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Commemorations of the battles and events of the U.S. Civil War are coming thick and fast during the sesquicentennial. 1 January marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation; the start of July saw ten days of remembrance and re-enactment on the field of Gettysburg. While historians and civil rights leaders sometimes provide a dissenting voice, the mood on the whole has been celebratory, even self-congratulatory, as Americans reflect on moments that turned the tide of the conflict towards national union and the end of slavery.

Beyond a few talks in New York, though, one anniversary this week is likely to pass unnoticed. Between the 13th and 16th of July, 1863, working-class New Yorkers took to the streets to protest the first national conscription in the republic’s history. Congress passed the Enrollment Act that March to fill the ranks of a depleted army. In parts of the Union where volunteers had not come forward in sufficient numbers, Federal marshals were empowered to hold a draft lottery. New York, where sympathies for the slaveholding South ran deep enough for the mayor to suggest seceding as a city state in 1860-1, was one of the areas affected.

Those familiar with the Draft Riots are most likely to have encountered them in Martin Scorsese’s epic Gangs of New York (2002). Scorsese picks up well on working-class resentment at the $300 fee men of wealth could pay to avoid conscription, and the hostility to Abraham Lincoln and African-Americans who had helped push the president towards embracing abolition, but for him the fighting on the streets merely provides the dramatic backdrop for the reckoning between Leonardo DiCaprio’s Irishman and Daniel Day-Lewis’s anti-Catholic gangster, “Bill the Butcher”: a conflict more in keeping with the politics of pre-Civil War Manhattan than the racial animosities of the wartime city. A homage to Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and a spectacular (and spectacularly misleading) shot of Union naval batteries opening fire on New York’s waterfront reveals Scorsese, understandably enough, is more concerned with his art than accuracy.

Scorsese though does convey the magnitude of the uprising, which was the second biggest civil disturbance in the history of the nation, one surpassed only by the Civil War itself. The riot began as an example of what sociologists have called ‘instrumental violence’. In keeping with revolutionary-era actions like the Boston Tea Party, citizens – both male and female – flocked to the streets to redress a particular grievance, and did so with some success, driving off the draft marshals. Before long, though, rioters turned on a hated war and a hated race. Prominent members of Lincoln’s Republican Party – a minority in a Democratic city – saw their homes torched, though their suffering was mild compared to the African-Americans lynched and castrated, or the children in the city’s black orphanage who were driven off before the building was engulfed in flames. Like other urban Americans, New Yorkers were used to violence – many respectable citizens participated in extralegal action before the conflict – but the extent and ferocity of the devastation seemed uncomfortably reminiscent of scenes from European revolutionary upheavals. New York in 1863 looked too like the Paris of 1848 for wealthy Manhattanites to sleep easily. Something had to be done.

At the end of Gangs of New York, the still-smoking ruins of the city morph into the skyline of twenty-first century Manhattan as Bono sings ‘The Hands That Built America’. The appearance of U2 – four Irishmen rather more welcome in the U.S. than their Civil War-era ancestors –ties the riots to the making of a modern, multicultural nation. Historically, the link works rather well. To bring order to New York, citizens turned to Boss William Tweed (portrayed in the film by Jim Broadbent) and the Democratic Party, who borrowed heavily to buy citizens out of the draft at the $300 commutation fee, improve urban infrastructure, and provide jobs for immigrants in particular.[1] Tweed’s regime came crashing down in the early 1870s, but it helped establish a pattern in which political patronage and vigorous city government helped to maintain social peace. So too did the use of a professional police force – a rarity in American cities prior to the 1850s – and the military. By the Gilded Age (c.1877-1900), the use of Federal troops against strikers had become commonplace, with the experience of the Draft Riots often used to justify the shedding of working-class blood. Partisans, reformers, and experts conjured up the spectre of the events in New York to remake the American metropolis into something recognisably modern: a terrain in which state authorities strove for a monopoly on the use of force and professional politicians bought off key constituencies.

Perhaps the most important legacy of the Draft Riots – and one reason it ought to be commemorated this week – is the reminder it provides that racial animosities then, as now, are not confined to the U.S. South. Historians who instinctively sympathise with white working-class resistance to the draft cannot excuse away the brutal treatment meted out towards African-Americans, dozens of whom were slain in the uprising. When we remember the Civil War, it is comforting to think of Lincoln’s ‘new birth of freedom’ – of the slow yet perceptible drift towards values we share today – but the violence in the ‘free labor’ city of New York testifies to just how ardently that progress was resisted well beyond the plantations of the Confederacy. In this regard, we might concur with Scorsese, and set the Draft Riots in a broader historical context: not one defined by the struggles between Irish and ‘Native’, as he does in the movie, but rather as one episode in the series of race riots that have taken place in American cities both above and below the Mason-Dixon Line that separates North and South. This is a long, sorry history, stretching from insurrection scares in eighteenth-century ports to the 1960s and beyond.

Andrew Heath is Lecturer in American History at the University of Sheffield, specialising in the 19th-century United States. You can see Andrew’s other History Matters blogs here, and find him on twitter @andrewdheath.


[1] See for example Iver Bernstein, The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of Civil War (Oxford, 1990).

Tags : American Civil WarCivil War anniversaryfirst national conscriptionGangs of New Yorkhistory and filmNew YorkNew York Draft Riotspublic historyrace riotsUS Civil War
Andrew Heath

The author Andrew Heath

1 Comment

  1. Hi Andrew, just came across this blog and others of yours – v interesting and entertaining. In case you haven’t read it (though I suspect you will have) I strongly recommend Kevin Baker’s novel Paradise Alley as an alternative fictional reconstruction of the draft riots to the Grand Guignol of Scorcese’s Gangs of New York. More dramatically satisfying in its treatment of the depth and complexity of immigrant experience and both inter- and intra-ethnic tensions, not to say their violence.

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