The Battle for New York

Working people in the city had their own miseries to contend with as the war ground on. In the boom’s first flush, jobs had been plentiful, especially for skilled workers, and wages decent even for manual laborers (a dollar a day versus fortythree cents in the army). People had been able to put a little something away in savings banks. But paper money, scarcity of goods, and incessant profiteering led to rampant inflation. Between 1860 and 1863 currency depreciated by 43 percent while wages rose a mere 12 percent. Beef nearly doubled in price; rents jumped 15 to 20 percent, coal went up more than 30 percent.

Wives and children of the absent volunteers found much of the money the Common Council had appropriated for their care rerouted to supplies and troops. As the relief program sagged, women demonstrated at City Hall and the homes of councilmen; in December 1861, when public relief was halted for a time, some two hundred desperate women gathered in Tompkins Square to insist that “you have got me men into the souldiers, and now you have to kepe us from starving.” Community self-help efforts—like a Jones’ Wood “festival” that drew sixty thousand who paid twenty-five cents apiece to aid those widowed and orphaned by the Battle of Bull Run—proved at best temporary expedients.

Shelter was a growing problem. During the war construction of housing declined sharply, just as expanding commercial and industrial operations ate into working-class territory in lower Manhattan. Those displaced jammed into uptown districts like the Fourth Ward (at 290,000 people per square mile, now the most densely populated place on earth), or the teeming East Side and West Side factory districts, or shantytowns above 50th Street, where thousands of squatters lived among the rocks and ravines. Working-class quarters grew steadily more wretched. An 1863 AICP report found the housing “dark, contracted, ill constructed, badly ventilated and disgustingly filthy.” Eighteen thousand lived in cellar apartments with floors of putrid mud.

In response, working people revived the labor movement and pushed for a greater share of wartime profits. In the fall of 1862 the city’s ship joiners and caulkers, coppersmiths, and hat finishers went on strike, launching the “advanced wages movement.” Leather workers in the Swamp walked out, as did men at the Manhattan Gas Works near the East River. By the spring of 1863 there were 133 union locals, up from thirty the previous year. Though small, they did well. When custom tailors went out in March, most first-class shops conceded at once (with the fateful exception of Brooks Brothers). Carpenters, pianomakers, and machinists also struck successfully for higher wages. Three thousand mostly Irish longshoremen walked off work, citing the “enormous prices of every article,” and won an increase, despite the government’s bringing in prisoners from Governors Island to load army transports, protected by troops with fixed bayonets.

Employers and their spokesmen fought back. Horace Greeley, despite his long history of support for working people, insisted that workmen had a right to combine and refuse the wages employers offered but were not entitled to strike. The U.S. Economist and Dry Goods Reporter branded work stoppages as “despotic on the business of their employers.” Labor was a commodity like any other. Its price should be set by the natural laws of supply and demand.

To boost supply and weaken labor’s bargaining ability, employers brought additional workers to the city. Most focused on Europe—during the war Secretary of State Seward’s consuls abroad often acted as emigrant agents—but some, like Peter Cooper, urged Lincoln to send up southern blacks. A Tammany mass meeting censured employer efforts “to bring hoards of Blacks from the South, as well as Whites from Europe, to fill the shops, yards and other places of labor and by that means compel us to compete with them for support of our families.”

Employers also repeatedly hired strikebreakers to defeat the new unions. African American New Yorkers were used in disputes at the Staten Island ferry, the Custom House, and, most particularly, on the waterfront. In March 1863 laborers at the Erie Railroad’s Hudson River docks struck, seeking a share of the company’s vaulting prosperity. The railroad hired blacks to move the cotton bales accumulating at Pier 36 at the foot of Duane Street, until a thousand white strikers drove them off.

Increasingly, white workers argued that blacks had no legitimate claim whatever on laboring jobs. In August 1862 two to three thousand people from predominantly Irish South Brooklyn threatened to burn the Watson and Lorillard tobacco factories at the foot of Sedgwick Street unless several hundred black women and children left the plants. When the companies refused, they besieged the buildings and were only prevented from setting fires to “roast the niggers alive” by the arrival of police.


To these growing strains along class and race lines was added the shock of emancipation. In September 1862, when Lee’s invasion of Maryland was turned back at Antietam, Lincoln used the good news to issue a Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. On January 1, 1863, the Proclamation itself was promulgated, though it freed no slaves, applying as it did only to areas beyond the reach of federal power.

New York City’s blacks and abolitionists were nevertheless ecstatic. At an “Emanci­pation Jubilee” at Cooper Union, Henry Highland Garnet read the Proclamation aloud to a cheering crowd. Lewis Tappan, the now seventy-five-year-old patriarch of the city’s antislavery movement, gave a moving review of the long history of the struggle in what would prove to be his last public appearance.

Black and white abolitionists were considerably less enthusiastic about Lincoln’s zealous campaign to get African Americans to leave the country voluntarily. An emigrationist minority applauded a late 1862 Lincoln-promoted plan to transport five thousand blacks to lie a Vache, a small island off Haiti, until the effort, run under contract by Leonard Jerome and other prominent New York businessmen, proved a disastrous failure. But most New York blacks flatly rejected the colonization project. The Colored Citizens of Queens County notified Lincoln that America was their native country and they had no intention of leaving it. Emancipation, rather, spurred black demands to join the army and fight for the total liberation of the slaves.

Emancipation also roiled the city’s political waters. Republicans had been of two minds on slavery. Many of those who joined up before the war held fast to their moral and cultural repugnance for the institution and followed the “radical” lead of Greeley’s New York Tribune in opposing it and welcoming Lincoln’s commitment to ending it. For the bulk of the old Whigs who had belatedly clambered aboard the Republican Party and nested in its “conservative” wing, where they took their political cues from Henry Raymond’s editorial page, the war had little to do with slavery. As the Times argued: “The issue is between anarchy and order,—between Government and lawlessness,—between the authority of the Constitution and the reckless will of those who seek its destruction.” Still, most conservative Republicans went along with the president on emancipation, with varying degrees of enthusiasm or distaste, accepting it as a necessary wartime measure that would expedite restoration of the Union.

Democrats were more thoroughly divided, much as they had been before the fighting broke out. “War Democrats”—who included prominent businessmen and the bulk of Tammany Hall politicians, among them Tweed—favored fighting on to victory but opposed partisan Republican legislation and the Lincoln administration’s erosion of civil rights. “Peace Democrats,” rooted in Fernando Wood’s Mozart Hall, wanted to restore the Union as it had existed before the war, with slavery intact, though a more extreme wing was prepared to accept peace without reunion. These divisions had already cost their party the mayoralty in 1861, when Tammany’s C. Godfrey Gunther and Mozart’s Wood divided the Democratic vote, allowing Republican George Opdyke—a wealthy dry-goods importer, banker, and broker and a leader in the Union Defense Committee—to capture City Hall with barely more than one-third of the vote. This had led to various overtures looking toward restoration of party unity.

But emancipation appalled the Peace Democrats, who saw it as a fundamental alteration of war aims. They now hoisted a militantly antiwar banner, under which gathered old Democrats unhappy with wartime Republican domination, merchants and financiers disturbed at the increasing power of the national state, and considerable numbers of white working-class people angry at wartime inequities.

