Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Hot In The City : The Truth Behind The NYC Draft Riots

When we think of monumental events in the history of New York City, everyone and anyone can name something. Whether it is a historian talking about the fall of Fort Washington or the sinking of the General Slocum, a sports fanatic talking about the Yankees or Knicks, a tourist retelling of the excitement of their big trip to the city, or people talking about the terrorist attacks on 9/11. However, the events that took place in the summer of 1863 are often overshadowed by the national crisis that was taking place. I am talking about an event that destroyed the city from within, an uprising unseen ever since, I am talking at the Draft Riots of 1863.


Ok, before I get into the details of the riots we need to understand why there were riots in the first place. We need to understand the atmosphere that took hold on New York City during the Civil War. We also need to understand the importance of New York City to both the Union and Confederacy. New York City, as it has been in my and my parents lifetimes, has always been the center of the United States and in 1863 that is not any different. What we will examine here is several key factors, Tammany Hall, immigration, slavery, gangs and oh yea that war that was going on, you know the Civil War. 

                                                                 New York Historical Society

So I figure since everyone reading this has seen the The Gangs of New York, I will be starting with the gang element of the riots. Now thanks to Mr. Scorsesse, everyone knows the name the Dead Rabbits. Now the Dead Rabbits were a real gang. However, in the time depicted in the film the actual riot is off by a few years. Scorsesse depiction is not even close to the actual events, but I guess that's Hollywood. Now what he does get right is the gangs involved and their memberships. The gang fight was between the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys. It escalated into an all out riot for two reasons. Tammany Hall was just getting started and the cities government was in shambles. So since the cities organizing body was a wreak, so was the police force, so lack of police presence equals gangs being able to do whatever they want. Now as the two gangs battled it out every other gang in the city joined in trying to become the strongest gang in the city. The state government finally had enough and called in for help. The help did not come from the Federal government like Scorsesse makes it seem. It was just simple state militia and what remained of the New York Police forces. The riot lasted only two days and only eight people were killed, compared to Scorsesse's take which shows and all out war and half the city dead.


Now what caused it? Aside from the complexity of gang relations, another war between political parties also sparked the fight. Like in the film we have Boss Tweed representing the "changing time" or in other words Tammany Hall reeling in Irish (and other immigrants) that were just trying to be American to strengthen their political machine. And his counter part William Cutting, fictional, as a representation of the Know Nothing Party, or more simply the anti immigration guys. Now this related to the gangs because, well their governing officials where basically two gangs also at war. So what happened? Well nothing. The militia came in and settled things down, the political parties kept going after each other and the gangs went back to being gangs and committing the same petty crimes. But this shows us something more. The Dead Rabbit Riot was in 1857, three years before the Civil War. The importance of this is because it shows how New York City was at it's breaking point. It was so do to poor political relations and the influx of immigrants coming. This was all just a build up to the Draft Riots and Scorsesse mixed the two riots together for theatrical affect.


Time to talk politics. It is time to understand how Tammany Hall lead to the Draft Riots and why they are just still only a piece of the pie.Now all the bad things you've ever heard about Tammany Hall, well they are all true, especially under the infamous William "Boss" Tweed." Tweed had his hand dipped into everything. At the height of his power he was the 3rd largest land owner in New York City, on the board of directors of the Eire Railroad, the Tenth National Bank, the Metropolitan Hotel and New York Printing Company. Even politically he was everywhere, he was elected as a Representative, Senator, on the board of Supervisors for the city and pretty much appointed whoever he wanted as other officials inside the city of New York. But this is all after the Draft Riots, but all these parts of Tweeds care stem from those few days in July.


