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New York’s Bloodiest Week
The draft riots of 1863 turned a great city into a living hell.
June 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 4
Although some reporters considered the mob a directionless rabble, others noted disturbing signs of organization—the well-constructed barricades, for example, on First Avenue between Eleventh and Fourteenth streets, used as fortress and virtual assembly-ground by the mob.
John Andrews was still supplying leadership on the East Side. Ellen Leonard saw him on horseback that morning, noting that “crowds quickly gathered around him … from all the neighboring alleys and greeted him with shouts and cheers.” The Times added, “We have not a doubt there are other men, agents direct from Richmond, now in the city …” When the police later tried to identify one of the most daring mob leaders killed on Second Avenue, and found under his grimy work clothes a handsome vest and an expensive linen shirt, the suspicions seemed justified.
Pitched battles, even more furious than Monday’s, raged all day. A company of soldiers faced one mob at point-blank range on Delancey Street, fought them off, and was attacked again on Pitt Street. A marine detachment was forced to retreat before another mob on Grand Street. Almost 5,000 rioters invaded the Union Steam Works at 22nd Street and Second Avenue, where thousands of government carbines were stored. A strong force of police under Inspector George Dilks stormed the building, piled the carbines on wagons, and marched quickly downtown to relieve Mayor Opdyke’s house, which was under attack. Meanwhile the mob retook the Steam Works, and Dilks had to return and fight for it again, floor by floor.
Inspector Carpenter with 300 police battled a mob estimated at 10,000 on Second Avenue. In phalanx formation the police hammered their way through the rioters. But at 34th Street they stepped into a trap. Hundreds of rioters, placed on rooftops and in windows, picked off the police with guns and bricks. Colonel Henry O’Brien offered to rush a detachment of his Eleventh New York Volunteers, a new regiment still being organized, to clear the avenue with two fieldpieces while Carpenter’s men methodically routed the rioters from each building.
Colonel O’Brien, who lived on Second Avenue near 35th Street, soon paid for his daring. An Irishman himself, he foolishly assumed that his name would protect him from retribution and returned home alone a few hours later, stopping at a neighborhood drugstore. A crowd quickly gathered outside the store. O’Brien stepped out boldly, sword in one hand, pistol in the other. A woman hurled a brick, he fired, and then the mob swallowed him up, beating him, the Tribune reported, with “every club that could be brought to bear, every kick or stone that could be thrown …” He was dragged, still breathing, over the rough cobblestones to his own courtyard, where for hours women and boys, as well as men, danced around the body. They paused only to allow a priest to administer the last rites. When a neighboring druggist offered the dying man a glass of water, his store was sacked.
That same morning Governor Seymour arrived from Long Branch, New Jersey. From City Hall, after conferring with Opdyke, he issued a strong proclamation calling for the restoration of law and order. Then a large crowd gathered in the park, and Seymour went to the steps of City Hall to address them—a speech that has remained the most controversial act of his controversial career.
“Let me assure you that I am your friend,” he told his listeners. “You have been my friends. And now I assure you, my fellow citizens, that I am here to show you a test of my friendship. I wish to inform you that I have sent my Adjutant General to Washington to confer with the authorities there and to have this draft suspended and stopped …”
Seymour’s supporters have always claimed his first responsibility was to calm the city—that nothing more was implied in his words. But Administration papers bristled at this offer of “friendship” and obvious appeasement of the rioters. “He was proclaiming with all the authority attaching to his character and official position,” stated the Times, “that mob law ought under certain circumstances to over-ride that of Congress. …”
Mayor Opdyke now was harassed both by Seymour and the Peace Democrats who controlled his own Board of Aldermen and City Council. While Seymour was speaking, the aldermen and council were preparing a $2,500,000 Conscription Exemption Bond bill which would allow the city to give $300 to each drafted man to buy his way out of the service. They passed the bill on Wednesday, and Opdyke immediately vetoed it, stating, “I felt it would be purchasing the peace of the city too dearly to thus bow to dictation of the mob. …”
The real struggle was at the barricades on Eighth Avenue between 37th and 43rd streets and on First Avenue between Eleventh and Fourteenth streets. Commissioner Acton and General Brown combined strong forces of soldiers and police, and by midnight took the barricades. But fighting went on all night.