An uncivil draft
A decade before Daniel Day-Lewis gave an Oscar performance as Abraham Lincoln, he won the same award portraying a violent New York City gang leader brought low by the most violent riot in American history.
As every fan of the film knows, the cause of all the death and carnage depicted in "Gangs of New York" was Lincoln's signature on a document ordering the first national military draft.
Two years into a war that was going badly for him, Lincoln needed more troops in the field. More precisely, he was desperate to fill the ranks of existing Union armies that had been shredded by lesser Confederate forces under superior leadership.
His chosen remedy was the Conscription Act he signed on March 3, 1863, 150 years ago today. Months later, on July 11, a Saturday, federal agents finally began drawing names of New Yorkers identified as eligible for conscription. By Monday, the city was in chaos and the agents hiding or on the run.
Though war weariness and anti-draft sentiment were rife in large sections of the Union, New York City was undoubtedly the epicenter of discontent. Its swelling population of destitute immigrants, jammed together in tenements under appalling living conditions, was most at risk for compulsory war duty, and knew it.
Class warfare that had simmered for months now became warfare in fact. Mobs of mostly Irish immigrants, seething with resentment and shouting "Down with the rich!" torched the mansions of wealthy citizens, many of whom had made a killing on the war.
Draft offices and government buildings fed the conflagration. Businesses were looted and set ablaze. Draft agents, public officials, abolitionists, prominent members of Lincoln's Republican Party, even the merely well-dressed, were forced to run for their lives. A number were chased down and stabbed, beaten, bludgeoned or shot.
Racism fed the frenzy. Civil War historian James McPherson, in Battle Cry of Freedom, noted that a month before the riot, striking Irishmen had been supplanted by black stevedores brought to the docks under police escort.
Now, the rioters were indiscriminate in their revenge against a race they considered the chief cause of the war. All blacks presented a target. Several Protestant missions and churches with largely black congregations, along with the Colored Orphan Asylum, were burned to the ground.
Half a dozen black laborers, blamed for beating poor whites out of the few jobs open to the unskilled, were hanged from street lamps and their corpses burned.
Shelby Foote, in his monumental The Civil War: A Narrative, quotes an eyewitness to the sheer savagery of the rioters: "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."
It took three days for federal forces, less than two weeks removed from victory at Gettysburg, to arrive from Pennsylvania in relief of the city's beleaguered police. When they finally did, they were all business, and just as merciless as the rioters, who fell by the dozen under musket and cannon fire. A majority of the bluecoats had volunteered in the patriotic flush of the war's early days and thus had little sympathy for draft-dodging roughnecks with foreign accents.
Estimates on the toll of the dead vary from just over 100 to a couple of thousand. The drawing of names for conscription resumed almost immediately.
In the end, Lincoln's effort to supplement his forces by nationwide conscription was a poorly conceived and poorly executed enterprise. In the North, just as in the South, the draft proved not only unpopular but of little worth.
Out of a total of 776,000 picked for military service, 161,000 failed to report for duty, one-eighth of the remaining were excused when quotas were filled, three fifths of the 522,000 left were let go for physical or mental impairment or because they were the sole means of support for dependent relatives.
A reluctant draftee had still other options than the battlefield. Some 74,000 paid for a substitute to take his place for the duration, and 87,000 conscripts paid a commutation fee of $300, good for one draft only. Both were legal. Significant numbers employed such means as bribery or fraud to escape serving.
The math tells the story: Only 46,000 of the Union's 776,000 draftees ever personally put on a uniform.
Still, the troop shortage was not lasting. After the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 authorized blacks to join in the fighting, nearly 180,000 made it into uniform by war's end. And enlistments rose, in no small part due to the steady influx of immigrants signing on to be soldiers.
Indeed, from the beginning of the war in 1861 to the surrender of the Confederate States in the spring of 1865, more than a quarter of all white Union soldiers were immigrants who had been born on foreign soil. And just 2 percent of 2.1 million troops who served were draftees, far less than the 6 percent hired by conscripts to serve in their stead.