Early New York Riots Considered Worst in American History

By Wellington, Darryl Lorenzo | The Crisis, January/February 2006 | Go to article overview

Early New York Riots Considered Worst in American History


Wellington, Darryl Lorenzo, The Crisis


BOOKS Early New York Riots Considered Worst in American History The Devil's Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America By Barnet Schecter (Walker & Co., $28)

The great American poet Walt Whitman decried the tragedy when he wrote "When I first heard of the riot in New york...I felt it was the devil's own work." Historically, African Americans have suffered more than their fair share from mob violence and state-sanctioned lawlessness. By any measure, however, among the worst incidents of Black disenfranchisement were the murderous 1863 New York draft riots.

Barnet Schecter's The Devil's Own Work gives the most thorough account yet of the riots that consumed New York over the course of four days, costing more than 100 American lives and leaving hundreds more injured, destitute or homeless. The infamous draft riots retain the dubious distinction of having the highest confirmed death toll of any riot in American history - claiming more White and Black casualties than the Tulsa riot of 1921, the Watts riots of 1965 or the Los Angeles riots of 1992.

The story, set against the backdrop of the Civil War, has been told before - buried inside lengthier histories. Schecter puts readers in a time capsule, launching them on a journey back to a world where slavery was still a reality for most Black Americans, and Northerners were divided over their willingness to fight a war to save the Union and end slavery.

It was a time far different from today when our first association with the word "riot" is the image of African Americans destroying their own communities. It was a world in which Black communities lived with the constant threat of massacre, and without hope of legal recourse. Free Black Northern communities were still at the bottom of the social totem pole; when trouble came, they were left to fend for themselves.

From July 13 to July 16 in 1863, Irish laborers in New York went on a literal rampage against the city's Black population. The ostensible cause of the riot was anger over President Abraham Lincoln's institution of a mandatory draft for service in the Civil War. Lincoln's draft law included a clause that any man who could pay $300 would receive an exemption. To impoverished Irish laborers, this made Lincoln's war look like a rich man's war in which only the poor were called to die.

However, to understand why the draft riot violence specifically targeted Black Americans, one must look deeper. Schecter writes "The rioters' rage stemmed as much from the draft as from President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect six months earlier. …

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