As National Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians in America, I am concerned that the 150th Anniversary of the 1863 Draft Riots in New York from July 13 to 15 will be commemorated using some of the bigoted information that appeared in the press at the time. We all know that the anti-Irish Nativist mentality did not die with the demise of the Know Nothing movement in 1856 and many were quick to blame Irish Catholics as the rioters. To make it seem even worse, the casualties were grossly exaggerated citing 1,155 killed when, in fact, later studies revealed 119 killed and 181 injured.
The bigotry of the time must be considered. Many Americans, whose immigrant ancestors had climbed out of the poverty in which they arrived, considered the poverty of the newly-arriving Irish immigrants to be a ‘function of their lazy character’. To the contrary, the ambition and determination of the Irish insured the success of subsequent generations, but in the first generation, they suffered from outrageous prejudice. America’s Irish population grew after 1845 as a result of the Great Hunger in Ireland and didn’t slow down until after 1855. This sudden influx of poverty-stricken, often diseased Irish Catholics alarmed the Protestant community, among whom were many so-called ‘nativist’ Americans. They forced and held the new arrivals in social and economic limbo, denouncing them and their church in biased media, leaflets and forums.
Despite the unfair treatment, the Irish flocked to the defense of the Union when the Civil War broke out. On April 15, 1861, President Lincoln issued a call for volunteers amid rumors that a force of Confederates was moving up from South Carolina. Lincoln’s problem was that new volunteers would take weeks to train and arm. What he needed were well-trained units, already armed and led; and he needed them immediately. One unit that fit the bill was the Irish 69th Regiment of the NY State Militia. The regiment asked for 1,000 volunteers from the Irish community to support Lincoln’s call and before they realized their quota had been filled, 1800 had enlisted; the excess 800 were released to New York’s 37th Regiment which became known as the Irish Rifles. They all rushed to defend Washington D.C. where they were visited by Abraham Lincoln, who thanked them for coming to his government’s rescue. Just three weeks after the war broke out he sent them to the first battle of Bull Run! Recognized for their courage, ferocity and resilience in that battle, the 69th was expanded into an entire Irish Brigade under the Irish patriot Thomas Francis Meagher. Meagher added New York’s Irish 63rd and 88th regiments and in the fall of 1862, the 28th Massachusetts and 116th Pennsylvania were added – all Irish and all volunteers!
The Brigade was fearless and in many battles was used as cannon fodder by unscrupulous and inexperienced commanding officers. Casualties were horrendous. In all, more than 150,000 Irishmen, most of whom were recent immigrants and not yet U.S. citizens, voluntarily joined the Union Army. Between 1861 and 1863, Irish casualties mounted and Meagher returned to New York several times to recruit replacements. Out of a total enlistment of 7,000 men during the war, the Brigade returned to New York in 1865 with 1,000; one company was actually down to seven men. In 1863, as Irish units were running out of manpower, so too was the Union. That’s when Congress passed the first Conscription Act to draft men into service.
The draft was inherently unfair since it gave the wealthy a way to avoid service by buying their way out of serving by paying $300. Unscrupulous politicians, trying to build their political base, told the working class, You will be drafted and sent to fight while freed blacks will take your jobs and the rich will buy their way out. It should be noted that the Emancipation Proclamation has just been passed, at the time $300. was more than a year’s wages for a laborer. Further, if a man was drafted there was no municipal social safety net for his family and a soldier’s pay was small and often delayed. Impoverished workers felt that they would be leaving their families to starve. It put the whole sacrifice of life, limb, health and home upon the poor and laboring classes who have the least at stake in the preservation of the Union, wrote Joseph Medill, editor of the Chicago Tribune and a personal friend of the President on 5 March 1863. He added, there is no possible defense, justification or apology that can be made for this outrage. Opposition to the law poured in from around the Union and the poor rebelled against the law in Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Detroit and other cities, but New York was the worst.
Many historians place Confederate secret service operatives behind the Draft Riots. In Civil War St.Louis, for example, D.H. Rule wrote, For now, bear in mind that a St. Louis Confederate courier enroute from Richmond to Canada made a stop in New York shortly before the Draft Riots began. This same agent’s stop in Philadelphia immediately preceded the most violent draft resistance in that city, too. Coupled with this is the participation of Missouri agents (documented by a number of noted historians) in the attempted burning of New York. The ethnic makeup of the St Louis mob was apparently different than the New York mob for several Germans were identified as participants.
By 1863, the ethnic makeup of New York’s Five Points, where the opposition originated, had changed and now included Germans, Jews, and Italians as well as native-born Americans; it was home to the city’s impoverished though the Irish were still the most numerous among them. Angered at the fact that the rich could buy their way out of the draft, the poor and laboring class of New York started a protest march headed for the offices of the Draft Board to destroy the ballots. According to News in History.com, Italian, German and Irish immigrants banded together to march in a protest that turned violent. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP.ORG) also recorded, German-speaking artisans, Native-born Protestant journeymen, and working-class Irish laborers attacked and burned the Provost Marshal’s office on 46th Street and 3rd Avenue. It should be noted that many of the Irish also served in the Metropolitan Police force that was sent to stop the protest march.
When the confrontation became violent, the biased media of the day used it as another opportunity to defame the Irish, claiming that they were the disloyal rioters in spite of the fact that at the time, many of the Five Points Irish were dying on the battlefield of Gettysburg as they had done at Fredericksberg, Antietam and other fields of conflict defending the Union. The media also ignored the Irish makeup of the police and that Supervisor of Police John Kennedy was one of those killed by the mob or that the commander of the 11th Regiment State Guard who were called in to assist was Col. H.T. O’Brien.
Fueled by the fear that freed blacks would take their jobs, blacks became a target of the protesters and the media invented an Irish vs black prejudice in spite of the fact that they not only peacefully lived together in the Points, but in earlier times together they had invented tap dancing. However, in August, 1863, even Harper’s Weekly uncharacteristically had to admit, It must be remembered that in many of the wards of the City during the late riot, the Irish were the primary, and often only, friends of law and order. That it was the Irish that risked their lives at 43rd street and 5th avenue at the Colored Orphan Asylum to save the little children from certain death at the hands of the mob. That many of the police officers injured during riot were Irish. And it must also be noted that Police Officer Paddy McCafferty put his body between the mob and 20 colored children and brought them to the safety of the 35th precinct at great peril to his own life. Further, that to a man, the Catholic Priesthood which is almost entirely Irish in our city used their influence on the side of law and order.
One of the saddest incidents in modern history is the constant accusation in current published media that the Irish were responsible for the Draft Riots in July 1863. They have used the biased media of the day as source data. To those of us who know the true story, the authors of such tripe are only embarrassing themselves as Amadons (ignorant people) at best and Gombeen Men (those who seek the favor of the establishment) at worst. Yet, if we would not be called Lackeys (those who mindlessly go along with the majority), it is up to us to educate the masses. July 13, 2013 is the 150th anniversary of the tragic event and you can be sure you will see anniversary articles by some ignorant authors. Start now and send a letter, e-mail, or tweet to your local news media, radio or TV station, politician and/or school with the truth. Remember, it’s your heritage, DEFEND IT!