AOH Historian: Irish vs. Black Narrative in Draft Riots a Fiction

To our readers and fellow members of community:

We are as a community startled, enraged and greatly saddened by the death May 25 of African-American George Floyd at the hands of a Minnesota police officer. As we reexamine race relations, and our own history, we inevitably recall the New York City Draft Riots, which extended over four days in July 1863. It was, of course, another time of social upheaval in American history. In July 2015, to mark the 150th anniversary of those dreadful days, AOH National Historian Mike McCormack published a piece on our pages disputing the usual narrative of the riots, which he feels unfairly scapegoated the Irish. We re-feature this post in the hope that it will demonstrate again that what unites us as a nation is far greater than what divides us. -- WG 

By Mike McCormack, AOH National Historian (First published in 2014)

As National Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians in America, I am concerned that the 150th Anniversary of the 1863 Draft Riots in New York from July 13 to 15 will be commemorated using some of the bigoted information that appeared in the press at the time.  We all know that the anti-Irish Nativist mentality did not die with the demise of the Know Nothing movement in 1856 and many were quick to blame Irish Catholics as the rioters.  To make it seem even worse, the casualties were grossly exaggerated citing 1,155 killed when, in fact, later studies revealed 119 killed and 181 injured.

The bigotry of the time must be considered.  Many Americans, whose immigrant ancestors had climbed out of the poverty in which they arrived, considered the poverty of the newly-arriving Irish immigrants to be a ‘function of their lazy character’.  On the contrary, the ambition and determination of the Irish insured the success of subsequent generations, but in the first generation, they suffered from outrageous prejudice.  America’s Irish population grew after 1845 as a result of the Great Hunger in Ireland and didn’t slow down until after 1855.  This sudden influx of poverty-stricken, often diseased Irish Catholics alarmed the Protestant community, among whom were many so-called ‘nativist’ Americans.  They forced and held the new arrivals in social and economic limbo, denouncing them and their church in biased media, leaflets, and forums.

(Right: A Thomas Nast cartoon that illustrates the nativist attitude toward the Irish.)

Despite the unfair treatment, the Irish flocked to the defense of the Union when the Civil War broke out.  On April 15, 1861, President Lincoln issued a call for volunteers amid rumors that a force of Confederates was moving up from South Carolina.  Lincoln’s problem was that new volunteers would take weeks to train and arm.  What he needed were well-trained units, already armed and led; and he needed them immediately.  One unit that fit the bill was the Irish 69th Regiment of the NY State Militia.  The regiment asked for 1,000 volunteers from the Irish community to support Lincoln’s call and before they realized their quota had been filled, 1800 had enlisted; the excess 800 were released to New York’s 37th Regiment which became known as the Irish Rifles.  They all rushed to defend Washington D.C. where they were visited by Abraham Lincoln, who thanked them for coming to his government’s rescue.  Just three weeks after the war broke out he sent them to the first battle of Bull Run!  Recognized for their courage, ferocity and resilience in that battle, the 69th was expanded into an entire Irish Brigade under the Irish patriot Thomas Francis Meagher.  Meagher added New York’s Irish 63rd and 88th regiments and in the fall of 1862, the 28th Massachusetts and 116th Pennsylvania were added – all Irish and all volunteers!

(Below: "Return of the 69th (Irish) Regiment, N.Y.S.M. from the Seat of War" by Louis Lang (1862-3). 

The Brigade was fearless and in many battles were used as cannon fodder by unscrupulous and inexperienced commanding officers.  Casualties were horrendous.  In all, more than 150,000 Irishmen, most of whom were recent immigrants and not yet U.S. citizens, voluntarily joined the Union Army.  Between 1861 and 1863, Irish casualties mounted and Meagher returned to New York several times to recruit replacements.  Out of a total enlistment of 7,000 men during the war, the Brigade returned to New York in 1865 with 1,000; one company was actually down to seven men.  In 1863, as Irish units were running out of manpower, so too was the Union.  That’s when Congress passed the first Conscription Act to draft men into service.

The draft was inherently unfair since it gave the wealthy a way to avoid service by buying their way out of serving by paying $300.  Unscrupulous politicians, trying to build their political base, told the working class, You will be drafted and sent to fight while freed blacks will take your jobs and the rich will buy their way out.   It should be noted that the Emancipation Proclamation has just been passed, at the time $300. was more than a year’s wages for a laborer.  Further, if a man was drafted there was no municipal social safety net for his family and a soldier’s pay was small and often delayed.  Impoverished workers felt that they would be leaving their families to starve.  It put the whole sacrifice of life, limb, health and home upon the poor and laboring classes who have the least at stake in the preservation of the Union, wrote Joseph Medill, editor of the Chicago Tribune and a personal friend of the President on 5 March 1863. He added, there is no possible defense, justification or apology that can be made for this outrage.  Opposition to the law poured in from around the Union and the poor rebelled against the law in Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Detroit, and other cities, but New York was the worst.

Many historians place Confederate secret service operatives behind the Draft Riots. In Civil War St.Louis, for example, D.H. Rule wrote, For now, bear in mind that a St. Louis Confederate courier en route from Richmond to Canada made a stop in New York shortly before the Draft Riots began. This same agent's stop in Philadelphia immediately preceded the most violent draft resistance in that city, too.  Coupled with this is the participation of Missouri agents (documented by a number of noted historians) in the attempted burning of New York.  The ethnic makeup of the St Louis mob was apparently different than the New York mob for several Germans were identified as participants.

