The Draft Riots of 1863 were a reaction to the United States Congress enactment of legislation to resupply dwindling Civil War volunteers. The new laws included those who voted or intended to become citizens. This particularly affected the Irish who appeared on new voter’s lists in great number, thanks to Tweed’s efforts to naturalize the Irish quickly so they could vote on pro-Tweed issues. Wealthier, eligible men could buy out of their obligation for $300. For the Irish, who could not find work or high paying jobs, not having the option this placed additional pressure on the poorest citizens, most of who could not buy their way out (Anbinder 314). As a result of feeling forced to fight in a war, many eligible men decided to protest with violence.
According to The New York Times the first draftees were selected under the observation of municipal and federal officials in mid-July and the city reacted “with the bloodiest week in their [sic] entire history.” Tyler Anbinder describes the “predominantly Irish-American mobs lynched a dozen or more African Americans and terrorized thousands” (314). The New York Times unabashedly blamed the Irish, writing, “Scarcely had two dozen names been called, when a crowd, numbering perhaps 500, suddenly made an irruption in front of the building…attacking it with clubs, stones, brickbats and other missiles” (NYT July 14, 1863). “Elated with their success” The Times reported other incidents of intoxicated mobs, smashing windows, looting goods and terrorizing women and children. Subsequent reports in The Times feature many Irish surnames as perpetrators. Paine placed Nast in New York when the riots broke out as an eye witness for Harper’s Weekly. These three drawings are part of what Nast turned in for publication.
On August 1, 1863, Charge of the police on the rioters of the “Tribune” office appeared in Harper’s Weekly. Three Irish thugs left, are part of a larger mob brandishing weapons. Note that not all of the mob is depicted in this manner.
The most visible rioters at front left are Irish, drawn with facial features that are clearly simian. The Irishmen are typical of Nast’s later cartoons and represent the prevailing Protestant view of the Irish as violent ruffians. The squared jaws and heavy brows are suggested in the other individuals seen in the background. Clubs and weapons swirl above the turbulence. The offices of the New York Tribune, targeted for their early pro-abolition stance, appeared in the background to place the mob at the scene and provide an anti-abolition motive for the mob.
A second image, Sacking a Drug Store on Second Avenue, shows a mob tearing up the street, and a simian-faced man in top hat leaving with his booty – a bottle of whiskey. He presents the bottle to a female with a darker complexion; long dark hair and a cone-like hat. Her facial features could be construed as simian, but with a Native American to the right, she could be a companion to the Native American. Clearly, Nast’s mob is multi-cultural. He did not place blame squarely on the Irish, though he did indicate their participation in the looting.
The particular subject of lynching in the final image in the August 1st Harper’s Weekly issue, Hanging a Negro in Clarkson Street is striking for several reasons. Nast repeated the draft riot lynching in future drawings against the Irish. A lifeless African American hangs from a tree noose on Clarkson Street, located on the west side of Manhattan, near Nast’s first boyhood home on Greenwich Street.
The hanging elevates the African American’s body. Not content with his hanging, his murderers are in the process of burning the body. Standing at the foot of the pyre, flames and smoke reach up, guiding the reader’s eye to focus on the victim rather than the perpetrators. The man on the wagon is firing a gun in the direction of the hanging body. Hanging, burning, gunfire – the leaders of this crime clearly wanted to punish a symbolic victim. It is a torrential excess of violence.
While Nast placed the Irish in the mob scenes of the first and second images, he does not make the same visual indictment in the Clarkson Street image. This is significant. If Nast had a cultural bias against Irish or Catholics, as may have been the case, one would have expected him to draw the mob as Irish.
Several news accounts, including the New York Times, placed the Irish center stage of the violence and accused the Irish directly for lynching and burning down the Colored Orphanage or Asylum. Beyond the trees, in the shadows, a large mob, a common Irish stereotype, turns the corner, and approaches the bonfire. Was Irish involvement explicit?
Harper’s Weekly cautioned their readers not to blame the Irish exclusively. Although Harper’s Weekly acknowledged some Irish involvement, they were quick to point out that other groups also contributed to the melee, and in fact, provided examples of Irish police who put their lives at risk to stop the violence:
Some newspapers dwell upon the fact that the rioters were uniformly Irish, and hence argue that our trouble arises from the perversity of the Irish race…It happens in this city that, in our working classes, the Irish element largely preponderates over all others, and if the populace acts as a populace, Irishmen are naturally prominent therein…But it must be remembered…in many wards of the city the Irish were during the late riot stanch friends of law and order; that the Irish men helped to rescue the colored orphans in the asylum from the hands of the rioters; that a large proportion of the police , who behaved throughout the riot with the most exemplary gallantry, are Irishmen….–James T. Brady, Harper’s Weekly, August 1, 1863
And so, while there is some suggestion of Irish participation in Nast’s 1863 drawing, it was only mildly suggested.
Whatever the reason, Nast held back his caricature and lampooning. He treated this scene with reverence. This picture is not about looting. It is about a horrific murder of an innocent human being. Nast’s hazy ambiguity about the mob is curious because in subsequent images drawn years later, Nast directly implicates the Irish and places them on the scene as lead aggressors in the Draft Riot lynching.
Upon closer look (see detail) the man standing next to the wagon wheel could be considered as the most Irish face in this image drawn with slightly simian features. His posture is curious. Unlike the other individuals, he holds no weapons. What do his outstretched hands mean? Is he eager to participate and play a role or is he trying to intervene and stop the violence?
While immigration historian Graham Hodges presents instances that the Irish and African Americans “coexisted far more peacefully than historians have suggested” (124). Communities appeared to tolerate interracial marriages of Irish women with African American men, however some Irish objected to forced military conscription to defend slavery.
Irish Catholics did not object to slavery. Heuston’s extensive research is very clear on the Catholic stance on slavery, “The Catholic and Irish press, North and South, uniformly rejected abolitionism and all who sympathized with it” (207). At the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, Archbishop John Hughes predicted that his flock “will run away in disgust if forced to fight for emancipation” (Anbinder 311).
Timothy Meagher reaches the same conclusion. Despite a gradual warming of Vatican sympathies against slavery, “Archbishop Hughes and other American clergy steadfastly opposed abolition, lest they endanger the Catholic Church’s tenuous position in the United States” (218). For Republicans and Protestants who championed abolition and equality of African Americans, the Catholic position, and their alignment with the Democratic Party, North and South, must have been untenable.