Was the NYC Draft Riot an "Irish Riot"?

Pat Young

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#1
July 13 is the 151st Anniversary of the start of the Draft Riot in New York City. I have avoided the sorts of "controversialist" threads in the Immigrants forum that seem to set off wild fires here at Civil War Talk, but I thought that this might be a good controversy to discuss.

We all know that the subject of Civil War Memory has grown in importance over the last quarter-century since the publication of David Blight's Race and Remembrance on the political uses of the memory of the Civil War. One of the less examined areas of the war, the Draft Riot, has not been a major subject of the memory historians. But how it would be remembered was definitely of concern to New Yorkers at the time.

At the time of the Draft Riot there was a lot of pressure on Archbishop John Hughes, the tough, pro-Union leader of the city's Catholic Church, to halt the rioting through his personal intercession with the rioters. Hughes may have been reluctant to act initially because to do so would lead to the riot being viewed as a Catholic or Irish riot.

Today we usually think of the riot as an Irish event, but there are other ways to remember it. The problem, of course, is that no one wants to own the riot. There are people today who defend secession, reenact secessionist military units, etc., but not many people take the part of the rioters. Memory of the Confederacy is clearer than memory of the riot because no one researches it in hopes an ancestor participating in the looting.

I will suggest some possible frames for looking at the riot in separate posts. I hope you will suggest others and debate the validity of each of these without invective. I am still trying to make my mind up about the riot.

1. The riot was an Irish riot-the most common frame. You know this one. If you didn't learn it at your mother's knee, you learned it from Gangs of New York.

 

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Pat Young

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2. A second frame for memory, one more popular 150 years ago than it is today, is that the riot was a Catholic riot. This was reflected in the notion of many members of the Protestant establishment that Archbishop Hughes could end the riot if he wanted to.

This notion envisioned a monolithic Catholic community in New York in which every Catholic took orders from the hierarchy. The Protestant elite had been weened on notions that Catholics were incompatible with democracy because they were subject to near-military discipline, now they hoped their prejudices were true.

There were several problems with the idea of this as a Catholic riot. The first was that Bishop Hughes was a pro-Union man who had gone on diplomatic missions the year before for the Lincoln administration to press Europe's Catholics to stay out of the war. Also, there were many instances during the riots where priests tried to disperse mobs or where they tried to rescue victims. Often the mobs ignored them.

We should also recall that the Irish in 1863 were still mostly an unchurched population. The intense Catholicism of NYC Irish in the 1880s and later was only beginning to take hold when the war began.
 
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Pat Young

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3. The third frame, one increasingly popular, is that the riots were a race riot. There were strong elements of racism in the riots from the very first day. But of the roughly 400 people killed in the riot (estimates range from 100 to 1,000, by the way), fewer that 20 killings of blacks were documented. The riot was already hours old before the first African American was attacked.
 
#7
In the first Northern draft riot during the War it could be said that it was a Catholic riot. On November 15, 1862, Wisconsin was the first Union state to experience a draft riot which was the result of Lincoln's August, 1862, call for 300,000 men from the Northern states militias to serve ninety day or to draft from within the militia if the quotas could not be filled. The Port Washington draft riot began when approximately two hundred Catholic-German and Belgian farmers marched on the local courthouse where the state draft commissioner,William Pors, who was Protestant-German, was to pull names for the militia draft. It had been rumored that Pors had exempted his fellow Protestant-German friends. As Pors began pulling names, the farmers attacked, pelting the commissioner with stones and destroying the records. Pors fled for his life by carriage to Milwaukee to summon help while the angry mob went on a rampage destroying businesses and homes within the town. The Governor sent state troops that arrived by boat later in the evening and the troops had all rioters in custody by the next morning.
 
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In the first Northern draft in wisconsiniot during the War it could be said that it was a Catholic riot. On November 15, 1862, Wisconsin was the first Union state to experience a draft riot which was the result of Lincoln's August, 1862, call for 300,000 men from the Northern states militias to serve ninety day or to draft from within the militia if the quotas could not be filled. The Port Washington draft riot began when approximately two hundred Catholic-German and Belgian farmers marched on the local courthouse where the state draft commissioner,William Pors, who was Protestant-German, was to pull names for the militia draft. It had been rumored that Pors had exempted his fellow Protestant-German friends. As Pors began pulling names, the farmers attacked, pelting the commissioner with stones and destroying the records. Pors fled for his life by carriage to Milwaukee to summon help whin wisconsin wow.le the angry mob went on a rampage destroying businesses and homes within the town. The Governor sent state troops that arrived by boat later in the evening and the troops had all rioters in custody by the next morning.
Thats what I love about this site, you learn something new everyday.draft riot In wisconsin wow.
 

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Our CWRT heard an excellant presentation from Prof. Josh Brown at CUNY about the visual representation of the draft riots at the time in periodicals and newspapers. These drawings and engravings were certainly full of stereotyped images of Irish rioters.
 

Pat Young

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4. A fourth frame is that it was a pro-Confederate riot. There were a number of instances during which pro-Confederate speeches were delivered to milling crowds to incite them, including cheers for Jeff Davis. There were even charges that Confederate spies had started the riots and controlled the mobs. This was given some credence when a Southern Copperhead orator John Andrews was found to have stoked the rioters and picked some of their targets. He was captured in bed with his black mistress.