Emancipation also alienated the Catholic Church hierarchy. Up till then Archbishop Hughes had been friendly with the administration, especially Seward, his old ally on the education issue. Hughes had even served as Lincoln’s semiofficial envoy to the Vatican and to France (he met with Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie), where he pleaded the Union cause and urged nonrecognition of the Confederacy. But emancipation alarmed conservative men who had long argued slavery was an evil to be borne, that abolitionism smacked of a revolutionary violation of property rights, and that the antislavery movement was inextricably linked to militant nativist Protestants.

In the fall 1862 elections, after the Preliminary Proclamation, Peace Democrats bid for power. In the city, ex-mayor Wood and his supporters denounced the administration as “fanatical, imbecile, and corrupt” and openly urged resistance to emancipation. At the state level, Peace Democrat Horatio Seymour (allied to New York Central Railroad interests) adopted a similar stance, favoring restoration of the Union by granting all possible concessions to the South. Both resorted to a shrill racism, protesting that emancipation substituted “niggerism for nationality.” In the context of growing unhappiness with the costs of the war, Democrats carried every ward in the city, Wood won a congressional seat, and Seymour captured the governorship.

The peace movement continued to build after the full Proclamation was issued. On February 6, 1863, at Delmonico’s, a group of Democratic and ex-nativist businessmen led by financier August Belmont launched the Society for the Diffusion of Political Knowledge. Other luminaries included the venerable Samuel F. B. Morse (president), Governor Seymour, and corporate attorney Samuel J. Tilden. The organization published antiwar and antiemancipation tracts in which they suggested that freeing the slaves would ruin the South (and indirectly the North) by undermining its ability to compete with slave economies like Brazil or Cuba. Pamphleteers attacked the rising war debt, the government’s military strategy, and the Republican Party’s centralizing project and agitated for a negotiated peace and a revocation of emancipation. Belmont also promoted these ideas in the New York World, a newspaper edited by twenty-seven-year-old Manton Marble, which he, Tilden, and other rich Democrats underwrote.

In addition, in his capacity as Democratic Party national chairman, Belmont began grooming the cashiered General George McClellan to challenge Lincoln in 1864. After being fired, McClellan moved to New York City and began working with Chairman Belmont on building a presidential candidacy. He took with him as his aide Lieutenant George Armstrong Custer, who now received his first introduction to the financial, political, and journalistic elite of the metropolis.

While the Society for the Diffusion of Political Knowledge took the (relatively) high road, the popular press launched a gloves-off campaign that mixed racism, solidarity with labor, attacks on war profiteers, and, increasingly, calls for peace. At various points the Lincoln administration banned “Copperhead” papers from the mails. Republican infringements of civil liberties generated more support for Peace Democrats. The Lincoln administration suspended habeas corpus and arrested or detained hundreds. In New York City political prisoners were housed in Fort Lafayette, just off the Brooklyn shore from Fort Hamilton. When Ohio Democrat Clement L. Vallandigham was indicted for seditious oratory, Fernando Wood chaired a meeting at Cooper Institute in his support.

June 1863 was the high point of antiwar activism in the city. Wood held a massive Peace Convention at Cooper Union on June 3—of which James Gordon Bennett’s Her-ald approved, auguring a new respectability—and orators pounded home the ideas that the war was a rich man’s fight, that it was undermining the Constitution, and that it would flood the North with southern blacks.

Few of New York’s wealthy backed Wood’s movement. Nor, despite the Peace Democrats’ intensive efforts at wooing urban workmen, did any laboring organizations or leaders “go Coppery.” Rather the surging peace movement alarmed and galvanized prowar activists. “Two years ago,” one wrote, “you could walk the entire length of Broadway without stepping on a snake,” whereas now “New York swarms with Copperheads” engaged in the “slimy errand” of helping rebellion. Three Sanitary Commission leaders—Strong the lawyer, Olmsted the intellectual, and Bellows the minister—called for a hard-line organization to combat Copperheadism. They were worried that Wood and Belmont’s operations might mislead Europeans into assuming the wealth and culture of the American metropolis were arrayed with the rebellion. Strong wanted to show France and England that the war was “not waged by the rabble of the North, or by politicians, but that the intelligent, cultured, gentlemanly caste sustains it.”

Dismissing Belmont and his crowd as “vulgar parvenus,” Olmsted and friends set out to form a club of “descendants and almsbearers of the old dukes of our land.” Launched on February 24, 1863, the new Union League Club included pedigreed New Yorkers, leading literati, and sixty-six of the business elite, among them Robert Minturn, the city’s top shipping merchant, who became the club’s first president. By May it had 350 members, including (in Strong’s words) the leading “representatives of capital and commerce.” By war’s end the Union League Club embraced eight hundred of the city’s most wealthy and well established merchants, lawyers, bankers, and professionals. The club leased, redecorated, and strung telegraph lines into an elegant house on Broadway and 17th Street, facing Union Square. It quickly became the place to banquet visiting dignitaries and meet to run the war effort.

The Union League Club quickly took on the Peace Democrats, setting up a Loyal Publication Society. Over the next two years, it distributed, to the army and civilians alike, nine hundred thousand copies of ninety pamphlets (in German and French as well as English). Fierce nationalists, the club members argued that only a strong central state could win the war and establish continental prosperity. In 1863 Olmsted proposed establishing a magazine to spread this gospel, to be called, appropriately enough, the Nation.For the moment, however, it relied on Harper’s Weekly, which George William Curtis took over in 1863 and brought into the Republican camp. Locally, the Union League Club established the Loyal National League, which organized committees in each ward to mobilize mass support and held rallies at Cooper Institute or in Union and Madison squares.


In mid-1863, with the city rancorously divided, Confederates invaded the North. On June 27 Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia moved up the Shenandoah Valley, crushed the Union garrison at Winchester, and crossed over the Potomac, and by June 29 it was within ten miles of Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania. Thousands of troops poured out of New York City to join General George Meade’s army, which, on July 1, engaged Lee at the town of Gettysburg.

The emergency left the city virtually stripped of defenses. General John Wool, commander of the army’s Department of the East, reported to Governor Seymour that he had only 550 men in eight forts and almost no military vessels in the harbor. The city was wide open to invasion by southern ironclads. If Lee eluded Meade he could be in Jersey City, and at New York’s throat, in a matter of days.

To make matters worse—far worse—it was at just this moment that the federal government’s new draft law was to go into effect. Back in March, reacting to heavy loss­es, dwindling recruitment, and soaring desertion rates, Congress had passed the National Conscription Act. The legislation authorized government agents to go houseto-house, enrolling all men aged twenty to thirty-five (and all unmarried men thirty-five to forty-five), and then hold a lottery to choose draftees from this pool. The law also created federal provost marshals in each congressional district and gave them unprecedented power to summarily arrest draft evaders, draft resisters, and deserters. Finally, in a crude assertion of class privilege, the law provided that draftees could provide a substitute to fight in their place or pay three hundred dollars—a prohibitive sum for working people—for the government to use as a recruiting bounty. In short order an advertisement, appearing daily in New York City newspapers, announced that “gentlemen will be furnished promptly with substitutes by forwarding their orders to the office of the Merchants, Bankers and General Volunteer Association.”

