John E. Wool and the New York City Draft Riots of 1863: A Reassessment

Article excerpt

High above a hill in Oakwood Cemetery at Troy, New York, stands a huge obelisk, a monument to the life of Maj. Gen. John Ellis Wool. At the foot of the structure lies the body of Wool, buried next to his wife, Sarah. Erected by the general's family and friends in New York State's capital district, this impressive final resting place honors the memory of one of the more distinguished American military officers of the nineteenth century who served the United States well in three wars. (1) Born in Newburgh, New York, on February 29, 1784, Wool's career consisted of more than a half-century of vital service to the nation. He first gained accolades at the Battles of Queenston Heights and Plattsburgh during the War of 1812. His greatest military achievement came during the Mexican War, when he trained, supplied, and commanded raw recruits who helped in the defeat of the enemy at the Battle of Buena Vista. By the Civil War, Wool ranked second only to Gen. Winfield Scott in seniority in the Union army. During the war, he received commendations for his role in the capture of Norfolk in 1862 and commanded Fort Monroe during the Peninsula campaign. He headed the Eighth Corps when it was created in July 1862 and was placed in charge of the Department of the East in New York City from January through mid-July 1863. This last military assignment, also the final one of his career, unjustly tarnished the memory of the man who fully deserved the gravesite tribute of his friends.

Despite his illustrious career, Wool's reputation has been permanently sullied because he commanded the Union forces in New York City during the disastrous draft riots of July 1863, among the worst civil disturbances in American history. (2) The draft riots erupted on July 13 and continued unabated for four days and nights. The violence was largely fueled by efforts to enforce Federal conscription policies, which allowed drafted men of privilege to buy a waiver for $300. The first draft lottery was conducted on Saturday, July 11, and a second was scheduled for two days later. On the morning of July 23, a mob gathered, attacking and beating several police officers. The rioters then marched to the provost marshal's office where the draft lottery was taking place and set fire to the building. They cut the telegraph lines and wrecked several street cars. Numbering in the thousands, the mob then attacked public and private property, especially businesses and homes owned by wealthy New Yorkers, leading Republicans, and African Americans. Among the many sites stormed by the rioters were Horace Greeley's New York Tribune building and the Brooks Brothers clothing store. The mob burned down both the provost marshal's office and the Colored Orphan Asylum. At least eleven African Americans were murdered during the rampage. After four days, the riot finally ended when Archbishop John Hughes made an impassioned speech to quell the mob, beseeching them to return to their homes. In all, at least 119 people were killed, and 178 soldiers and police and 128 civilians were wounded. More than $1.5 million in property was damaged or destroyed. (3)

Historian Iver Bernstein has clearly shown that a "multiplicity of grievances" contributed to the disturbance and that the make-up of the mob changed over the course of the riots. The first day, Irish and German immigrants and native-born Americans took to the streets. Laborers, artisans, and even the city's volunteer firemen initially participated. By day two, the rioters tended to be Irish cartmen, quarrymen, and street pavers, as well as workers employed on the docks and in the railroad yards and foundries. By the fourth day, underaged boys joined the melee, contributing their own brand of mischief, destruction, and violence to the rampage. (4)

Though much of the scholarly literature of the draft riots does not focus on Wool's overall command, historians nevertheless have not been kind to the general. They have perpetuated the criticism made by the general's contemporaries, some of whom harbored private agendas. …