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The Draft Riots

The Draft Riots


by 
John William Tuohy


“This (The Draft Riots) was a classic example of the poor in their misery venting their fury on the poor who were even worse off. It is one of the ironies of American history that the draft riots in New York occupied only one week after the Irish in the Union Army had played a heroic role in the decisive battles of the war-Gettys­burg on July 3-4"   William V. Shannon

Although the blame for the New York City drafts riots has been squarely dropped on the shoulders of the American Irish they were not responsible for its cause. That lays elsewhere.
 The Irish saw the American civil war as a double political and social standard. Since their arrival at the start of the famine, and even before, the Irish had faced appalling religious discrimination. They saw their own kind starving and homeless yet, few Americans leaped to their cause.

 Life was hard for the New York Irish in 1863, the cost of living had doubled in two years, eggs, as an example, had gone from 12 cents to twenty five cents in four months. Work was difficult to get most of the time, but with war raging it seemed impossible and the Irish complained bitterly, loudly and often to Tammany that African Americas were underbidding them for what little work they qualified for.

A rumor spread among them that if Lincoln Republicans won war, the Irish would be working for the African Americans. Relations between the two groups had never been good, but now it worsened.

There were more and more fights along the docks between the Blacks and the Irish, and in the winter of 1863 there were a series of unexplained house fires in the Negro section in five points.

On march the 3rd President Lincoln signed the national conscrip­tion act which provided for the enrollment of all males between their ages of 18 and 45 for military service and each city and state were given a quota, in New York the quota was 12,500 men.

The rich wanted to avoid the draft at all cost and an entire industry sprung up to address that desire. Firms that arranged for replacements did a smashing business, working closely with bounty jumpers who deserted right after enlisting only to join up again for half of the $300.00 fee. Con artist advertised schemes on how to avoid the draft for one dollar, and made fortunes.

Military exemptions were given out for frivolous reasons to all and any who had social pull, but what annoyed the Irish more than anything else was a clause in the draft act which said that any person could buy their way out of service for $300.00, a staggering sum of money in 1863 and far beyond the reach of the lowly Irishmen.

On the day that the draft was to start in New York, a mob was so large that it took twenty five minutes for them to pass one point they gathered at a large lot near what would become Central park at ten o'clock in the morning. There was leadership but no one could figure out who it was.
Was the New York city draft riot planned and carried out by Confederate agents ? At one point, a well-dressed man known only as "Mr. Anderson of Virginia" (nothing else was ever known about him) stood on top of building and shouted to the mob that they must continue to organize to fight the draft that Lincoln wanted them in the army so he could give their homes to Blacks and that Lincoln himself was really black.

Newspaper reporters later spotted Mr. Anderson again on the third day of the rioting, this time mounted on a horse and armed with a saber leading the mob on to other assaults. Who was he ?

There were two other leaders, their identities still unknown, one was a giant of man with one arm (a wounded veteran perhaps ? But of which side ? Confederate or Union?) who lead the mob into an attack on an armory. He would later be shot and killed by police before the end of the second day of rioting.  A third was a younger man who always seemed to be at the head of the mob, directing the mobs assaults against police lines, always armed with a knife and a club. Marked out as a special target by the police he was knocked off his feet by a fearful blow to the head by a cop’s paddy club, his body spun around and fell on to an iron fence railing which impaled him. Later on when police examined his dead body they found that under his work man's clothes that he was dressed in elegant expensive clothes, the type a gentleman would wear, his hands unmarked by a days or lifetimes manual labor. He carried no identification. His body was, again, mysteriously dragged off by members of the mob, and the story was that his corpse was buried in one of the underground tunnels that ran through the five points section.

Who was he ? Why did some members of the mob feel that it was important mob drag away his body ? Why was he disguised as a working man ? Was he an upper class Brahmin looking for excitement ? Or was he a military officer ? and if so, for what side North or south?

On several occasions men on horseback rode before the mobs and asked (and got) three cheers for the confederacy President Jeff Davis.

Whoever these leaders were, they managed to organize thousands of mostly Irish laborers in to two groups, one marching down fifth

avenue the other down sixth avenue carrying signs "no draft" (where did they come from in the middle of what most agree was a spur of the moment uprising ?)

Some of them were armed with rifles most with axes and clubs expecting trouble the mayor had assigned sixty patrolmen guarded the front of the enrollment office on forty sixth street.
The mob could be heard block away marching toward the enrollment office, a sea of thousands, police headquarters issued a telegraph order to all stations "call in your reserves, platoon them and hold them at the station house subject to further orders"

 The mob arrived just as the draft started at 10:30 a shot was fired and the mob rushed the building, the police drew their paddy clubs and fought back bravely, but for every one of the mob that they knocked to the ground ten more rushed them they mob showered the cops with bricks and stones pulled from the streets. The cops withdrew in to the building and held off the mob while the draft mob escaped out a back door followed by the cops, the mobs rushed in to the building destroyed the interior and then set that building and three more surrounding it, on fire.