This was not a popular law in New York. It represented, together with emancipation and the new tariff and banking laws, yet another massive increase in the intrusion of the federal government into the city’s communities, workplaces, even households. It did not go unnoted that the three-thousand-dollar shawl A. T. Stewart had imported for Secretary Chase’s daughter now represented the price of ten men’s lives. The argument advanced by Republican organs like the Times and Harper’s—that businessmen had to stay home and run production—failed to convince many Boweryites.

The enrollment process proceeded peaceably enough in May and June, in part because leading Democrats like Governor Seymour vowed to initiate legal challenges to the act’s constitutionality. Seymour also argued, correctly as it turned out, that Republicans had set unfairly high quotas for the heavily Democratic metropolis. Other voices counseled harsher tactics. The editor of the Catholic Metropolitan Record, John Mullaly, encouraged armed resistance. Even Seymour, at a mass protest meeting on July 4 at the Academy of Music, used words he would later regret, telling the crowd: “Remember this—that the bloody and treasonable and revolutionary doctrine of public necessity can be proclaimed by a mob as well as by a government.” On July 4 news of the Union victory at Gettysburg began to trickle in over the telegraph wire, but the general jubilation was tempered by reports of the heavy casualties among local soldiers.

One week later, on Saturday, July 11, the lottery commenced. Seymour had failed even to get it postponed. Anticipating trouble, and still without military resources to back up the police, the authorities chose to begin the process on the city’s periphery, at the Ninth District Headquarters on Third Avenue and 47th Street, an area of vacant lots and isolated buildings. It went reasonably well. While a large but good-tempered crowd watched, the provost marshal read off names drawn from a large barrel. By late afternoon, 1,236 draftees had been selected, at which point the office closed, leaving the remainder of the two-thousand-man quota to be filled two days later.

The next morning, working-class families pored over the names published in the Sunday papers. In bars and taverns around the city, men discussed their response over glasses of whisky, and large numbers of working-class wives and mothers (the Heraldreported) “mingled their wildest denunciations against the conscription law.” A variety of protest activities were decided upon for the next day, Monday, July 13.


Between six and seven in the morning, four hours before the lottery was scheduled to begin again, hundreds of workers from the city’s railroads, machine shops, shipyards, and iron foundries, together with building and street laborers working for uptown contractors, began to stream up the West Side along Eighth and Ninth avenues. Beating copper pans as if they were gongs—a tactic familiar from labor protests—they closed shops, factories, and construction sites, moved on to a brief meeting in Central Park, and then marched, with NO DRAFT placards aloft, toward the provost marshal’s office on Third Avenue. There they linked up with downtown committees, which, in similar fashion, had closed Allaire’s, the great novelty works on 14th Street, and a dozen or more foundries and machine shops along the East Side waterfront. At 10:30, with a huge crowd gathered outside, the selection process started up, guarded by sixty hurriedly gathered police.

At this point another group arrived: the Black Joke Engine Company No. 33, in full regalia. The volunteer firemen, enraged at having lost their traditional exemption from military service, had decided over the weekend not only to halt the proceedings but to destroy all evidence that members of their unit had been drafted. They stoned the building, drove off the police, smashed the draft wheel, poured turpentine everywhere, fired the structure, and then drove away the arriving fire companies.

Word of all this reached the provost marshal’s general bureau headquarters. A thirty-two man squad of the Invalid Corps (composed of wounded or disabled veterans reassigned to light guard duties) was dispatched uptown on a Third Avenue horsecar through jeering and ever thicker crowds. Finally they were ordered to detrain, form a line across the avenue, and march north toward the burning draft office. When they reached 43rd Street they were met with a fusillade of paving stones. They broke and ran. A similar experience awaited Police Superintendent John Kennedy. On hearing of the attack he hurried most of the way uptown by buggy, then tried to walk the remainder of the way up Lexington through the now huge throngs around the Ninth District Office. After he was identified by a former policeman, the crowd beat Kennedy about the head until he was unrecognizable.

By now the day had grown hot and humid; it made one feel “as if you had washed yourself in molasses and water,” one participant recalled. The streets fumed with the usual rotting debris and excrement, the stench worsened by the stifling heat and humidity. Tremendous numbers of people poured out of the tenements. Crowd members began to isolate the area, cutting down telegraph poles that connected local police precincts to the Central Office. They stopped Second and Third Avenue Railroad cars. New Haven commuter trains were stoned, then Irish women crowbarred up the tracks of the Fourth Avenue line above 42nd Street. Rioters pulled down fences surrounding vacant lots to make clubs. The skirmishes spread into the east 40s around Third and Lexington. As small isolated detachments of police reserves were sent into the area they were routed and stomped, their bodies stripped, their faces smashed. Homes suspected of giving refuge to fleeing policemen were burned. Fury at the Metropolitans, banked for years, blazed up viciously.

Targets identifiable as Republican came under attack. A crowd entered the Columbia College grounds on Fifth Avenue at 49th Street, knocked on the door of President Charles King’s house demanding to know if a Republican lived there, and were stopped from burning the building down only by the intervention of two Catholic priests. Farther down Fifth, a crowd menaced Republican Mayor Opdyke’s house until dissuaded by Democrats. Sumptuous Fifth Avenue mansions were sacked, looted, and burned. George Templeton Strong, watching the stoning of a house on Lexington off 45th rumored (wrongly) to be Horace Greeley’s, concluded that “the beastly ruffians were masters of the situation and of the city.”

Some of the crowd now hived off downtown toward an armory at 21st Street and Second Avenue, really a rifle factory operated by a son-in-law of Mayor Opdyke, which contained a thousand weapons. The rioters so far had had few guns. The Broadway Squad arrived to defend the armory but soon found themselves surrounded and stoned by thousands of men and women. Strong, who had followed along, depicted a crowd of Irish day laborers, including “low Irish women, stalwart young vixens and withered old hags. . . all cursing the ‘bloody draft’ and egging on their men to mischief.” Finally they stormed and occupied it around four P.M. and began carrying off carbines. When police reinforcements arrived, the crowd torched the building, trapping some rioters inside on the upper floors; of the thirteen who died at the armory, ten perished in the fire.

At about the same time, an ugly second front opened up across town, as crowds hitherto focused on rich whites turned their fury on poor blacks. Patrick Merry, an Irish cellar digger, led two to three hundred men and boys down Broadway to West 29th Street where, at five o’clock, they burned the deserted Eighth District provost marshal’s office. Then they began attacking homes of African Americans in the west 30s. The race riot had gotten under way.

