On the morning of 13th July 1863, thousands of mostly Irish-immigrant workers in Manhattan erupted in what’s still the deadliest rioting in American history. Mobs rampaged through most of the week in a fury of savage murder, arson and looting. They hung African-American men from lampposts and dragged their mutilated bodies through the streets. They beat and murdered the pitifully small squads of policemen and soldiers the city initially mustered—and grotesquely defiled their corpses as well. It took federal troops to start restoring order to burning, rubble-strewn Manhattan that Thursday. The published death count was 119, but many New Yorkers believed the actual toll was hundreds more.
The conflict became known as a “rich man’s war, poor man’s battle.” Not only did it allow wealthy men to buy their way out of military service by paying a commutation fee of $300, it also exempted African-Americans from the draft, as they were not yet considered American citizens. Opposition to the draft was widespread across the North, and in New York, some of the loudest critics of the bill could be found in city government, as Democratic politicians (opposed the abolishment of slavery and fought to maintain and expand it) railed against the legality of the bill and its impact on the city’s working class poor.
The immediate spark of the uprising was the start of conscription into the Union army that 11th July, when the names of 1,236 New Yorkers were pulled from a wooden drum, nicknamed “the wheel of misfortune,” in the draft office at East 46th Street and Third Avenue. The rioting started there and fanned out. Most people who are passingly familiar with the Civil War or who have seen the film Gangs of New York likely know that Irish immigrants were the chief culprits in one of the most infamous incidents in that conflict.
The draft riots unfolded over four diabolical days. Violence erupted on 13th July as mostly native-born artisans and skilled factory workers attacked anyone or anything associated with conscription. They felt that the African-Americans that were freemen in the states of the North were their direct competition for the low-paying jobs that were available to them. This was a slap in the face to be forced to fight and die for the same people that they had no favour with. Soon, the rioters directed their fury at African-Americans. Irish-born longshoremen, pavers, cart men, and hack drivers attempted to wipe out blacks’ presence from the dockyards and streets where the groups competed for employment. From 13th July until 16th July, the rioters – two-thirds of whom were Irish – beat, murdered, and mutilated African-American New Yorkers.
Estimates vary greatly as to the number of people killed in the Draft Riots, though most historians believe around 115 people lost their lives, including nearly a dozen African-American men who were lynched after being brutally beaten. Hundreds of buildings were damaged and as many as fifty burnt to the ground, causing millions of dollars in damage.
The mob was “composed almost exclusively of Irishmen and boys,” wrote the New York Times. In a postmortem of the draft riots, New York lawyer and diarist George Templeton Strong wished “to see war made on the Irish scum” that he held responsible for the previous days’ violence. “No wonder St. Patrick drove all the venomous vermin out of Ireland!” Strong hissed. “Its biped mammalia supply that island its full average share of creatures that crawl and eat dirt and poison every community they infest.”
Strong tended to generalise when he wrote about the Irish, so he obviously didn’t realise that Irish-American soldiers in the Union Army shared his disdain for the draft rioters. After hearing about the riots, John O’Brien of the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery wrote in a letter to his sister that he hoped “the leaders in those riots will suffer death and that none of the guilty wretches will be shielded from justice.” When the officers of the Irish-American 69th New York regiment caught wind of what was happening in their hometown, they gathered as a group to record their sentiments. Noting that “citizens of Irish birth” were responsible for the riots, the 69th New York’s officers requested to be “ordered to New York to aid in repressing the violence and disorder which now afflict the people of our own city.” A similar reaction emerged from the rank and file of the Irish-American 9th Massachusetts who, according to one of its officers, “wished for a chance to give those rioters a taste of our quality, and show them how the Irish Ninth could charge.”
Other Irish-American soldiers who condemned the draft rioters emphasised the legality and necessity of conscription. County Limerick native Edmund O’Dwyer, a soldier in the Irish-American 23rd Illinois regiment, asserted that the federal government had “the right to compel its citizens to bear arms for the common welfare.” More direct in making this argument was Michael Donlon, an Irish-born soldier in the 20th Massachusetts who requested of his family to “write soon and enforce the draft” in August 1863. Similar statements abounded in the letters of Irish-born soldiers eager to share the burden of fighting.
Perhaps most indicative of how the draft riots divided Irish immigrants is that the rioters targeted Irish-American soldiers. Ironically, the assistant provost-marshal responsible for enforcing the draft in New York City was Colonel Robert Nugent, a veteran of the Irish Brigade who was recuperating from a wound in battle. On 13 July, rioters ransacked his 86th Street apartment, destroying a battle flag used by the 69th New York and running a knife through a picture of Nugent with Thomas Francis Meagher, commander of the Irish Brigade.
Nugent was fortunate not to have been home when the rioters arrived. Colonel Henry O’Brien wasn’t as lucky. O’Brien was in Manhattan to recruit soldiers for his regiment when the riots began, and he volunteered his services to restore peace. Like Nugent, O’Brien caught the mob’s attention, and rioters vandalised his home. But unlike Nugent, O’Brien appeared on scene when the mob was still nearby. After brazenly walking past the mob and into a store, O’Brien was attacked when he reemerged. Over the next several hours, rioters bludgeoned him with a paving stone, dragged him through the streets, and hung him from a lamppost. Only the intervention of a parish priest stopped the mob from burning O’Brien’s body after he finally succumbed to its murderous rage.
Colonels Nugent and O’Brien were certainly unrepresentative of Irish immigrants’ involvement in the New York City Draft Riots. But their experiences call attention to broader patterns of Irish-American opposition to the riots and support for continuing the war to restore the Union, even if that meant conscripting immigrants into an army whose every advance brought the demise of slavery one step closer.
Though it was more than 150 years ago, there are still lessons to be drawn, given the ample evidence in recent years and even days of a racial divide as wide and deadly as ever.
“History repeats itself when the past is forgotten.”
Image: Five Points was a neighbourhood in lower Manhattan, New York City. The neighbourhood was generally defined as being bound by Centre Street in the west, the Bowery in the east, Canal Street in the north and Park Row in the south. The former Five Points is now split between the Civic Center on the west and south and Chinatown on the east and north. Five Points gained international notoriety as a disease-ridden, crime-infested slum that existed for well over 70 years. Five Points intersection painted by George Catlin in 1827