The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America,
by Barnet Schecter, Walker Publishing Company, 2005, 375 pages, $28.
Barnet Schecter, in his new book The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America, explores the resistance by various elements in New York City to both Lincoln’s war effort and the emancipation of the slaves. New York’s lower classes violently resisted the “Act for Enrolling and Calling Out the National Forces,” the first federal draft law in U.S. history. Many were outraged by the inclusion of a $300 exemption fee that only the rich could afford. Discontent resulted from an exploding immigrant population, including many Irish, that taxed the city’s infrastructure to its breaking point; a Democratic party organization that gained political clout by inflaming racism; a perceived threat that the emancipation of blacks could result in increased competition and drive down wages for poor whites; and a general feeling that New York City’s population had already borne the brunt of the fighting in “Lincoln’s war.”
Schecter reveals these causes primarily through newspaper articles from the time that had a strong effect on public opinion. Other important sources include letters written by New Yorkers involved in the riots, official police telegraph reports and Lincoln administration documents.
The chapters dealing directly with the riot—which lasted from July 13-17, 1863, and claimed the lives of at least 105 people—are fast-paced, skipping from crisis to crisis and using personal accounts to give a sense of the lawlessness and virulent racism that threatened to destroy the city. Still, Schecter’s book is less of a documentary on the events than an investigation of why they occurred.
Copperhead rhetoric was fierce in New York’s newspapers, and the author quotes them frequently. On the eve of the draft law, for example, the New York Daily News loudly supported a speech by New Jersey Congressman Chauncey Burr that declared the draft “A highwayman’s call on every American citizen for $300 or your life.” Burr went on to say that he was proud to be called a Copperhead because it was “a fair, brave snake, never meddling with you without you with him, and then making himself feared and respected. But the black [Republican] snake is a mean, sneaking fellow….”
Schecter links this animosity toward the Lincoln administration with sympathy for the Southern cause. Fernando Wood, dubbed the “Southern” mayor of New York, was in power in 1861 and supported South Carolina’s secession from the Union, pushing for New York itself to become a “free city” linked by commerce to the South. He protested the seizure of 38 boxes of muskets on board Monticello, which was on its way from New York to Savannah, and publicly apologized to Georgia Senator Robert Toombs for the “illegal and unjustifiable seizure of public property.” Schecter argues that the politics of the Democratic Party in New York City were an underlying cause of the draft riots.
Schecter studies more than New York City’s party politics, however. He describes the conditions in its festering slums and the stop-and-start efforts of reformers, looks at the development of class consciousness that contributed to bitter feelings and documents the opinions of poor Irishmen and their struggle to choose sides on the issue of the draft. In the end his book is a testament to Lincoln’s deft response to the draft riots— he never imposed martial law or sought a federal commission to investigate and prosecute members of the mob, but carried on firmly with the imposition of the draft. Schecter suggests that this conciliatory stance was used again during the Reconstruction era to successfully bring the Southern states back into the Union and to appease the conservative statesmen who fought emancipation.
The Devil’s Own Work lacks in only one area. It fails to fully explore the Radical Republicans and their crusade for emancipation. In the process, Schecter leaves the reader with a lack of information concerning the other side of the fight, the side of the reformers whose efforts achieved the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. Still, for a powerful look inside the economic, social and political powder keg that was New York City during the Civil War, and a broader examination of conservative forces in the North that opposed the Union war effort and Lincoln’s gradual call for emancipation, Schecter’s book is an outstanding and compelling source.
Originally published in the July 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.