Bands of Irish longshoremen, with quarrymen, street pavers, teamsters, and cartmen following along, began chasing blacks, screaming, “Kill all niggers!” Blacks were dragged off streetcars and stages around City Hall. The owner of a colored sailors’ boardinghouse on Roosevelt Street in the Fourth Ward was robbed and stripped, his building fired. Maria Prince’s boardinghouse in Sullivan Street was trashed, as rioters dug up paving stones, smashed the windows, and ransacked it. A crowd tried to attack black waiters at Crook’s Restaurant in Chatham Street but was repulsed. Uptown, at Fifth Avenue and 43rd, rioters attacked the Colored Orphan Asylum, screaming, “Burn the niggers’ nest.” The 237 children (most under twelve years old) escaped—young Paddy McCafferty heroically shepherding them to the 20th Precinct house—while the crowd smashed pianos, carried off carpets and iron bedsteads, uprooted the trees, shrubs, and fences, then set the building ablaze. Crowds would attack other moral reform projects, even those not associated with blacks. They stoned the Magdalene Asylum on Fifth at 88th Street and burned down the Five Points Mission.

When night fell, the racial assaults worsened. Some blacks were attacked on the corner of Varick and Charlton streets by a crowd led by an Irish bricklayer. One of the pursued turned, shot the bricklayer with a pistol, and escaped; the maddened crowd grabbed one of the others, lynched him, and then burned the corpse. Gangs attacked and torched waterfront tenements, dance houses, brothels, bars, and boardinghouses that catered to black workingmen. Furniture was burned in sidewalk bonfires. Bands of small boys would mark the victims’ houses by stoning windows, then return with older men to finish the job. Racially mixed couples, white women who consorted with blacks—anyone who defied taboos on “amalgamation” was specially targeted. By midweek rioters had virtually emptied the downtown waterfront of blacks.

That same evening crowds moved toward the intellectual heartland of Republicanism, Newspaper Row, across from City Hall Park, where Greeley’s Tribune and Raymond’s Times had their headquarters. Raymond had used his influence to get Gatling guns from the army, which he set up in the north windows. Raymond manned one himself; millionaire speculator Leonard Jerome, a leading Times shareholder, took another. The crowd, led by a waiter from Astor House, attacked the less well defended Tribune, which had barricaded itself with bales of printing paper. They stoned the building, broke in, and started a fire but were driven off by police brought in from the quiet Brooklyn precincts.



Lynching on Clarkson Street, from Harper’s Weekly, July 21, 1863. (© Museum of the City of New York)

Meanwhile, a debate had broken out among the authorities about how to respond to the upheaval. During the day, Mayor Opdyke’s approach of dispatching small bands of police to the uptown working-class wards had proven drastically counterproductive; it had enraged the crowds and provoked massive and murderous retaliation. Now Strong and some Union League Club colleagues proposed another strategy. They hurried over to the St. Nicholas Hotel, where General Wool had established his headquarters, and begged him to declare martial law and summon federal troops to enforce it. Wool refused, though he did order troops moved in from Fort Hamilton to assist the police. Disgusted, Strong and the others telegraphed Lincoln directly, asking for troops, and then went to the home of David Dudley Field in Gramercy Park, where friends gathered with muskets.

At eleven P.M., drenching, cooling rain brought the day to a close.


As Tuesday dawned hot and dry, crowds crystallized all over the city, broke into gun shops to arm themselves, and launched firefights against a variety of targets. Far from being random anarchic outbursts, the attacks focused on those in command of the new industrial and political order.

Rioters swept the streets clear of wealthy individuals—readily identifiable by their clothes and bearing. (“There goes a $300 man!” “Down with the rich men!”) They attacked genteel homes and trashed (more often than stole) the fancy furniture.

They lit into Republican enterprises. Crowds attacked and sacked Brooks Brothers, hated for being hard employers and shoddy contractors, went after German clothing stores along Grand Street, and would have marched on Wall Street had it not been the best-defended area in the entire city. Customs House workers prepared bombs with forty-second fuses. Employees of the Bank Note Company readied tanks of sulfuric acid to spill on attackers. At the Sub-Treasury Building on the corner of Nassau Street, guns and bottles of vitriol were passed out to employees stationed at windows, troops with howitzers were stationed nearby, and a gunboat was anchored at the foot of Wall Street.

The crowds, particularly the women, beat policemen and soldiers, the agents of upper-class and federal power. After Colonel Henry O’Brien of the Eleventh New York Volunteers used a howitzer to clear Second Avenue and killed a woman bystander and a child, the crowds (when they found him the next day) beat his face to a pulp, then stripped, tortured, and shot him in the head and hung his broken body from a lamppost.

Rioters began erecting barricades, cordoning off their waterfront neighborhoods from center-island bourgeois districts. On the East Side, industrial metal trades workers used cut-down telegraph poles, carts, wagons, lumber, boxes, bricks, and rubbish to run a line along First Avenue (particularly solid from 11th to 14th streets) and along Third Avenue on up to 26th Street—areas with high concentrations of large metal-working establishments. On the West Side, waterfront laborers drew their lines along Ninth Avenue, most solidly from 36th to 42nd streets, from where they could dominate most of the Upper West Side. To hinder the summoning of outside reinforcements, they cut telegraph lines—as Indians did out west—and assaulted ferry slips and railroads.

Rioters also pursued the race war. Brandishing poles and clubs, they hunted blacks on the streets, mauled them along the docks, went after black workers in restaurants and hotels. They attacked black homes and stores around Bleecker and Carmine streets, except where blacks tore down chimneys for bricks to hurl at attackers or, as in Minetta Lane, guarded their homes with guns.


Sacking Brooks Brothers Clothing Store at Catherine and Cherry Streets, from Harper’s Weekly, August 1, 1863. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

Divisions now appeared in the rioters’ ranks. Many original protesters had envisioned at most a one-day antidraft demonstration, and certainly not a general onslaught on private property. Large numbers of them—particularly the Germans, though many Irish Catholics and native Protestants as well—abandoned violence and even joined with the authorities. Squads of Turnverein and Schutzenverein patrolled the streets of Kleindeutschland. Volunteer fire companies (including the Black Joke men who had started the riot) turned out to defend their neighborhoods against riot and arson. Crowds, at times led by Irish priests like Father Treanor of Transfiguration, intervened to halt lynch mobs.

While the battle raged on the streets, two sharply opposed factions within the city’s upper classes argued over how to respond to the uprising. On one side were those businessmen and Democratic officials who, in effect, treated the riots as an appeal to elites to respect and protect customary working-class rights and privileges. Governor Seymour dispatched gentlemen and clergymen to negotiate face-to-face with the crowds, displaying the confidant paternalism of the old upper class. On Tuesday morning he himself, flanked by Tammany leaders A. Oakey Hall and William Tweed, pledged a large crowd at City Hall (whom he addressed as “My Friends”) that he would work for postponement of or relief from the draft, while repudiating violence.

Republican journals, merchants, financiers, and industrialists saw the riot as a fullscale challenge to the political and social order at precisely the moment when—given the Union’s doubtful military prospects—such an uprising might actually precipitate European intervention. Their prescription was simple: “Crush the mob!” howled Tuesday’s Times. Merchants and bankers gathered at Wall Street to demand federal imposition of martial law, “an immediate and terrible” display of federal power.


Rioters and militia fighting at the barricades on First Avenue, from The Illustrated London News, August 15, 1863. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

At noon Mayor Opdyke asked Secretary of War Stanton for troops. Stanton complied that evening, but had the request come even a day earlier it would have put him in a difficult spot. After Gettysburg, Lee’s army, wounded and dangerous, had remained in the area, and Union forces had been tied down in blocking a possible move northward. As it happened, Lee escaped south across the Potomac the night of Monday the thirteenth, leaving Stanton free to divert five regiments.