Tweed's control and influence began around 1855. He was not the "Boss" at the time of the Dead Rabbit Riots that would be more true as how he is depicted in Scorsesse's Gangs of New York. However, he did begin to influence the cities politics and he began to tighten his grip around officials in order to be the head cheese. It was during this take over of the city that lead to the collapse of the government and allowed for the rise in gang violence. This was part one of two of Tweed and Tammany Hall's part in the lead to the Draft Riots. Part two deals with immigrants. The issue is that New York City during this time was called the "melting pot of America." Immigrants were pouring into the city. Mostly Irish but large amounts of Poles, Germans, Russians, Welsh, Scots, etc. Now Tammany Hall and Tweed saw these immigrants as votes so they had to take care of them. This then lead to splits in political parties and social tensions to rise in the city. Tweed created city projects to employee the large number of new Americans and allowed them to begin a new and better life then the one they had in the old country. This however, lead to a little discussed situation, the issue of immigrants and slavery, but lets put that on the back burner for a bit. So we can see that Tweed's take over first allowed for the Dead Rabbit Riots and ultimately helped in paving the way for the Draft Riots. Second, Tweeds tactics with the immigrant population caused an issue with the immigrants and slavery, causing them to fear the ending of slavery. The issue with slavery is often one that is over looked since New York City is in the North, or as we are taught the anti slave part of the nation, but it's population wasn't so sharp on ending slavery.

                                                                  National Archive

New York City at the time of Civil War was an interesting place. Tammany Hall was just getting started, the city was recovering from an outburst of gang violence and now was facing the issue of slavery and the Civil War. New York's population and politics both feared the Civil War. The political sphere was split, but the Democratic Tammany Hall was in a way sympathetic to the southern cause. Why you may ask? Well New York City, as it is today, was the financial center of America in 1860. Many, if not all, of the leading Southern business men and businesses banked in New York City. They and their families would summer in the city to get away from the terrible heat the southern portion of our nation faces. So the relation between New York and the south was strictly business, so much so that as southern states left the Union, New York City contemplated seceding and claiming itself "to be a free city." This was it could still be the economic center of the nation and profit from the industrialized north and agricultural south.  So it can be seen that New York City's higher ups were keeping an eye on their investments and relations in the post Civil War America.


Now you might be asking whats up with the minstrels? And why aren't you talking about the immigrant population of New York City? Well I am and the two topics are related. How you probably are asking, well because the immigrant class was just a step above the slaves in America on the social structure ladder of the 19th century. Minstrel shows were a nightly event in New York City up to and even after the Civil War. The theater was packed for every show and the target audience was the working class, which at the time was immigrants. Again, you must be questioning me and again I have an answer. The immigrants were ridiculed for everything about them, ethnicity, national origin, cultural practices, religion, accents and so on. So in the natural reaction which we find in human nature, immigrants then needed to find a way to show they were not the bottom class in America and took aim at the slaves. They did not just do this to make themselves feel better but they did it to hold the status qou. Immigrants knew that if slavery ended the population of freed slaves would be competition for jobs and they'd be a competition they could not beat. They knew freed slaves would do the same work and would be paid less due to, well lets be honest the fact they were black and the sense of racism that gripped the USA after the Civil War. So not only would work be gone but then immigrants would be on the same level as freed slaves and they took like the wealthier anti-abolitionist had a hint of racism to them. So what do we see in the immigrants, it is actually just plain fear. It is a fear that they're coming to America was in vain. The idea that they had faced hardships on arrival and establishing themselves seems ironic when talking about their relation to the Civil War, but that is the benefits of being able to look back at history. Yet we can see once examining it from this angle how this fear would then lead up to the Draft Riots.


So we've discussed the roles of history, politics and immigration. We now can look at the fourth piece of the puzzle, slavery. Slavery had also been a hot subject. Slaves who fought for the Americans in the Revolution were granted freedom. by the turn of the 19th century 1 in 3 blacks living in New York were free. Systems were established in helping the abolition of slavery too, also around the same time. Also the War of 1812 allowed black servicemen to be freed after the war. However, in 1821 a new stat constitution was drafted and ended suffrage for slaves, it also limited the rights of those freed already. Now, another problem with the idea of slavery is that it did exist in New York City and the northern states prior to the Civil War. Slaves were used by the wealthy as house servants and by major industries as cheap and replaceable labor. Now slavery, the use of slave labor and slave/immigrant relations were beginning to boil over. Like I said before, the gang violence in the city, lack of a stable political body, growing immigrant population and now the issues and use of slavery all mixed together for a perfect storm of disaster.