While the Grand Confederate Conspiracy frame was popular in 1863, no evidence of a developed plot was found. It is unclear if the reported agitators with Southern accents were part of an organized conspiracy or if they existed beyond the person of Mr. Andrews.
 

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5. A fifth frame is that the riots were Democratic riots. This frame was used repeatedly by Republicans after Lincoln's assassination. The Democrats were often tagged as the party of "rebellion and riot." We think of "waving the bloody shirt" as denouncing the Democrats as pro-secession, but for at least a decade after the riots Republicans were almost as likely to blame Democrats for what happened in mid-July 1863.

Democratic in New York City had worked closely with Southern slaveowners since the Jacksonian era. White working class leaders were also often Democrats, and immigrants had been drawn to the Democratic Party since the rise of Nativism in the 1840s and its association with the Whigs and Republicans.

As is more and more common today, people got their media in 1863 from partisan sources. Some Democrat newspapers stirred up deep anger about the draft in their pages.

However, many New York Democrats, particularly those associated with Tammany Hall, were War Democrats. The riots would help doom former-Mayor Fernando Wood's Mozart Hall anti-war faction and lead to an eight decade ascendancy of Tammany. Tammany Hall would come under Irish control after the fall of Boss Tweed.
 
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Pat Young

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6. A sixth frame is that the riots were as they were named, anti-draft riots.

There had never been a Federal draft before. For the first 18 months of the war, volunteering had filled the ranks. In many ways this was very democratic. Those opposed to secession could vote with their feet and offer their bodies for the cause of Union and Emancipation. With the coming of the draft, the choice to sit out the war ended.

Forcing men into the army was seen by many Americans as a form of slavery. Several newspapers noted that just months after Lincoln emancipated millions of Southern blacks he was intent upon enslaving thousands of Northern whites.

Opponents of the draft also claimed that it was an unconstitutional usurpation of the powers of the states. They filed suit in court to stop it from going into effect.
 
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Pat Young

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I don’t think the draft riot was an Irish thing so much as it was poor working class resentment to being in competition with blacks for jobs along with not being able to afford the $300 that would exempt them to conscription into the army.
So you see it as a reaction to perceived unfairness towards the lower classes?
 

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I also tend to favor the simple explanation. While there were underlying social and economic factors, they only burst into a spasm of violence because of the draft. The first targets of the rioters were the offices where the draft was being administered. Resentment against blacks was fanned by the knowledge that the fundamental cause of the war, and therefore the draft, was slavery. It probably didn't help that the imposition of the draft followed the Emancipation Proclamation.
 

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7. Frame number 7 is going to sound like frame number 6. The riots were over the unfair way the draft was administered.

Wealthy men could hire a substitute and be permanently exempt from the draft. Teddy Roosevelt's father did this. Grover Cleveland did this as well, hiring a Polish immigrant to take his place. To impose a sort of price control, a draftee could buy his way out by paying $300. He was still subject to later drafts, but this was cheaper than hiring a substitute and many middle class men could afford this option.

In the last twenty years this has become a more and more popular frame for viewing the riots.
 

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1. The riot was an Irish riot-the most common frame. You know this one. If you didn't learn it at your mother's knee, you learned it from Gangs of New York.

I've seen one source (see link) that indicates Five Points, unlike the portrayal in Gangs of New York, was one of the quieter areas during the draft riots. The residents seen to have gone to some length to protect the blacks who lived in their neighborhood.
"Ironically, the most well known center of black and interracial social life, the Five Points, was relatively quiet during the riots. Mobs neither attacked the brothels there nor killed black people within its borders. There were also instances of interracial cooperation. When a mob threatened black drugstore owner Philip White in his store at the corner of Gold and Frankfurt Street, his Irish neighbors drove the mob away, for he had often extended them credit. And when rioters invaded Hart's Alley and became trapped at its dead end, the black and white residents of the alley together leaned out of their windows and poured hot starch on them, driving them from the neighborhood. But such incidents were few compared to the widespread hatred of blacks expressed during and after the riots."
http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/317749.html
 

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I've seen one source (see link) that indicates Five Points, unlike the portrayal in Gangs of New York, was one of the quieter areas during the draft riots. The residents seen to have gone to some length to protect the blacks who lived in their neighborhood.
"Ironically, the most well known center of black and interracial social life, the Five Points, was relatively quiet during the riots. Mobs neither attacked the brothels there nor killed black people within its borders. There were also instances of interracial cooperation. When a mob threatened black drugstore owner Philip White in his store at the corner of Gold and Frankfurt Street, his Irish neighbors drove the mob away, for he had often extended them credit. And when rioters invaded Hart's Alley and became trapped at its dead end, the black and white residents of the alley together leaned out of their windows and poured hot starch on them, driving them from the neighborhood. But such incidents were few compared to the widespread hatred of blacks expressed during and after the riots."
http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/317749.html
After the riots, politicians from the "Bloody Sixth Ward" would brag that Five Points had been relatively quiet during the riots and no blacks had been lynched there.
 

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#20
With any mob I am sure you have a large group of criminals who take the riots as a window of opportunity/distraction to steal or commit other crimes....


I sure there were all types of people involved in the draft riots, but the irish probably got the blame due to them being the "hated immigrant group" at that time.
 

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