Troops began arriving Wednesday evening, a day of atrocities during which crowds had hanged, drowned, and mutilated black men, looted and burned black homes up and down Sixth Avenue, and attacked Republican mansions and Protestant missions. In Brooklyn hundreds of men, including some disgruntled ex-employees, invaded the Atlantic Docks and burned two of the hated grain elevators, and along the East River north and east of Fulton Street, blacks were beaten and killed, their houses ransacked and destroyed.

Promptly on arrival, the soldiers from Pennsylvania took up arms against the rioters, aided by volunteer companies set up by merchants and bankers who mobilized their employees. Fighting continued all Wednesday night and throughout the next day. Troops assaulted “infected” districts, using howitzers loaded with grapeshot and canister (primitive fragmentation bombs) to mow down rioters and engaged in fierce building-by-building firefights. Rioters defended their barricaded domains with mad desperation. Faced with tenement snipers and brick hurlers, soldiers broke down doors, bayoneted all who interfered, and drove occupants to the roofs, from which many jumped to certain death below.

By Thursday evening it was all over. The city filled with six thousand troops. Seventh Regiment pickets manned Third Avenue. The Eighth Regiment Artillery Troop trained mountain howitzers on streets around Gramercy Park. The 152nd New York Volunteers set up camp in Stuyvesant Square. By Friday telegraph lines were being repaired, West Side rails relaid. Omnibuses and horsecars ran. Laborers returned to work. It was over.


Contemporaries believed that a thousand people had died, though in the end only a body count of 119 could be verified. To participants, no doubt, it had seemed like another Gettysburg; perhaps the tremendous death tolls on the battlefields made overstatements credible. But even adopting the smaller number, the New York City draft riots had been the largest single incident of civil disorder in the history of the United States.

The response to the riots was relatively mild, certainly not on a par with the bloody reaction to the earlier 1848 uprisings in Paris. There were no mass sentencings, no mass executions of rioters, though some of the Union League crowd thirsted for all-out reprisals. George Templeton Strong declared: “I would like to see war made on Irish scum as in 1688.” Herman Melville, who would move back to New York City from his tranquil Berkshire retreat that fall, conjured up similar images in his poem “The House Top, a Night Piece, July 1863,” which concluded that “the town is taken by its rats.”

The images haunting Republican minds—of barbaric, subhuman savages tearing down a civilized city—certainly invited retribution, but Republicans were not in charge, War Democrats were. Republicans had asked Lincoln to declare martial law and install General Benjamin F. Butler as military governor (they applauded his rigorous suppres­sion of treason during an 1862 stint running New Orleans). But Lincoln feared alienating conservative Democrats and perhaps provoking the New York City regiments who had loyally done riot duty but might well balk at imposing Republican military rule. Rejecting the advice of Republican hard-liners, the president turned military control of New York over to General John Adams Dix, a Democrat (and financier) of impeccable credentials, appointing him commander of the Department of the East.

This strategy also required, and received, the cooperation of Tammany Hall and its chairman and grand sachem, William Tweed. Tammany, whose patriotic prowar credentials were well established, denounced transgressions against property and lawlessness, while at the same time signaling its willingness, and demonstrating its ability, to protect local rioters from excessive federal vengeance. Tammanyite District Attorney A. Oakey Hall and Recorder John T. Hoffman indicted and prosecuted the rioters vigorously, becoming in the process among the most popular politicians of the era, though the postriot trials they directed through August and September eventually let most offenders off, and of the sixty-seven who were convicted, only a handful got lengthy jail terms.

Meanwhile, Dix ordered a formidable show of force and started up the draft machinery again. Ten thousand federal troops from Meade’s army were brought in, including three batteries of artillery from the Virginia front. Battalions bivouacked in Madison and Washington squares. Squads marched up and down city streets. Republicans were pleased at the display. When the selection process began again on August 19, this time in the Republican stronghold of Greenwich Village, perfect peace reigned in the metropolis.

As well it might have, for the Democrats had completely defanged the draft. Governor Seymour and Samuel J. Tilden had gotten the Lincoln administration to reduce the quota from twenty-six to twelve thousand men. The Democrat-controlled Common Council appropriated three million dollars to pay bounties and relief to anyone drafted, but Mayor Opdyke vetoed it (even as his own son, conscripted, bought his way out). The Board of Supervisors then created its own Exemption Committee and appropriated two million dollars with which it could buy substitutes for poor men with dependent families and for municipal service workers (police, fire, militia), virtually guaranteeing that few conscripts who did not want to serve would be compelled to do so. On this crucial committee, dispensing life and money, sat William Tweed.

In the riot’s aftermath, the mass of the Irish and German working class began to disassociate themselves from Peace Democrats. That fall Seymour was replaced in the governor’s mansion by Republican Reuben Fenton, and the following year Wood lost his seat in Congress, though antiwar sympathy remained powerful enough to vote fur merchant, pacifist, and dissident Democrat C. Godfrey Gunther into City Hall. Not until 1865 would enough of the electorate rally decisively enough behind Tammany’s red, white, and blue banner to elect Tweed’s candidate, John Hoffman, to the mayor’s office.

Blocked from vengeance, Republicans got back at the rioters more indirectly, at first through their principled support for the rioters’ African-American victims. During the riot itself, many Protestant clergymen had courageously given blacks refuge, and merchant families had protected their servants. But blacks needed more organized assistance. Many had fled the city permanently—throughout the summer, one could still see blacks walking north up the Hudson along the railroad tracks—resulting in a 20 percent drop in their numbers in the metropolis, to 9,945 in 1865. But many, an estimated five thousand, were still camped in temporary havens (Blackwell’s Island, police stations) or on the outskirts of the city (the hills, woods, and swamps of New Jersey; the barns and outhouses of farmers in eastern Brooklyn or Morrisania; the African-American communities of Weeksville and Carrsville, whose armed residents had taken in hundreds of refugees).

The week after the riots, William Dodge and others established the Merchants’ Committee for the Relief of the Colored People Suffering from the Late Riots. At a central receiving depot on East 4th Street, they handed out clothing and money to almost six thousand black laborers, longshoremen, and female servants. Setting aside their usual insistence on discriminating between worthy and undeserving recipients, the Merchants’ Committee turned the evaluation procedure over to the Rev. Garnet. The merchants thus demonstrated acceptance of their paternal responsibility to their “loyal” dependents, the churchgoing, respectable black poor, who, unlike the Catholic Irish, shared their language and culture. Indeed some efforts were made to have the upper classes reverse their recent hiring practices and employ black rather than Irish servants.

In a far more satisfying response to rioters, Republicans gave blacks not alms but guns. At one point during the upheaval, when Union League members huddled impotently in their barricaded headquarters, they vowed that if they escaped alive they would send a regiment of black troops to the front, first marching them through the very streets then ruled by the rioters. Now they made good their pledge. By December 19, 1863, they had formed the thousand-man-strong Twentieth Regiment United States Colored Troops, billeted it on Rikers Island, and begun building the Twentysixth.

