Over the past several days we’ve seen some fine blog posts on the New York City draft riots of 1863. You can find brief treatments here, here, here, and here. More detailed narratives are here (the link goes to events on July 16 and 17, but contains links for previous days); this article looks at some of the participants and victims; here’s a discussion of how black leaders reacted; this essay connects the riots to other riots; for those who didn’t know, the riots nearly took down a pianomaker’s factory and did great damage to Brooks Brothers; you can follow one’ s observer’s comments here; and this blog entry offers a slide show of images of the riots. Nor were the riots limited to New York City, as we learn here.
These links sample how people sought to treat the event in blogs. I saw no need to cover ground they were covering so well. But it is worthwhile to reflect on the meaning of the riots, then and now.
We all too often look at the Civil War as North vs. South, when in fact there was widespread dissent and opposition to the policies of the United States and the Confederacy. Emancipation and conscription had political consequences. Indeed, as both sides geared up to mobilize resources, resistance escalated as well. Issues of race and slavery were woven throughout those discussions; so were issues of class and gender. As I’ve argued before, you can’t understand the story of the American people at war without heeding those factors. So for people who claim that it’s unfair to portray the Confederate nation as a nation of slaveholders, it’s equally unfair to point to these riots and say that they tell us what white northerners thought and did, although there are those with simple or empty minds who will try to make that argument. One should not forget northern Democrats or white southern unionists when speaking of the Civil War as dividing the nation, and blacks, free and enslaved, North and South, were more than passive pawns on the chessboard of war.
As a New Yorker, I was aware of the riots from a fairly early age, in part because my father’s office was located at the southern tip of Manhattan, just south of a group of flames on the map (the Battery). While I understood why many of the rioters rioted, I knew they were wrong, contrary to a rather terrible movie about the event that starred Daniel Day Lewis, among others (like that kid from Growing Pains). It seemed a sad chapter in the city’s history. I think of that whenever I hear certain folks with their fingers pointing try to divert attention from matters closer to home by pointing to the riots as evidence of how white northerners treated blacks. Racism and violence are American traits, but it does not seem to me that pointing that out in any way allows certain people to get off the hook concerning the South, slavery, and secession. After all, if you are saying that white northerners are guilty, too, then you have to admit that the “too” means that white southerners are guilty as well. Nor does it hurt me to remind me as a New Yorker that these bloody days took place in New York. I know that, but I don’t take it personally, because I’m able to separate past from present. I note that many white southerners who are fond of what some call Confederate heritage think that to point out the dark side of the already grey Confederacy is somehow to insult them personally (this, I think, is a major marker of southern distinctiveness: it’s not just about history, it’s about them). The rioters were wrong in what they did, period. They took innocent lives.
The draft riots, in short, show how painful change could be in nineteenth century America. When folks travel to Gettysburg, for example, they often stop at the monument erected to the Irish Brigade on the eastern slope of the Stony Hill, drive by Father Corby, or rub Patrick O’Rorke’s nose on Little Round Top. These monuments remind us of what happened on July 2, 1863. Eleven days later other Irish Americans, many of them recent immigrants, and termed “my friends” by New York governor Horatio Seymour, made a different statement, one that reminds us that “the unfinished work” and the “great task remaining before us” involved something more than defeating a rebellion … and, as we know today, that work remains unfinished, and we must again face the challenge posed by “the great task remaining before us,” because it still remains before us.