By 1863, the ethnic makeup of New York’s Five Points, where the opposition originated, had changed and now included Germans, Jews, and Italians as well as native-born Americans; it was home to the city’s impoverished though the Irish were still the most numerous among them.  Angered at the fact that the rich could buy their way out of the draft, the poor and laboring class of New York started a protest march headed for the offices of the Draft Board to destroy the ballots.  According to News in, Italian, German and Irish immigrants banded together to march in a protest that turned violentThe Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP.ORG) also recorded, German-speaking artisans, Native-born Protestant journeymen, and working-class Irish laborers attacked and burned the Provost Marshal’s office on 46th Street and 3rd Avenue.   It should be noted that many of the Irish also served in the Metropolitan Police force that was sent to stop the protest march.

When the confrontation became violent, the biased media of the day used it as another opportunity to defame the Irish, claiming that they were the disloyal rioters in spite of the fact that at the time, many of the Five Points Irish were dying on the battlefield of Gettysburg as they had done at Fredericksberg, Antietam and other fields of conflict defending the Union.  The media also ignored the Irish makeup of the police and that Supervisor of Police John Kennedy was one of those killed by the mob or that the commander of the 11th Regiment State Guard who were called in to assist was Col. H.T. O’Brien.

Fueled by the fear that freed blacks would take their jobs, blacks became a target of the protesters and the media invented an Irish versus black prejudice in spite of the fact that they not only peacefully lived together in the Points, but in earlier times together they had invented tap dancing.  However, in August 1863, even Harper’s Weekly uncharacteristically had to admit,  It must be remembered that in many of the wards of the City during the late riot, the Irish were the primary, and often only, friends of law and order. That it was the Irish that risked their lives at 43rd street and 5th avenue at the Colored Orphan Asylum to save the little children from certain death at the hands of the mob. That many of the police officers injured during the riot were Irish.   And it must also be noted that Police Officer Paddy McCafferty put his body between the mob and 20 colored children and brought them to the safety of the 35th precinct at great peril to his own life.  Further, that to a man, the Catholic Priesthood which is almost entirely Irish in our city used their influence on the side of law and order.

One of the saddest incidents in modern history is the constant accusation in current published media that the Irish were responsible for the Draft Riots in July 1863.  They have used the biased media of the day as source data.  To those of us who know the true story, the authors of such tripe are only embarrassing themselves as Amadons (ignorant people) at best and Gombeen Men (those who seek the favor of the establishment) at worst.  Yet, if we would not be called Lackeys (those who mindlessly go along with the majority), it is up to us to educate the masses.  July 13, 2013, is the 150th anniversary of the tragic event and you can be sure you will see anniversary articles by some ignorant authors.  Start now and send a letter, e-mail, or tweet to your local news media, radio or TV station, politician, and/or school with the truth.  Remember, it’s your heritage, DEFEND IT!

Views: 188

Tags: American Civil War, Civil Unrest, Criminal Justice, Riots, War

Founding Member
Comment by Nollaig 2016 on June 5, 2020 at 2:53am

"Mrs. W., an old lady from Cannon street, says that she, her husband, and ten or a dozen others were concealed in a white neighbor's house for two days. This white family' nut only had the heroism to protect these poor people, but the humanity- to feed them, and the discretion at the proper time to get a police force to escort them to the station-house. Their benefactors are Irish Catholics."

 "  Some four or five white women, wives of colored men applied for relief. In every instance they had been severely dealt with by the mob. One Irish woman, Mrs. C. was so persecuted and shunned by eveiy one, that when she called for aid, she was nearly insane"
from 'Report of the Committee of Merchants for the Relief of Colored People, Suffering from the Late Riots in the City of New York.'
The immigrated half of the people of New
York contained:
Irish . . . . . . . . . . . . .. 203,740 Scotch . . . . . . . . . . . . .. 9,208
German . . . . . . . . . .. 119,984 French. . . . . . . . . . . .. 8,074
English . . . . . . . . . .. 27,082 Italian . . . . . . . . . . . . .. 1,474
from 'The Volcano under the city / by a volunteer special ; with map showing New York police precincts.'
There were a lot more Irish people with good intentions than bad during the draft riots and we see that mirrored in present day demonstrations among every race.  Unfortunately every race has a few bad apples and given the statistics at the time I would have to say that we were well represented on both sides of the coin.  Hence the confusion between Race and Draft riot.   I would hasten to guess that we were also more integrated and intermarried with the Black community at the time given the #s.   Interesting to note that one of the founders of the burned Black Orphanage 'Mary Murray" was married to an Irishman. 
George Floyd R.I.P.
Comment by James Flynn on June 17, 2020 at 9:33am
  1. First point:  the violence and murder committed during the NY Draft riots are indefensible.
  2. However, the Irish antagonism to the Emancipation Proclamation needs to be explored in more depth.  Hypocritically, many of the leading Abolitionists were also virulent anti-Catholic and anti-Irish bigots.  Lyman Beecher, father of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" author Harriet Beecher Stowe, was an instigator in burning of the Catholic convent in Charlestown, Mass.  Many Republicans of the time had been members of the anti-Irish "Know Nothings".  The Irish were hearing the cry for Abolition simultaneously and from the same mouth as anti-Irish bigotry, Again no excuse for racial violence, but their fears were far more complex from their perspective than is acknowledged.
Comment by Gerry Regan on June 17, 2020 at 9:50am

Important observations. Thank you, James.


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