The New York City Draft Riots of 1863

riots map


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.

riots 01These 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.

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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.

riots 6

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.

4 thoughts on “The New York City Draft Riots of 1863

  1. Patrick Young July 17, 2013 / 7:04 am

    In my blog series The Immigrants’ Civil War I’ve written three long posts on either the riots or the evolution of racism within Irish American communities in mid-19th Century America. I am preparing a three parter on the Draft Riots for September (I’ll be in the 5 Points Saturday). I couldn’t get them up in time for the anniversary because I’m still writing about Gettysburg. On the anniversary of the riots’ start last week, I put up a facebook post that described them as turning into an anti-black “pogrom”.

    About a third of my facebook readers have information on their profiles indicating some Irish American background. Yet, not a single one has objected to me calling the riots a pogrom, in fact, that facebook post got nearly 100 likes. Many people of Irish descent have written to thank me for helping them to understand how some beloved relative could have expressed anti-black prejudices when they were kids. No one wrote to say that I had stolen their cultural identity, only that I had deepened their understanding of their (my) people’s past. Two Irish historical sites also thanked me for this writing.

    Race is complex in American history and it is complex in American immigrant history. Self-interest, fear, ideological indoctrination, and ancient prejudices all play a role, as does the cynical playing of one subordinated group off against another.

    What my Irish American readers tell me is that they don’t want a cleaned up version of their past, they want to understand it. They don’t want the Irish depicted only as hero or subhuman “other”, They want the dirty, nasty, sometimes inspiring sometimes dismaying reality. Here is one example:

    I am not a Manichean. I don’t believe that White Southerners were congenitally evil people. I see many interesting aspects of Southern white cultures and history. Appreciating that heritage should not preclude a realistic examination of the impact of slavery on the South and the ways in which white Southerners created and maintained that system of subjection. I think that most have already made the same leap that my Irish American readers have, but it would be nice if the rest could come along for the ride into the 21st Century.

    At the same time, we cannot craft the Southern white or the Irish rioter into an “other” upon whom we can lay the racial sins of our nation. 4 out of 10 Northerners supported the same presidential candidates the Irish voted for in 1860, with their openly racist appeals. Many of the Northerners who ended slavery joined in the race war against the Plains Indians in the decades after the war. Northern Republican Supreme Court judges would put a constitutional imprimatur on Jim Crow and the Chinese Exclusion not long after they supported passage of the 14th Amendment.

  2. Patrick Young July 18, 2013 / 4:06 am

    One part of the story that is often neglected is the politics of identity of the rioters. At the time, it was not uncommon for Irish who remained loyal to the war effort to say that the rioters were not acting as Irish or as Catholics, they were acting as Democrats.

  3. Patrick Young July 23, 2013 / 7:38 am

    I was rereading Peter Welsh’s letter of July 17, 1863, the first full letter he sent his wife after Gettysburg. He said that “the originators of those riots…are agents of jef davis and had their plans laid to start those riots simultaneously with Lees raid into Pensilvenia [his spellings intact]” He urges the use of “canister” against the rioters and sees the riots as a new front in the war.Welsh was a New Yorker in the 28th Mass. and a color sergeant for his Irish Brigade regiment.

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