New York draft riots 1863

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 1 (Spring 2004), Letters, Letters, Volume 12

Sir,

—Jim Jordan (Letters, HI 11.4, Winter 2003) has provided useful background on the ethnic conflicts that partly lay behind the New York draft riots (see my article in HI 11.3, Autumn 2003). It is of course quite normal to embed the riots in a wider narrative like Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish became white. That I did not do so was not due to an unwillingness ‘to deal candidly with the dynamics of the Irish scene in New York’, as Mr Jordan asserts, but simply because I think the ‘white-on-black’ nature of the riots has been over-emphasised. In 1863 the African-American population of New York stood at less than two per cent of the total. One could argue that the number of African-American deaths in the riot (less than ten, out of more than 100 in total) was high relative to their proportion in the population, but that may also have been due to their greater vulnerability. Previous to the riots, instances of racial strife (other than the rhetorical kind) were rare in New York. The incident of an Irish longshoremen’s strike broken by African-American ‘scabs’, alluded to by Mr Jordan, never happened. Tyler Anbinder’s meticulous research (Five Points, New York, 2001) found that white army deserters and convalescents were the ‘scabs’. Anbinder roundly asserts that ‘the wholesale replacement of Irish-American workers by African-Americans during the war simply never took place’. My preference was to embed the riots in the Civil War narrative, in which the Irish were forced to choose sides more than once. I located the main causes in the disruptions brought about by the conflict, for which the Lincoln government and its local acolytes took the blame. Of course, Mr Jordan is right to point out that the riots had major implications for the position of the Irish in city politics, but even there I think the truth is somewhat more complex than his simple narrative suggests.

—Yours etc.,
TOBY JOYCE
Navan

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