Category: Archive

139 years ago: the Draft Riots (part 3)

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

One-hundred 39 years ago this month, during the week of July 13-16, 1863, the streets of New York exploded in a violent episode known as the Draft Riots. It claimed the lives of more than 100 people and destroyed millions of dollars in property — all while the Union struggled to defeat the Confederacy on the battlefield. Because so many of the rioters were Irish and Irish American, the incident tarnished their collective reputation and strengthened existing anti-Irish sentiment among native-born Americans.

When the sun rose on Friday morning, July 17, New York City awoke wondering if the Draft Riot would resume. But all was quiet, except for a steady procession of people to the midtown residence of Archbishop John Hughes, the leader of the city’s Irish Catholics. In handbills distributed all across the city the day before, he announced that he would address the crowd from the balcony outside his residence. Known as “Dagger John” by his nativist antagonists, Hughes was ailing and near the end of his life. Nonetheless he summoned the strength to deliver a message that expressed sympathy with the rioter’s grievances, but urged them to cease the violence. The reputation of the Irish in America, fragile even before the war, was at stake.

“Men of New York: They call you rioters, but I cannot see a riotous face among you. . If you are Irishmen — for your enemies say the rioters are Irishmen — I am also an Irishman, but not a rioter. If you are Catholics, as they have reported — then I am a Catholic too. . . . Ireland, that has been the mother of heroes and poets, but never the mother of cowards. . . . I hope nothing will occur until you return home, and if, by chance, as you go thither, you should meet a police officer or a military man, why, just look at him.”

With that, the crowd broke up and went home without incident. The riot was clearly over.

In the aftermath of the riot, city officials tallied up the damage and death toll. One hundred buildings lay in ashes, part of more than $5 million in property destroyed. Of the hundreds arrested for their role in the riot, only 67 were convicted at trial. None were the primary instigators and rabble-rousers and they received sentences that averaged five years in jail.

As for the number killed, some early estimates ranged from several hundred to several thousand. These exaggerated figures were clearly the result of the shock and horror produced by the riot. Yet they were also prompted by anti-Irish sentiment. Many New Yorkers like the acerbic aristocrat George Templeton Strong were so outraged by the riot and the Irish role in it they willingly accepted the inflated figures as confirmation of Irish treachery. The most accurate assessment of the death toll, however, one based on a close reading of the press and death certificates, puts the total at 119 — most of them rioters.

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Among those killed were at least 11 African Americans. The racial pogrom aspect of the riot, by no means its only feature, led more than half the city’s black residents to flee. Many eventually returned, but at war’s end the city’s black population (9,943) was till far below its pre-war level (12,472).

The city’s Irish population came in for harsh condemnation in the wake of the riot. A seething voice of indignation emanated from pulpit, meeting hall, and editorial page. Conveniently ignoring the fact that many of the rioters were Germans, not to mention men of American birth, they denounced the Irish for engaging in a treasonous riot against the government as it struggled to win a civil war.

“I would like to see war made on Irish scum as in 1688,” wrote Strong in one of his typical diary rants.

Strong and many like-minded hard-line Republicans might have gotten their wish, or at the very least a declaration of martial law in New York, but Lincoln opted for a more conciliatory response designed to keep the peace in Gotham. This allowed the Democrat-dominated government to retain power and begin the process of eliminating the draft as a source of social unrest. Led by a rising politician named William Tweed, the government appropriated $2 million to allow poor men to purchase a $300 exemption. When the draft resumed on Aug. 19, there was no violence.

Remarkably, there were some prominent voices that spoke up right after the Draft Riots to defend the Irish against broadbrush condemnation. Harper’s Weekly, for example, a journal rarely friendly to the Irish, put it best: “It must be remembered in palliation of the disgrace which, as Archbishop Hughes says, the riots of last week have heaped upon the Irish name, that in many wards of the city, the Irish were during the late riot staunch friends of law and order; that Irishmen helped to rescue the colored orphans in the asylum from the hands of the rioters; that a large proportion of the police, who behaved throughout the riot with the most exemplary gallantry, are Irishmen; that the Roman Catholic priesthood to a man used their influence on the side of the law; and that perhaps the most scathing rebuke administered to the riot was written by an Irishman — James T. Brady.”

It is important that this riot should teach us something more useful than a revival of Know-Nothing prejudices.

They might have also pointed to other evidence that demonstrated the commitment of the Irish in America to their adopted country. More than 144,000 Irish-born served in the Union Army, alongside tens of thousands of American-born Irish. Some of the most important Union generals were also Irish or Irish American, including Philip Sheridan, James Shields, St. Clair Augustin Mulholland, and Thomas Francis Meagher. Thousands ended up giving their lives for the Union and 89 Irish-born soldiers would earn Congressional Medals of Honor. By war’s end, the reputation of the Irish as fierce fighters was firmly established and attested to by none other than Gen. Robert E. Lee in the aftermath of the Irish Brigrade’s futile assault on Marye’s Heights during the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862: “Never were men so brave. They ennobled their race by their splendid gallantry on that desperate occasion. Though totally routed, they reaped a harvest of glory. Their brilliant, though hopeless assaults on our lines excited the hearty applause of our officers and men.”

Because there was a war that had to be won, New Yorkers and Americans in general did their best to forget about the Draft Riots. This became even easier once the war ended in Union victory. But the Draft Riots never quite disappeared from public consciousness, especially among America’s Protestant elite, and it remained a black mark on the Irish reputation for decades to come.


July 24, 1997: Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, one of the court’s most liberal voices, dies.

July 26, 1914: Erskine Childers’s ship arrives with 900 German rifles to arm the Irish Volunteers, a response to an earlier (and far larger) smuggling operation that armed the opponents of Home Rule, the Ulster Volunteers.

July 30, 1864: Irish coal miners in the Union Army tunnel under Confederate lines outside Petersburg, Va., and detonate four tons of dynamite. Despite a huge hole blown into the Confederate line, Union confusion leads to disaster in the “Battle of the Crater.”


July 25, 1894: Three-time Academy Award winner Walter Brennan is born in Lynn, Mass.

July 26, 1856: Playwright and essayist George Bernard Shaw is born in Dublin.

July 30, 1863: Auto maker and assembly line inventor Henry Ford, is born in Greenfield Township, Mich.

Read about Ed O’Donnell’s new book, “1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History,” or contact him at www.EdwardTODonnell.com.

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