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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Draft Riot of July, 1863

By Anna Elizabeth Dickinson (1842–1932)

[Born in Philadelphia, Penn., 1842. Died in Goshen, N. Y., 1932. What Answer? 1868.]

ON the morning of Monday, the thirteenth of July, began this outbreak, unparalleled in atrocities by anything in American history, and equalled only by the horrors of the worst days of the French Revolution. Gangs of men and boys, composed of railroad employes, workers in machine-shops, and a vast crowd of those who lived by preying upon others, thieves, pimps, professional ruffians, the scum of the city, jail-birds, or those who were running with swift feet to enter the prison-doors, began to gather on the corners, and in streets and alleys where they lived; from thence issuing forth they visited the great establishments on the line of their advance, commanding their instant close and the companionship of the workmen—many of them peaceful and orderly men—on pain of the destruction of one and a murderous assault upon the other, did not their orders meet with instant compliance.

A body of these, five or six hundred strong, gathered about one of the enrolling-offices in the upper part of the city, where the draft was quietly proceeding, and opened the assault upon it by a shower of clubs, bricks, and paving-stones torn from the streets, following it up by a furious rush into the office. Lists, records, books, the drafting-wheel, every article of furniture or work in the room was rent in pieces and strewn about the floor or flung into the streets; while the law officers, the newspaper reporters—who are expected to be everywhere—and the few peaceable spectators, were compelled to make a hasty retreat through an opportune rear exit, accelerated by the curses and blows of the assailants.

A safe in the room, which contained some of the hated records, was fallen upon by the men, who strove to wrench open its impregnable lock with their naked hands, and, baffled, beat them on its iron doors and sides till they were stained with blood, in a mad frenzy of senseless hate and fury. And then, finding every portable article destroyed—their thirst for ruin growing by the little drink it had had—and believing, or rather hoping, that the officers had taken refuge in the upper rooms, set fire to the house, and stood watching the slow and steady lift of the flames, filling the air with demoniac shrieks and yells, while they waited for the prey to escape from some door or window, from the merciless fire to their merciless hands. One of these, who was on the other side of the street, courageously stepped forward, and, telling them that they had utterly demolished all they came to seek, informed them that helpless women and little children were in the house, and besought them to extinguish the flames and leave the ruined premises; to disperse, or at least to seek some other scene.

By his dress recognizing in him a government official, so far from hearing or heeding his humane appeal, they set upon him with sticks and clubs, and beat him till his eyes were blind with blood, and he, bruised and mangled, succeeded in escaping to the handful of police who stood helpless before this howling crew, now increased to thousands. With difficulty and pain the inoffensive tenants escaped from the rapidly spreading fire, which, having devoured the house originally lighted, swept across the neighboring buildings till the whole block stood a mass of burning flames. The firemen came up tardily and reluctantly, many of them of the same class as the miscreants who surrounded them and who cheered at their approach, but either made no attempt to perform their duty, or so feeble and farcical a one, as to bring disgrace upon a service they so generally honor and ennoble.

At last, when there was here nothing more to accomplish, the mob, swollen to a frightful size, including myriads of wretched, drunken women, and the half-grown vagabond boys of the pavements, rushed through the intervening streets, stopping cars and insulting peaceable citizens on their way, to an armory where were manufactured and stored carbines and guns for the government. In anticipation of the attack, this, earlier in the day, had been fortified by a police squad capable of coping with an ordinary crowd of ruffians, but as chaff before fire in the presence of these murderous thousands. Here, as before, the attack was begun by a rain of missiles gathered from the streets; less fatal, doubtless, than more civilized arms, but frightful in the ghastly wounds and injuries they inflicted. Of this no notice was taken by those who were stationed within. It was repeated. At last, finding they were treated with contemptuous silence, and that no sign of surrender was offered, the crowd swayed back, then forward, in a combined attempt to force the wide entrance-doors. Heavy hammers and sledges, which had been brought from forges and workshops, caught up hastily as they gathered the mechanics into their ranks, were used with frightful violence to beat them in, at last successfully. The foremost assailants began to climb the stairs, but were checked, and for the moment driven back by the fire of the officers, who at last had been commanded to resort to their revolvers. A half-score fell wounded; and one who had been acting in some sort as their leader—a big, brutal, Irish ruffian—dropped dead.