The Union League Club and the black community’s moment of triumph came on March 5, 1864. The Twentieth, clad in Union blue, disembarked at East 36th Street and marched with muskets and fixed bayonets to a gigantic rally in Union Square. There Charles King, the Columbia College president whose house had come close to being incinerated during the riots, addressed the officers and men. He presented them with a flag and a parchment scroll inscribed by the club members’ “Mothers, Wives and Sisters” (names including Astor, Beekman, Fish, Jay, and Van Rensselaer). From there the regiment, led by the now recovered Superintendent Kennedy and a force of a hundred Metropolitans, marched down Broadway, past applauding throngs, to the Canal Street dock, where it boarded a steamer bound for New Orleans. The Times rejoiced, noting that where “eight months ago the African race in this City were literally hunted down like wild beasts,” now they marched in solid platoons “with waving handkerchiefs, with descending flowers, and with the acclamations and plaudits of countless beholders.”

Countless other beholders watched too, infuriated but helpless. The Herald was livid at the “miscegenation” represented by the “daughters of Fifth Avenue” presenting the black troops their regimental colors. Nor was the point of the black and upperclass alliance lost on the Workingmen’s United Political Association, which asserted: “The very object of arming the negroes is based on the instinctive idea of using them to put down the white laboring classes.” Many upper-class conservatives, like Maria L. Daly, wife of a Democratic judge, were distressed at the move to punish the Irish and support the blacks. She was “very sorry and much outraged at the cruelties inflicted,” Daly wrote, but added: “I hope it will give the Negroes a lesson, for since the war commenced, they have been so insolent as to be unbearable. I cannot endure free blacks. They are immoral with all their piety.”


The Twentieth U. S. Colored Infantry presented with its colors, March 5, 1864, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, March 26, 1864. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

More pragmatic whites came to accept the idea of black enlistment. When General Thomas F. Meagher gave a banquet for veterans of the Irish Brigade at Irving Hall in January 1864, they hailed a new song written by Charles Graham Halpine. An Irishborn journalist, Halpine, while serving as an officer in the Sixty-ninth, had begun publishing morale-raising minstrel-type pieces for the Irish American featuring the fictional hero “Private Miles O’Reilly of the Forty-seventh New York Volunteers.” In his latest ditty, titled “Sambo’s Right to Be Kilt,” the final stanza went:

Though Sambo’s black as the ace of spades,

His finger a thrigger can pull,

And his eye runs sthraight on the barrel-sights

From undher its thatch of wool.

So hear me all, boys darlin’,

Don’t think I’m tippin’ you chaff,

The right to be kilt we’ll divide wid him,

And give him the largest half!

These proved to be prescient verses, in that black soldiers would experience ferocious discrimination in the ranks. Until the war’s end they got paid less, collected no federal bounties, obtained little help for their families from the government, seldom became officers, were organized in segregated regiments, and were assigned largely to menial labor—though an incredible 37 percent of their total number would die. Nor did the administration hasten to protect black soldiers who surrendered to Confederate forces from being butchered on the spot or sold into slavery. Despite all this, New York’s African Americans signed up at a rate twice that the army had forecast, inspired by their antislavery convictions, and for some military service would provide unprecedented opportunities for exercising leadership.

The episode of the black troops was satisfyingly cathartic, but it was clear to upperclass reformers that a longer-term response to the upheavals was necessary. The Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, now presided over by James Brown of the Brown Brothers banking and trading firm, asserted that the riots proved beyond all doubt the existence of a “dangerous class” in New York City. The “terrible demonstration written in blood” required renewed elite attention to the task of “moral and physical elevation of these ignorant, semi-brutalized masses.”

A Citizens Association was founded. Presided over by popular War Democrat Peter Cooper, it included industrialists and merchants of different party backgrounds, from Democrat August Belmont to conservative Republicans Hamilton Fish and William Dodge. The association, picking up on prewar approaches, called for environmentalist reforms like housing legislation, noting that the rioters had come from overcrowded quarters, but these initiatives would not really begin to take effect until after the war was over.


The draft riots would leave long-term scars, but in the short run their impact was overriden by the war boom, which roared on unabated, offering countless ways of making fabulous amounts of money.

Trading with the enemy—an old New York City staple—again became big business. Congress had legalized trading in cotton with the rebel states, and by late in the war, despite outcries from Union generals, cotton purchased in the Confederacy for twelve to twenty cents a pound in gold was selling in the North for $1.90 per pound. The Treasury Department licensed factors to do the deals. Thurlow Weed, the powerful Republican politician, could ensure that licenses flowed to traders willing to cut him in. Weed also helped those who shipped bales illegally, and eventually hundreds of thousands of them flowed into New York from captured Confederate towns like Memphis, Vicksburg, and New Orleans.

Land speculation reaped great bounties. The Homestead Act permitted the sale of unsurveyed land at $1.25 an acre, and syndicates of New York businessmen took up millions of acres. The government also handed out vast tracts of public land to railroad corporations to encourage development; General Dix’s Union Pacific did particularly well in this regard.

Stockbrokers engaged in frenzied profit-taking. “Money is pouring into Wall Street from all parts of the country,” wrote the Herald, a scant two weeks after the draft riots. By 1864 the old system of auction trading could no longer accommodate the flood of business. A breakaway group of brokers established the Long Room on Broad Street, where stocks could be traded continuously and hundreds of transactions could take place simultaneously. In addition, “curb brokers” (also known as “guttersnipes”) traded in the streets from after the New York Stock Exchange’s five P.M. closing until the sun went down. One businessman opened an Evening Exchange, providing the only place in the world where securities could be traded twenty-four hours a day.

Stock manipulation reached new heights, best exemplified by the great Harlem Corner, which culminated just after the riots. Commodore Vanderbilt had discovered that the charter of the old Harlem Railroad gave it the right (with the approval of the Common Council) to lay tracks anywhere in the city. Vanderbilt took control of the company and set out to build a line down the full length of Broadway. Secret negotiations brought the aldermen on board: they bought chunks of Harlem stock, approved the franchise, and watched happily as their shares surged from 60 to 116. But then, foolishly, the aldermen decided to doublecross the Commodore. They sold Harlem short—betting that the stock would go down—then rescinded the franchise, and the price plummeted. Before they could take their profits, however, Vanderbilt and his partner, Leonard Jerome, reentered the market and bought up every share of Harlem in sight until they had it all—had “cornered the market.” In August, when Harlem peaked at 179, the bleeding bears were forced to take disastrous losses.

Great profits were made gambling on stocks. “We fellows in Wall Street had the fortunes of war to speculate about and that always makes great doings on a stock exchange,” recalled Daniel Drew fondly: “It’s good fishing in troubled waters.” But far greater fortunes were to be won by gambling on gold.

With government greenbacks unsecured by precious metal, their value plunged and soared depending on the bulletins from the battlefield. In terms of greenbacks, therefore, gold behaved just like a stock. It could be traded. Fortunes could be made (and lost) gambling on its value. Many held such trading in moral disrepute. Currency, after all, was not just a stock, it was the lifeblood of the economy and the sinews of war. But to traders, gold stocks were a source of profit—whether they went up or down. When the Union Army won, making the future of greenbacks rosier, their value relative to gold rose (i.e., the price of gold measured in greenbacks fell). This suited bearish investors. Those bullish on gold, on the other hand, prayed for Confederate successes and sang “Dixie” lustily in the Exchange whenever they got one.

