… The Draft Riots were consuming New York City (from July 13 – 16, 1863).
It was an ugly chapter in New York City history. The spark was a strict new draft law empowering the President to draft all males between ages 18 and 35 for a three-year term of military service. It also established a loophole whereby a man who paid $300 (or paid a substitute to fight for him) could exempt himself from the service — a natural sore point for those lacking money to buy their way out.
It was a short step from resenting the draft to resenting the city’s African American population. Modern scholars see the riots as a boiling point for a big, noxious stew of tensions — white laborers resentful of black laborers’ competition in the marketplace; decades’ worth of sensational journalism decrying the supposed evils of interracial socializing and marriages. The mob also targeted so-called “amalgamationists,” which mostly meant white women married or cohabiting with black men.
When it was all over, at least 120 citizens were dead (some estimates put the toll much higher), and 50 buildings were destroyed, including, infamously, the Colored Orphan Asylum, whose children were moved to the almshouse on Blackwell’s Island for safety. African Americans bore the brunt of the mob’s fury: citizens were seized by the crowd to be stabbed, lynched, and beaten to death, and the homes of several prominent black citizens were burned.
The Draft Riots have retained a vivid life in the imaginations of novelists and filmmakers. A notable recent example is Martin Scorsese’s film Gangs of New York, which draws heavily on Herbert Asbury’s 1928 account. (More recent scholarship has disagreed with aspects of Asbury’s study, including casualty figures.)
With the Civil War raging, the Draft Riots were a destructive and disturbing convulsion — “equivalent to a Confederate victory,” wrote scholar Samuel Eliot Morrison. Order was restored after three days of violence, but the scars remained in permanent rifts between the black and white working class, and a widespread exodus of black families from once-thriving African-American neighborhoods in Manhattan.
I had a high school teacher whose behavior could be erratic, to put it mildly. He could be a genial, funny, wisecracking sort of guy. But he could lose his temper with a swift intensity that looked damned scary to a clueless freshman.
Any little thing could do it. I do not remember exactly how I set it off the time I was the target. It might have been something like not responding quickly enough when he called on me. Maybe I was grinning at one of his remarks. In five seconds, he went from calm instructor to red-faced and furious, nose-to-nose with me, screaming at the top of his lungs that I’d better not disrespect him again. When he was done, he continued the lesson as if nothing had happened.
Another time he went around the class asking us about our fathers’ military service. He himself had seen combat in the Marines. Where had our fathers served?
“Army,” said one kid.
“You dad was smarter than me,” said my teacher. “Next?”
“Navy,” said the kid next to me.
“Smarter still.” My teacher was on a roll now. He pointed at me. “What about your father?”
“Coast Guard,” I said.
“Smartest guy of all.” Even the most clueless of freshmen knew that this wasn’t a compliment. And indeed, it was a launching point for a five-minute, acerbically humorous riff on easy tours of duty, as compared to other (unspecified) nastier assignments.
I never mentioned any of this to my parents at the time. I wasn’t programmed to bring problems like that home — it was our business to take what the teachers dished out. But also, it was easy to see that the guy had issues with a capital I. The encounter angered but also disturbed me; I wondered what he was really expressing with it.
And years later, after I’d graduated and heard that he’d committed suicide, I was not terribly surprised. We didn’t have a name for it, but even back in the 1970s we were starting to figure out that you could come home from a war only to find the war came home with you.
Memorial Day is when we remember those killed in combat, but I’d also like to remember the ones who came home and never talked about it, who cracked jokes and blew their stacks for no good reason, the ones whom the wars claim again and again, years after the fact. I wish them peace and honor their service.