The pause was but for an instant. As the smoke cleared away there was a general and ferocious onslaught upon the armory; curses, oaths, revilings, hideous and obscene blasphemy, with terrible yells and cries, filled the air in every accent of the English tongue save that spoken by a native American. Such were there mingled with the sea of sound, but they were so few and weak as to be unnoticeable in the roar of voices. The paving-stones flew like hail, until the street was torn into gaps and ruts, and every window-pane and sash and door-way was smashed or broken. Meanwhile, divers attempts were made to fire the building, but failed through haste or ineffectual materials, or the vigilant watchfulness of the besieged. In the midst of this gallant defence, word was brought to the defenders from headquarters that nothing could be done for their support, and that, if they would save their lives, they must make a quick and orderly retreat. Fortunately, there was a side passage with which the mob was unacquainted, and one by one they succeeded in gaining this and vanishing….

The work was begun, continued, gathering in force and fury as the day wore on. Police-stations, enrolling-offices, rooms or buildings used in any way by government authority, or obnoxious as representing the dignity of law, were gutted, destroyed, then left to the mercy of the flames. Newspaper offices, whose issues had been a fire in the rear of the nation’s armies by extenuating and defending treason, and through violent and incendiary appeals stirring up “lewd fellows of the baser sort” to this very carnival of ruin and blood, were cheered as the crowd went by. Those that had been faithful to loyalty and law were hooted, stoned, and even stormed by the army of miscreants who were only driven off by the gallant and determined charge of the police, and in one place by the equally gallant and certainly unique defence which came from turning the boiling water from the engines upon the howling wretches, who, unprepared for any such warm reception as this, beat a precipitate and general retreat. Before night fell it was no longer one vast crowd collected in a single section, but great numbers of gatherings, scattered over the whole length and breadth of the city, some of them engaged in actual work of demolition and ruin, others, with clubs and weapons in their hands, prowling round apparently with no definite atrocity to perpetrate, but ready for any iniquity that might offer, and, by way of pastime, chasing every stray police officer, or solitary soldier, or inoffensive negro, who crossed the line of their vision; these three objects—the badge of a defender of the law, the uniform of the Union army, the skin of a helpless and outraged race—acted upon these madmen as water acts upon a rabid dog.

Late in the afternoon a crowd which could have numbered not less than ten thousand, the majority of whom were ragged, frowsy, drunken women, gathered about the Orphan Asylum for Colored Children—a large and beautiful building, and one of the most admirable and noble charities of the city. When it became evident, from the menacing cries and groans of the multitude, that danger, if not destruction, was meditated to the harmless and inoffensive inmates, a flag of truce appeared, and an appeal was made in their behalf, by the principal, to every sentiment of humanity which these beings might possess,—a vain appeal! Whatever human feeling had ever, if ever, filled these souls was utterly drowned and washed away in the tide of rapine and blood in which they had been steeping themselves. The few officers who stood guard over the doors, and manfully faced these demoniac legions, were beaten down and flung to one side, helpless and stunned, whilst the vast crowd rushed in. All the articles upon which they could seize—beds, bedding, carpets, furniture, the very garments of the fleeing inmates, some of these torn from their persons as they sped by—were carried into the streets and hurried off by the women and children who stood ready to receive the goods which their husbands, sons, and fathers flung to their care. The little ones, many of them assailed and beaten; all, orphans and care-takers, exposed to every indignity and every danger, driven on to the street, the building was fired. This had been attempted whilst the helpless children, some of them scarce more than babies, were still in their rooms; but this devilish consummation was prevented by the heroism of one man. He, the Chief of the Fire Department, strove by voice and arm to stay the endeavor; and when, overcome by superior numbers, the brands had been lit and piled, with naked hands, and in the face of threatened death, he tore asunder the glowing embers and trod them under foot. Again the effort was made, and again failed through the determined and heroic opposition of this solitary soul. Then, on the front steps, in the midst of these drunken and infuriate thousands, he stood up and besought them, if they cared nothing for themselves nor for those hapless orphans, that they would not bring lasting disgrace upon the city by destroying one of its noblest charities, which had for its object nothing but good.

He was answered on all sides by yells and execrations, and frenzied shrieks of “Down with the nagurs!” coupled with every oath and every curse that malignant hate of the blacks could devise, and drunken Irish tongues could speak. It had been decreed that this building was to be razed to the ground. The house was fired in a thousand places, and in less than two hours the walls crashed in, a mass of smoking, blackened ruins, whilst the children wandered through the streets, a prey to beings who were wild beasts in everything save the superior ingenuity of man to agonize and torture his victims.