Such unpatriotic amorality led the New York Stock Exchange to forbid its members from dealing in gold. This barely halted the trade for an instant. The dealers began migrating from one basement to another along Wall, William, and Broad—now in an ill-lit den called the Coal Hole, next in Gilpin’s News Room, and finally, in the winter of 1864, in their own home, the New York Gold Exchange at the corner of William Street and Exchange Place (the Gold Room, it was popularly called). At the height of the speculative frenzy, the Gold Room was crammed with frantic dealers—a “rat-pit in full blast,” said one observer—while outside speculators lined up in the street, “ankle-deep in slush.”

The key to success in the Gold Room was information. Knowledge of a battle’s outcome obtained an hour before one’s competitors could be parlayed into a phenomenal fortune. At first, brokers haunted the wire services. Then they built their own: by 1863 private wires brought military results to New York’s financial district before they reached Lincoln in the White House. J. P. Morgan installed the first such wire in his office, and as his operator was a friend of Grant’s telegrapher, he easily kept abreast of the latest military movements. By 1864 Wall Streeters had spies in the Confederate high command and could learn southern battle plans before colonels in the Army of Virginia did.

As Union fortunes slumped in the summer of 1864, with Grant stalled in Virginia and Sherman stymied in Georgia, gold reached an all-time high of $280 an ounce. Some began to argue that “Jeff Davis” speculators were even more interested in undermining U.S. currency than in reaping their spectacular profits. Philadelphia’s Jay Cooke was convinced that New York City was a “hotbed of Southern sentiment and scheming” and that its moneymen were out to ruin the credit of the government.

“What do you think of those fellows in Wall Street, who are gambling in gold at such a time as this?” Lincoln asked Governor Andrew G. Curtin of Pennsylvania. “They are a set of sharks,” Curtin replied. “For my part,” said Lincoln, banging his clenched fist on the table, “I wish every one of them had his devilish head shot off!” In a crackdown, Secretary Chase dashed up to New York and drove the gold price down—for a time—by selling millions of dollars’ worth of specie. Congress tried to outlaw speculative gold contracts altogether, but the act proved utterly unavailing and was swiftly repealed.

Even labor began to benefit from the boom, despite employers having undertaken an anti-Union offensive. The Boss Barbers, Master Coopers, Master Shipwrights, and Iron Founders aggressively sought to reduce wages, increase hours, and, if possible, destroy the fledgling labor organizations. In 1864 the Pianoforte Manufacturers Association, led by Charles Steinway and D. Decker, spearheaded the fight against piano workers, locking out three thousand workmen.

This initiative had run into stiff labor resistance. Goaded by soaring prices, rising rents, and new taxes, workers organized more unions and launched strikes, drawing in the city’s various ethnic communities. Germans were particularly energetic, organizing the cigarmakers, pianomakers, tailors, and varnishers. Irish public works and transport laborers went on strike four months after the draft riots. In October 1864 five thousand machinists walked out of the Novelty, Allaire, and Delameter works (all had important military contracts) and demanded a 25 percent increase. When employers rejected this, two thousand workers turned out and by December had largely succeeded.

In April 1864 employers introduced a bill in the state legislature to outlaw strikes altogether. The newly constituted Workingmen’s Union, an umbrella organization led by William Harding, an immigrant English coach painter and president of the Coachmakers Union, rallied in Tompkins Square to protest the antistrike bill. On April 7 mechanics and laborers paraded down Third Avenue with banners, flags, and transparencies, cheered by thousands on the sidewalks. Workers from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Hoboken, and Jersey City joined them in Tompkins Square, until their numbers had swelled to fifty-thousand. Under this pressure, the initiative was defeated.

The latter years of the war were heady ones for labor. For the first seven months of 1864 not a single trade-wide strike failed. And despite continuing inflation and the dreadful conditions of much of the workforce, steady employment, rising wages, soldiers’ bounties, and relief payments to families meant that thousands of New York City’s poor had more money than ever before.


In the summer of 1864, Abraham Lincoln’s reelection was very much open to question. The war news was gloomy, the progress of Grant’s and Sherman’s armies slow and terribly costly. With Lincoln’s private approval, Horace Greeley had engaged in peace discussions with Confederate representatives at Niagara Falls. In New York City several prominent businessmen deserted the prowar coalition to support the Democratic candidate, George McClellan. Then, in September, Sherman occupied Atlanta, and Sheri­dan began drubbing Jubal Early’s forces in the Shenandoah Valley. At a stroke the situation changed. McClellan’s early lead was erased, and Lincoln now had an excellent chance of winning. City businessmen rallied to his campaign, which was masterminded by Thurlow Weed from the Astor House.

The impending Lincoln victory meant the war would go on until the South capitulated, and it would be Republicans who would guide the reconstruction of the postwar political order. Some desperate Confederates decided to disrupt the election process by terrorizing northern cities. The idea was to have Confederate sappers team up with disaffected Copperheads to wreak havoc. For New York City the plans were particularly grandiose. Confederate Secret Service men would infiltrate the country from Canada, make their way to the metropolis, and set off fires around town, hopefully triggering another uprising like the draft riots. Copperheads then would seize federal buildings, throw General Dix in a dungeon, raise the Confederate flag over City Hall, and take New York out of the Union and into an alliance with the Richmond government.

When rumors of the plot reached New York City, Governor Seymour poohpoohed them, insisting that New York State could handle any untoward developments. But Stanton and Seward decided to send federal troops to the metropolis to secure the electoral process. As commander they chose General Benjamin E Butler, a fantasy come true for reformers and Republicans. The no-nonsense Butler was just the man to deal with spies, rioters, Tammany bully-boys, and Peace Democrats.

On November 5 regulars from the Army of the Potomac docked in the harbor, the first of a mixed force of five thousand that included reliable New England and New York units. On the seventh the last of the volunteers disembarked in a drizzling rain and stowed their baggage in Brooklyn’s Fort Hamilton or at Fort Richmond on Staten Island. Butler set up his headquarters in a twelve-room suite in the brand-new Hoffman House off Madison Square, built on the ruins of stores burned down in the draft riots. Here he established a sixty-wire telegraph center, connecting him to the War Department in Washington, to every major city in New York State, and to every police station and polling place in New York City.

Unbeknownst to Butler, a band of Confederate agents mingled in the crowd outside the Hoffman House watching the bustling military activities. The rumors, for once, had been true. Led by a pair of ex-cavalrymen from Morgan’s Raiders, the sappers had entered the country at Niagara Falls, ridden the rails to New York, checked into various hotels and boardinghouses, obtained Greek Fire (a mixture of phosphorus and bisulfide of carbon that ignited on contact with air) from a sympathetic chemist on Washington Place, and met every few days in public places like the recently opened Central Park.

