New York draft riots 1863

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 4 (Winter 2003), Letters, Letters, Volume 11

Sir,—Toby Joyce neatly describes (HI 11.2, Summer 2003) the battles of the famous draft riots of 1863, but he fails, I think, to deal candidly with the dynamics of the Irish scene in New York.
The Irish working-class realised that many Americans regarded it as ‘papist scum’, one step below the ‘niggers’. Nevertheless the Democratic Party in the North welcomed the ‘Micks’ with open arms (able bodies = votes); but of course that party had historically (since Jefferson) been the stronghold of the slave-masters of the South.
Catholic Irish clergy in the United States found it expedient to accept ‘humane slavery’ as an institution sanctioned by long tradition as well as by the constitution. Archbishop John Hughes denounced (Protestant) abolitionists as fanatical troublemakers.
New York City was an economic partner of the Southern planters: it was their market, their port, and their bank. The critical election of Senator John Slidell of Louisiana was bankrolled by New Yorkers. When the new (Republican) administration in Washington decided to fight the South in 1861, (Democratic) Mayor Fernando Wood threatened to have New York City secede from the Union! The Irish working-class regarded the affair as a rich man’s war provoked by the Republican Party. (They watched as war contracts were awarded to Republican fat-cats.) When Lincoln decided to make freeing (and then arming!) the Blacks a war-aim, the worst fears of the hard-working ‘Micks’ were realised, and the anti-war Democrats finally got the issue they had longed for: choose this day—White or Black.
The hot summer of 1863 brought the whirlwind. An (Irish) longshoremen’s strike was broken by bringing in Black ‘scabs’. Then, when the Republican administration stated that it was necessary to resort to conscription, NY Governor Seymour (a Democrat) told New Yorkers on 4 July: ‘the bloody, treasonable and revolutionary doctrine of public necessity can be proclaimed by a mob as well as by a government’.
The Irish lads got the message. They listened in ugly silence as the names of the first 1,236 draftees were read out. Then came the punch-line: rich boys could buy an exemption for $300 while the hard-working ‘Micks’ were to be shipped off to the slaughter pens of Virginia. The news, said Leslie’s, ‘came like a thunderclap on the people . . . a spirit of resistance spread far and fast’.
White power—Catholic Irish white power—reached its D-Day on the following Monday. Toby Joyce recounts the raging anarchy and the bloodshed. And the result? Henceforward the Protestant ‘Ascendancy’ in New York and in America would have a formidable rival to reckon with—and cater to—and assimilate. The political matrix had truly been reloaded. The Irish had at last become ‘white same as you’. And when the once-despised ‘scum’ suddenly found themselves in the seats of political power—as in Memphis in 1865—they proved to be ardent recruits to the White Ascendancy.
—Yours etc.,
Mason City,


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