‘Balefully Glares Red Arson’: The New York City Draft Riots Erupt

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This is the second part of a three-part series on the New York City Draft Riots, the U.S. Civil War, and the use of martial law in the United States. Click here for part one.

The New York City Draft Riots, which took place from July 13–17, 1863, began with work strikes. Throughout that first morning, thousands of railroad and dock workers, artisans, laborers, and others refused to show up at their places of employment. These people assembled into crowds and, placards aloft and beating copper pans like gongs, marched toward the Ninth District Provost Marshal’s Office at Third Avenue and Forty-seventh Street, where the first drawing of draftees’ names would be held.

At ten-thirty, as the draft commenced, the ‘Black Joke’ Engine Company №33 arrived outside the draft office. One of their firemen had been drafted, and they were furious. Driving the Metropolitans off, they broke inside, smashed the selection drum, doused everything with kerosene, and set the building on fire. Outside, the crowd grew in size and violence, goaded by speakers who stood up to denounce the draft.

The substantial majority of protestors were workers, ranging from artisans to carpenters, who felt directly affected by the draft. Many were immigrants. (By mid-week, however, the artisans would generally stand down, leaving the streets to industrial workers, laborers, and the dock and street construction gangs; Monday’s mix of Irish-Catholics, Germans, and native-born Protestants would gradually give way to mobs who were predominantly Irish-Catholic.)

Soon after the rioting commenced, telegraph reports of the rioters began to arrive at police headquarters. Police Superintendent John Kennedy, after dispatching men to investigate the situation, decided to personally tour the scene. As he passed along Third Avenue and Forty-sixth Street, the mob recognized him and attacked with clubs and fists. Left for dead, he was spirited back to headquarters, where doctors tended to his wounds.

Kennedy’s brutal beating mirrored the fate of much of the city’s law enforcement that day. The Invalid Corps, a thirty-two-man squad of wounded veterans, marched toward the Ninth District Provost Marshal’s Office to assist the police, only to be decimated by a hail of paving stones. The mobs continued their march, armed with clubs, swords, and even a few rifles and pistols.

In addition to burning the draft offices and apparatus, mobs spread out to cut telegraph poles, halt streetcars, and loot stores. Many raided saloons for the liquor and hardware stores for the guns. They fanned out into Central Park and, in an ironic twist, conscripted random men to join them. “The beastly ruffians,” wrote George Templeton Strong, a spectator, “were masters of the situation and the city.” By the afternoon, the police had started to slowly respond to the multiple threats. It would be at least another day, however, before they could actually affect the tide of rioting that swept the city.

The main focus of the week’s violence was Republican-aligned targets. On the second day, crowds attempted to burn Republican Mayor Opdyke’s house and, upon failing to accomplish that particular goal, looted and torched the homes of other Republican rich throughout the city. Irish workers, singing “Damn the Flag,” set fire to the American flag, while others chanted pro-Confederate and anti-Republican statements.

Rioters attempted attacks on the Sub-Treasury Building on Nassau Street, only to be driven back when they saw employees in the windows armed with incendiaries and rifles. At the Customs House, workers readied bombs to repel any attackers. Rioters burned the offices of Horace Greeley’s Daily Tribune, New York’s foremost Republican and abolitionist newspaper, before being driven off by one of the roving bands of police.

Over the previous decades, there had been almost continual threats by the white working class against African-Americans in New York City, punctuated by the occasional violent incident. These tensions exploded during riot week. Crowds burned African-American homes and variously beat, hanged, drowned, burned, and mutilated any black men they encountered; eleven would die by week’s end. The New York white working class’s longtime resentment of African-Americans, combined with their fear of what the Republican abolitionist policies meant for their future, certainly fueled this violence.

This choice of Republican targets convinced many that the Draft Riots were part of a Confederate plot. “The damage done…in our unfortunate city was laid without hesitation to the charge of those who were conducting, or who sympathized with, the secession movement,” Morgan Dix, son of General John Adams Dix, later wrote.

Whatever their motives, by Tuesday the mobs had an effective stranglehold over the entire city. At the Saint Nicholas Hotel, where many of New York’s rich and powerful Republicans and Democrats had taken refuge from the violence, tempers were flaring. Members of the Union Club urged Mayor Opdyke to apply all necessary force against the rioters outside.

The assembled Democratic officials disagreed. Many argued strenuously that “in the excited state of public feeling,” a violent suppression by federal troops would only provoke cycles of retaliatory violence. “[Martial law] would have exasperated the rioters, increased their numbers, and those in sympathy with them, for the Democratic party were, to a man, opposed to the measure,” wrote Opdyke.

Leaving the hotel, Opdyke had a statement issued from his office. Ever the politician, he downplayed the city’s precarious position and lack of adequate defense: “[To save] the military and police from the exhaustion of continued movements, you are invited to form voluntary associations…to patrol and guard your various districts.” He requested that citizens return to their daily routines, and that railways and telegraphs be put back into operation immediately: “Adequate military protection against further interruption will be furnished upon application to the military authorities of the state.”

Meanwhile, at the hotel, the politicos reached an impasse over the issue of martial law. Conservatives opposed its application, while the more radical among them endorsed it wholeheartedly. A few of the latter, including Union Club members such as George Strong, left the hotel and telegraphed Lincoln to declare “stringent measures,” and to send in Union troops to contain the crisis. Inside the building, the rest tried to deal with various aspects of the crisis, no doubt wondering how the federal government would react.

