The Devil's Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America
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On July 4, 1863, Robert E. Lee and his Confederate army retreated in tatters from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and the Union began its march to ultimate victory in the Civil War. Nine days later, the largest riots in American history broke out on the streets of New York City, nearly destroying in four days the financial, industrial, and commercial hub of the nation. Northerners suspected a Confederate plot, carried out by local "Copperhead" sympathizers; however, the reality was more complex and far-reaching, exposing fault lines of race and class still present in America today.
Angered by the Emancipation Proclamation, issued six months earlier, and by Abraham Lincoln's imposition of the first federal military draft in U. S. history, which exempted those who could pay $300, New York's white underclass, whipped up by its conservative Democratic leaders, raged against the powerful currents of social change embodied by Lincoln's Republican administration. What began as an outbreak against draft offices soon turned into a horrifying mob assault on upper-class houses and property, and on New York's African American community. The draft riots drove thousands of blacks to the fringes of white society, hastening the formation of large ghettoes, including Harlem, in a once-integrated city.
As Barnet Schecter dramatically shows in The Devil's Own Work, the cataclysm in New York was anything but an isolated incident; rather, it was a microcosm―within the borders of the supposedly loyal northern states―of the larger Civil War between the North and South. The riots erupted over the same polarizing issues--of slavery versus freedom for African Americans and the scope of federal authority over states and individuals--that had torn the nation apart. And the riots' aftermath foreshadowed the compromises that would bedevil Reconstruction and delay the process of integration for the next 100 years.
The story of the draft riots come alive in the voices of passionate newspaper rivals Horace Greeley and Manton Marble; black leader Rev. Henry Highland Garnet and renegade Democrat Fernando Wood; Irish soldier Peter Welsh and conservative diarist Maria Daly; and many others. In chronicling this violent demonstration over the balance between centralized power and civil liberties in a time of national emergency, The Devil's Own Work (Walt Whitman's characterization of the riots) sheds new light on the Civil War era and on the history of protest and reform in America.
getting their old jobs back, particularly on the docks, where white longshoremen drove them away. Blacks could not get to jobs that were available, because conductors and passengers on street railroads, both from prejudice and fear of renewed attacks by white mobs, refused to let them onto the cars. Blacks also continued to be assaulted sporadically by bands of white youths. The Common Council, meanwhile, had come to the rescue of poor white conscripts with millions of dollars before the riots
hardy," one observer recalled, "their faces, bronzed by the exposure of years, were wreathed with smiles and bestowed with tears as cheer upon cheer rent the air."42 While the North rejoiced, the defeated Confederacy slid into despair. Edmund FLuffin sat down to write the defiant last entry in his diary on June 17, 1865: "I hereby declare my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule . . . &to the Yankee race. Would that I could impress these sentiments, in their full force, on every living southerner, &
constitutional system. Looking for some constitutional justification for intervention, Congress found it in the clauses of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments that allowed lawmakers to create legislation for the enforcement of the amendments. With the passage of the first enforcement act on May 31, 1870, any assault on a person's civil and political rights, including voting rights, became a felony. Klansmen became vulnerable to prosecution in federal courts, and the president could use the
39. Spann, "Union Green," p. 209. 40. Mushkat, The Reconstruction, pp. 131, 136-37, 146; Gibson, pp. 218-22, 225-26, 229; Ackerman, p. 53. 41. Mitchell, pp. 396, 412-13. 42. Ibid., pp. 414-15; McPherson, Ordeal, p. 587. 43. Mitchell, pp. 415-16. 44. Ibid., pp. 423-48. 45. McPherson, Ordeal, pp. 542-43; Foner, pp. 340-41. 46. Mitchell, p. 453. 47. Seymour, Vallandigham, and the Riots of 1863; McPherson, Ordeal, pp. 542-43. 48. Harper's Weekly, Oct. 10, 1868; Blight, illustration on p.
had gone back to the Tribune office, arriving there at about 7 p.m. "The appearance of the neighborhood had changed," Parton recalled.4 "The office was closed, and the shutters were up. A large number of people were in the open space in front of it, talking in groups, but not in a loud or excited manner. Not a policeman was to be seen." Only two or three employees were in the building, and they had heard nothing about a squad of patrolmen or any other steps taken to protect the newspaper and its