A detachment of the "Invalid corps" made up of solders that had been wounded in the civil war marched out to meet the crowd, despite the fact that most of them limped and wobbled from their wounds they marched briskly up third avenue, rifles at ready although most of their guns were loaded only with blanks.

The mob raced towards them and engaged them on 42nd street the mob tossed their bricks and rocks and several dozen soldiers were struck and fell to the street, the order was given for the detachment to open fire and six members of the mob were hit, three killed instantly, but the mob kept coming.

In hand to hand combat the soldiers were beaten back and had their rifles pulled away from them. Most of the detachment broke ranks and fled down the streets but several of the soldiers were trapped within the mob two were beaten to death with their rifles. A third ran to a ridge over a river bank, he stopped and faced the mob that beat him senseless and then threw him over the bank and buried him a in shower of boulders.

By 11:30 the mobs were everywhere in the city, sweeping through stores and offices ordering them to be shut down, almost all public transportation came to a standstill includ­ing the railroads most telegraph wires were cut across the city except a secret cable that ran from police headquarters to most police stations.

The Mayor called the city council together, but only half showed up and by now another mob had gathered at the park outside of city hall forcing the Mayor to move his base of operations to the St Nicholas hotel on Broadway.

Police superintendent John A. Kennedy leaped in to a carriage and headed toward city hall not realizing that the mob gad overrun the building. Although he was dressed in civilian clothes, someone in the mob recognized Kennedy as he rode down Third avenue, the mob stopped his coach and one man, wearing an old army uniform, pulled Kennedy out of the carriage and knocked him to the ground and stomped him. Kennedy leaped to his feet and swung his cane in to the crowd but again the mob pulled him down to the street and kicked and stabbed him, cutting him twenty times and leaving him with seventy two bruises.
Remarkably Kennedy managed to get to his feet and fight back long enough to make a run for it down the street in to the arms of John Eagan who convinced the mob that Kennedy was dead, content, they moved along. Kennedy was brought to a hospital. One half of the mob made its way down Broadway towards an enrollment office.

The mob assaulted the building and looted a jewelry store located on the first floor, one man stepped forward and said "this is an unspeakable outrage. As an American citizen I am ashamed" 

A club came out of nowhere and opened the man’s skull, the mob continued it looting. Someone started the chant "to the armory" which was a few blocks away and loaded down with 4,000 carbines and 200,000 rounds of ammunition, police caught the chant and a squad of 32 patrolmen were assigned to protect the building against thousands. By now it was 2:30 in the afternoon and many of the mobsters were armed with rifles.

At the armory the mob fired at the police who took protection inside the building At 4:30, the mob rushed the armory and battered down the door with a sledge hammer, one man jumped through the doors first and was shoot through the head by one of the policemen, the mob was right behind him and an intense gun fight broke out that lasted for five minutes but the mob numbered in the thousand the cops made their escape out of a 12 by 18 inch hole in the rear wall of the building and then clubbed their way through the mob and escaped to a nearby police precinct that would be burned to the ground with in hour after the armory take over.

A new detachment of police marched back to the armory where a part of the mob was on the top floor tossing down cases of rifles and bullets to the mob below, seeing police coming someone bolted the door to the storage room closed.

Outside, the mob also saw the police coming and somebody set fire to the building.
The fire spread quickly and engulfed bolted door, those inside the room who had been tossing down rifles, were trapped.

Some jumped from the windows and were killed in the fall. Days later when work crews cleared the building they carried out no less than 50 baskets of bones and remains from the storage room. By about five o'clock, three black men were already stripped naked, partially burned and hung by the neck from trees.

A mob made its way to the Colored Orphan Asylum near fifth avenue that housed 300 children and fifty adult staffers. The asylums director barricaded the front and led the children and the staffers out the back door just as the mob charged in to the building and started to trash the place

Someone discovered a small black child that had been overlooked by the staff. She was hiding under a bed, a group of women pulled her out and beat her to death. In all, eighteen Black men were hung by the neck from trees and burned. When night fell, large parts of the city were on fire. City firemen either refused to venture outside their stations to extinguish them (since the mob attacked them every time they tried) or had gone off and joined the rioters.

