soldier and former U.S. senator, to command the federal forces in New York. Dix had been secretary of the treasury at the beginning of the Civil War. When the Rebels first attempted to seize the U.S. Mint at New Orleans, Dix had wired this order, still worth remembering: "If anyone attempts to haul down the American flag, shoot him on the spot."

Dix's valor and patriotism gave room to his political skills and common sense, permitting him to maintain order through diplomacy rather than armed force. By August, Lincoln could rely on the city's political leadership, particularly Tweed and Tammany Hall, to conduct a draft. Tweed himself drew the names.

The rioters vanished into obscurity. The largest American working-class rebellion of the 19th century was largely forgotten; it was tainted by treason and racism, and no one celebrated their participation in it. We still don't know who led it: Iver Bernstein, in his magisterial The New York City Draft Riots, suggests it was nearly spontaneous, rising from hundreds of conversations among workingmen with ties to the gangs of the Five Points and the Bowery, and argues much of its momentary success was a result of "circumstance (rather) than explicit and coordinated design." Yet even Bernstein notes that some rioters apparently had larger plans, as evidenced by the systematic assaults on telegraph lines, ferry slips, railroads and gas factories. Perhaps someone, or some element within the rioters, sought something far beyond stopping the draft. We simply don't know.

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