Butler issued General Order No. i, calling for a peaceful election, and then lay low as the campaign entered its culminating weekend. On Friday night the Republicans paraded, in a chaos of hacks, kettledrums, and wagons festooned with bunting and slogans, from Madison Square to Union Square, converted for the occasion into a temporary coliseum with bandstands (decked with Chinese lanterns) on all four sides. On Saturday night General McClellan (whose home was on East 34th Street) presided over a Democratic parade and rally at Madison Square, three times as large as the Republican effort, culminating in a torchlight parade and fireworks and an address by McClellan from the balcony of the Fifth Avenue Hotel. Monday, the day before the election, the “monied men of the city” rallied for Lincoln, at a gathering in front of the Customs House near Wall Street. According to the Times, three-fourths of the capital of the city was represented.

On Tuesday, election day, Butler deployed his troops in low profile, aboard transports, ferryboats, revenue cutters, and tugs anchored along the waterfront. Butler concentrated on key points: Wall Street, the telegraph cable over the North River, the High Bridge, Mackerelville, and the Battery. Backup troops were stationed on Governor’s Island, ready “to be landed at once in spite of barricades and opposition.” But there was no opposition. The only crowds were those who gathered in Newspaper Row to hear men call down election bulletins from upper-story telegraph rooms. New York, as Butler cabled Washington, was “the quietest city ever seen.”

Lincoln carried New York State (by a whisker) and the nation (by a plurality) but lost the metropolis (by a landslide: 73,716 to 36,687, though his percentage was not much lower than in 1860). City Republicans did better in federal elections, sending industrialist William Dodge and Henry Raymond of the Times to Congress. Peace Democrats fared poorly: Seymour was ousted from the governorship, and Fernando Wood fell before a Tammany onslaught.

Butler’s troops left the Hudson for the James, but Butler himself tarried a bit, to be wined and dined by the rich, the powerful, and the grateful. At a Fifth Avenue Hotel banquet he was given ovations and a pair of silver spurs. Beecher proposed he be a presidential candidate in 1868. He departed in a glow on November 15.

As it turned out, the congratulations were premature. The plot to burn New York had been deferred, not canceled. It had also changed its character. Copperhead supporters of the original project dropped out, disheartened by, among other things, Sherman’s sacking of Georgia. As the Confederate cause now seemed irretrievably lost, nothing could be gained by a rising. But the Confederate officers, reading about Sheridan’s scorching of the Shenandoah Valley, switched rationales. They would revenge the desolated South by ravaging the North, beginning with gay, rich, and carefree New York City. They would start by incinerating the opulent symbols of the city’s wealth, its glittering hotels. With luck, and a good wind, they might burn New York to the ground.

On the night of November 25, the conspirators set their fires in thirteen major hotels, chiefly along Broadway, including the Astor House, the Metropolitan, and the St. Nicholas (the thousand-room palace where Dix’s Department of the East was headquartered). For good measure, the Confederates kindled would-be conflagrations in Barnum’s Museum, Niblo’s Theater, the Winter Garden, and assorted Hudson River docks, lumberyards, stores, and factories, before making good their escape to Canada.

As blazes broke out all along Broadway, terrified crowds poured into the street. Wooden houses were evacuated in a frenzy. Police wagons and fire engines fought their way through dense crowds of people screaming, “Find the rebels! Hang them from a lamppost! Burn them at the stake!”

Despite the panic, the fires were promptly extinguished, though not before causing four hundred thousand dollars’ worth of damage. The incident captured world headlines but did not affect the course of the war. New York City detectives tracked the conspirators down in Canada and arrested one, Robert Kennedy, when he reentered the United States trying to return south. Tried as a spy, he was found guilty and hanged in Fort Lafayette in March 1865. His fate was symbolic. That same March the death knell of the Confederacy itself could be heard tolling in New York.


On March 6 a procession seven miles long snaked its way through the streets of lower Manhattan—a “National Jubilee” hailing Lincoln’s second inaugural, recent Union victories, and impending Confederate defeats. Marchers included huge numbers of troops, the city’s volunteer fire companies, scores of German, Italian, and Irish community organizations, businesses and banks, insurance and express companies, typographers, pianomakers, steam fitters, tailors—even elephants and camels. Patriotism and commerce mingled: Harper’s sniffed that for all too many businesses the “chief object in participating in the festival was the opportunity to advertise their wares.” Some commercials were done with knowing wit, like the sign for McAuliffe’s Irish whiskey: DON T AVOID THE DRAUGHT. In echoes of earlier days, sailors carried model boats, one of a fullrigged ship, another of the Monitor. Others proclaimed the future: OIL IS KING NOW, NOT COTTON read one display.

On April 3, businessmen standing on the corner of Pine and William read on the Commercial Advertiser’s bulletin board that Richmond and Petersburg had been captured the day before. Broadway became an instant river of cheering, singing men. Flags waved, guns saluted. On April 11 word came that Grant had run Lee to ground at Appomattox, and again the city exploded.

But the night of April 14 wrenched New York into an abrupt change of mood. Lincoln had been shot and died the next morning, Good Friday. Whitman, reading the news in black-bordered papers, crossed to Manhattan and walked up Broadway past shuttered stores hung in black. Toward noon, he recalled, it began to rain: “Black clouds driving overhead. Lincoln’s death—black, black black—as you look toward the sky—long broad black like great serpents.”

The city prepared for Lincoln’s final visit. The Committee of Arrangements included A. T. Stewart, Moses Grinnell, William Dodge, and William Tweed. The funeral train left Washington on April 21. It stopped at Baltimore, Har risburg, Philadelphia. From New Jersey the party was ferried to Manhattan. The ships in the harbor were draped in black muslin. At the Desbrosses Street dock the body was placed in a glass hearse drawn by six gray horses. Accompanied by a German society singing a funeral ode, the procession, headed by General Dix and the Seventh Regiment, moved across Canal and down Broadway to a black-draped City Hall, where it was put on a catafalque. Lines formed to pay last respects.

The city shut down for the day. Businesses closed, courts adjourned. At the Nineteenth Street Synagogue, the Rev J. J. Lyons led the Nahan Neshomen, the prayer for the dead, the first time such a ceremony was ever held in the United States for a non Jew. Mourning was not unanimous, however. Strong reported hearing of a dozen cases where “celtic handmaidens” had been summarily discharged for rejoicing at the news. Gramercy Park House similarly dismissed a number of waiters for approving of the assassination.

The next day, April 25, a sixteen-horse funeral car led by eighteen bands paced its way from City Hall up Broadway to 14th Street, across Union Square to Fifth Avenue, and north to the Hudson River Railroad Depot. At the rear walked a small group of “freedmen.” This human postscript represented a last-minute compromise. The Common Council had excluded blacks from participating in the march at all, and they had organized their own ceremonies, featuring Frederick Douglass, at Cooper Institute. But the Union League Club protested. Interceding with Stanton and the local police, they got permission for a token representation to bring up the rear.

At four P.M., the train pulled out of the station for Albany. The Civil War in New York City was over.


Lincoln’s funeral cortege turning up Broadway, April 25, 1865. To the right, a huge banner draped across the front of Ciry Hall reads: “The Nation Mourns.” It was said that a million people watched the procession. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

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