By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
On Saturday, July 11, 1863, the government of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln initiated a policy of draft conscription for White males living in New York City.
This was at the height of the American Civil War and followed the passage of the nation’s first military draft act in March, 1863. In New York City the draft law allowed any of these White men to buy their way out of military service by paying a fee of $300 (approximately $5,500 in today’s money).
African-Americans were exempted from the draft (African-Americans voluntarily served throughout the Civil War) as they were not considered American citizens. Hundreds of thousands of African-American men and women served in every section of the military during the Civil War.
Harriet Tubman was one of the more famous names who served as a nurse and an undercover agent during that war. She is credited with leading the famous Combahee River expedition (June 2, 1863) which saved more than 700 enslaved Africans from chattel slavery when she led an expedition of 150 men in three gunboats “up the Combahee River, the object of the expedition being to take up the torpedoes placed by the rebels in the river, to destroy railroads and bridges, and to cut off supplies from the rebel troops”.
On Friday, July 10, 1863 (ironically, just three days before the murderous rampage against African-Americans in New York City) on the front page of a Boston newspaper, The Commonwealth, a report of the successful Combahee River Expedition appeared which read in part: “Col. Montgomery and his gallant band of 300 Black soldiers, under the guidance of a Black woman, dashed into the enemy’s country, struck a bold and effective blow, destroying millions of dollars worth of commissary stores, cotton and lordly dwellings, and striking terror into the heart of rebeldom, brought off near 800 slaves and thousands of dollars worth of property, without losing a man or receiving a scratch. It was a glorious consummation.”
Meanwhile, in New York City, the mostly Irish immigrant working class population was against the Civil War and, by extension, against the draft. They also resented the fact that African-American men in New York City competed with them for jobs.
Ignoring the fact that African-American men living in New York City were the descendants of enslaved Africans (some of them had probably escaped slavery from other states and made their way to New York City) who had paid their dues in blood, sweat and tears and had a right to paid employment, the Irish men refused to work alongside African-American men.
Not caring that their oppressors were other White men who owned the businesses in which they laboured, the Irish immigrants (men and women) violently targeted African-American men, women and children. The Conscription Act, which was so hated by the Irish immigrants, required all White males between the ages of 20 and 35 and all unmarried White men between 20 and 45 to serve in the military except if they paid $300 dollars or could hire someone to serve in their stead.
Obviously the enemies of those Whites who lived in poverty in New York City and could not afford to buy their way out of the draft were not African-Americans but rich White people who could buy their way out of serving in the military.
The racial violence did not begin with the Conscription/Draft Act but it was used by the White men and women in New York City to visit extreme brutality on African-American men, women and children.
Even before they had the excuse of being drafted into the military, the Irish regularly attacked African-Americans in New York City. In his 2002 book, Ear Inn Virons: History of the New York City Landmark – James Brown House and West Soho Neighborhood, author Andrew Coe writes about an Irish gang called the “Spring Street Fencibles” which was known for “knocking down Black females”. It is not clear if the Irish gang members were too cowardly to confront African-American men or if the phrase “knocking down Black females” has something more sinister to its meaning besides the brutality of committing violence against Black women.
On the first day of the draft, Saturday, July 11, 1863, all seemed to be orderly as the implementation of the Conscription/Draft Law began in New York City. For 24 hours after (Sunday, July 12) all was quiet but it was the lull before the storm.
In the 2004 book, In the Shadow of Slavery: African-Americans in New York City, 1626-1863, author Leslie M. Harris writes:
“On Saturday, July 11, 1863, the first lottery of the conscription law was held. For twenty-four hours the city remained quiet. On Monday, July 13, 1863, between 6 and 7 a.m., the five days of mayhem and bloodshed that would be known as the Civil War Draft Riots began. The rioters’ targets initially included only military and governmental buildings, symbols of the unfairness of the draft. Mobs attacked only those individuals who interfered with their actions. But by afternoon of the first day, some of the rioters had turned to attacks on Black people, and on things symbolic of Black political, economic, and social power. Rioters attacked a Black fruit vendor and a nine-year-old boy at the corner of Broadway and Chambers Street before moving to the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue between Forty-Third and Forty-Fourth Streets.”
It seems that the White mob was envious of the 233 homeless and orphaned African-American children housed in the “Colored Orphan Asylum” because at 4 p.m. on Monday, July 13 on the first day of the riots, they attacked the building.
The White mob looted the building of “bedding, clothing, food, and other transportable articles” before setting the building on fire and watching it burn to the ground (http://history1800s.about.com/od/civilwar/ig/New-York-City-Draft-Riots/Burning-the-Orphan-s-Asylum.htm).
The firefighters (all White men) were apparently not able to save the building, which was completely destroyed within 20 minutes. In his book, In the Shadow of Slavery: African-Americans in New York City, 1626-1863, Harris wrote:
“John Decker, chief engineer of the fire department, was on hand, but firefighters were unable to save the building. The destruction took twenty minutes.”
The mostly Irish mob (there were some German immigrants in the mix) went on a five-day rampage, attacking and murdering African-Americans and destroying their homes and businesses.
The barbarity of the attacks was depicted by Harris in his book, In the Shadow of Slavery:
“In July 1863, White longshoremen took advantage of the chaos of the Draft Riots to attempt to remove all evidence of a Black and interracial social life from areas near the docks. Black men and black women were attacked, but the rioters singled out the men for special violence. On the waterfront, they hanged William Jones and then burned his body. White dock workers also beat and nearly drowned Charles Jackson, and they beat Jeremiah Robinson to death and threw his body in the river. Rioters also made a sport of mutilating the Black men’s bodies, sometimes sexually. A group of White men and boys mortally attacked Black sailor William Williams – jumping on his chest, plunging a knife into him, smashing his body with stones – while a crowd of men, women, and children watched. None intervened, and when the mob was done with Williams, they cheered, pledging ‘vengeance on every nigger in New York.’ A White labourer, George Glass, rousted Black coachman, Abraham Franklin, from his apartment and dragged him through the streets. A crowd gathered and hanged Franklin from a lamppost as they cheered for Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president. After the mob pulled Franklin’s body from the lamppost, a 16-year-old Irish man, Patrick Butler, dragged the body through the streets by its genitals. Black men who tried to defend themselves fared no better. The crowds were merciless. After James Costello shot at and fled from a White attacker, six white men beat, stomped, kicked, and stoned him before hanging him from a lamppost.”
In July 2013 there may not be an enactment of July 13-17, 1863, but African-American men remain the target of White men whether they are wearing police uniforms in New York City practicing the infamous “stop and frisk” law or they are in Florida shooting unarmed teenagers under the infamous “stand your ground” law.