The Negro section of the five point’s area was almost complete­ly burned to the ground and the fire was spreading, threatening to burn down the entire city that now glowed for miles around in an orange-black haze. Thousands of law abiding citizens poured out of city for safety.

Suddenly there was a drenching down pour of rains from the heavens that soaked everything and put out the fires, now the city was covered with a white smoke. By around eight that evening the mob had retired back to their homes.

During the night, Police reorganized themselves. They knew that the mob would be back the next day. Plain clothes detec­tives gallantly volunteered to infiltrate the mobs and send back information to the station houses.

Policemen were called in from vacations, by the end of the night the police force was 1500 strong. Two thousand troops and national guard were called in from nearby forts and perhaps another 500 citizens volunteered as special duty officer. Law enforcement's total strength was now roughly between four to five thousand strong, still, the mobs were conservatively estimated to number between 50 000 to 75,000 strong.

Before dawn, on Tuesday morning a mob pushed its way in to the Black neighborhood of Hudson street. Most of the neighbor­hood had already fled, only one man William Jones (the same named of the first man to be drafted two days before) stayed to defend his home. He was beaten, had a rope tied around his neck and dragged through the streets, finally, he was hung by the neck to a nearby tree and then had a fire set under him while some of the mob danced around his dead body.

A few hours later the mob, again numbering in the tens of thousands, stormed the Union Steam Works building which was used as a storage armory, but were cut off by a detachment of 200 policemen. Remarkably, the policemen managed to push the mob down 32nd street using only their clubs.

The mob, and there were thousands and thousands of them, charged the police lines some of them firing at the cops as they charged, but incredi­bly, the police stood their ground, and even more incredibly pushed the mob back again, this time dispersing them. Minutes later the police were reinforced by 150 members of the Eleventh New York Volunteers under the command of Colonel H.J O'Brien.

O'Brien ordered his squad of 25 artillery men to level their two cannons at the mob and fire. At least six rounds were fired in to the mob and an unknown numbers, dozens fell dead and wounded, among them a young mother who was holding a baby in her arms.

When the mob dispersed, O'Brien pulled his men back to the armory and then decided to go back to his own home, not far away, to check on his families safety.

As O'Brien rode down the street on his mount, someone recognized him. A mob gathered and pulled him from his horse but O'Brien punched his way out of the mob and ran into a nearby saloon and locked the door behind him as the mob grew larger.

The bartender, seeing that the mob would burn down his bar, with him in it, ordered O'Brien to leave. O'Brien, in an amazing display of Irish fortitude and nerve, stepped out to face the mob, saber drawn.

For a long moment the crowd stood in silence and awe at the Colonels arrogance and daring. O'Brien took a few steps forward to get to his horse and a club knocked him to the ground, the mob rediscov­ered its questionable courage and leaped on him and beat him to a bloody pulp and tied a rope around his ankles and dragged him back and forth across the cobblestone streets.

A Priest pushed his way through the crowd and pleaded for O'Brien's life, but the most the mob would let him do is administer the last rites of the church to O'Brien's twitching body. After that the mob dragged O'Brien through the street for a while longer, amazed and annoyed that he still wasn't dead, they dragged him into his own front yard and where a group of women stabbed him with butcher knives and then stoned him, still it took him several hours to die.

While O'Brien was being slowly tortured and eventually killed, across the city, mobs burned down a Black Baptist church, and most of the cities blacks hid in cellars or tried to escape the city, but few left their homes, some that did were rounded up an hung by the neck.
Horace Greely's Tribune newspaper building was attacked four times while Greely hid under his desk.

A contingent of rioters attacked a livery stable and rode off with some horse which started the rumor that the mob had formed a Calvary unit. Another part of the mob looted its way across mid-town Manhat­tan and took 10,000 worth of suits and clothing from a brooks brothers store making this one of the better dressed riots in American history.

Another mob, led by a banner "down with Protestantism" burned downed a Methodist mission house and a rumor spread after wards that the riot was a Catholic Irish uprising.
 On Wednesday July 15th, a sweltering hot day, the United States Secretary of War sent five regiments from the front to put down the New York insurrection, the city council agreed to borrow $3,750,00­0.00 to pay the $300.00 exemption fee that any New Yorker could now request.

When it was over, the estimated numbers of dead was 2200, about the same number of Americans killed in the war of 1812. About 10,000 were wounded including virtually every member of the police force and another three hundred Federal troops were wounded and an estimated fifty were killed. 11,000 rifles, and pistols were captured along with 7000 bats, clubs and sticks were confiscated.

The damage to the city was in the millions. Only 19 persons were tried and convicted for their parts in the riot, with each receiving an average prison term of five years.


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