- Historic Sites
New York’s Bloodiest Week
The draft riots of 1863 turned a great city into a living hell.
June 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 4
Jenkins had drawn about seventy names when a pistol was fired outside his window. Paving stones and brickbats were thrown into the room. The crowd inside grabbed tables and chairs and hurled them at the draft officers. The small police detail barely managed to help Jenkins and his aides escape through the back door. Then the police were overwhelmed. Reported the Tribune: “They were knocked down, were beaten with fists, with clubs, with stones …" Cans of kerosene were splashed across the floor. A few minutes later the building was in flames, the fire spreading to adjoining buildings on Third Avenue whose upper floors were occupied by women and children.
The clanging fire bell on 51st Street brought Fire Chief John Decker and two loyal engine companies to the scene. They unrolled their hoses, but the howling mob fought them off, threatening to kill them. Decker pleaded with the mob to let him save the rest of the street. But it was more than an hour, and most of the houses were in ruins, before he could use his hoses.
Since ten o’clock emergency messages had been flooding Metropolitan Police Headquarters on Mulberry Street, at the lower end of the city. The police telegraph system connected Superintendent John Kennedy simultaneously with all 32 precincts, and he immediately summoned all reserve platoons to duty. But the mob had cut down the telegraph poles, rendering twelve miles of wire useless and putting Kennedy out of touch with most of the upper half of the city. He decided to drive uptown in his carriage to investigate.
Kennedy had no idea of the extent of the riot until he found himself in the middle of the mob. A handsome, powerfully built man of sixty, he was immediately recognized, attacked, and knocked to the ground. “The mob nearly killed him,” the Tribune reported. “They beat him, dragged him through the streets by his head, pitched him into a horsepond, rolled him into mud-gutters, dragged him through piles of filth indescribable.” Kennedy saved himself only by shouting to a prominent member of the community, John Eagen, on the fringe of the mob. Eagen managed to fight off the attackers while Kennedy raced across a vacant lot to high ground. Here he was cornered and beaten again. By the time a small squad of police arrived, the mob must have thought Kennedy dead. His body was placed on a passing wagon and taken to police headquarters, where he remained under medical care for the rest of the week.
The senior member of the Police Board, Thomas Acton, now took command, conferring immediately with Mayor George Opdyke at City Hall. The defense of the city actually rested in Acton’s hands since the state administration in 1857 had vested all power in the Metropolitan Police Board. This turned out well for the city. A police force packed with Fernando Wood appointments might have offered only token resistance to the mob.
With only 800 men on duty that day against a mob that would soon number 50,000, Acton’s strategy was to concentrate his force at police headquarters and City Hall to protect the banks, federal installations, major hotels, and stores in the lower half of the city. The futility of limited resistance was already being demonstrated at Third Avenue and 43rd Street, where 44 policemen under Sergeant McCredie of the fifteenth precinct clashed with the mob. Only 5 of the 44 came through unwounded. One officer, after being beaten almost to death with crowbars, was saved by John Eagen’s wife, who flung her body on the policeman’s to shield him from the mob.
A fifty-man company of the Army’s Invalid Corps (wounded veterans now on guard duty, rushed into action because of the shortage of troops) was cut to pieces even more brutally. Marched up Third Avenue, they fired directly into the mob; no one seemed to know whether they used bullets or blank cartridges. Then, fighting with bayonets, the soldiers were surrounded and cut off by hundreds of rioters. A few soldiers tried to flee for their lives, “hunted like dogs,” reported the Times. One was left dead in the gutter on 41st Street. Another fled to the high rocks near 42nd Street, where he was beaten “almost to a jelly,” said the Tribune, and tossed over a precipice.
By noon the city was virtually in the hands of the mob. Major General John Wool, commander of the Department of the East, and Brigadier General Harvey Brown, who commanded federal troops in the city, sent desperate messages for help to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Governor’s Island, and federal forts as far away as Massachusetts. The few hundred federal troops in the city had to be stationed at vital points like the arsenal on Elm Street. By midnight the first uniformed reinforcements had arrived: several companies of marines with howitzers and cannon, 300 sailors from the Brooklyn Navy Yard with revolvers and cutlasses, and police reserves from Brooklyn. By early Tuesday morning there were still only a thousand federal troops in the city. Since at least half had to guard federal installations in the lower city, General Brown, who cooperated closely with Acton, could keep only a small force of soldiers at police headquarters to join the police in flying squads against the rioters uptown.