                                                  National Archives

On Monday July 13, 1863 the city finally erupted. The Civil War was fully engaged and losing it's popularity. We all know the Civil War was fought to end slavery...kinda. That is the second reason for the Civil War and the reason that would ultimately cause the Draft Riots. At first, President Lincoln had the responsibility to keep the nation together, check the Constitution. But the war was losing support and along came the Abolitionists and the cause of ending slavery, which became the new cause that kept the north interested in defeating those damn rebels. However, back to the subject at hand. It was that morning that was the breaking point. Congress had passed new laws regarding the draft and only one new way to get out of the draft. The way out? Well if you've taken American History II or at least seen the Gangs of New York you know it would cost $300 American dollars to get out of the draft. Talk about adding fuel to the fire, I mean on top of all the other social, political and cultural issues in the city the war and draft were just the end of civil order for the City of New York.


So did it start? Well that Monday morning Congress orders to hold a draft went into action. New York City citizens, however, were not the first to start rioting. It actually spread from peaceful, sweet, beautiful upstate New York. But the people in the city didn't follow after there upstate brothers, they rioted without even knowing what was going on. Aside from the draft causing problems, people finally put together that Tammany Hall was playing a part in this too. Tammany Hall was registering the immigrants as citizens basically for their votes, but at the same time this automatically entered them into the draft. Now who was at risk of the draft? In short it was the Irish. They were in New York numbering in the thousands and arriving daily. So not being very happy with their current state they and other immigrant labors and anti-war supports started a full scale riot, first attacking a draft station located on 3rd Ave and 47th St.

 Now I know your thinking, where are the police? Well most of New York's police force had joined the New York State Militia and were in Pennsylvania ready to fight the Confederates. Even though there was no police presence, police superintendent John A. Kennedy was on the scene. He let the rioters do their thing and went down to check out the damage and situation a little later. Unfortunately for him he was recognized and beat down by the crowds. After that the police went down to show that they had Kennedy's back and weren't going to let that slide. Again another unfortunate situation, the police were outnumber 10 to 1, ok I made that fact up but they were greatly outnumbered. However, even though outnumbered the police could celebrate a minor victory in that they kept the riots contained and stopped them from spreading south.


So since the rioters were contained that spelled pretty bad news for that area. After a morning of protests and fight police, the rioters found their way to the Bull's Head Hotel. The owners wishing the rioters would leave them refused service, so the rioters burnt the place to the ground. After that the the fire happy rioters burnt down the Mayor's office, two police stations, and several other buildings that, well just stood in their way. The rioters tried to burn down the pro Republican New York Tribune building (again the rioters didn't not want to fight to end slavery as it would lower their status in America) however, the building was protected by Gatling guns, wait why did a newspaper building have Gatling guns...nevermind that is way too out there. So what was next on the destruction tour? Well an armory of course, I mean how else do you keep a riot going? The rioters showed up to the armory on 2nd and 21st but were meet with a strong resistance and ultimately turned away.

                                                            National Archive

This next part shows the ugly side of the riot. If it was just people protesting going to war then we could look back and understand very easily, but this shows the truth behind the riots. African Americans became enemy numero uno for the rioters. Like I have said throughout this essay, immigrants and labors feared free slaves. It would create a competition which they could just not compete with. Another angle was that immigrants and labors were fighting for the freedom of slaves, and were viewed as the cause of the Civil War by many who did not wish to fight in it. The rioters targeted even African American, men, women and children. The rioters took aim at the Colored Orphan Asylum. Luckily for the children inside the police curbed the rioters long enough to get the children and workers out. the second the last one left the door, the rioters light that building up without a second thought. The worst example of the rioters rage was the lynching of 11 African American men in three days. The number of African Americans injured or assaulted in unknown but some estimate it is in the 100s. So what more proof do we need to see that the immigrant population was just as racist as the rest of the nation. I wouldn't want to make the excuse and say, well they feared for their jobs and status (which they did) but for me that seems to easy. I feel this is just another chapter in American and African American History that is overlooked. It is important to focus on this relation between immigrants and slaves as they traveled similar paths in our nation.

