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 st
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.