When the Civil War Came to New York ; Irish Immigrants Had No Reason to Fight Mr. Lincoln's War

By Charles, Ron | The Christian Science Monitor, October 17, 2002 | Go to article overview

When the Civil War Came to New York ; Irish Immigrants Had No Reason to Fight Mr. Lincoln's War


Charles, Ron, The Christian Science Monitor


Kevin Baker is quickly altering the landscape of American historical fiction. His first novel, "Dreamland," burst into flames three years ago - a hypnotic portrayal of Coney Island designed to parallel the chaotic city of New York in 1911. His latest, "Paradise Alley," stays on Manhattan, but it moves back to the Civil War, rescuing from national amnesia the worst riot in US history.

Baker's descriptions of New York City could be more pungent only with scratch 'n' sniff inserts. While "Dreamland" rose into the lurid surrealism of the carnival, for this more grounded history, Baker has only to follow the ghastly imagination of the rioters, whose deeds he unearthed in contemporary newspaper accounts. Indeed, this mammoth book threatens Cormac McCarthy's position as the country's most violent novelist.

The enormous story burns for just three days, but it generates so much heat that I expected the pages to disintegrate into ash as I turned them. "Day One" opens on July 13, 1863. A new law has made all able-bodied white men "eligible to be drafted by lot into Mr. Lincoln's army, and shipped south to the war. There to be fed on wormy hardtack, and salt pork, and butchered by incompetent generals while their families try to subsist on begging and government relief." For the thousands of poor Irishmen who've recently escaped starvation, the suppression of Southern rebels seems a distant irrelevancy.

What particularly galls them, though, is the law's provision that any man can buy his way out of military service for $300. The builders, craftsmen, butchers, street sweepers, gasmen, longshoremen, clerks, and unemployed drunks - that is, virtually all the able-bodied men who can't afford to buy substitutes - complain that Lincoln has placed a price on their heads considerably lower than the value of a single Southern slave.

With a million people packed into the tail end of Manhattan, enduring sanitation closer to the first century than to our own, "all that's needed is a match," the narrator notes. Already suspicious in a Protestant country with strong anti-Catholic prejudices, the men collecting nervously in bars and on street corners have no reason to doubt the incendiary rumors from the front:

"I hear the abolitionists is puttin' all the good Irish men in the front lines," one says.

"I hear they're bringin' a hundred thousand freed slaves to the City, to take their jobs."

Those rumors aren't quelled by the fact that men who enlist voluntarily are shipped out in chains to keep them from escaping and returning to collect another signing bonus.

Everyone feels the tension in the air, the static electricity ready to ignite social unrest in a city already charged by strikes and uncontrolled inflation. City government flees, sensing the impending explosion, leaving 2,300 policemen - almost all Irish - to deal with whatever trouble may come from their fellow Irishmen.

Meanwhile, the city's 6,000 firemen, also Irish, serve on a collection of viciously competitive teams. (Sometimes, men from five or six different fire houses fight for hours over an available hydrant while the building they've come to save burns to the ground. …

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