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The urban riot is a common scene in history. From the revolt of Naples against the Spanish in 1647, to the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution, dispossessed populaces have used rioting as a tool to gain concessions, make statements, or liberate themselves from the powers in control.

In turn, governing powers have employed a variety of methods to suppress rioters. During urban riots and disturbances in the United States during the 19th century, federal troops and militia would occasionally be called upon to support police in controlling the crowds.

New York’s Astor Place Riots of May 1849, named for the opera house at the violence’s epicenter, began as a commonplace theater argument that quickly escalated into a riot involving thousands of people in the streets outside. The police, trying to quell the disorder, were driven back in a storm of paving stones, and Mayor Woodhull requested that military forces be deployed to their aid.

Major-General Sandford, at the head of two hundred troops, arrived at Astor Place and ordered the crowd to disperse. When they continued to throw missiles, he told his men to “fire low.” Twenty-two people died in the gunfire, and for days afterwards the poor of the city, who had constituted the substantial majority of the rioters, threatened to rise up in larger indignation.

The presence of the military forces during the Astor Place Riots, while successful in quelling the rioters, did not constitute full-on “martial law.” That term could be narrowly defined as “the right to institute [military] governments over the persons and territory of a public enemy in an act of war.” According to Circuit Justice Taney in Ex parte Merryman (1861) and District Judge Hall in Ex parte Benedict (1862), suspending habeas corpus within the United States is the responsibility of Congress, not the President. In those cases, the justices argued that if the president were entrusted with such powers, the nation could conceivably run the risk of tyranny.

While Lincoln likely had no intention to tyrannize, he and the military largely ignored the Supreme Court’s rulings concerning martial law. On September 24, 1862, Lincoln issued a proclamation:

First: That during the existing insurrection, and as a necessary measure for suppressing the same, all rebels and insurgents, their aiders and abettors, within the United States, and all persons discouraging volunteer enlistments, resisting militia drafts, or guilty of any disloyal practice, affording aid and comfort to revels against the authority of the United States, shall be subject to martial law, and liable to trial and punishment by courts-martial or military commission.

Second: That the writ of habeas corpus is suspended in respect to all persons arrested, or who are now, or hereafter during the rebellion shall be, imprisoned in any fort…or other place of confinement by any military authority, or by sentence of any court-martial or military commission.

This missive, justified by executive privilege, directly countered the rulings of the Court; the Republican administration believed that legal niceties could be set aside until after the hostilities.

Indeed, Lincoln’s government was rarely hesitant about declaring martial law, even over parts of Union territory. For example: On April 19, 1861, a crowd of civilians fired upon a column of Union troops marching through Baltimore. Immediately afterwards, “civil authorities conceived it to be their duty to the State to prevent further disorder by destroying railroad bridges, so that no more federal troops could pass through the city.” Baltimore had always positioned itself as pro-South; if the city, along with Maryland, were to make those sympathies more overt and join the Confederacy, Washington, D.C. would have been reduced to an island, cut off from the rest of the Union.

So Lincoln and his advisors formally declared martial law in Baltimore. A military provost marshal, commanding troops, assumed the powers of the police force over the city. With these soldiers keeping order, Washington, D.C. was in less danger of being cut off, and soldiers and material could pass through unimpeded.

The case of Ex Parte Merryman emerged from the Baltimore fracas, as Chief Justice Taney granted habeas corpus to a citizen held by military authorities. Lincoln ignored the ruling. In a letter to Erastus Corning, published in the New York Tribune on June 15, 1863, he attempted to justify this action. “I can no more be persuaded that the government can constitutionally take no strong measure in time of rebellion, because it can be shown that the same could not be lawfully taken in time of peace, than I can be persuaded that a particular drug is not good medicine for a sick man,” he wrote. “Certain proceedings are constitutional, when, in cases of rebellion or Invasion, the public safety requires them.”

In 1863, as the Confederate Army moved north, the administration tightened the restrictions on Baltimore. Troops restricted entrance and egress to the city, closed saloons at dark, and limited the sale of weapons and ammunition. Until the war concluded, Baltimore would be tightly controlled.

Other Union territories found themselves subjected to similar treatment. At various times throughout the Civil War, military commanders imposed martial law on Missouri, Ohio, and Kansas. These states might have been loyal to the Union, but the Republican administration found their proximity to Confederate territory and their internal dissention worrisome: if those Border States went, the balance of power would be irrevocably shifted in favor of the Confederacy.

For each of these states, Lincoln authorized the military commanders to suspend “the writ of habeas corpus and to exercise martial law as should appear necessary to secure the public safety and the authority of the United States.” Such efforts were essential for repressing the strife and guerilla warfare between these states’ Union and Confederate factions. In Missouri, the Union army even controlled the local elections.

In short, Lincoln had no compunction about using the military to impose government, even over the protests of the Supreme Court. Whatever qualms he may have held about his unchecked powers were overridden by the urge to preserve the Union at all costs.

Such was his thinking as the streets of New York City burned.

This is a three-part series. Click here for PART THREE: The Draft Riots Crushed.

Writer, editor, author of 'Maxine Unleashes Doomsday' and 'Boise Longpig Hunting Club.'

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