The Draft Riots, Part II

Written by William Bryk on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

Days in July, Part 2

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
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).

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on July 3 at Gettysburg, had finally withdrawn south of the Potomac.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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.