Gender, Genre, Race, and Nation: The 1863 New York City Draft Riots

By Rutkowski, Alice | Studies in the Literary Imagination, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Gender, Genre, Race, and Nation: The 1863 New York City Draft Riots


Rutkowski, Alice, Studies in the Literary Imagination


When Martin Scorsese's film Gangs of New York was finally released in 2002 (the film had been in the works since the 1970s (1)), it was met with mixed reviews for its melodramatic vengeance narrative set against the backdrop of Civil War-era New York City. The film was almost universally praised, however, for getting the details of nineteenth-century life in New York City right--for looking and feeling authentic. For example, Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle writes, "With a meticulousness both loving and obsessive, [Scorsese] has resurrected an era that's been buried under concrete for the past century and a half--the gangland days of the mid-19th century. It's the movie's one great achievement and can't be dismissed. Scorsese takes us to a New York we never knew existed and shows us so much we can almost smell it" (D14). A. O. Scott of the New York Times goes even further, linking this attention to detail to a kind of transcendent historical truth: "[Scorsese] wants not only to reconstruct the details of life in a distant era but to construct, from the ground up, a narrative of historical change, to explain how we--New Yorkers, Americans, modern folk who disdain hand-to-hand bloodletting and overt displays of corruption--got from there to here, how the ancient laws gave way to modern ones."

Historians, however, weren't as generous to the film. Timothy Gilfoyle, for instance, excoriates Scorsese for presenting an often muddled and inaccurate historical narrative. The problem isn't that Scorsese took liberties with the facts, since that is the prerogative of artists, Gilfoyle explains, but that "Scorsese sees himself as a historian" (621). By giving subtitles with locations and dates, by showing the audience nineteenth-century engravings, reproductions of broadsides, and Mathew Brady Civil War photographs, Scorsese implies he is rendering history on the screen, not mere entertainment. And this "substitution of myth for history" (623), writes Gilfoyle, is at its worst in the film's representation of the New York City draft riots of July 1863.

Gilfoyle is correct in his characterization. For while the advent of the draft clearly sparked the riots--and is what gives the riots their name--the New York City draft riots were also race riots, a fact difficult to discern in Scorsese's drama about feuding white men. (2) To compensate for a high desertion rate with no end in sight to the war with the South, the United States government announced in early 1863 the institution of a draft for the Union Army for all men aged twenty to thirty-five. To avoid being drafted, a selected man could hire a substitute or a pay a commutation fee of $300. (3) To many, this appeared to place the burden of fighting and dying disproportionately on the backs of the white working poor. (4) There was trouble in a number of Northern cities over this policy, but the worst was in New York City. From July 13-16, 1863, there were four days of escalating mob violence that left over 100 people dead. Property loss has been estimated between $3-5 million--about $60-100 million in today's dollars (Schecter 250). Early in the riot, targets included the draft equipment, the residences of wealthy New Yorkers, and the abolitionist Republican press. But the individuals singled out most often by the mob were black New Yorkers. As Iver Bernstein puts it, the riots were an "extreme, city-wide campaign to erase the post-emancipation presence of the black community" (5). (5) One furious academic even labels Scorsese's film "ethnic cleansing on American soil" for the way it erases the presence of black New Yorkers and the brutal violence to which they were subjected (Justice). This kind of critique also holds true for Scorsese's representation of women (or almost utter lack thereof); if the movie is to be believed, the only job available to women in nineteenth-century New York was prostitution.

If the use of the draft riots has been controversial in the twenty-first century, it was even more so in the nineteenth. …

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