The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War

The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War

The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War

The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War

Synopsis

For five days in July 1863, at the height of the Civil War, New York City was under siege. Angry rioters burned draft offices, closed factories, destroyed railroad tracks and telegraph lines, and hunted policemen and soldiers. Before long, the rioters turned their murderous wrath against the black community. In the end, at least 105 people were killed, making the draft riots the most violent insurrection in American history. In this vividly written book, Iver Bernstein tells the compelling story of the New York City draft riots. He details how what began as a demonstration against the first federal draft soon expanded into a sweeping assault against the local institutions and personnel of Abraham Lincoln's Republican Party as well as a grotesque race riot. Bernstein identifies participants, dynamics, causes and consequences, and demonstrates that the "winners" and "losers" of the July 1863 crisis were anything but clear, even after five regiments rushed north from Gettysburg restored order. In a tour de force of historical detection, Bernstein shows that to evaluate the significance of the riots we must enter the minds and experiences of a cast of characters--Irish and German immigrant workers, Wall Street businessmen who frantically debated whether to declare martial law, nervous politicians in Washington and at City Hall. Along the way, he offers new perspectives on a wide range of topics: Civil War society and politics, patterns of race, ethnic and class relations, the rise of organized labor, styles of leadership, philanthropy and reform, strains of individualism, and the rise of machine politics in Boss Tweed's Tammany regime. An in-depth study of one of the most troubling and least understood crises in American history, The New York City Draft Riots is the first book to reveal the broader political and historical context--the complex of social, cultural and political relations--that made the bloody events of July 1863 possible.

Excerpt

I began this project in 1980 on a suspicion that New York's ugly riot against the Civil War draft might tell us much about the intricate and often obscure processes that gave rise to modern urban America. This riot was one of those unusual events important in its own right--it mattered in the war and in the life of the city--and important for its illumination, like a flash of lightning, of a darkened historical landscape. Veiled alliances and animosities, rarely articulated definitions of authority and justice and configurations of power were all disclosed. The Civil War context of the draft riots made the social and political tableaux exposed by the event stand out in bold relief. Because of the wartime preoccupation with national loyalty, any form of participation in or association with the violence was tainted with treason. Inaction was suspect: one had to declare against the rioters to demonstrate loyalty to the government and the war. This charged political climate explained the extraordinary self-consciousness of New Yorkers during the violence. All had to clarify their views and proclaim allegiances. Here, it seemed, a contentious world lay open to view.

The long journey from that suspicion in 1980 to this book was made possible by generous funding from the Graduate School of Yale University, the Mrs. Giles M. Whiting Foundation, the Yale Council on West European Studies, the Stephen Charney Vladeck Fellowship at New York University, the Division of the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago, the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Faculty Research Grant Committee of Washington University, St. Louis.

I am also grateful for the patient attentions and creative suggestions of the librarians and staff of Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University; the New York Public Library; the New-York Historical Society; the New York Municipal Archives and Records Center; the Rare Books and Manuscripts Divisions of Butler Library, Columbia University; Houghton Library, Harvard University; the Tamiment Institute at New York University; the New York State Library, Albany; the National Archives; the Manuscripts and Archives Division of the Library of Congress; the Huntington Library, San Marino, California; and the International Institute for Social History, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Special appreciation is reserved for Idilio Gracia Peña . . .

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