- 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
Fire Chief Decker and two engine companies responded to the call, Decker racing alone into the building, struggling to extinguish the brands tossed by the mob. But rioters followed him, setting new fires. Decker went back, accompanied by six of his men, and put them out again.
This time two dozen rioters grabbed him and would have beaten him to death had not ten firemen rushed to his rescue and warned that their chief would be taken only over their dead bodies. Frustrated, the mob turned suddenly on the Negro children, who huddled in a circle on the corner watching their home go up in flames.
Twenty children were cut off from the main group. “There is little doubt that many and perhaps all of these helpless children would have been murdered in cold blood,” reported the Times. But a young Irishman on the edge of the crowd, Paddy McCaffrey, aided by two drivers from the 42nd Street cross-town bus line and members of Engine Company No. 18, surrounded the children and fought off the mob. While rioters pelted them with stones, they managed to get the children to the thirty-fifth precinct station house. An hour later the orphan asylum was a mess of charred rubble.
Paddy McCaffrey’s heroism was one more contradiction of the assumption that all Irishmen supported the rioters.
At the height of the riot that Monday evening, Commissioner Acton got word that the mob was marching on City Hall and police headquarters. Acton decided it was time for the first counteroffensive. He assigned 200 men to Inspector Dan Carpenter, “the Metropolitan war horse of grizzled locks and martial figure,” as one paper described him. Carpenter, promising “to win this fight or never come back alive,” led his main force up Broadway with two parallel columns of fifty men ready to strike from the side streets. The police caught the mob by surprise. “Men fell by the dozens under the sturdy blows of the police who had orders to ‘take no prisoners,’” the Times reported. “… Broadway looked like a battleground thickly strewn with prostrate forms.”
Another mob, meanwhile, had invaded the Tribune building across the park from City Hall. Acton had decided to make his second major attack. He combined a force of almost fifty men at City Hall with the first-precinct reserves and rushed them to the Tribune building. Then he ordered Carpenter’s men to catch the rioters from the rear.
“We struck them like a thunder-bolt,” one officer recalled later. The floors were heaped with bleeding rioters. Hundreds, fleeing down side streets, were caught by Carpenter. “It was a striking illustration of the cowardice of the mob when confronted by a handful of determined officers of the law,” the Times exulted the next morning. More important, it had not only saved the Tribune, Times, and Post buildings from destruction but demonstrated that the police still controlled the lower city.
That night New York was in turmoil. A Negro cartman, trying to escape under cover of darkness, was caught by a gang of of men and boys and hanged from one of the fine spreading chestnut trees on Clarkson Street. Only a few feet from the consecrated ground of St. John’s Cemetery, they built a fire under him, dancing wildly around the roasting flesh.
Shortly after midnight, a deluge of rain drove the rioters temporarily from the streets. At 1:15 A.M. the indefatigable Inspector Carpenter set out with a small force to cut down the body of the Negro cartman. Then Acton received a message, warning of a new attack on police headquarters. Carpenter had to bring back his men.
Tuesday was hot and muggy; a heavy pall of black smoke rose from innumerable fires hanging over the city. Mobs filled the streets at dawn “increasing in power and audacity,” noted Ellen Leonard, a young New Englander staying at her brother’s house on Nineteenth Street.
News from Gettysburg sharpened the tension. Decisively beaten in the three-day battle there, General Robert E. Lee had withdrawn his battered army and on the night of July 13 had crossed the Potomac and gained comparative safety in Virginia. Northern jubilation over the victory was sharply tempered by the realization that Lee’s army had, after all, escaped destruction, and when the government ordered New York National Guard regiments returned from Pennsylvania to New York City to deal with the riot it was commonly assumed that this played directly into Lee’s hands. Actually, the escape had already taken place; the National Guard regiments had seen little combat service in the Gettysburg campaign, and their departure did not deprive the Union commander, General George G. Meade, of any essential support once the Confederates had gone south of the Potomac. Nevertheless, the fact that Union troops had to be sent to New York at a time when a dangerous Confederate army still needed attention was profoundly dismaying, and the Times, not surprisingly, declared editorially that the New York rioters were “the left wing of Lee’s army.”