The Devil's Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America
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On July 4, 1863, Robert E. Lee and his Confederate army retreated in tatters from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and the Union began its march to ultimate victory in the Civil War. Nine days later, the largest riots in American history broke out on the streets of New York City, nearly destroying in four days the financial, industrial, and commercial hub of the nation. Northerners suspected a Confederate plot, carried out by local "Copperhead" sympathizers; however, the reality was more complex and far-reaching, exposing fault lines of race and class still present in America today.
Angered by the Emancipation Proclamation, issued six months earlier, and by Abraham Lincoln's imposition of the first federal military draft in U. S. history, which exempted those who could pay $300, New York's white underclass, whipped up by its conservative Democratic leaders, raged against the powerful currents of social change embodied by Lincoln's Republican administration. What began as an outbreak against draft offices soon turned into a horrifying mob assault on upper-class houses and property, and on New York's African American community. The draft riots drove thousands of blacks to the fringes of white society, hastening the formation of large ghettoes, including Harlem, in a once-integrated city.
As Barnet Schecter dramatically shows in The Devil's Own Work, the cataclysm in New York was anything but an isolated incident; rather, it was a microcosm―within the borders of the supposedly loyal northern states―of the larger Civil War between the North and South. The riots erupted over the same polarizing issues--of slavery versus freedom for African Americans and the scope of federal authority over states and individuals--that had torn the nation apart. And the riots' aftermath foreshadowed the compromises that would bedevil Reconstruction and delay the process of integration for the next 100 years.
The story of the draft riots come alive in the voices of passionate newspaper rivals Horace Greeley and Manton Marble; black leader Rev. Henry Highland Garnet and renegade Democrat Fernando Wood; Irish soldier Peter Welsh and conservative diarist Maria Daly; and many others. In chronicling this violent demonstration over the balance between centralized power and civil liberties in a time of national emergency, The Devil's Own Work (Walt Whitman's characterization of the riots) sheds new light on the Civil War era and on the history of protest and reform in America.
and called on Governor Seymour. This time they wanted to clear the Eighteenth Ward of troops and let the respectable middle-class families there use their influence to restore order. Since this plan fit with Seymour's own approach of touring the city and appealing firmly but sympathetically to the rioters, he wrote a letter of support for Connolly and Bradley, which they presented when they made their request to Acton. "I naturally felt very indignant," Acton recalled. "It can't be done," he
for all its glittering lights, was the border between two realms and was itself divided between its affluent "dollar side" on the west, and the eastern "shilling side" that touched the slums.23The intersection of these two worlds was bitterly evoked in the opening scene of Edward Judson's 1848 novel, Mysteries and Miseries of New York, in which a pack of wealthy cads out on the town surrounds a poor young seamstress on a dark street and flips a coin to see who will have her. In the nick of time,
soldiers escorting William Faulkner, a prisoner of mixed race, from the courthouse where he had just been convicted on flimsy evidence of raping two nine-year-old girls, one black and one white, at his saloon, described by the newspaper as an "amalgamation den." The mob tried to seize "the black fiend, the monster Faulkner," and the troops opened fire, wounding several people and killing a bystander, before getting the prisoner to his jail cell. "The mob at this moment became enraged," John
Within ten minutes, he had found an Irish drayman, who agreed, for a price, to transport the boxes of guns and ammunition on his cart. Then Gilmore confided in the longshoreman: "Old man, I can trust you, or I'm no judge of faces. These are muskets to arm the Tribune building. I must go ahead to see that the coast is clear, and I want you to take this revolver and ride along with the drayman. See that he goes directly up Pearl Street, and stops at the corner of Franklin Square, and does not
"the last, best hope" for free government on Earth.16 "The Pennsylvania Governor, [Andrew] Curtin, cried to us for help; the President called out from the White House that he wanted us to come down to the Border; our Governor, [Horatio] Seymour, said go, and accordingly we hurriedly kissed those we loved best, and started for the wars," recalled John Lockwood, a militiaman in the Twenty-third Regiment, New York State National Guard. While Lee was telegraphing Davis on June 15 about the