                                                                 New York Historical Society

So what else could this crowd possibly do? Well despite the rain that fell Monday night and sent the rioters home, they returned Tuesday morning, still anger and picked up right where they left off. But it was worse, basically the whole city shut down and now all the labors in the city joined in (as they too also had something to lose with the ending of slavery). On Tuesday, the rioters went after the Republicans and Abolitionists. They headed uptown and tore up the wealthier parts of Manhattan. So finally after two days of mayhem Governor Horatio Seymour roles into City Hall and tries to get the crowds to go home. he plays to them like any good politician does and tells them the draft was unconstitutional and he is going to change it. Meanwhile, Seymour is running a cover play and General John E. Wool is marching into the city, and he is rolling deep, he has about 800 Union troops and had recalled the New York State Militia back the night before. So the riot ends right?...Almost, kind of, sorta.


Ok so I lied, but you needed to keep reading to get the end of the story. The riot was knocked down a few pegs come Wednesday with the presence of the Military. There was no crazy fight like Martin Scorsesse portrays, with gangs murdering 100s and the U.S. Navy bombarding New York City. The troops did however use pretty brutal tactics to get the remaining rioters to go home. Colonel James Bryant Fry, the big boss man in charge of the out of control city, called of the draft in order to make people chill out. Wednesday night a peaceful protest took place under the watchful eyes of about several thousand armed troops (both Federal and militia). However, there was one last ditch effort to restart the riot on Thursday night around Gramercy Park. Rioters fought with troops and left 12 people dead in what was basically a battle royal between rioter, troops and police. Yet on Friday morning the riot was completely over and the city began to try to get back to normal.


The total tally of deaths is estimated between 120 to 150 people, not including those 11 African Americans that were lynched. There is an estimation of roughly 2000 people injured, again compared to the Gangs of New York which has the entire population of City of New York injured and at least half of it dead. The destruction left about fifty buildings destroyed, two churches (Protestant) and several homes burnt to the ground. The riot had a price tag of about 5 million dollars worth of damages and losses and that is 5 million in 1863, when 5 million dollars went a long way. Along with the damages many historians, and I myself, agree that this is one of the major victories that the Confederates had and it happened in what was supposed to be the example of the modern and civilized north  and not the backwards slave using south. But as days passed the Civil War continued and the draft was reinstated. In total after the riots and continuation of the draft, only 45000 men were sent to fight the Confederates.


So how about the rest of New York's population. We know that the riots were conducted by the immigrants and working classes, but what was everyone else view on the state of the city and draft. Well the middle and upper classes were split 50/50. Tammany Hall saw the destruction that could be caused so they began programs to employ more workers and other programs to pay the commutation fees to get young men out of the draft (again, gotta keep the voters happy). Other wealthy banks and business men with southern business connections still wished to see New York City not involved in the war. Democrats tried to have the draft declared unconstitutional in order to prevent a repeat of the riot, as the war still had an unseen two years left in it. In the end New York's wealthier classes had their own agenda's and views on the war and the cities involvement. It can be seen that they saw the war through different eyes, mainly because they had the ability to buy their ways and their sons ways out of the draft. Yet it would be these men that would rebuild New York City and eventually the nation.

                                                                                National Archive

The legacy of the riots are truly overshadowed by the service of the men that did find their ways down to Dixie. New York City was, after the riots, still the hub of freedom and source for around 450000 troops. Many were Irish immigrants who proudly and bravely served for their new country. Most famously is perhaps the Fighting 69th, which has a military service originating in 1849 and fighting in some of the Civil Wars major battles. Them and many troops from New York both Federal and militia all saw combat and all made a difference at one point or another. It total only 46000 enlisted men were killed in action. Today there are several sites throughout the city honoring these men and the men who were lucky enough to return home. However, there is not a single marker letting citizens or visitors to New York City know about the Draft Riots or properties and sites involved.

In the end the Civil War is still the bloodiest war in our history. The part New York City played is often and usually overlooked. The relation between immigrants and slavery is also another part of the Civil War that is never truly discussed or taught. I feel that looking back it shows a different view of our nation that we do not like to except. The idea that slavery was accepted in the north and that people would actually fight to keep the institution alive. I tried in this essay not to belittle the struggles of immigrants of the 19th century but to bring to light a party of immigrant history that most American's do not know of. I still find it odd that two groups of Americans who both faced similar paths (I said similar, not parallel or identical) did not find a medium, yet I do see the immigrants side and can understand their fears. However, the post Civil War era started a new time in New York City. It allowed New York City to enter it's Gilded Age and made New York City a modern and state of the art city (for the 19th century) and was the building blocks for future of the great city of New York.


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