Frightful as the day had been, the night was yet more hideous, since to the horrors which were seen was added the greater horror of deeds which might be committed in the darkness; or, if they were seen, it was by the lurid glare of burning buildings, the red flames of which—flung upon the stained and brutal faces, the torn and tattered garments, of men and women who danced and howled around the scene of ruin they had caused—made the whole aspect of affairs seem more like a gathering of fiends rejoicing in Pandemonium than aught with which creatures of flesh and blood had to do….

The next morning’s sun rose on a city which was ruled by a reign of terror. Had the police possessed the heads of Hydra and the arms of Briareus, and had these heads all seen, these arms all fought, they would have been powerless against the multitude of opposers. Outbreaks were made, crowds gathered, houses burned, streets barricaded, fights enacted, in a score of places at once. Where the officers appeared they were irretrievably beaten and overcome; their stand, were it ever so short, but inflaming the passions of the mob to fresh deeds of violence. Stores were closed; the business portion of the city deserted; the large works and factories emptied of men, who had been sent home by their employers or were swept into the ranks of the marauding bands. The city cars, omnibuses, hacks, were unable to run, and remained under shelter. Every telegraph wire was cut, the posts torn up, the operators driven from their offices. The mayor, seeing that civil power was helpless to stem this tide, desired to call the military to his aid and place the city under martial law, but was opposed by the Governor—a governor who, but a few days before, had pronounced the war a failure, and not only predicted but encouraged this mob-rule, which was now crushing everything beneath its heavy and ensanguined feet. This man, through almost two days of these awful scenes, remained at a quiet sea-side retreat but a few miles from the city. Coming to it on the afternoon of the second day, instead of ordering cannon planted in the streets, giving these creatures opportunity to retire to their homes, and, in the event of refusal, blowing them there by powder and ball, he first went to the point where was collected the chiefest mob, and proceeded to address them. Before him stood incendiaries, thieves, and murderers, who even then were sacking dwelling-houses and butchering powerless and inoffensive beings. These wretches he apostrophized as “My friends,” repeating the title again and again in the course of his harangue, assuring them that he was there as a proof of his friendship, which he had demonstrated by “sending his adjutant-general to Washington, to have the draft stopped”; begging them to “wait for his return”; “to separate now as good citizens”; with the promise that they “might assemble again whenever they wished to so do”; meanwhile, he would “take care of their rights.” This model speech was incessantly interrupted by tremendous cheering and frantic demonstrations of delight, one great fellow almost crushing the Governor in his enthusiastic embrace….

His allies in newspaper offices attempted to throw the blame upon the loyal press and portion of the community. This was but a repetition of the cry, raised by traitors in arms, that the government, struggling for life in their deadly hold, was responsible for the war: “If thou wouldst but consent to be murdered peaceably, there could be no strife.”…

It was absurd and futile to characterize this new Reign of Terror as anything but an effort on the part of Northern rebels to help Southern ones, at the most critical moment of the war, with the State militia and available troops absent in a neighboring Commonwealth, and the loyal people unprepared. These editors and their coadjutors, men of brains and ability, were of that most poisonous growth—traitors to the Government and the flag of their country—renegade Americans. Let it, however, be written plainly and graven deeply that the tribes of savages—the hordes of ruffians—found ready to do their loathsome bidding were not of native growth nor American-born.

While it is true that there were some glib-tongued fellows who spoke the language without foreign accent, all of them of the lowest order of Democratic ward-politicians, or creatures skulking from the outstretched arm of avenging law; while the most degraded of the German population were represented; while it is also true that there were Irish, and Catholic Irish too, industrious, sober, intelligent people, who indignantly refused participation in these outrages, and mourned over the barbarities which were disgracing their national name; it is preëminently true—proven by thousands of witnesses, and testified to by numberless tongues—that the masses, the rank and file, the almost entire body of rioters, were the worst classes of Irish emigrants, infuriated by artful appeals, and maddened by the atrocious whiskey of thousands of grog-shops.

By far the most infamous part of these cruelties was that which wreaked every species of torture and lingering death upon the colored people of the city—men, women, and children, old and young, strong and feeble alike. Hundreds of these fell victims to the prejudice fostered by public opinion, incorporated in our statute-books, sanctioned by our laws, which here and thus found legitimate outgrowth and action. The horrors which blanched the face of Christendom were but the bloody harvest of fields sown by society, by cultured men and women, by speech, and book, and press, by professions and politics, nay, by the pulpit itself, and the men who there make God’s truth a lie, garbling or denying the inspired declaration that “He has made of one blood all people to dwell upon the face of the earth”; and that He, the All-Just and Merciful One, “is no respecter of persons.”